Do What You Want: OK Go and the New Landscape of Artistic Integrity

I wrote a piece wondering why OK Go's videos were so good but their songs seemed to be lacking. It generated a lot of great responses -- and then OK Go's Damian Kulash decided to give me a ring.
Upside Out

Not too long ago, I wrote a piece for PopMatters that explored a very simple notion: why are OK Go‘s videos so consistently clever and innovative while their songs are getting increasingly generic over time?

Following the release of the clever optical illusion-filled clip for their new single “The Writing’s On the Wall“, I was struck by how much effort went into the elaborate music video while the song itself was merely passable, an inoffensive Peter Hook-indebted offering from a group that had previously penned some out-and-out pop stunners before (“Get Over It”, “Do What You Want”, “White Knuckles”, etc.). When you factor in this and the similarly visually stunning/sonically underwhelming venture “This Too Shall Pass“, it was almost as if we were watching this really talented band let their music videos become their sole defining trait, their music almost an afterthought, and it was a disheartening sight to see.

The article itself got some moderate attention, and there were numerous debates on Facebook and between some of my close friends that resulted from it. The most consistent piece of criticism I heard in response to what I wrote was “So they make fun videos and fun songs — what’s so wrong with that?” It’s a valid point for sure, one person even noting that with all of the groups in this world that make music far worse than that of OK Go, so what’s wrong with this Chicago quartet knocking out some fun little ditties when they like?

My response to that recalled something that came up in a discussion I had with Death Cab for Cutie’s guitarist/producer Chris Walla back in 2008. He talked about how when he’s producing younger bands, they’d often get in the studio, lay down a decent-but-not-amazing guitar track, and just be done with it. When Chris asked if they wanted to do it again, perhaps go for a better take, they responded by saying “Well, can’t you just make it sound good in post?”

It was, to paraphrase Walla, a generation that was succumbing to the monster of Good Enough, a notion that instead of bettering your art and demanding the best of yourself, a “good enough” take or even a “good enough” song would do. While that point about there being far worse listening options than the music of OK Go held its own, my counterpoint to that was simple: at what point did we start casually accepting “good” or even “decent” songs as the norm? Lord knows we all hear more than our share of “average” songs in any given week, so I don’t see any harm in expecting that bands would want to consistently challenge themselves to be better, to constantly aim for each song to be the best one they’ve ever written, or at the very least take a risk and push their sound in a unique direction. If you’re in the business of making art, why can’t one simply expect that each new effort is an attempt to outdo what you’ve done previously?

Of all the responses I received to this article though, the most surprising one came from the band’s publicist, two days after the piece ran. They even-handedly clarified some factual points I made about how they seemed to have bought into their own viral video nature with their treadmill-assisted recreation of the “Here It Goes Again” video at the 2006 MTV Video Music Awards (the group thought it was a fun thing to do but have never “recreated” one of their music videos since) and how following the group’s split from EMI during the promotional campaign for Of the Blue Colour of the Sky, the label didn’t actually have any stake in the group’s album sales, contradicting the original Billboard report I cited.

These, along with some points about how their current creative endeavors under their catch-all Paracadute label are made under the notion that they just don’t say “no” to anything, were all things that I felt could work as a proper response to my original piece. I asked if I could include some of those responses, to which the publicist did one better: why don’t I just put you on the phone with lead singer Damian Kulash?

As OK Go’s frontman, Kulash is actually hyper-aware of the band’s place in the world, as well as the commercial means by which they function. Back in 2010, Kulash penned a New York Times op-ed wherein he questioned the logic of his label disabling embeds for his group’s music videos to sites that were other than YouTube. The reason for this was purely a profit-driven one, as ad-supported views at the time didn’t count towards the video’s net profit unless they were viewed solely on YouTube.com. Kulash did the math, and the amount of money that EMI was recouping due to this move was minimal at best, as such harsh restrictions actually lowered the number of views the band was receiving overall. Although Kulash and co. are still able to do what they love, the financial reality of their day-to-day operations was something they took very seriously, and it’s a topic that Kulash himself is unafraid to address, right along with that notion that they are more well known for their videos than they are their songs.

“The response for a lot of years has been that ‘your videos are overshadowing your music,'” Kulash tells me, “but most times we just ignore [it] ‘cos it’s so incredibly counter-intuitive to me that it’s not worth getting involved in. But when somebody articulates it fairly positively, it’s worth engaging in. I understand that clearly that’s the public perception of us, so I’m not gonna argue that it’s not.”

