A second look at Owl City

Almost 7 years ago, on my first blog, I wrote about why Owl City is my favorite music artist. (I won’t be providing a link, because that blog is cringy.)  One of the main reasons I gave was the relentless positivity and general happiness of nearly all Owl City songs. As an optimist, who believed that being a happy and optimistic person was more Christian than not, this sat very well with me.

I repent.

I don’t look at happiness and optimism the same way anymore. Happiness is good, and it’s a large part of what we’re after, but that doesn’t make it always the best mood in this sinful age. And optimism, well, I think it’s a bit misguided. The more biblical option, I think, is stark realism shot through with faith and hope. But this change of mind doesn’t dampen my love for Owl City.

Owl City is even better than I thought.

I made the mistake of looking at Owl City through my own rose-colored glasses and missed the realistic richness in its music. Since then, I’ve come to better appreciate what makes Owl City special. The uniqueness is not that it’s just happy and optimistic all the time, because it’s not. Several songs released since my old post prove as much. Sometimes Owl City seems downright black.

But what makes Owl City unique is the way it handles all of these moods and emotions. It surpasses most other pop music, Christian or secular, with an impossible balancing act. Christian music seems to be plagued with naivete, sentimentality, and mere optimism, and a decent chunk of secular pop tends either to play to these as well (for the PG stuff) or to do hedonism, nihilism, cynicism, or the like.

Owl City avoids both of these pitfalls. It expresses joy without platitude, hardship without nihilism, wonder without nativete, heartbreak without cynicism, and the full range of light without denying the full range of darkness. The dark songs never completely omit a glimmer of hope, and bright songs are never without a tinge of sadness or a sharp edge of reality.  Indeed, sometimes the most interesting and creative aspects of any given Owl City song is the ironic way they combine light and dark. “Hot Air Balloon” sounds like a happy memory of childhood at first listen, but then you notice the subtle negativity playing hide-and-seek in the lyrics. “Bird with a Broken Wing,” about as bleak as Owl City can get (’cause it was inspired by The Walking Dead), sets its dark lyrics to an upbeat and even bubbly tune that feels as though it carries you forward into hope even as you feel the weight of sorrow.

The brilliance of it all is that we live in a culture where the default modes are either a cynical nihilism–life sucks, then you die–or a whitewashed, hedonistic approach combining egoism, denial, and sentimentality. Owl City celebrates as much as this second mode without its vices, and it mourns more faithfully than the first approach is even capable of. Where pop culture tells us that everything is hunky dory and you just have to believe in yourself, Owl City reminds us that sometimes it’s a bitter world where we’d rather dream. Where pop culture tells us that everything is stupid and life is joke, Owl City chimes in that there is hope from above which brings courage. It is the paradox of life that I love in this music. Owl City presents us with a dark and deadly world where dreams don’t turn to dust, a life of beautiful times punctuated by cold nostalgia that chills to the bone. And most importantly, in the midst of all the howling wind and starry serenades, the Saving Grace of the galaxies is there to make us new, to smile and hear our prayers, and to take us home when death is near.


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