MGMT Is Too Cool to Play Hit Song Live
Towards the beginning of Pitchfork's new cover story on MGMT, Associate Editor Larry Fitzmaurice uncovers a fact that devotees of the psych-pop duo already know: the band no longer playing "Kids" live.
Towards the beginning of Pitchfork's rather whimsically designed new cover story on MGMT, associate editor Larry Fitzmaurice uncovers a fact that devotees of the psych-pop duo already know: the band is no longer playing "Kids" live.
You know, "Kids"? The once-inescapable earworm of a synth-pop anthem that made the band stars in 2008 and landed dozens of TV spots and invented that ascending keyboard riff heard around the world? They're over it. Done.
It seems the band's "underaged" fans aren't so thrilled about this betrayal, Fitzmaurice learned at a tour date in Lewiston, New York:
For this tour, they've notably stricken their biggest hit to date, Oracular's platinum-selling "Kids", from the setlist—a move that one underaged concertgoer tells me she's "very upset about," before asking if I could buy her some beers. She's not alone. As I speak to others in the audience, it becomes clear what they're here to hear, and it's not the new stuff.
A tale as old as time, or at least the electric guitar: Area Fan Just Wants to Hear the Hits. And this band, which is about to release the most jarringly anti-commercial album of its career, isn't in the mood to play them:
The band is aware of these expectations, nearly to a fault. "There are still people who secretly hope that we’re going to come out with an album of songs that sound like 'Kids,'" laments Goldwasser, in a tone that suggests the past isn't worth revisiting.
This, too, is an old story: the members of MGMT, ever shackled by the expectations a hit debut has wrought, have begun to resent the song (or songs) that brought them success in the first place.
But in recent months, Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden have made a hobby out of bragging about just how avant-garde their new stuff is going to be. In January, the two bragged to Rolling Stone that they were "not trying to make music that everyone understands the first time they hear it"; more recently, they talked to NME about the new album, saying "we don't even know if it's music we would want to listen to." ("So many musicians have this really commercial sensibility about everything," Goldwasser goes on. "That made me really disgusted.")
And not playing the big hit live? That's the ultimate betrayal—and an entirely familiar statement of Being a Serious Artist. The most famous example, perhaps, is that of Radiohead's 1993 self-loathing smash "Creep." At the time, pretty much everyone thought the goofy-haired rockers would go down as a one-hit-wonder:
Instead, they took over the world—and refused to play "Creep" live for years after OK Computer. Which makes sense, really, given that it's an astonishingly cheesy song compared to pretty much everything that came after, but the degree of the band's avoidance was notable. Radiohead finally gave it an impromptu rendition at a gig in Oxford in 2001, but these days they're back to avoiding it at all costs.
Robert Plant had a similarly tortured relationship with "Stairway to Heaven," once declaring that he'd "break out in hives if he had to sing [the song] at every show." And Kurt Cobain famously resented the hell out of "Smells Like Teen Spirit"; towards the end of his life he left it off setlists, and when he did play it, Cracked notes, he would "sometimes lead into it with "More Than a Feeling" just to tell everyone exactly how much of his ass they could kiss." (Cobain, though, didn't quite live long enough to avoid it for a substantial amount of time.)
And MGMT? As the Radiohead case shows, their decision makes sense if the new music is so radical and compelling as to render "Kids" virtually irrelevant. But having just gotten to hear the album, it's tough to tell if that's the case.
As MGMT has already said, it's not "music that everyone understands the first time they hear it." Let's see about the ninth or 10th time.
Update: A sleuthy reader notes that after dropping the song from their setlist in the spring and early summer, the band seems to have begun performing it again in recent weeks, according to setlist.fm. Guess we'll see if that lasts.