AJR’s Prolonged-Adolescence Pop

AJR’s Prolonged-Adolescence Pop

Take it from someone born in 1983: The oldest millennials are inching perilously close to 40. Full-fledged adulthood has been upon us for a while whether we like it or not — and for a good solid decade now, stats and anecdotes have indicated that many of us don’t like it at all. Perhaps you’ve heard about extended adolescence, the societal trend that finds young people pushing back the onset of grownup life until deep into their twenties and beyond? Psychology professor Laurence Steinberg summed it up like so in a 2014 New York Times op-ed:

One of the most notable demographic trends of the last two decades has been the delayed entry of young people into adulthood. According to a large-scale national study conducted since the late 1970s, it has taken longer for each successive generation to finish school, establish financial independence, marry and have children. Today’s 25-year-olds, compared with their parents’ generation at the same age, are twice as likely to still be students, only half as likely to be married and 50 percent more likely to be receiving financial assistance from their parents.

Steinberg observes that people tend to respond in one of two ways to this trend: either by offering up justification for prolonged adolescence (usually by citing factors such as anxiety about negative economic and career prospects) or by castigating millennials and their coddling parents. One example of the latter comes in the form of a New York Post headline reading, “Millennials need to put away the juice boxes and grow up,” penned in response to an Atlantic article that dubbed Twenty One Pilots’ “Stressed Out” “an anthem of millennial anxiety.”

“Stressed Out” and its video are the most obvious pop-music shorthand for prolonged adolescence. The song, which peaked at #2 in 2016, is all about longing for carefree youth in the face of life’s pressures. “Wish we could turn back time, to the good old days,” goes the chorus. “When our mama sang us to sleep but now we’re stressed out.” Tyler Joseph later raps, “We used to play pretend, give each other different names/ We would build a rocket ship and then we’d fly it far away/ Used to dream of outer space but now they’re laughing at our face/ Saying, ‘Wake up, you need to make money!'” In the video, Joseph and drummer Josh Dun ride oversized big wheels and sip juice boxes.

Although Bleachers’ Jack Antonoff gave Twenty One Pilots a run for their money by taking his childhood bedroom on tour with him, no one has gunned for their status as emblems of extended adolescence like AJR. The trio comprising brothers Adam, Jack, and Ryan Metzger has been at it for more than a decade, first busking in their native New York and then recording in their apartment. They were actual children when they started, and nowadays they sing about holding on to that childhood as long as they can.

AJR have been a fixture on pop and alt-rock radio this year with their highest-charting hit to date, the #26-peaking “Bang!” The song is big and brassy, with a trap-influenced digital undercurrent that laces the sardonic celebratory vibe with a sense of apocalyptic doom. Think Imagine Dragons, but replace the burly lead singer with somebody a bit more nasal and theatrical, like, well, Twenty One Pilots’ Tyler Joseph. The sound may be as polarizing as prolonged adolescence itself: way too catchy and well-executed to write off completely, but also sure to be dismissed as obnoxious by some large percentage of listeners due to its combination of abrasive in-your-face dynamics and smoothed-out radio-friendly compression.

“I’m way too young to lie here forever/ I’m way too old to try, so whatever,” Jack Metzger sings on the “Bang!” chorus. “Come hang/ Let’s go out with a bang.” In a statement accompanying the track, AJR explained that it’s about “the weird middle ground between being a kid and becoming an adult; a time when we’re doing all the things adults are supposed to do, but we don’t yet feel grown up.” The group has been exploring this subject at length lately; their 2019 album Neotheater is essentially a collection of anthems about fear of growing up.

“I’m kinda scared to drop this album, let’s push it back another week,” Jack sings on opening track “Next Up Forever” over a symphonic backdrop powered by booming arena-rock drums. He goes on to wish he could go back to being a virgin and stay in school indefinitely to stave off an identity crisis. “I know I gotta grow up sometime,” he concludes. “But I’m not fucking ready yet.” Later, on “Don’t Throw Out My Legos” (no, seriously), he tells his parents, “I wanna move out, I don’t wanna move on.” On early single “Birthday Party,” he sings from the perspective of a newborn baby naively presuming his life will be a cinch, sounding like he desperately wants it to be true.

If you are predisposed to agree with the New York Post columnist who freaked out about “Stressed Out,” this stuff is probably insufferable to you. Others may be put off by the entitlement behind lines like “I’ve been so good, where the hell is the karma?” or musical backdrops that seemed designed to for placement in trailers and other advertisements. You might scoff at “Beats,” on which they openly campaign for a Beats By Dre sponsorship, as a bad joke. You might identify “The Entertainment’s Here,” which could almost pass for a Lonely Island parody of white-guy rap music, as an accidental joke AJR are the butt of.

These responses are reasonable, but for me, AJR are too talented to reject completely. The production on Neotheater is consistently fascinating, threading fascinating samples through huge mechanistic pop-rock production with pizzazz. Jack has the charisma of a neurotic half-hour dramedy lead, and he sends those wistful sentiments via theatrical hooks. AJR surprised me with an interpolation of David Lynch’s Eraserhead track “In Heaven.” I’m known as a sucker for sentimental tripe like “Dear Winter,” Ryan’s acoustic ballad to a child that hasn’t even been conceived yet: “I cannot wait to teach you how to curse/ But shit, I gotta meet your mom first.” And honestly, maybe it doesn’t speak well of me, but I understand the impulse to hold on to your Legos.

