In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present. Book Bonus Beat: The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal the History of Pop Music.
I’ll try to be fair here. I always try to be fair. That’s a central tenet of this column. Pop songs can be silly and cringey and embarrassing, and they can still be great despite those things, or because of those things. By definition, the songs in this column are time-capsules, forever tied to their cultural moments. Some cultural moments are better than others, but all of them deserve to be taken seriously. Every once in a while, though, this column will land on a song that sends me into a Wolverine-esque berserker rage. If you’ve been reading for a while, you’ve seen it happen. It’s the Barenaked Ladies effect.
“Fireflies,” the one giant hit from the bleepy-mewly one-man band Owl City, does not make me want to gargle blood or vomit ash. It might be worse than that. I don’t like the person that I become when I listen to “Fireflies.” “Fireflies” is like a magical spell that instantly summons my inner playground bully. I don’t want to burn “Fireflies” in a bone-bleaching, soul-cleansing inferno. The song doesn’t inspire that level of passion in me. I just want to give this song a wedgie and throw its hat in a toilet. I would like to avoid that kind of activity, metaphorical or otherwise, in this column. I’ll do my best. I can’t promise that I’ll succeed.
Really, though, would you blame me? “Fireflies” would have me believe that Owl City mastermind Adam Young gets 1,000 hugs from 10,000 lightning bugs as they teach him how to dance. Young claims to be weird because he hates goodbyes, and he gets misty-eyed as he says farewell to 10 million fireflies. You would think him rude because he’d just stand and stare as those 10 million fireflies fill the open air and leave teardrops everywhere. Look, I didn’t write these fucking lines. Nor would I. He wrote those lines, released them into the world, and sold 10 million copies. Fuck this guy, and fuck his song. Shit. I’m sorry. I’m doing it. It’s happening.
OK. Deep breath. Let’s start again. We’ve got a job to do here. The story of “Fireflies” really doesn’t start with Adam Young. Instead, it starts eight years earlier, when Jimmy Tamborello, a Los Angeles producer who recorded twitchy electronic music under the name Dntel, released his album Life Is Full Of Possibilities. Tamborello asked a bunch of indie rock vocalists to collaborate, and one of them was Ben Gibbard, leader of the ascendant wilting-wallflower college-rock band Death Cab For Cutie. Together, Tamborello and Gibbard recorded a track called “(This Is) The Dream Of Evan And Chan.” At least by the standards of twitchy electronic music, that song popped off, and a bunch of prominent names remixed it. Tamborello and Gibbard decided to keep working together.
For a while, Jimmy Tamborello and Ben Gibbard collaborated remotely, sending DAT tapes back and forth through the mail. That’s why they decided to call their project the Postal Service, even if they really used UPS. (Today, they’d be called the Shared Google Drive, which would be much less romantic.) Sub Pop released the Postal Service’s album Give Up in 2003. I bought it, and I loved it. The Postal Service never released another album.
At the time, the Postal Service went off on a small tour and then went their separate ways. Pretty soon, Death Cab For Cutie became huge. (Their highest-charting single, 2005’s “Soul Meet Body,” peaked at #60.) The Postal Service were more of a cult thing at first, but the record kept spreading, either by internet or by word of mouth. In 2005, when the group released the album’s third single “We Will Become Silhouettes,” it was big enough to scrape the bottom of the Hot 100, peaking at #82. “Such Great Heights” started popping up in TV commercials, and Iron & Wine covered it on the Garden State soundtrack. The Iron & Wine version also appeared in commercials. Give Up went gold in 2005, platinum in 2012. Within a decade, it was the #2 seller in Sub Pop history, right on the heels of Nirvana’s Bleach.
All around America, sensitive kids with laptops took note. In 2006, the Huntington Beach emo band Hellogoodbye scored an out-of-nowhere #14 hit with their heavily Auto-Tuned single “Here (In Your Arms),” which sounded like the Postal Service reimagined for a Warped Tour dance tent and which served as an early sign that T-Pain’s robo-vocals would soon take over more genres. By the end of the ’00s, plenty of bands were combining electronic shimmer with starry-eyed, sensitive lyrics, and some of them were getting critical acclaim and festival bookings: Passion Pit, Stars, High Places, Chairlift.
