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The Secret To Mac DeMarco’s Baffling Success

Admit it: You didn’t expect Mac DeMarco to stick around this long. That’s not a thinly veiled reference to the accidental indie scion’s smoke-‘em-while-you-got-‘em tendencies, representative of a nicotine habit so persistent that one of his earliest buzzmaking songs was a literal love letter to sucking down a particular brand of smoke sticks. Throughout this decade, the Canadian chill-rock guru has maintained a staying power far past what his scrappy, hissy early work as Makeout Videotape suggested.

As one of indie’s biggest crossover acts of the 2010s, DeMarco’s appeal is both generational and obvious in a way that even his strongest detractors can recognize. He is a mascot-like representation of indie’s transformation from left-of-center sonics to unabashed lifestyle music, exuding a viral-friendly silliness and public-facing approachability that’s often betrayed the emotional maturity of his music.

Earlier this week, The Ringer’s Rob Harvilla made a well-argued assertion that Vampire Weekend were perhaps the last indie band to truly break big and survive the buzz that accompanied their initial arrival 11 years ago, making the jump from big-deal indie to big-deal major without sacrificing one iota of their charm. DeMarco’s not quite there yet, and it’s unclear if he will ever be, but he’s one of the few indie artists from the 2010s who have showed similar and surprising staying power. His debut release under his own name, the warped and tricky Rock And Roll Night Club EP (which featured refurbished tracks from his Makeout Videotape days), was understandably overlooked upon release in 2012; 2 from the same year may as well be considered his true debut at this point, the record that put DeMarco on the map as a baseball-capped vibe-prankster for the Odd Future set.

Part of being a music critic is possessing (or attempting to, anyway) a level of cultural prognostication — a Nostradamus-like ability to predict the next big thing in both mainstream and underground corners of music. If you’re a music writer who has survived the entirety of the 2010s, you’ve either spent time rifling through promos, SoundCloud links, and (increasingly) TikTok videos to figure out what people might respond to next, or you’ve safely retreated to jazz-listener status (not judging).

By this measure, the success of 2 took me by surprise, as I’m sure it did many other critics. The album elevated DeMarco’s profile almost immediately, no doubt due to a Best New Music designation from Pitchfork, one of the last times the publication awarded the honorific to an out-of-nowhere indie-rock artist and subsequently bore a level of responsibility for their success. (Disclaimer: I worked at Pitchfork during the time that 2 was released. I was still surprised at the album getting BNM at the time. Make of that what you will.)

A quick glance at 2’s Canadian indie bedfellows in 2012 — the anthemic emo of Vancouver denizens Japandroids, Toronto outfit Metz’s party-hardy noise rock, the emergence of shock-pop wizard Claire Boucher’s Grimes project — suggests a certain contextlessness surrounding DeMarco’s slack, honeyed guitar-pop, owing equally to Paul McCartney’s ramshackle early solo work and the no-shirt-no-problem sonic sunburn often evoked by Sublime (a stealthy influence on 2010s popular music that’s only continuing to bear unfortunate fruit).

But the musical groundwork for 2 also lay in a micro-movement from a few years prior. Until recently, DeMarco called Brooklyn label Captured Tracks home, but despite his own music bearing a slight resemblance to the variants of indie-pop typically released on the imprint, the slackness of 2 was closer to the jammy rock favored by New York label Woodsist and the chillwave-adjacent suburban dreams of former Woodsist signees Real Estate. Even the most accessible Woodsist-esque indie rock was marginally popular at the time and eventually relegated to one of several short-term fascinations the indie sphere once held before “indie” itself took on an explicitly marketing-focused meaning later in the decade. The music was sonically sturdy and frequently enjoyable but bereft of humor and personality, qualities DeMarco did not lack.

Throughout the 2010s, a variety of factors — the widespread embrace of the 24-hour music news cycle by traffic-hungry publications, a generational emphasis on celebrity and personality enhanced by social media, and the perpetual de-emphasizing of guitars in indie at large — made for the unfortunate truth that simply making enjoyable music wasn’t enough to sustain a level of public visibility (or justify coverage, for that matter) in the indie sphere. Artists now must grab the media’s attention with goofy hijinx, and few have done it better than DeMarco.

