THEODICY IS THE branch of theology that attempts to offer up rationalizations for the Problem of Evil—that is, how a supposedly omnipotent, benevolent God could allow really, really bad shit to happen. There's the idea that evil is a necessary result of free will, or that we perceive evil merely due to imperfect knowledge of God's perfect plan, or that suffering tests us and that judgment will be meted out in an afterlife. Saint Augustine of Hippo, around the turn of the fifth century, proposed that natural disasters were caused by fallen angels and man's evil by original sin. Earlier still, Saint Irenaeus basically suggested that suffering builds good character (he was like the dad from The Wonder Years of his day). Safe to say neither of these guys ever had to listen to Owl City.
Nor did they have to account for a world in which an abomination like the Owl City song "Fireflies" could go to number one on the Billboard charts. For the uninitiated: Owl City is the drippy, egregiously derivative synth-pop project of one Adam Young—picture the Postal Service if that act had been founded not as a side project for Death Cab for Cutie's songwriter during a creative peak but instead by a preening, proselytizing prat from small-town Minnesota.
Young began recording music in his parents' basement in 2007, releasing an EP of songs online. In early 2008, he was scouted and then signed by Universal Republic Records, which opted not to announce the signing so as to maintain Young's image of independence but began working out a marketing campaign. Owl City's debut full-length, Maybe I'm Dreaming, was released independently in March of 2008, then officially rereleased by Universal in December of that year. In July of 2009, Universal released Owl City's second full-length, Ocean Eyes, via iTunes; a physical release followed in September. The next month, the now double-platinum-certified "Fireflies" went to number one on the Billboard singles chart, while Ocean Eyes reached number eight on the albums chart.
Then there's "Hello Seattle," which originally appeared on 2007's Of June EP, and which inexplicably became an early online hit for Owl City. In the song, Young, who has said he'd never been to Seattle at the time he wrote it, showers the city with yet more terribly mixed non sequitur metaphors ("Hello Seattle/I am a mountaineer/In the hills and highlands/I fall asleep in hospital parking lots/And awake in your mouth")—not to mention nonnative species ("I am a manta ray... I'll crawl the sandy bottom of Puget Sound/And construct a summer home").
At this point, let's just skip ahead to "Fireflies" and be done with this album. There's more ringtone beeps and bloops, some chimes, a rounded bass synth line, a piano, some strings, all building up to a bombastic super-compressed chorus over which Young sighs out yet more naggingly catchy, glossy nonsense—worst of all the line "I'd get 1,000 hugs/From 10,000 lightning bugs/As they tried to teach me how to dance." Whether that's a multiplied total of 10 million hugs (1,000 hugs from 10,000 bugs each) or if 9,000 bugs just miss out on the cuddling action isn't exactly clear. Either way, it's a lesser song than the Magnetic Fields' "100,000 Fireflies" by an order of magnitude.
All of this is odious enough on its own, but then there's the matter of Owl City being a wholly artless rip-off of the Postal Service, from the frippy electronics to Young's damn near impersonation of Ben Gibbard's voice. Young is often evasive in interviews, alternating between vague platitudes and precise nonsense, but he's repeatedly denied drawing any influence from the Postal Service. In a September 2009 interview with the Onion's A.V. Club, he said he'd "never heard of the Postal Service"; a month later, he told Entertainment Weekly that he'd heard them "a little bit" and that "they are pretty similar," but that he was always really more of a Death Cab fan. Death Cab musician/producer Chris Walla put it rather more bluntly on his Twitter: "Owl City should really consider buying Ben [Gibbard] a pony." (He might want to sacrifice a goat to Savage Garden while he's at it.)
Still, he's all too happy to take the comparison, telling the New York Times, "[The Postal Service] 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."
So who's buying this crap? It's impossible to know exactly, but if my recollections from Christian summer camp are any indication, kids in cloistered religious communities are desperately eager for anything that looks and sounds like secular youth culture yet still makes it through parental approval. Then again, no one ever really went broke in America by catering to plain old bad taste, secular or otherwise. God help us.