And then there was the Owl City guy, who bypassed the whole club-circuit/blog-buzz system, building his own MySpace audience and then topping the Hot 100 before anyone could figure out what the fuck happened. Owl City is Adam Young, an introverted and sincere Christian who was born in Iowa and mostly raised in the small, remote Minnesota town of Owatonna. (When Young was born, Billy Ocean’s “There’ll Be Sad Songs (To Make You Cry)” was the #1 song in America.) After he finished high school, Young got a job at a Coca-Cola warehouse. The way this guy was moving Coke, you could call him Pusha T.
While he was bored at work, Young would get ideas for songs. At night, he would return to his parents’ basement, record those songs, and post them up on MySpace under the Owl City name. Back in the very beginning of the social media era, some guy in small-town Minnesota could find an audience just by coming across as a nice person online. That’s what Adam Young did.
Adam Young sang his songs in a pinched, quavery whine. If you heard this kid’s voice, you could imagine that he’d shatter into pieces of a sunbeam hit him too hard. He used that voice to sing over his own amateurishly beepy synthpop tracks. He also wrote deeply personal missives and responded to all the messages that he got. Young eventually found DIY digital distribution through CD Baby. He self-released his debut EP Of June in 2007, and he followed it the next year with an album called Maybe I’m Dreaming.
Eventually, someone at Republic realized that this kid in Minnesota was putting up some serious numbers on MySpace. The label signed Owl City and set him up with a manager, and he released his debut album Ocean Eyes in July 2009. Republic resisted the urge to send Adam Young to work with more-established names, and he mostly recorded Ocean Eyes on his own. He got some help from Matt Thiessen, leader of the pretty-big Christian pop-punk band Relient K, who sang backup vocals and who co-produced a few tracks, including the single “Fireflies.” (Relient K’s highest-charting single, 2006’s “Who I Am Hates Who I’ve Been,” peaked at #58.)
Adam Young has said that “Fireflies” was inspired partly by his chronic insomnia and partly by the fireflies and shooting stars that he saw over a lake in northern Minnesota when he was on a camping trip. When he was having trouble sleeping one night, Young got to thinking: What if fireflies were shooting stars? I get bad insomnia, too, but this is not where my head goes. Instead, my head tends to go to “let’s see what’s happening on Twitter” or “let’s rewatch John Wick: Chapter 2.” This kind of thinking hasn’t earned me any #1 hits, but I would not trade places with Adam Young.
For a minute, I thought the fireflies of “Fireflies” were supposed to be aliens, sort of like the gathering of angels that Dennis DeYoung described on Styx’s 1977 song “Come Sail Away.” (“Come Sail Away” peaked at #8. It’s a 10.) But it really doesn’t seem like the fireflies of “Fireflies” are metaphors for anything. They’re just fireflies, and Young, in that sleepless state, was just lying there, thinking about hugging them and dancing with them and whatever the fuck else. In a viral 2017 tweet, Young explained the math behind getting 1,000 hugs from 10,000 lightning bugs, but I’m not going to quote him on it. Too annoying. If you really want to expose yourself to this guy’s self-deprecating wit, you can do it on your own.
Young sings all those bug-related epiphanies in a mind-blown inside-voice coo that strives for Ben Gibbard swooniness and falls way short. Nobody should try to imitate Ben Gibbard’s voice. Even Gibbard himself can’t do it convincingly half the time. Adam Young’s instrumental track, on the other hand, is light and crisp and bubbly — nowhere near as complicated as what Jimmy Tamborello did in the Postal Service, but still quite pleasant. I like the wobbly sine-wave and the jaunty strings; they’re catchy. In a video that he posted a few months ago, Young walks us through every element that he added to the track, and you can hear some true songwriting instincts there. Young really had something with that backing track. It’s too bad he decided to sing “Fireflies” over it.
