Yesterday I posted an article that compared Veronica Mars, The Postal Service’s Give Up and Kenna’s New Sacred Cow in a discussion of how our perceptions don’t always match reality. The article was fun to write and was based on an idea that I had had a few years ago but never finished, that original draft having been lost to the sands of time (read: misplaced in my digital archives). And then yesterday, not an hour after “As They Appear to Be” went live, I found that original draft. Since this site is, among other things, an investigation of one writers’ process and problems, I thought it would be interesting to post this version of the article as well. The premise is the same but the particulars and presentation are significantly different. Whether or not those differences are interesting to anyone but me remains unclear but, well, here it is all the same.
To a huge swath of listeners, The Postal Service’s Give Up is one of the most iconic albums of its era. It was famously recorded in isolation, the band’s members—Ben Gibbard and Jimmy Tamborello—laying down new tracks on their own and then mailing them to one another (hence the band’s name). Give Up has also assumed an image of quirkiness, helped along by its “made by nerds playing songs alone in their basement” vibe. It was an album very explicitly for the kids who didn’t play sports, who wrote poetry and had thick glasses. It was for the uncool, the niche, the weird and the marginalized.
In theory, at least.
Kenna’s debut album, New Sacred Cow, was released on Columbia records and featured production and songwriting by Pharrell’s longtime collaborator, Chad Hugo. It was meant to be huge and mainstream. Only it wasn’t. Not really. Its melodies were soaring and catchy, its rhythms layered and complex. The album’s lyrics were poetic and thick with the type of grammar rarely heard on top 40 radio. New Sacred Cow was pop album, surely, but it was dense. It was a thinking man’s pop record.
It was also, in light of its grand expectations, a huge flop.
A decade after it aired, my wife and I finally got around to watching Veronica Mars. (Very timely of us, I know.) In one episode during the show’s first season—a season which debuted only a year after Give Up was released—The Postal Service’s song “Such Great Heights” is not only featured but acts as a conversational touchstone between the titular Veronica and her preppy boyfriend. The message that we viewers are meant to take away from the exchange is that Veronica, as evidenced by her love of The Postal Service, is quirky and unique. She’s an outsider, a misfit, different from the prep in a satisfyingly exclusive way.
Veronica Mars aired on network television and averaged 2.5 million viewers per episode in its first season.
New Sacred Cow was released in the summer of 2003, a few short months after The Postal Service released Give Up. Two of Kenna’s singles from New Sacred Cow had sporadic airplay on MTV2. They never gained any real traction. The album that so many in the music industry seemed to think would be the next big thing in pop was a financial flop. The inability of New Sacred Cow to catch on with a large audience was so perplexing that Malcolm Gladwell would eventually write a chapter in his book Blink about Kenna’s failure to find popularity despite his considerable talent.
It also arrived too soon. New Sacred Cow was released half a decade before the ascendancy of poptimism, before a thoughtful albeit image-conscious listener could delve deeply into a pop album without shame. At the time of its release, passionate music fans were still buried in indie, thinking we were misfits. New Sacred Cow looked like something that should have had broad appeal, the kind of thing serious music aficionados would ignore. It was never going to please screamo fans and it was too well-produced for the quirky indie kids. It wasn’t afraid of its hooks or its joyous, poppy bombast. It felt like the kind of album that should have been wildly popular, even if it wasn’t. Kenna, therefore, was far too mainstream to appeal to the indie, scene crowd. But he ultimately didn’t appeal to the masses either. Some reports had New Sacred Cow selling only 2,000 copies at release.
If a song from New Sacred Cow had been featured on Veronica Mars, hardly any viewers would have recognized it. Even then, it’s hard to imagine the show’s producers ever considering using a Kenna song in the first place.
Image is such a fascinating aspect of music largely because it is both hugely important and equally misleading. Image is not about who we are but who we seem to be and it seems to me that the juxtaposition of New Sacred Cow and Give Up reflects that duality perfectly. The Postal Service—a band beloved by an entire, massive subset of the general music-listening population—continues to be seen as a chic, underground band in large part because of how Give Up was (independently) made. Meanwhile Kenna can really only be considered as a (failed) mainstream act that, rather than becoming beloved over the years, has been utterly forgotten. At what point is the past subsumed by the present? When can we finally admit that, while the rest of us were bonding over “Clark Gable”, Kenna was the true misfit all along?