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How We Remember the 2000s Has Everything to Do With the Owl City Memes

At what point is the nostalgic love just ironic, and can it ever be truly genuine?

by Phil Witmer
Jun 22 2017, 4:44pm

Music publications, including this very site, have used up many kilobytes attempting to determine the song of the summer this year. The contest is particularly heated because, a) there are a lot of candidates, and b) life's tough right now, dudes. In this crowded arena, and in the midst of the solstice, a clear winner has emerged: an electro-banger by a young singer/songwriter with a knack for articulating emotion into poetic abstractions. I am talking, of course, about "Fireflies" by Owl City.

Yes, it's eight years old, yes it's as lethally saccharine as eating ten million birthday cakes, and yes it sounds like Postal Service covering Toto's "Africa" as a Coldplay song, which is a combo that slaps far less than that description suggests. With all this working against it, "Fireflies" has persisted, returning to the public eye so prominently that Owl City head Adam Young is gamely answering questions about the math behind his fluffy lyrics. You could make a case for how "Fireflies" is a perfect union of the late 00s' two biggest music modes (electro-pop and emo), and thus survives as a perfect encapsulation of the era, but come on. Millennials have revived this song because it's funny. This keeps happening, too.

At this point, it's obvious that vintage smashes like "All Star," "Mr. Brightside," and "Lose Yourself" should be counted as pieces of 2010s pop-culture ephemera, prevalent as they are through memes. It's remarkable that some of them haven't re-charted given how streaming has made a democratic mess of the Hot 100. Still, it's weird that the primary means through which we've resuscitated this music is through irony and absurdity. You don't actually like "Bring Me Back to Life" again, it's just really humorous to remember a time when that song and others like it maybe meant the world to you. This is a kind of detachment, a half-embarrassed glance back at life viewed through the uncritical eyes of the teenagers we all once were. "Man, wasn't it wild that we thought this was cool at one point?" we ask. The question: is it still genuinely cool now?

The answer is both yes and no. We're all smirking and playing pop-culture hopscotch to some extent when we engage in these memes. But there is a validation of sorts happening here, too. In a piece about the early 00s revival occurring in New York indie rock, Wired's Brian Raftery argues that "nostalgia, especially other people's nostalgia, is a necessary reminder that your own personal canon could use a few adjustments." We're definitely in a wave where content creators who grew up on the emo and earnest alt-rock of the 00s are responsible for generating works that both celebrate and mock what we liked as kids. It'll eventually be replaced by something else, as is the cyclical nature of nostalgia. But this re-engagement has some value of its own. Joining in with other friends and strangers in watching unrelated media get sabotaged by that distinct "someBODY" intro is a shared thrill at accessing a communal memory. It's confirmation that we all lived through and loved these moments together and that they still matter in some way years later.

The jump from the the early to late aughts that "Fireflies" may represent is definitely an example of how these nostalgia cycles keep accelerating, and Raftery's conclusion that consumers are too splintered into niches to allow a 2010s revival ten years down the line may hold some weight. If that's the case, then perhaps all of us should enjoy the pleasure of being able to partake in this final revival. We'd like to make ourselves believe that planet Earth turns slowly, but the truth is that it moves damn quickly. So, let's have some fun, with or without ten thousand lightning bugs.

Phil is trawling through our shared pasts in search of deeper meaning on Twitter.