Optical Illusions: The Problem with OK Go’s Accidental Legacy

They started out with great songs. Then they made amazing music videos. Now, their songs serve as soundtracks to viral meme-fodder and little else.

Trivia Question: What is the best OK Go song, hands down?

Easy Answer: Their first-ever single from 2002: the thundering power-pop scorcher “Get Over It“.

Bonus Question: What’s OK Go’s best music video?

Answer: [take your pick]

If you haven’t seen the video for “Get Over It”, that’s alright because you’re not really missing that much. Directed by former music video svengali Francis Lawrence, it’s a highly-stylized performance clip that’s cool to look at but not overly memorable. What does stick in your mind is the group’s powerful, thundering hooks, from the opening guitar riff to the keyboard-accented chorus, all grounded by Damian Kulash’s pointed growl and memorable lines like “she’s got a body like a battle-ax.”

The song’s DNA isn’t too far removed from that of fellow power-poppers Fountains of Wayne, but “Get Over It” was a hell of an opening salvo for the this Chicago foursome, and it was more than enough to get them some early buzz amidst both mainstream publications and then-upstart indie blogs alike. Their early videos weren’t particularly memorable, but they really didn’t need to be all that unique to begin with: the band’s deft melodic gifts were enough to get them some name recognition, and for awhile there, OK Go’s career arc seemed to have a nice (if somewhat predictable) trajectory.

All of that changed, however, upon the release of “A Million Ways” in 2005. The song was a bit more stripped-down and dirty compared to the arena-rock ambitions of their debut, but what really pushed the song into the public spotlight was the single-take music video, wherein the band indulged in some fun dance moves choreographed by Kulash’s sister. It was reported that this simple home movie was never intended to be a proper music video outright, but enough people saw the clip’s charms that before long, it became a bit of a viral “sensation”, which, it should be noted, was a term that not many people had actually heard at that point.

The timing of this music video actually coincided with another significant breakthrough in 2005: YouTube. While video sharing sites were a-plenty back in the early aughts, YouTube had yet to really find its niche as the end-all and be-all of all things modern and visual. However, that changed in the summer of 2006, when the band debuted their thematically-similar clip for “Here It Goes Again”, which involved treadmills, even more elaborate choreography, and yet another crunchy guitar hook that just so happened to resonate with mainstream radio.

Yet “Here It Goes Again” also proved to be a tipping point for both the the band and internet marketing in general. This being their second such “viral” clip in a row, the group began running into an expectation to start delivering on the visual front more and more. While some may argue that it’s absolutely absurd to burden a band with such a weighty expectation, the only reason this expectation exists is because the band itself has embraced it, rising to this challenge time and time again, keeping that demand alive but doing so at the cost of their credibility. As time wore on, OK Go stopped existing as a functioning rock band, and instead turned into something much worse: an internet novelty act.

In truth, the band should have seen this coming. Although “Here It Goes Again” still retains all the charm you remember from your first viewing of it, it didn’t so much become a viral clip as much as it actually became the very template for most other viral clips to follow. The video went on to win a Grammy, spawned numerous imitators, and even went as far as to actually define the band’s public image. If you’re wondering how bad it got, then look no further than the 2006 MTV Video Music Awards, wherein the band didn’t perform the song, but instead lip-synched it … while recreating the entire choreography of the clip right on stage. At least on Top of the Pops they let you mime yourself playing instruments. Here, the network actually brought them treadmills.

As strange as it may seem, there is actually precedent for this. In the 2005 mini-documentary Romanekian (about the works of music video icon Mark Romanek), Rick Rubin notes how when he heard Lenny Kravitz‘s “Are You Gonna Go My Way?” before he saw the video, “I liked the song but I didn’t love it — and then I saw the video, and it made me love the song.” In the modern MTV era, often times a music video can actually solidify the “idea” of a song in a listener’s mind moreso than just the audio itself. People who hear A-ha’s “Take on Me” rarely do so without immediately thinking of the era-defining music video that accompanies it, as that song reached a kind of ubiquity that overshadowed the rest of the group’s achievements for most mainstream audiences.

On the flip-side of that coin, the Lonely Island, a group that was born directly out of viral video culture, has managed to land some solid laughs and actual hits with their comedic take on modern rap tropes, but in truth, many of their standalone songs actually suffer when not coupled with their gag-filled visual counterparts (see “You’ve Got the Look” for further evidence of this, as it feels less like a song than it does a video spec script in waiting).

In a similar vein, UK funk-pop group Jamiroquai managed to score several hits in their homeland, but only really broke through in the U.S. on the strength of his striking Jonathan Glazer-helmed clip for “Virtual Insanity“. The clip anchored the themes of the song well, and also created a great replay value due to its striking “how’d they do that?” gimmickry. Yet for a clip featuring an ever-shifting floor and dance-moves across furniture (not to mention what may be the most definitive hat of Jay Kay’s career), the visuals, again, came to define everything the passing cultural connoisseur would ever need to know about the band, and its ubiquity was such that during the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards (sensing a pattern here?) Jay Kay sang the track while dancing across moving treadmills, as if casual fans wouldn’t recognize the song or the performers outside of the video’s moving-floor gimmick. Again, the show’s producers thought that the visuals from the video defined the group moreso than the actual song did.

