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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"Kids" makes us think back to simpler times... with heavy consequences

MGMT's tribute to youth is far from rose-colored, reminding us of just how much we impact the world from the day we're thrown into it.

Welcome to another episode of "Benjamin randomly remembers another song." Today's topic: Sometimes nostalgia occurs for no clear reason.

Between how busy my workplace has been lately and how I tend to push myself in exercising following my shifts, I end up feeling pretty drained by the end of the day. It's in this drowsy state that I tend to get simple melodies from songs I heard in my youth stuck in my head, only to wonder how / why the heck it's that particular track that came to me and made me click.

In my drowsy post-work state this evening, I kept hearing the synth riff from "Kids" by MGMT stuck in my head. I haven't listened to the song in years, but I guess there was something about the way I'm currently living and thinking about life while on my winter break that is triggering memories of the song and of years past. In taking a look at its lyrics and remembering more of the track, I can't help but think there's something that ties my memories of the song to thoughts on the New Year, even though it's an occasion I hardly observe.

Along with "Time to Pretend" and "Electric Feel," its fellow singles from MGMT's debut album Oracular Spectacular (2007), "Kids" is one of the most enduring indie songs of the 21st century. I think what has particularly helped "Kids" achieve this status is its simplicity. Sure, there are plenty of interesting indie and psychedelic-like elements, but at the end of the day it uses one of the most common chord progressions in all of popular music (vi-IV-I-V), and the aforementioned synth melody that gets stuck in your head so easily is almost entirely scalar. Songs can have so many things going for them in terms of cool and complex soundscapes and inventive melodies, but in the pop world there nearly always needs to be something more simple at the base of it all in order for a track to be well-received —i.e. memorable enough to get stuck in your head without you getting mad at that happening.

This simplicity also extends to Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser's lyrical backdrop: looking back on the innocence of childhood.

You were a child crawling on your knees toward it
Making mama so proud, but your voice is too loud

It's hard to believe, considering the way we live today as adults, that we were so carefree in our youth, but "Kids" captures those moments from a second-person perspective. It's not just that kids in general were like that; you were like that.

At the same time, however, MGMT hint at future consequences for our lack of caring, consequences which have likely begun to present themselves by the present day in which the piece is narrated. The first-verse line about "pick[ing] the insects off plants" strikes me as a reference to the ecological damage we collectively cause, divorcing life from its natural habitat as we selfish attempt to fill our needs. We hardly think about these courses of action when we're younger, but as we age we realize just how much what we do affects the world. The final unique lyric of the song hits right at this point: "But I thought this wouldn't hurt a lot, I guess not." At some point we have the understanding to look back and realize the (negative) consequences of our own actions, and this personal revelation hurts. You finally realize how much damage you've caused other people, including those about whom you deeply care, and as a result you reconfigure how you understand your life.

So what's the lesson to be taken from all this? The chorus seems to provide one in imploring the kid in question to "Control yourself / Take only what you need from it"... but, again, this is a little kid we're talking to. In hindsight it's easy to preach self-control because we know better. This moral is especially true from an ecological perspective, and even with children's texts like Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree and songs like Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi," it's hard to really understand what we have until we actually see and feel for ourselves what we've lost. In this manner, I hear "Kids" as being a warning to young generations that they'll have to live with the world into which they were brought and which they have a hand in forming. It's a very uncomfortable realization that they bear the responsibility previous generations have neglected to take on — which is part of how I read the lyrics "A family of trees wanting to be haunted" — but it's a fact of living if they want to prolong our existence and truly improve the world.

Tying this all back to the New Year, as I mentioned earlier, we innocently think of January 1 as a tabula rasa (clean slate) moment. In reality, the world is nearly identical to how it was on December 31, and if we don't address that, we'll continue to let things get out of hand. Celebrate the throwing out of a calendar all you want, but the world doesn't reset itself when the last digit of the date changes. "Control yourself," indeed; don't neglect your responsibility to each other now that you recognize it, and pass on your knowledge to the next generation when possible and appropriate.


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