By Sammy Bovitz
On March 26th, 2021, the musical trio known as AJR released OK Orchestra, a 46-minute, 13-song experience that can best be described as, well, okay. And in the years leading up to that release, my relationship with the group’s music has been very odd. As I slowly discovered that some of my friends or acquaintances enjoyed the band, I attempted to try out their music as both an attempt to be a good friend and simply to see what all the fuss was about. Their band name, album art, and overall tone is relatively unassuming, and the overall beats backing the lyrics are satisfying enough that, when stripped down to mere instrumentals, many of their tracks are fairly serviceable. But where AJR really sets themselves apart is in their lyrics, and it’s both their greatest strength and most glaring weakness.
For example, let’s take the track “Netflix Party.” When I first came across AJR in 2019, “The Office” was still fresh enough in my mind that I was purely enjoying it and not thinking critically about the show as much as I would later. I had also just finished watching season 7, the final season that’s generally seen as quality by both fans and critics. The song “Netflix Party” is about one of the band members’ journey growing up with the show. At face value, a first listen to this song is pretty enjoyable, especially for someone who is currently enjoying the show, say, through Netflix. But songs like AJR’s have lyrics that are always at the focal point. Obviously, lyrics are important to every song, but, for example, a younger version of me enjoyed the production behind “Blurred Lines” while remaining blissfully unaware of the song’s misogynistic message and copyright infringement. That song, at least in my view, isn’t really about the lyrics: it’s about delivering a fun pop song with a tune that is easily memorable and can be danced to. But “Netflix Party” is about telling a narrative through a song, and while it’s intertwined with fun beats, it’s not mainly about the beats. So on multiple listens, lines like “The one where Dwight became the head of sales/My eighth grade graduation wished me well,” don’t trigger nostalgia or relatability as much as they simply confuse.
Let’s look at a few more examples. “Sober Up” is initially about discovering that your old friends have matured and grappling with that, but on multiple listens, the line “My favorite color is you/You keep me young and that’s how I wanna be,” is so bizarre. It could be a nod to band member Ryan’s synesthesia, but that’s about associating visuals with sounds, not people with a visual concept like a color. The line “My favorite color is you,” whether isolated or given as much context as possible, makes absolutely no sense- and it’s one of the main refrains of the song. “Break My Face” is a bizarre and oddly charming song on first listen, but after that it’s just plain irritating. The pre-chorus of “What doesn’t kill you/Makes you ugly/Life gives you lemons/At least it gave you something,” is attempting to turn cliched phrases around, but it doesn’t feel genuine or interesting as much as it is frustratingly downbeat and “rebellious,” which contrasts with the fairly upbeat nature of the song’s production. “3 O’Clock Things” was one of the “good” songs on OK Orchestra in my view (more on that in a bit), but with lines like “It’s kinda funny how I paid for college/When YouTube was an option,” multiple listens just make the song worse.
I do not think I am an expert in music production in any way. If you asked me to write a song, I would fail miserably, as I just don’t operate like that creatively. But I can speak from the experience of someone in AJR’s target audience, which is– whether intended or not– insecure millennials or teenagers. That is to say pretty much every millenial or teenager, but I digress.
AJR’s songs seem to aim for relatable lyrics and catchy yet experimental tunes, and they seem to position their entire style as both refreshingly bizarre and very accessible. That’s something that grabs a lot of people around my age, as in a world where more people attempt to make creative projects for a living ever, it’s shown that it’s incredibly attractive to be positioned as weird while still having mainstream appeal. “Relatable content” is something that people seem to love, and AJR fits that niche perfectly while still being experimental enough to be “weird.”
Again, none of this is to say that AJR’s music is bad or that it’s simply a cookie-cutter experience. Like most songs, the lyrics are probably based on stories from the band member’s lives or of their general thoughts on the life they’re living. They struggle as both creatives and as representatives of Generations Y and Z, who, like many generations before them, feel both a sense of insecurity and a desire to move forward and create a world they want to see. And that is something that, at its core, can make for some fairly, well, relatable music. At their core, what AJR seems to be showing with their main themes have wide appeal. But it just comes down to how those themes are executed that feels off. The band feels like it’s in a constant tug-of-war between their desire to get weird and a desire to make things that they– and the thousands like them– can relate to.
Let’s get back to OK Orchestra. Of the 13 songs on the album, four are singles from the past year or so. Those songs are all okay and fairly inoffensive, but of course, things like the chorus of “Way Less Sad” don’t make a ton of sense on multiple listens. But my least favorite song on the album has to be the hilariously titled “OK Overture.” It feels like random sounds and snippets from the album were just thrown at a wall with little attention to what would stick for the listener, and it’s a fairly good indication of the album to come. Overall, AJR’s discography follows some core themes, but the albums themselves are more a collection of songs, and thus their “best” work is probably enjoyed without the context of the full album. I went into OK Orchestra with an open mind, but quickly found myself skimming through some tracks and skipping others entirely. The album’s songs are best enjoyed standalone, but again, once the production begins to get repetitive and the only thing left to latch onto is the lyrics, the band completely falls apart for me as a listener.
AJR at face value should be just another indie band, but the content of their lyrics and in the way they carry themselves– see the reveal for the album Neotheater— make them very appealing to younger people. And yet that’s why they frustrate me so much. Their surface-level relatability makes them have the appeal of a mainstream pop artist while still being “quirky” enough for their audience of teens and millennials to eat it up. I’m not saying that AJR is evil, I’m simply saying that their success confuses me. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to Google how to successfully defend against pitchforks.