Neotheater strikes me as a natural descendant of Some Nights, the album where Antonoff’s old band Fun. blew out their sensitive emo-pop into digitally infused anthems with assistance from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy contributor Jeff Bhasker. Jack’s vocal performance and lyrical fixations are similar to Nate Ruess, his band has just soaked up more influence from hip-hop and less from Queen. I liked Some Nights despite some of its more embarrassingly earnest moments, and I feel a similar tentative affection for Neotheater, even if AJR’s persona often grates on me. And it certainly does sometimes: In the video for the quarantine-themed “Bummerland,” the “Bang!” follow-up they released over the summer, the brothers wear matching costumes, pose for wacky setups, and generally ape the cutesy posture of YouTubers and TikTok stars. When I comprehend that this represents youth culture these days, suddenly adolescence feels quite easy to let go of.

CHART WATCH

Ariana Grande has her fifth #1 album and third in well under three years with Positions. It debuts with 174,000 equivalent album units and 42,000 in sales; notably, the sales figure was not bolstered by merchandise bundles. Billboard notes that Grande’s run of three chart-topping albums in two years and three months (also including 2018’s Sweetener and 2019’s thank u, next) is the fastest such accumulation by a woman since Miley Cyrus did it from 2007 to 2009. The last male artist to do it was YoungBoy Never Broke Again, who recently scored three #1s in less than a year.

Debuting at #2, with his fifth top-5 album in just over two years, is Trippie Redd. Pegasus starts out with 60,000 units and 4,000 in sales. After Pop Smoke at #3 and Luke Combs at #4 comes a #5 debut for Sam Smith’s Love Goes with 41,000 units and 18,000 in sales. Juice WRLD is at #6, followed by a #7 debut for Busta Rhymes’ ELE 2: The Wrath Of God. With 38,000 units and 17,000 in sales, it becomes Busta’s first top-10 album in over a decade, since 2009’s Back On My B.S. Lil Baby is in at #8, then comes a #9 debut for Queen Naija’s first album Missunderstood (34,000 units/9,000 sales). The Hamilton original cast recording rounds out the top 10.

There’s similarly a lot of action over the Hot 100 singles chart. 24kGoldn and Iann Dior’s “Mood” is back to #1, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it stay there for a while thanks to a new remix that tacks on guest spots from Justin Bieber and J Balvin. That bumps Grande’s “Positions” down to #2, followed by Drake and Lil Durk’s “Laugh Now, Cry Later” at #3. The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” is at #4, spending a record-extending 32nd week in the top 5. This is also its 38th week in the top 10, one week shy of Post Malone’s record with “Circles.”

Gabby Barrett and Charlie Puth’s “I Hope” climbs to #5, completing what Billboard calls the longest rise to the top 5 in chart history. The track took 45 weeks on the Hot 100 to reach the region, surpassing Imagine Dragons’ 42-week climb with “Radioactive.” Jawsh 685 and Jason Derulo’s “Savage Love (Laxed – Siren Beat)” is in at #6, followed by Internet Money, Gunna, Don Toliver, and Nav’s “Lemonade” at a new #7 peak.

Other than the title track, the highest-charting single from Grande’s Positions is “34+35,” which enters at #8. Climbing to a new #9 peak is Bad Bunny and Jhay Cortez’s “Dakiti,” which becomes the former’s third top-10 hit and the latter’s first. It follows Bad Bunny and Drake’s “MIA” as the second all-Spanish track to hit the top 10. Closing out the top 10 is Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP.”

POP FIVE

Miley Cyrus – “Edge of Midnight (Midnight Sky Remix)” (Feat. Stevie Nicks)
I’m officially sold on Miley Cyrus, rock star.

ZHU – “I Admit It” (Feat. 24kGoldn)
Now that “Mood” rules the world, get ready to hear 24kGoldn on a lot of songs across the genre spectrum. This one is, sadly, not that big of a mood.

Benee – “Happen To Me”
More pop songs that sound like Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes,” please!

Finneas – “Where The Poison Is”
Donald Trump should disappear from the public eye and Finneas should disappear back behind the producer’s console.

Anne-Marie – “Think Of Christmas”
You didn’t think you were getting out of this column without another new Christmas song, did you?

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Taylor Swift has a closet of cardigans in a new Capital One commercial. [YouTube]
  • Justin Bieber will perform at the E! People’s Choice Awards, hosted by Demi Lovato, on 11/15. [E!]
  • The Weeknd appears on a new remix of Maluma’s global hit “Hawái.” [YouTube]
  • Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello got a puppy. [Instagram]
  • Kali Uchis has announced the Spanish language LP Sin Miedo (del Amor y Otros Demonios), out 11/18. [Twitter]
  • Guccifest, an online fashion and film festival 11/16-11/22, will feature appearances from Billie Eilish and Harry Styles in a film directed by Michele and Gun Van Sant starring Silvia Calderoni. [Instagram]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME

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