You might get the feeling that you’ve already seen ONWE’s music video for “In the City.” But that’s impossible, we assure you, because it’s actually the first peep at the band’s first proper album, David Welles (out November 18 from Seayou Entertainment).
Whether or not you know ONWE from their demo days– when the Bushwick-based band released videos like “JK BB,” or maybe “Unpaid Internship,” (two tracks that turned some heads in 2014)– there’s something familiar looming in the background.
Maybe it actually is the background, a drab, minimalist studio set, with rotating backdrops in faded tones like old-leotard purple and sickly orange. Or it could even be the way that the modelesque cast members (“Bushwick Party People,” Welles confirmed) are perfectly lit and flawless from all angles, as if the photographer was doing double-time here, shooting for a fashion house and a science textbook at the same time.
You won’t find out until the very end, when the camera pulls back for a wider shot of ONWE’s Lydia Gammill, slumped over her guitar all zombie-like, that the video’s not set in some perfectly framed dreamworld, but in the real world: a studio. As it turns out, you’re watching a video-shoot within a video, which might get the wheels turning.
Or maybe you’ve figured it out already, that the inspiration for the music video came directly from the world of advertising. Which is funny, because usually it’s the other way around.
Specifically, ONWE took notes from those THINX underwear ads. Otherwise aesthetically underwhelming and fashionably drab, they became iconic in and of themselves when (according to THINX anyway) the MTA refused to put them up, deeming the explicit references to “period” and images of women in their underwear too salacious for commuters.
But it turned out to be a win-win for THINX: the MTA conceded, suddenly the ads were all over the subway system, and the company looked like feminist heroes fighting back against The Man– the same one who hates on armpit hair and wide-leg pants. Whether it was divine intervention or a brilliant marketing strategy that led to all this, THINX (or at least “those period underwear thingies”) became a household name.
This is the world we live in, where feminism is highly marketable, a commodity in and of itself, where things that we used to think of as valuable for other reasons have a dollar value.
This is ONWE’s world too, and it’s what they’re getting at with “In the City,” another addition to the band’s larger critique of our increasingly commodified existence, where stuff like the internet and social media have contributed to a more invasive form of capitalism– one that creeps into our classrooms, our tampons, even our music.
“The millennial generation is so acclimated to the idea that art needs to be marketed,” Welles explained. “Branding and marketing is a core element of being in the arts.”
That might seem obvious at this point. But in the post-Spotify era, there are more hurdles than ever before that bands have to clear before record labels, blogs, bookers, and promoters will pay attention. There’s much more pressure to make slick music videos with a high-production value and self-promote everything, everything– all of which requires a great deal of money and time to throw down. Welles pointed out that recreating the Thinx aesthetic, for example, was shockingly expensive.
“We did the cheap version,” he laughed.
Even a DIY spirit requires lots of time to do all the DIY’ing, and time plus money necessarily means that whole swathes of people are being excluded.
“These socioeconomic and political elements that are the context for all art,” Welles explained, adding that the divide between privileged artists and everyone else is magnified in Brooklyn, and in Bushwick especially. “When you’re in a place that’s rapidly gentrifying, there’s people with a lot of privilege who might not have a great understanding of these realities and of the geography they’re entering into.”
ONWE’s most obvious target is the music industry and presumably the suits who run the show, but the band goes wider with their critique and attributes the commodification of artwork and exploitation of artists to those who are complicit too. Thankfully, none of these political messages come off as some stilted “rebellion” against The Man. And ONWE’s definitely not some company’s cheesy marketing ploy and desperate attempt to appeal to millennials.
But David Welles isn’t putting all of his passion and effort into creating a piñata dressed up as a music industry sellout either. Nor is he trolling the Brooklyn music scene. For all their ironic devices, ONWE’s message is surprisingly earnest– their Bandcamp banner reads: “self-awareness through self-deprecation.” And Welles is a faithful pop devotee.
But ONWE raised some eyebrows when Welles broke the unwritten rules of the Brooklyn indie music scene by taking advantage of the social-media promotion machine to stage a strange hype campaign that was both self-promotion and an art piece in itself. It’s a kind of experimentalism that might sound tame for a medium like, say, performance art, but for music? It’s taboo as hell.
Maybe because, deep down, every band has to engage in this kind of stuff and a few are embarrassed about it. So that when Welles called attention to the inherent lameness of music-industry hype, he was met with not only confusion, but outright derision– even if his critique isn’t exactly a new or even radical one. Even if parody seems to be welcome in almost every other dynamic, forward-thinking art community. But the displeasure has worked in ONWE’s favor by revealing the music scene to be a much more conservative place than its gatekeepers care to admit.
On the other hand, self-promotion is regarded as positive in some circle outside of the predominantly white culture of rock n’ roll– for some rap and hip-hop artists, hype is intrinsic to their artwork and the creative process.
But Welles’s message leaves room for complexities like this, by embracing the hype and lambasting the ridiculousness of it all, and by making it clear that his white guy status comes with a twisted form of privilege. It’s not for nothing that he’s cast himself as a charismatic “cult leader” in “In the City.”
“In the City” elaborates on these ideas, which have their roots in older ONWE tracks. In “Unpaid Internship.” Welles identifies with youngins who share in his desire for independence (“I wanna strike out on my own”) but aren’t quite there yet, while at the same time calling them out for still being closer to faking-it than making-it. (“I’m afraid of the world […] Don’t wanna be a man, I’m just a boy.”)
The new album still has plenty of self-critical swipes, including a quip about “gentrifying Bed-Stuy,” but our hero seems to have grown up at least a little bit. He’s graduated from intern to career musician and now that he’s finally won his independence, he wants to succeed as an artist without sacrificing his art.
The song’s refrain is “You give yourself away,” implying that other musicians are jerks for selling out, but Welles is actually realistic about all this, and is unafraid to show how ONWE is hardly innocent of fashioning themselves as a hip Brooklyn band.
For one, their music is marketable as hell. Welles’s pop songs are so deliciously well-crafted that they’re perfectly enjoyable as is– even without all the socio-political whatever-whatever, and they’re readily consumable too. Listeners can choose to consider the deeper ironies of the whole package only if they want. If they do, they’re rewarded with cerebral, post-modern pop music that’s both smart and fun.
With “In the City,” ONWE blends these two sides better than ever before.
Video for “In the City” produced/art directed by Kelsey Tyler, director of photography Oliver David. Full credits on YouTube.