Adam Young knew that “Fireflies” was a Postal Service ripoff. In a New York Times profile, Young had this to say about the Postal Service: “They released a record in 2003, and that was it. There was really nothing to compare it to until someone else came along and wrote the next chapter. Maybe that’s this record. Maybe that’s this band.” Look: I will admit that this grosses me out. It shouldn’t, but it does. Musicians rip each other off all the time. It’s the great circle of life. “Fireflies” didn’t hurt the Postal Service; they were still able to reunite and tour huge venues a few years later, and they’re doing it again this fall. I think my issue is more like: I like the Postal Service, but the overwhelming wimpiness of “Fireflies” makes me wonder if I actually hate them. Maybe that’s my issue, but I’m taking it out on “Fireflies” anyway.
Funny thing: 2009 was a banner year — maybe the banner year — for the loose agglomeration of sounds that came to be known as “indie rock.” Last week, my Twitter feed was full of music critics giving mostly-snarky answers to somebody’s question of what happened that year — how those peak albums from Animal Collective and Grizzly Bear and Dirty Projectors all dropped within the same 12-month window. I was working at Pitchfork at the time, and it definitely seemed like the bands we’d been covering were taking over the planet. But none of those bands did jack shit on the Hot 100, unless you could Phoenix pushing “1901” to #84. So we won’t talk about any of those bands in this column. Instead, we’re sitting here and talking about motherfucking “Firefles.” That’s as close as we’re going to come. It’s annoying!
“Fireflies” was the first single from Owl City’s Ocean Eyes album, and Republic put some marketing muscle into the track. Back then, iTunes would put a free single up for download every week, and “Fireflies” was one of those; it got a big enough response that Republic moved up the album’s release date. Adam Young also made a “Fireflies” video where he played the song on an organ — something that he did not use when recording the track — while the ’80s-vintage toys scattered around his fake bedroom all come to life in a way that’s presumably supposed to be adorable. The video does not convince me to like the song. It just makes the whole thing feel even more infantile.
“Fireflies” picked up steam over a few months. It got play on different radio formats: rock, adult contemporary, eventually pop. The Christian-music world loved it. Young became a bit of a heartthrob for a certain type of sensitive teenage fan. In September 2009, my old boss Rob Harvilla went to see Owl City play New York’s Bowery Ballroom, and he was bewildered by the fired-up response that Young and his touring band got from the very young crowd. One of the young fans at that show was the already-famous Taylor Swift. A few months later, Taylor and Owl City were playing the same pop-radio Jingle Ball shows together.
She’s never confirmed this, but it certainly seems that Taylor Swift had a real bad crush on Adam Young and that she wrote her 2010 song “Enchanted” about him. Swift has only gone on record saying that she wrote “Enchanted,” a great song, after meeting some guy in New York. But in her Speak Now lyric sheet, she capitalized the letters A-D-A-M — the not-so-secret code that she always used in her liner notes. Adam Young apparently had no idea before he saw that lyric sheet. (“Enchanted” never became a single, even though it’s the only Speak Now song that Swift is currently playing on the Eras Tour. It still peaked at #75. Taylor Swift will be in this column a bunch of times.)
I hope all of us will take a valuable lesson from the saga of Adam Young and Taylor Swift. It’s just an all-time spectacular bag-fumble. Taylor Swift was enchanted to meet him! And he didn’t do shit! Months later, when he figured out what was going on, Young posted a Valentine’s Day message for Taylor on the Owl City website: “You are a true princess from a dreamy fairy tale, and above all, I just want you to know I was enchanted to meet you too.” Barf. Young also posted a cover of “Enchanted,” and he changed the lyrics to reflect his situation: “Taylor, I was so in love with you.” Again: barf. It’s important to note that the Owl City version of “Enchanted” really fucking sucks. Dammit. I’m getting mad again.
