On AJR, The OK Orchestra Tour, and Looking For The Upsides
THIS ESSAY WAS ORIGINALLY SHARED ON SEPTEMBER 17, 2021
If you learn to seek and appreciate whatever makes a song or artist special to someone despite your tastes, that's when the true magic of music is within reach. You can explore the wide world of music in leaps and bounds, diving into sounds and subcultures as they grab your interest. The material you love will always be there, but the additional listening and performance experiences that become possible are endless.
To summarize with the same Walt Whitman quote that made millions love Ted Lasso: "Be curious, not judgmental."
That is a surprisingly hard thing to do. Sounds easy, I know, but trust me — it's not.
The promise of AJR's OK Orchestra tour is escapism in a time of chaos. To quote the teaser the band shared prior to the first show:
"Six years ago, we asked ourselves: What if we could combine a broadway show, a movie, a magic show, and a concert into one weird experience? And it caught on. That one little idea grew and changed, from cheap cardboard sets to LED walls to lasers to flying around the stage. And you grew with us. Year after year, tour after tour, more and more of you showing up to this undefinable thing. Now, after two years away, we're back with a big, new thing. The biggest and newest thing you've ever seen. Welcome, to the OK Orchestra Tour."
Believe it or not, AJR delivers. The OK Orchestra tour features countless lights, multiple magic tricks, numerous LED screens, half a dozen extras, and a relentless effort to promote a positive outlook. Some may fear such an effort would come across too sugary sweet and pandering, like a knockoff Disney film, but AJR grounds their wild world of performative make-believe with songs deeply rooted in reality. They talk of heartache and self-doubt, bullying, and suicidal ideations while performing music tailor-made to promote positivity.
But let's back up a minute and answer a simple yet difficult question that my parents and the parents of many young music fans often ask: What is AJR?
AJR occupies a genre that didn't exist in 2010. Their peers are few and far between, but Jon Bellion, American Authors, and COIN come to mind as similarly unique artists. Each makes what publicists will tell you is pop music, but it's something much more elaborate in reality. Artists in this field exist without boundaries. Their music combines the best elements of everything they love into one big, often bombastic production that is neither Broadway-ready nor radio-friendly, and yet, it's undeniably catchy.
For the sake of simplicity, let's call this genre nerd-pop. I say that because this music is made by people who deeply appreciate music and song composition. These are not fly-by-night artists who miraculously stumbled into the position they find themselves in. AJR and their fans are nerds in the sense that they refuse to let the world kill what remains of that childlike sense of wonderment that lives within them. They still believe in people and our ability to empathize. The world, to them, is full of adventures waiting to be had. The combination of that wide-eyed optimism with a thorough understanding of music gives you the world of AJR, and it's nerdy as hell.
AJR shows are the kind of place where you see people unironically wearing t-shirts that have catchphrases you'd typically find inside Dollar Tree greeting cards written in size 250 font standing next to college students who look like they're auditioning for an Urban Outfitters fashion shoot. There's also a decent number of Disney families, dads in metal shirts escorting their kids to a show they do not understand, and plenty of twenty-something couples sipping overpriced hard seltzer exchanging small talk about vaccination rates and how they don't understand why the news is so political.
If you can name another artist with such a diverse and kind crowd, go ahead and email me. I haven't seen a gathering of people like AJR fans in years of going to shows. Most artists claim everyone is welcome at their gigs and in their community, but in the case of AJR, it seems to be true. As long as you're ready to wrestle with your feelings, there is a community for you.
Every genre has one or two songs that define its sound and feel, and for nerd-pop, that song is the AJR track "Weak." You should stop whatever you're doing right now and stream it. There's probably a link somewhere around here. Click it. Go on; I'll wait. These words will still be here when you're done.
"Weak" is nerd-pop defined. It's an over-the-top pop song with an instantly memorable hook that chooses lightness, joy, and self-love where other songwriters would choose sadness or rage. The song is all about how we have these temptations in our lives that we constantly fail to resist. It could be anything, from going out when you should be staying home to kissing a stranger. It could be eating chocolate. It doesn't matter what that thing is for you. All that matters is that you have a thing, and you recognize that weakness in yourself, which you do because — you're human.
