Show business is full of interesting and often cruel ironies. Take, for instance, the number of incredibly well-respected actors (Orson Welles, Raul Julia, Philip Seymour Hoffman) who died soon after filming parts in not-so-respectable kids’ movies (the 1986 animated Transformers: The Movie, Street Fighter, and the final installments of the Hunger Games series, respectively), ending critically lauded careers with the equivalent of a sad trombone.
Or how about pop acts that have some of the biggest successes of their careers with songs written as a joke? The Turtles did it in 1968 with “Elenore,” a parody of their own smash “Happy Together” they wrote as a clever “fuck you” to their label, which gleefully turned it into their second-biggest hit. Or Tegan and Sara, who after nearly two decades of hard work and sensitive, deeply heartfelt songwriting have this week reached their highest yet position on the American pop charts with a purposely irritating satire of overproduced chart pop written for a children’s movie and featuring a guest appearance by the biggest comedy-rap act of our time.
I haven’t seen The Lego Movie yet but my wife has, and she tells me that in the film’s critique of conformist culture, Tegan and Sara’s Autotuned, mastered-to-death, Lonely Island-featuring “Everything Is Awesome!!!” is both a stand-in for vapid pop music and the main propaganda tool used by the powers that be to keep the masses compliant. In the real world it just popped up at number 62 on the Hot 100.
The last (and, until now, only) time Tegan and Sara appeared on the chart was back in the fall when their single “Closer” made it all the way to number 90. “Closer” and the album, Heartthrob, that it was taken from, were big, ostentatiously catchy works that were explicitly intended to finally convert the twins’ massive cult popularity (mostly among Canadians, lesbians, and emo kids) into even more massive mainstream success.
“Closer” is a hugely hooky piece of electronically enhanced bubblegum that like most T&S material offers a complicated, if not outright conflicted, take on the pop-song romantic ideal. But even with the backing of some big-time fans it never reached the momentum it needed to achieve its well-deserved goal.
“Everything Is Awesome!!!” is like a twisted, somewhat nightmarish mutation of Tegan and Sara’s Heartthrob-era material, with the electro-pop production of “Closer” transformed into oppressively bouncy noise, its insistent catchiness replaced by a lethally effective hook whose refusal to leave your brain has a vaguely imperialist flavor, and whose moments of piercing joy have been turned into dead-eyed, unquestioning positivity. Kids apparently love it: the single managed to appear out of nowhere nearly halfway up the Hot 100 without an official rollout, and that only happens when songs go viral on sites like YouTube.
This development is bittersweet for Tegan and Sara fans, of which I am one. On one hand, after watching them work so hard to break into the pop world while maintaining a relatively high artistic and ethical standard, it’s a little brutal to see them find their biggest success yet with a joke song. But like Tegan said in a Rolling Stone interview, “I love the idea of like, an eight-year-old going to the movie and some of those kids ending up liking Tegan and Sara.”