Ideally, Adam Young would’ve realized, in the crucial moment when it was happening, that Taylor Swift was feeling him. He didn’t. It happens. Been there. After he let that moment pass, though, Adam Young had options. He had Taylor’s email, you know? Or he could’ve had his manager contact her manager and set up a date or something. I don’t know how these famous people conduct their business, but I do know that this fucking guy didn’t have to write a wet-eyed public “please date me” letter or sing about being in love with her on her own song. Goodness gracious. Let’s all take careful note of what happened here, and let’s do our very best to never be Adam Young. When an unexpected opportunity appears in your life, you need to recognize it, and you need to take full advantage. If you fuck up and let it pass you by, you should at least be an adult about it. In any case, Adam Young never heard back from Taylor Swift.
By the time Owl City dropped his “Enchanted” cover, Taylor Swift had already moved past John Mayer and Jake Gyllenhaal, and she’d already written amazing, devastating songs about both of them. So Adam Young never had a chance. Thank fuck. If Taylor had ended up with Owl City guy, who knows where she’d be? I can’t imagine that they would’ve lived happily ever after, but I also can’t imagine Adam Young supplying too much of the high drama that powers the best Taylor Swift songs. We really dodged a bullet there.
Anyway. Back to Owl City. Adam Young’s big “Fireflies” follow-up was the stupidly-titled “Vanilla Twilight,” which peaked at #72. If that’s the best you can do in the immediate aftermath of your chart-topping debut single, you’re in trouble. Ocean Eyes went platinum in 2010, and it finally went double platinum earlier this year, presumably thanks to the fact that some nostalgic souls are evidently still streaming “Fireflies.” The next Owl City album, 2011’s All Things Bright And Beautiful, clanged hard, and none of its singles made the Hot 100. Against odds, though, Adam Young saved himself from one-hit wonder status. It just took a while.
In 2012, Owl City teamed up with Carly Rae Jepsen, an artist who will eventually appear in this column, for the dumber-than-dirt dance-pop duet “Good Time,” and that song went all the way to #8. (It’s a 3.) That song saved both artists from one-hit wonder status; I’m infuriated to report that it’s one of only two top-10 hits in Carly Rae Jepsen’s career. Owl City hasn’t been back on the Hot 100 since.
Adam Young seems to be doing fine for himself. I don’t understand “Fireflies” nostalgia, but it’s a real thing, and the song continues to linger, going viral for some dumb reason every few years. Earlier this year, “Fireflies” was certified diamond, and I have to imagine that Young will be living off its royalties for the rest of his life. He’s also written a whole lot of songs for animated movies. In 2010, Young naturally popped up on the soundtrack to Zack Snyder’s Legend Of The Guardians: The Owls Of Ga’Hoole. I’m not even mad about that one. It’s a gimme. It’s 2010, and you’re making a whole feature-length cartoon about owl societies? You need Owl City on your soundtrack. I get it.
Given that Owl City basically makes children’s music, it’s not exactly a surprise that he kept that sideline going, popping up on the soundtracks of The Croods and The Smurfs 2. I once had vaguely warm feelings about “When Will I See You Again?,” Owl City’s end-credits song for Wreck-It Ralph. Upon reflection, though, those warm feelings had a context: I’d only ever heard that song immediately after watching Wreck-It Ralph, which rules, with my kids. When I haven’t just watched Wreck-It Ralph, I have no use for “When Will I See You Again?”
Owl City just kept cranking out records after people stopped paying attention. In 2015, Owl City touring musician Daniel Jorgensen was arrested for trying to lure a 14-year-old girl onto the band’s tour bus and into a hotel room for sex; he eventually pleaded guilty to lewdness with a child. I don’t think we can blame Adam Young for that. In 2015, my Stereogum colleague Chris DeVille wrote that Owl City’s album Mobile Orchestra “contains the worst music he’s ever made. It might be the worst music anyone has ever made.” Chris is a kind critic and a forgiving person. Late-period Owl City turned him into berserker-rage Wolverine.
Earlier this year, Owl City released a new album called Coco Moon. These titles, man. These fucking titles. I will never hear that record. Adam Young and his band are touring clubs this fall. They won’t go away. God willing, though, Owl City will never appear in this column again.