There were actually a few times during our conversation wherein I said that some people still view OK Go as “the music video band,” and he is quick to correct me in stating that, in fact, it’s “most people” who view the group that way. However, his counterpoint to that issue is both insightful and rather blunt at the same time: “I don’t see why that’s a problem.” He continues:

“It’s like, the assumption is that we must write shitty music or, as your piece suggested, we lost our credibility. The model in which you are a successful musician by selling records is fucking crazy. I’m sure you saw the Grizzly Bear piece [from New York Magazine in 2012]: they had a fucking #1 Billboard chart-topping record, and the lead singer can’t make as much as his boyfriend who’s like an interior decorator. From our perspective, there are two things that align really beautifully: for one, the boundaries between this type of creativity and that type of creativity got super-eroded when everyone started making 1’s and 0’s.

“I think that humans get stuck in the heuristic that the present has to make sense in the logic of the past and the future has to make sense in the logic of the present. So music is this sacred thing, frozen in its 20th century form — three and a half minutes of recorded audio — and anything that changes about it undercuts its credibility. But music wasn’t like that before, and it’s refusing to stay like that now. It’s a more ephemeral experience, and sometimes a more total and encompassing one. No one would say you have to shut your eyes at a concert because the visuals are competing with the music. No one would tell you that the cover of Sticky Fingers was just too cool with that zipper and all, and that it really ruined the music. YouTube is the biggest music streaming service in the world. It’s arguably the primary way we experience music now. So that’s what music actually is now. It’s not a plastic disc with audio encoded on it anymore. It’s a string of ones and zeros that can be grabbed whenever, wherever. And it comes with a left channel and a right channel and, a lot of the time, a video channel.”

Just in that quote above, one of the most important pieces of information that Kulash drops is how “the model in which you are a successful musician by selling records is fucking crazy.” Indeed, many people are still subscribing to the standard metric that record sales are one of the biggest indicators as to how successful a recording artist is doing. You can go multi-platinum like Adele or Beyoncé or U2, but the music industry’s gradual sales decline means that album sales alone are not entirely indicative of the commercial health of a recording artist. One indie-funk group, Vulfpeck, actually had an album of nothing but silence uploaded onto Spotify, and encouraged fans to “listen” to it while they slept, with the band using the payouts to fund 100% free shows as they toured before Spotify shut it down. Party-rockers Boxed Wine, meanwhile, took the exact opposite approach, putting their entire recorded output for free on NoiseTrade while simply encouraging fans to catch them on tour. No matter which way you look at it, the paradigm is shifting.

Prior to our phone call, Kulash reread my piece, and zeroed in on how after their first album, I noted how “OK Go’s career arc seemed to have a nice (if somewhat predictable) trajectory.” In response to that, he notes that how, “for me it’s short of all wrapped up in the fact that [when you] look at that arc … it never happened. The music industry just ceased to exist. And so, if you were in our band, if you were sitting in the position of someone who wants to live off your creative ideas for a living, we managed to get a double-wind, avoiding the death of the music industry while at the same time getting to chase more creative ideas rather than fewer. So [if] the public perception is a tradeoff for credibility — [that] we gained so much freedom and so much success — like, how is that a problem?”

Of course, all of this talk about the current perception of the band somewhat sidesteps the crux of the original article: that for being as innovative as they are, there is a notable dip in the sheer quality of the group’s sonic efforts, even as they continue to branch out and try new things stylistically. While Kulash does note how, for him, it comes down to a difference of opinion, as he’s certainly feels the material they’re working on now is the best they’ve ever done, he’s remarkably candid when I ask him if he feels there’s any weak points in the group’s discography:

“The last two records are different beasts than before. Our second record I think has some great stuff on there, but I do kind of hear my own awareness of what kind of band I thought we were. Like, that it’s all ‘we’re a rock band and we play these four instruments’ — I dunno. I remember writing it with these urges to go in a different direction but not having the confidence to be like ‘That’s what we do.’ The videos, in a strange way, were a creative catalyst. You mentioned ‘Do What You Want’ — that was the single that the label quote-unquote pushed. They paid for a video with Michel Gondry’s younger brother Olivier. Not a huge budget but it was generous. It got on the radio maybe twice. And then, a song we never thought would be a single [‘Here It Goes Again’] went hyperactive. The idea that we would have more success if people just listened to the music and didn’t let the videos in the way — well if you think [‘Do What You Want’] was the best song on that record, well it had every promotional opportunity that a band should have. Maybe it’s not a good enough song, or maybe to get on radio, you have to have a $500,000 campaign behind you.”