My thing is eating out when I keep telling myself I'll cook. I love cooking, but I also love so many incredible local restaurants and chefs. It is never hard for me to find an excuse to go out. When I buy a meal, however, I often feel this level of guilt over my actions. It's not that I can't afford to eat out, but that I let myself down. That disappointment turns to self-hate, and the vicious cycle of learning to love me begins all over again.
"Weak" succeeds in big part because it asks the question that the negative voice in my head never does: What's wrong with that?
I supported a local business instead of cooking. What's wrong with that?
I didn't go to the gym today. What's wrong with that?
I was out way too late last night making memories with my oldest friends. What's wrong with that?
I didn't do my best today. What's wrong with that?
The purpose of "Weak," and really, the entire reason for AJR's existence, is to seek joy in life. It's about self-love and kindness. The world is a scary place, and being human is confusing, but you possess the ability to do great things within yourself. Maybe today wasn't your day, and perhaps you didn't do everything you set out to accomplish, but you're alive, and that's something to celebrate. You still have time to move mountains and fall in love. You don't know how many people you've yet to meet who will radically change your life in the best possible ways, nor do you know how many lives you've yet to impact. Anything is possible, and that can be beautiful or scary. Sometimes, it's both. The fact of the matter is, AJR is choosing to look on the bright side, and songs like "Weak" are anthems for every outcast trying to make their way in the world today.
Here's the kicker — Most AJR songs have this message. The thesis statement of their catalog could very well be, "Always look on the bright side of life."
Take "100 Bad Days," for example. It's one of the band's biggest hits, so much so that it earned them mainstream airplay, and the story is not that far removed from "Weak." Take a look:
Remember when we all got drunk?
I ended up with two broke thumbs
Oh my God, I felt so dumb, lucky me
I wrote a song that no one knows
I played a show and no one showed
Oh my God, I felt so alone, lucky me
When all is going wrong and you're scared as hell
What you gonna do? Who you gonna tell?
Maybe a hundred bad days made a hundred good stories
A hundred good stories make me interesting at parties
A hundred bad days made a hundred good stories
A hundred good stories make me interesting at parties
Yeah, no, I ain't scared of you
No, I ain't scared of you no more
For every bad experience, you gain a good story. For every rain cloud, there is sunshine. For every night, there is a day. You have nothing to fear except fear itself because tomorrow will always come. As long as you keep getting up, nothing can stop you, so go out and do whatever you want. Life is short, and death is forever.
If that's too saccharine for you, I understand, but that's what AJR has to sell.
If you're anything like me, then you've probably spent the better part of the last year slowly slipping down a drain that you try to ignore while busying yourself to avoid panicking over the constant fires and chaos that surrounds us. It seems everywhere you look, there is a new nightmare to discover, and while they may look good on the silver screen, Marvel's mightiest heroes are not coming to save us. It seems that humanity's best days, whatever they were, may be behind us.
That kind of negativity, no matter how slow it may build, is cancer. It takes very little negativity for your entire outlook on life to shift, and once that happens, your ability to treat yourself and others with kindness begins to diminish. Negativity is a virus that threatens to dismantle everything we love.
I'm not saying my depression is cured or my skin is clear because of recent experiences, but AJR and the OK Orchestra tour refuse to let the darkness win. As dramatic and ridiculously overblown as their antics may be, AJR is doing the work to help people see the silver linings during one of the darkest points in recent human history. I feel better about myself and my outlook on the world, and though I cannot pinpoint how they did it, I'm happy it works.
AJR is spreading hope and positivity without relying on religious texts or false promises. They don't tell people that things are easier than they appear or that tomorrow will be better than today. All AJR promotes is the idea that each day is an opportunity to do what you want with the finite amount of time you have on this rock. What you do with that information is up to you, but I suggest you heed their advice.