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Wordsworth

Oracular Spectacular, in Particular

Lyrics in music rarely get the scrutiny and attention they deserve. With an ear for meaning, Orr Shtuhl digs into the glam roots of MGMT’s critically acclaimed album.

If rock ‘n’ roll is the sound of rebellious youth, a split between generations, then MGMT takes that rift to its extremes. Their debut, Oracular Spectacular, pits the youth against its elders in an apocalyptic struggle, creating an “us versus them” world not unlike Lord of the Flies—but with the constant, external threat of an adult establishment. Spilling over with themes of unity, rebirth, and end-of-the-world sex (it is a dance record, after all), Oracular Spectacular is a collection of anthems for that world.

As such, MGMT uses similarly anthemic songwriters as reference points: Prince, the Flaming Lips, and lots of David Bowie. The following song pairings point out the lyrical commonalities between MGMT and their forbears.
 

“Time to Pretend” / “1999” by Prince

Both “Time to Pretend,” the lead single on Oracular Spectacular, and “1999” are loud exhortations of the youth going down loudly while the world around them goes to shit. In Prince’s vision, the world is literally ending, the sky turns purple (“Coulda sworn it was judgment day”), and death is imminent because “everybody’s got a bomb.” And don’t forget, this was in 1982, three and a half decades into the Cold War and all its nuclear paranoia.

As is frequently the case with Prince, the celebration of “1999” is a mixture of dancing and sex. But the parties MGMT describes are decadent to the point of ridiculousness, as they sing: “I’ll move to Paris, shoot some heroin, and fuck with the stars.” By the final verse, their surrender to passion becomes a surrender to mid-life crisis:

The models will have children, we’ll get a divorce
We’ll find some more models, everything must run its course

With the line “we’ll choke on our vomit and that will be the end,” the band foretells their fate and shrugs it off. It’s just the logical continuation of a lifetime of fun and recklessness—someday, this lifestyle will kill us. Meanwhile, the soundtrack to the fall is upbeat, not to reassure the dancing audience that everything will be OK, but rather to remind them to enjoy their short lease on life. Or, in Prince’s words: “Life is just a party, and parties weren’t meant to last.”

Like Prince, MGMT’s lyrics embrace the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. The core messages of both “1999” and “Time to Pretend” are nearly the same, backed by hedonistic dance beats. They only differ in that MGMT injects self-awareness, a modern touch of irony, which was never Prince’s strong suit (check out the “suggestive” squeaking bed in “Lady Cab Driver”). But with irony as requisite as it is today, MGMT’s irony is actually motivated by genuine love of music: Do whatever it takes to get everyone, even the wallflowers, out on the floor.
 

“The Youth” / “All the Young Dudes” by Mott the Hoople

“The Youth” is a straight-ahead anthem with vague, stripped-down, party-line lyrics. Like “Time to Pretend,” it’s a mixed tribute to its forbears, one that pays homage within the limits of self-awareness. The opening verse starts out aiming for a revolution, but the narrator quickly tires and settles for the tropes of past “calls to arms.”

This is a call to arms to live and love and sleep together
We could flood the streets with love or light or heat, whatever

Like much of Oracular Spectacular, the song also uses collective nouns to establish a sense of grandness and bombast, as in the chorus:

The youth is starting to change
Are you starting to change?
Are you together?

Here the band is asking, “are you with us?” The question is so broad that it’s half-hearted in its ambiguity—the youth don’t know what they want, but they know it’s something new.

Mott the Hoople’s “All the Young Dudes” alludes to a more specific revolution, but the song’s soaring chorus and the rock-star image of the band that made it famous detached the hook from the meaning hidden in the verses. David Bowie wrote the song for the band, and his lyrics describe downtrodden scenesters—“rent boys or glammed-out fashion victims,” writes Allmusic’s Mark Deming. Bowie describes scenes of crime, suicide, and sexual confusion, all hinged by the pre-chorus exclamation that sets the troubled youth apart from their clueless parents: “I’m a dude, Dad!”

Mott the Hoople’s stock hit one-hit wonder status long ago; as with many in this camp, the song’s famous chorus far overshadows the rest of the lyrics. Like “The Youth,” “All the Young Dudes” has become a generic anthem-for-anthem’s-sake, to the point where it can be reappropriated for a pregnancy/comedy/drama movie trailer.
 

