As They Appear to Be: Veronica Mars, The Postal Service and Kenna

Veronica Mars is an outsider, someone who doesn’t fit in, someone who doesn’t belong. We know this because the narration to Veronica Mars—narration spoken by Veronica herself—tells us so. We know this because, when the series begins, Veronica is repeatedly shown to be clique-less. We know this because, driving down the Pacific coast in a convertible, Veronica listens to—and openly praises—the song “Such Great Heights” by The Postal Service, an indie song from an indie record that was recorded as a side project by a couple of indie musicians; a song that appears to be the definition of outsiderdom.

But not all things are as they appear to be.

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For example, this might not seem like the type of person to carry a concealed weapon and yet…

Backed by corporate behemoth Columbia Records, mononymous musician Kenna was the next big thing. His debut record, New Sacred Cow, was filled with electric pop songs, an inventive mixture of programming and live instrumentation that resulted in bold, bright hooks. The album’s packaging, a stark white cover featuring a stylized cartoon of the titular beast as well as Kenna’s logo all set against a blood red jewel case, was sparse but iconic, broadly appealing and instantly memorable. Record executives and industry types from Fred Durst to Paul McGuinness, the longtime manager of U2, heard New Sacred Cow and all came to the same conclusion: Kenna was a generational talent and, with New Sacred Cow, he was going to change the face of music.

But not all things are as they appear to be.

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Like how this looks like a vinyl sleeve but is really just a CD booklet.

The commercial failure of New Sacred Cow was so monumental that Malcolm Gladwell dedicated a full chapter of his book Blink to discussing it. Kenna was beloved by industry figureheads because his brand of programmed pop seemed like a sure thing, the next big thing. But that’s not what Kenna and New Sacred Cow were. At scale, audiences didn’t find themselves in Kenna’s work because his hooks tend toward intricate and interesting rather than simple and catchy while his lyrics tend toward esoteric and poetic rather than straightforward and relatable. “Freetime”, the most conventionally successful single from New Sacred Cow, only reached #19 on the Billboard’s niche Hot Dance Club Play chart. If you Google the words “kenna new sacred cow”, 111 thousand hits are returned. That may seem like a lot but, well, not all things are as they appear to be.

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Your annoyance with me repeating that phrase is probably as genuine as it appears to be, though.

Ben Gibbard and Jimmy Tamborello were the type of marginally successful musicians who probably didn’t get recognized at the grocery store. In a fittingly hipster origin story, they wrote and recorded an album, Give Up, in the pre-cloud-sharing world by physically mailing audio tracks back and forth, naming their collaboration The Postal Service in tribute to the organization that unwittingly facilitated their work. Give Up would go on to be certified platinum—meaning it sold over one million copies—with the record selling more units than any Sub Pop Records release since Nirvana’s Bleach. Songs from Give Up appeared in movies, TV shows and advertisements; a deluxe edition vinyl was released to celebrate the 10th anniversary of its release. If you Google the words “postal service give up”, you’ll be rewarded with 179 million hits. (That’s 1,600 times more hits than Kenna generated.)

When Veronica Mars is listening to “Such Great Heights” in that convertible, she’s sitting next to her new boyfriend. The scene shows us that Veronica is cool; she likes good indie bands rather than chart-topping schlock; she gets it. Her boyfriend is a puka-shell wearing filthy rich future frat bro but he gets it, too. “I dig this song,” he tells her; maybe he’s not what he appears to be, viewers are meant to think. But in order for the audience to understand the implications of that exchange, the song in question has to be recognizable to viewers. “Such Great Heights” was. It should be noted that the first season of Veronica Mars, in which this scene aired, averaged 2.5 million viewers per episode.

Give Up may have been recorded as a little indie record, but that’s not what the finished product was, though we continue to perceive it that way. In reality, it’s an incredibly accessible and commercially successful pop record. The album is filled with saccharine love songs and despondent breakup tracks and though it feels quirky because of how personal it is, in practice that closely personal focus makes the album universal. It may not have spawned Top 40 hits, but Give Up is not just for outsider indie kids; everyone and their brother loves it. In the same way, Veronica Mars was an outsider only in that she wasn’t fully enmeshed in one of the dominant cliques of her high school; throughout the show’s arc, she befriends seemingly everyone she meets, save those characters who are clearly framed as opponents. Veronica and Give Up seem like outsiders, like underdogs, but they’re not. New Sacred Cow, the next big thing that no one but critics and executives loved, was the true outsider all along. Because, and I promise this is the last time I’ll say it, not all things are as they appear to be.

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