It’s not unthinkable that 2 and its subsequent follow-ups may have quickly fallen by the wayside if it weren’t for antics like covering Weezer and Limp Bizkit, philosophizing on the shitter for a two million views-and-counting Pitchfork documentary, flashing his testicles in other bands’ music videos, inviting fans to come over his house, and reviewing Star Wars: The Force Awakens for this very site. Even for such a prolific artist (six substantial releases in seven years’ time), DeMarco’s proven most adept at making his presence in indie constantly felt.

Maybe too adept: When DeMarco announced his new album Here Comes The Cowboy earlier this year, similarities between the project’s title and Mitski’s Be The Cowboy from last year were immediately observed by the latter’s aggressive fanbase (which counts more than a few critics in its realm). The fact that his lead single was also called “Nobody” (a title also belonging to a standout Be The Cowboy single) was enough to send corners of music Twitter into a full defensive fervor, mistakenly taking up a cause on behalf of Mitski despite the perpetually ascending indie scion never asking them to. (Her subsequent response was a cautionary tale for fans and critics alike not to overstep the ever-blurring boundary lines dividing fandom and antagonism, and the lesson was surely lost on all of them.)

“It hurt yesterday to see people say, ‘Mac is trying to minimize a woman,'” DeMarco told Huck last month while referencing the furor. Bizarrely, his comments followed writer Eve Barlow pressing him for allegedly making rape jokes during a 2013 UK gig — a frustrating and responsibility-avoidant response that nonetheless gestures towards a greater truth surrounding his cult of personality.

“Passing out pieces of me/ Don’t you know nothing comes free?” he sang on “Passing Out Pieces,” a cut from 2014’s Salad Days that doubled as an early signal of self-awareness regarding his goofy, game-for-whatever persona. Every album of DeMarco’s since 2 has revealed an emotional maturity behind his music, a fratty fumbling towards wisdom that’s hiding in plain sight if you’ve known well enough where to find it. “A Wolf Who Wears Sheeps Clothes,” a simple and jangly cut from 2017’s spacious and personal This Old Dog, almost feels like he’s singing to himself as he exhales, “Just trying to keep it light sometimes casts a shadow/ Trouble is keeping quiet, and you know well where your heart goes.”

If the Mitski dust-up was the first sign that the indie sphere might be getting tired of DeMarco’s shtick, Here Comes The Cowboy suggests that he’s getting sick of himself, too. The album is intimate and simple even by DeMarco’s roughshod standards, recorded in his Los Angeles garage over just a few weeks earlier this year. The vocals are naked and unadorned, the production dry as a bone. The resulting product is so effortless-sounding that parts of it really do sound like he picked up a guitar and hit record without thinking much of it.

It’s far from his best; excluding Rock And Roll Night Club, you could argue it’s his least melodically impactful. But Here Comes The Cowboy is also the kind of album an artist makes when they’ve reached a level of audience familiarity in which they can withstand a left-turn or two while still retaining a merch-hungry live turnout. But just as DeMarco’s ruminations on family and aging on This Old Dog were thoughtful and affecting, there’s the occasional revealing jewel tucked away here, uncovering his own self-reflective insecurities. “Cash it in/ For the creature on television,” he opines over the arid strums and wavering tone of “Nobody”; on “Preoccupied,” he returns to the thematic territory of “Passing Out Pieces” to reflect on “passing around your blood and your body” before concluding, “Nobody seems to see the outside of it.”

There’s something distinctly generational about the sad-clown dichotomy that exists between his music and nearly everything else he does — reflective, perhaps, of the public-facing masks we often wear on various social media platforms, covering up the daily insecurities and existential quagmires constantly reverberating around our fragile skulls. “I don’t know if it was even a character,” he admitted to Huck after discussing his “savage [alcoholism]” that’s fueled the party-hardy image driving much of his success.

It’s a personal admission that pairs well with Here Comes The Cowboy’s visual accompaniments thus far. There’s the “Nobody” clip, which features a lizard-ified DeMarco in a cowboy hat with a fresh smoke hanging from his scaly lips, and the equally surreal video for “On The Square,” in which a masked man peers into an all-white void populated by similarly obscured grotesqueries while a gloved audience member dutifully applauds him on. “Live a life that isn’t there,” DeMarco croons in the background, tilting towards the essence of personality that’s doubtlessly contributed to his decade of indie-sphere domination: DeMarco’s goofball tendencies are just another way to get through another day while keeping his internal realities just far enough out of reach.

Here Comes The Cowboy is out 5/10 on Mac’s Record Label.