“Young Folks” Turns 10
When Gossip Girl premiered on Sept. 19, 2007, it kicked off with a perky drumroll and some breezy whistling. By this point, those drums and that whistling had been overexposed to the point of cliché, having appeared in episodes of Grey’s Anatomy and How I Met Your Mother within the previous year, not to mention on the radio and at the store and in the bar. It may actually have become a part of the atmosphere for a while there. This was one of those singles that popped up everywhere, and by virtue of its ubiquity it became a theme song for a moment in time.
It should be noted that “Young Folks” was not the only hit on Peter Bjorn And John’s 2006 album Writer’s Block. It was not the only song from the project to appear in a commercial. It wasn’t even the best song, probably; from “Objects Of My Affection” to “Up Against The Wall” to “The Chills,” that album had some jams. “Amsterdam,” aka the other one with the whistling, also had some major legs in pop culture. Drake sampled “Let’s Call It Off” on his career-launching So Far Gone mixtape. But “Young Folks” was the one that carved itself into your cranium, the one that put an involuntary skip in your step. Even if you found it obnoxious, which many did, its infectious power was undeniable.
“Young Folks” was officially released as a single in America on August 7, 2006 — 10 years ago this Sunday — but it started building momentum online several months before that and lingered in the cultural background for years afterward. On a pure musical level, it’s easy to see why: The whistling, which turned the “Asian riff” into airy melancholia, was the kind of genius that usually only happens by accident. (According to Wikipedia, it was only recorded as a placeholder.) The beat, as I’m sure Taylor Swift would agree, is sick. The interplay between Peter Morén and the Concretes’ Victoria Bergsman was fetching — a coy flirtation teasing at the promise of unconditional love — and on the chorus they lifted their voices skyward with a gorgeous simplicity.
Beyond its smart construction, “Young Folks” struck a chord because its prim-and-proper aesthetic was perfectly in keeping with the cultural currents of the time. Exactly three years ago, on the 10th anniversary of The O.C.‘s premiere, I wrote about the gentrification that swept through indie rock in Seth Cohen’s wake, the way a music scene that had once reveled in ugliness and aggression and DIY ethics smoothed over its rough edges and morphed into a lifestyle product. The overhaul was remarkably similar to what happens when a run-down neighborhood experiences a creative renaissance: Buzz starts to build, wealthy outsiders see a chance to profit off of urban cool, and the resulting wave of development leaves behind a dozen identical overpriced boutiques and craft breweries and locally sourced artisanal bistros where a community with unique charm used to be.
I say this as someone who likes “Young Folks” and loves Writer’s Block, but that shit is Whole Foods indie if I ever heard it. You can lump it right in with (500) Days Of Summer and beard oil and the rise of the hipster as a cultural trope stretched so thin as to become almost meaningless. If nothing else, “Young Folks” certainly presaged Foster The People, the Lumineers, and other toothless trend-humpers marketed as cutting-edge fare to people who don’t know any better. And I think that association has tainted the song’s legacy to an unfair extent. It’s not Peter Bjorn And John’s fault their song became an avatar for indie rock’s move toward the craven, artificial, and perilously lame; they were just trying to make a killer pop record. And they succeeded.