Note how above, Kulash describes how the band’s music videos have actually proven to be a creative catalyst, and goes on to note how with Paracadute, the band was able to “put out a video game last year that was the top of the App Store the first week it came out and we are working on two TV shows — this is our fun for us. It doesn’t stop me from playing songs or wanting to go on tour. While you may not like our new songs as much as our old ones, plenty of people like them more. I like them more.”

Thus, for Kulash, the very nature of what the definition of a band can do, much less the traditional metrics in which the success of a band has been defined, have changed over time. He’s keenly aware of how his group is perceived, but even in our discussion, he notes how that “predictable career arc” they may have been on would have only resulted in them becoming pop music afterthoughts, which is notably different from where they are now, continuing to work as a fully-independent and remarkably successful rock group.

I end our conversation by asking Kulash about two very simple things: looking back on your career thus far, what for you has been your biggest regret, and, conversely, what has been your proudest accomplishment? He doesn’t shy away from either topic:

“Artistically speaking, I think we’d do our first record differently. I was really into Cheap Trick and Queen and the Cars at the moment and felt like the rock world was divided onto nu-metal on the one hand and the Strokes on the other, and I was like ‘Where is the joy in this?’ I think that some of the songs are way better than the overdone recordings of them, like I think some of the demos are better than the actual album. I think it watered us down somewhat, and made what was unique about us unclear, as it was so generically packaged. Personally, the biggest regret was touring too much. As much as I love playing shows, we more or less still exist ‘cos we tirelessly said yes to every opportunity we could get. Our second record we toured for 31 months without stopping, and it reeks hell on your personal life. I feel like for the last 15 years I’ve lived maybe five of them. Like, you’re in this weird bubble on tour, ya know?

“In terms of accomplishments, it may be a little bit broad but getting our independence back and taking our creative reigns all the way when we left the label is the biggest. None of this stuff on the last album, in terms of videos and art projects and getting brand sponsors, all that kind of stuff — none of that could’ve been done while we were on a record label. The creative ideas I’ve pitched to ad agencies would have been laughed at by a record label. Like the Super Bowl commercial we made, if I took it into a record label and say ‘This is the video we want to make,’ first of all they’d be like ‘Where do you intend to get a million dollars to make this video?’ And second they’d be like, ‘And also this sounds like a really stupid video.’ When we showed them a label rep a video of us dancing in our backyard, the first words out of his mouth were ‘This is a bad fit for your song.’ And we were like ‘Well, A> it’s our damn house, but B> what do you mean?’ He was like, ‘Well, you look nerdy, you look gay, you don’t look rock & roll, you look uncool…’ and we were sort of like ‘Exactly, exactly, exactly.’ To have your own identity is way cooler than trying to look like the Strokes most of the time.”

I press Damian on the notion of a label rep saying that the band looked too gay due to that one clip, and he notes how “I think at the time, that label was wildly homophobic, [and] that was hilarious to me, ‘cos they were also like ‘You should work with Stefan Sagmeister!” and he made a record cover that was covered in flowers and was basically pink, and they were like ‘This is great!’ But, ya know, ‘don’t come off gay…'”

In short, that brief story illustrates how even back then, the group wound up pushing back on conventional wisdom of what a band should look like, much less what a band should be capable beyond the simple cycle of album-tour-album. While their new material remains critically divisive, my phone call with Damian convinced me of one very powerful thing: that this is a man who very self-conscious as to how his band is perceived, and he is very aware of the economic realities that a musician in this day and age have to face on a daily basis. Although some people will only view OK Go as “the music video band,” to a degree, that very recognition has lead the band to endure and succeed where so many other of their peers have fallen into budget bins the world over (right, Locksley?).

The only reason we’re still talking about OK Go to this degree is because they, perhaps more than any other band today, know how to remain vital and interesting in a market that already has existing binaries in place about what a band should be capable of. “When we chase the things that we think are best,” Damian tells me, “like genuinely think are best, even if it’s unpredictable and it doesn’t seem like it should come from us, we are happiest with it and most often it’s the thing that people actually lock on to.”

On their new EP, there’s a line in the song “I Won’t Let You Down” that seems to not only fit this entire conversation, but also sum up their current aesthetic, both in terms of responses to critics and how they’re going to direct themselves in the future: “so strap that armor tighter on / double on down like it’s gonna make you free.”

And whether you agree with them or not, there are fewer bands right now that are as free as OK Go.