Exploring the musical career of MGMT

Follow psychedelic pop group MGMT’s journey in the music industry

Maryam Khanum, Opinion Editor

 Most people recognize the band MGMT from three iconic singles: “Kids”, “Time to Pretend” and “Electric Feel”. While each of these songs were undoubtedly unique in their era and played a major role in creating the brand of psychedelic indie pop we are so familiar with today, these songs were never what MGMT set out to create. And yet, they still struck gold with the release of the initial album. “Oracular Spectacular” is MGMT’s highest-grossing album of all time, selling 17,000 copies per week at its peak and two million in total. However, it almost represented a gentrification of the individualistic, absurdist music that brought the band together in the first place. 

MGMT’s story is about two college students — Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden — both studying at Wesleyan University. They connected over a mutual love for absurdist music and a mutual disdain for what they saw as the pop industry machine. Their band’s original name, “The Management”, was a nod towards their contempt for the way the pop music industry was run and the people behind the machine. In fact, their first two songs “Kids” and “Time to Pretend” were written as a satire on modern pop and were performed at college parties around campus as a joke alongside a 45-minute long cover of the Ghostbusters theme song. However, the traction these songs gained around campus encouraged the pair to release their first-ever EP, “Time To Pretend”. MGMT was never intended to be a lasting arrangement and definitely would not have been if its EP hadn’t been picked up by Columbia Records, with whom the boys recorded “Oracular Spectacular”. 

The rest was history. “Oracular Spectacular” became a massive success, with the three singles as its highest-grossing crown jewels. They were reimagined to contain even more of a pop-music feel for the studio debut. For example, the tempo in “Time To Pretend” was raised to match ABBA’s “Dancing Queen”. MGMT began to represent the kind of sound Andrew and Ben had made fun of and lost the feel of the psychedelic music they set out to create. The three singles heavily overshadowed the rest of their album, including tracks that were more representative of their true neo-psychedelic style. The duo is now associated with parodies, and they had almost become the subject of this initial caricature. 

Disillusioned with their own image, Andrew and Ben headed back into the studio to create a new anthology that would exhibit their true style. They made their second studio album, “Congratulations”, and traveled further in this direction with their third studio album, “MGMT”, released in 2013. Each of these featured a display of the more psychedelic, dark-synth pop style Andrew and Ben had always wanted to pursue. Critics described it as “weird” and “awkward”, and it didn’t come anywhere near the success “Oracular Spectacular” had. 

Despite the underwhelming reception received by these two albums, I personally loved the new direction the duo decided to take. The group combined a number of musical elements that just barely work with one another in order to create a sound that somehow works. However, the lack of success these albums saw was disheartening, and MGMT went on a hiatus for almost four years following the release. 

After their hiatus, they began to work on their most recent album, “Little Dark Age” (LDA), in the spring of 2016. This was unlike anything they’d made before — its creation over the course of 2016 and 2017 coincided with major political shifts, including the election of former President Donald Trump which inspired the album. LDA not only represented MGMT’s attempts to marry their authentic, unconventional sound with the kaleidoscopic pop motif that made them so popular — it also symbolized their return to centering performance art in their craft. It has something for everyone, with tracks like “Me and Michael” that appeal to the audience expecting more of an 80s dance-pop vibe or songs like “Days That Got Away” geared towards the audience with a preference for absurdism. 

LDA was hugely successful. It peaked at #35 on Billboard 200 and passed 100 million streams on Spotify. Many critics saw it as a return to the same style as “Oracular Spectacular”, others saw it as dramatically different from anything MGMT had released before. Having just passed its four-year anniversary, it is still unclear as to whether LDA really was the band’s final album. However, as an album, it represents the growth experienced by MGMT as artists and their struggle to find their niche in the music industry.