For OK Go, however, the success of the “Here It Goes Again” clip altered the way they approached promotion altogether. The band’s Dave Fridmann-produced third album Of the Blue Colour of the Sky marked a turning point in their sound, moving away from strict guitar rock and focusing instead on some kind of slick, homogenized synth-funk. Their first single, “WTF”, was pretty muddled on a sonic front (is “jack-Prince” a subgenre?), but the video obviously had a great deal of thought put into it:

And thus, it appears that this album truly did serve as the group’s biggest paradigm shift to date. The lumbering lop-sided melody that makes up “This Too Shall Pass” doesn’t play too well on radio, but their Rube Goldberg-inspired music video for “This Too Shall Pass” became yet another viral wonder, the shoot itself having taken no less than six months to develop. For some, this has become OK Go’s most defining video — but very few would ever argue that it’s their most defining song.

In truth, there is a bit of shrewdness in the way the band seems to be so compulsively bent on creating videos that exist simply due to their viral nature: the more times that you hear a song over and over, the more your brain grows accustomed to it, gradually familiarizing itself with the tune’s nuances even if you don’t particularly like it all that much. This isn’t really all that overtly manipulative: it’s simple psychology, and something that record labels know all about. After all, it was in 2005 that Sony BMG wound up paying $10 million to resolve a payola scandal, wherein it was revealed that various label reps either bribed or threatened different radio stations if they didn’t spin a particular song enough times or wound up playing it during non-peak hours.

Some of the songs in question? Audioslave’s “Like a Stone” was one such selection (although some would argue that the song would’ve been fine with just the standard radio push); Celine Dion’s cloying pop number “I Drove All Night” was another. You can debate all day what the overarching artistic value of these songs are, but if they’re played enough, your brain may just “accept” them as nothing more than aural wallpaper. It’s that shift that makes an “OK” song a “good” one (but not necessarily a “great” one), and you’d be more inclined to buy a “good” song than one that makes you switch radio stations whenever it comes on. That being said, labels can put all the multi-million dollar campaigns they want behind a particular track, but if it’s not embraced by the public, no amount of radio bribery can course-correct the cause (hear that, Nicki?).

Yet clever music videos are one thing: album sales are another. The problem with OK Go’s perpetual self-prescribed game of viral one-upmanship is that fans kept waiting for the group to put out another cool video clip for free, but saw little value in purchasing the band’s albums in full. This lead to a somewhat contentious spat between the group and the label during the promotional efforts for Colour, so much so that the band actually used a nondisparagement clause in their contract to release themselves from EMI, soon re-releasing the exact same album on their own label while also taking over the promotional duties themselves. Capitol still had a stake in Colour‘s sales, but perhaps this is why the band is so stoked about their forthcoming set Hungry Ghosts, as they will retain all the album’s profits themselves. (But all the videos the band created while signed to Capitol? They’re all property of EMI now, which some may argue as enough motive for the band to focus on creating the next big viral hit instead of their next big radio hit.)

In truth, despite Colour‘s messy sonic approach, the album still had a few clear-cut winners (“White Knuckles” especially), but that zest and unbridled energy from their early days is mostly gone. They fill their verses and choruses with a lot of sound but leave hardly any room for negative space these days, making the energy of their songs plateau by the first chorus and never moving up from there.

Hell, even Hungry Ghost‘s lead single, “The Writing’s On the Wall”, with a heavy ’80s alt-pop vibe and Peter Hook-like bass work, is more serviceable than spectacular, an enjoyable tune that doesn’t push any boundaries, effective in its inoffensiveness. This appears to be the way the band is constructing a lot of their post-“Here It Goes Again” efforts, but even before hearing the new album, it’s a forgone conclusion that no matter how many singles the group releases from it, the videos will in all likelihood be the most memorable part about it.

Why would one come to such a harsh conclusion? In 2006, Kulash appeared on The Colbert Report right at the height of “Here It Goes Again”‘s popularity, and in what was supposed to be a pretty softball interview, Colbert asked him about putting all these clever things up online, jokingly asking “Why would they buy your cow when people are gettin’ the milk for free?” Although Kulash appeared to be very disinterested during the entire conversation and eventually made a push for the record it self, his first response to that question was “Ya know, I don’t know.”

Although the group does profit off of the view counts to their videography (a.k.a. any time a YouTube ad runs before or during one of their clips), their financial success is not at all equal to their cultural influence, although the band may personally see very little distinction between the two. At this point, the band has embraced the narrative that their own fans have put on them, and they have become an entity unlike anything else in this world: an active, touring band that puts consideration into their videos and promotion first — and their music second. Although the group might scoff at the idea that their music is undervalued, they actually summed it up best themselves: “The Writing’s on the Wall”.