“Electric Feel” / “Heroes” by David Bowie

This is what the world is for
Making electricity…

Plug it in and change the world
You are my electric girl
—MGMT

I can remember standing by the wall
And the guns shot above our heads
And we kissed as though nothing could fall
And the shame was on the other side
Oh we can beat them for ever and ever
Then we can be heroes just for one day
—David Bowie

These two songs share a similar message: Surrounded by war, our love (or sex) can change the world. The guns/wall reference in “Heroes” is clear, while two verses in “Electric Feel” begin with more abstract war imagery: “all along the western front” and “all along the eastern shore.”

The songs also separate the world into two sides—rosy, revolutionary youth and the armed, authoritarian establishment—a split that will reappear later. The kids must form their own society, although under the constant threat of invading establishment forces. In both songs the impending doom is a romantic element, recalling the end-of-the-world embrace of Prince’s “1999.”

Unlike our first two song pairings, these selections sound completely different, and their musical palettes color the lyrics’ meaning. MGMT’s space-age disco gives “Electric Feel” an innately sexual vibe, while Bowie’s yearning guitar thrum and dramatic strings hint at more cinematic love. But whatever the soundtrack, both songs possess a sexual subterfuge exemplified by a line in the 1996 movie Independence Day: “This could be our last night on Earth. You don’t want to die a virgin, do you?”
 

“Future Reflections” / “What Is the Light?” by The Flaming Lips

In this song pairing, mystical lyrics follow the ethereal soundscapes they share. Oracular Spectacular was produced by Dave Fridmann, who has manned the studio for every Flaming Lips album exceptTransmissions From the Satellite Heart. His sonic flourishes show, from the synth-shadowed vocals to the Close Encounters-style blips and bloops.

Lyrically the songs are about different things, but both emit the same fantastical aura. “What Is the Light?” involves just one person and the glow that surrounds them, a halo of general goodness and love:

What is the light
That you have
Shining all around you?
Is it chemically derived?
‘Cause if it’s natural
Something glowing from inside
Shining all around you
Its potential has arrived

MGMT’s counterpart, “Future Reflections,” has about three times as many lyrics and paints a more detailed landscape, but it has the same feel of wonder and fantasy. It describes a post-apocalyptic world ruled by kids, a Lord of the Flies-style island (much like “Electric Feel”) in which “deep in the dust was a leader.” This second society of kids, hiding from the armed purveyors of apocalypse (“Their guns couldn’t see us”) is an extension of the revolutionary lovers in “The Youth.” It’s reflected once again in the music video for “Time to Pretend:” The video shows kids “living on a beach and surviving in this bombed-out city,” the band has said.
 

“Pieces of What” / “Five Years” by David Bowie

From the first song on David Bowie’s seminal 1972 record The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, the end-of-the-world stage is set. In “Five Years,” the narrator—and the rest of the world—has just found out that they all have a handful of time left on Earth, and suddenly he needs to absorb all the life around him: people and storefronts, and melodies streaming from phones and TVs:

My brain hurt like a warehouse, it had no room to spare
I had to cram so many things to store everything in there
And all the fat-skinny people, and all the tall-short people
And all the nobody people, and all the somebody people
I never thought I’d need so many people

In a slight twist, MGMT gives in when faced with similar ruination. “Pieces of what? / Doesn’t matter anymore,” they sing. In “Pieces of What,” the invading establishment forces have the city surrounded and are closing in. The narrator is trapped in his room, the roof ragged with holes as though by bombing or gunfire:

Moonlight on my floor
Shining through the roof
They got the city surrounded
As if I needed proof

At the end of the song, the despondent narrator surrounds himself with “dragon’s teeth” and “Belgian gates”—both types of fortifications used to impede armies, like anti-tank barriers. Bowie’s narrator is frantically running through the streets to soak in all the memories he can, picking over the details of a woman “drinking milkshakes cold and long / Smiling and waving and looking so fine / Don’t think you knew you were in this song.”

Meanwhile, MGMT’s narrator walls himself in and hugs his knees, awaiting destruction. The difference between the two is that MGMT’s narrator is all alone—and thus hopeless. Had he the companionship that Bowie, Prince, or the characters in Independence Day had, perhaps then he could have emerged a hero, even if just for one day.
 

Orr Shtuhl is a writer living in subterranean Washington, D.C., where he maintains Wordsworth, a superterranean music and lyrics blog. Email him here.More by Orr Shtuhl