Welcome back to the Overplayed Song of the Week, in which we take songs we’ve heard too many times on the radio and generally overthink them.
Weeks on Chart: 33
Peak: No. 2 on Billboard’s Hot 100
Current Radio Play Frequency: No. 1 on KIIS FM’s playlist
YouTube Hit Count: 170,042,426 at time of publication
I was taking a break from pop radio when OneRepublic made its triumphant, folky-stompy return, hot on the heels of Avicii’s similar pop-folk fusion abomination “Wake Me Up.” My first exposure to the song was via DJ Earworm’s 2013 United States of Pop mash-up, where it was the only song I didn’t recognize. When I realized it was by the guys behind “Apologize,” that inescapable Timbaland-produced slow jam of 2007, my first thought was admiration that these young enterprising go-getters had stuck with the crazy, often fickle music industry and come out with another hit. But in fact, OneRepublic front man Ryan Tedder has never really left the radio, in the interim racking up a prolific songwriting and producing CV, including Beyoncé’s “XO,” Ellie Goulding’s “Burn,” and Adele’s “Rumour Has It.” I had gone through much of the last several years imagining OneRepublic as a sort of failed glorified boy band that was currently paying its rent as denim models on West Hollywood billboards. I have a little more respect now.
And I really like “Counting Stars,” even though every fiber of my being tells me not to. It is a machine of a song, assembled of countless, seemingly disconnected tortured aphorisms ready-made for an angsty teenager’s Twitter feed. (“EVERYTHING THAT KILLS ME MAKES ME FEEL ALIVE!”) You can hear the songwriterly overworking in there — the bridge sounds like three half-ideas for bridges mashed together because Tedder couldn’t bear to take one off before leaving the house. Still, the busyness doesn’t impede the build to the chorus, or that second repetition of the chorus, when Tedder’s voice goes up an octave to a folksy yowl. I’m into octave shifts in general; makes it more fun for everyone to sing along.
It’s tempting to compare “Counting Stars” to “Wake Me Up,” mostly because it looks so good next to Avicii’s EDM hoedown. While “Wake Me Up” builds to a dorky riff that seems like a tone-deaf remix of Aaron Copland’s “Beef” theme (we may have finally found something Swedish producers can’t do, and it is folk), “Counting Stars” anchors its rhythm to analog stomps and claps, and lays a warbly flutelike synth (delightfully reminiscent of ABBA’s “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!”) over its dramatic rushes. The acoustic plucking and the tambourine shakes are never far from the surface, but they’re buffed and shined so as to fit flush with the glossy pop surface. It’s also got those dumb “Hey!”s punctuating each line, but such is the post-Lumineers world we live in.
The song rides the pop-folk line so gracefully that when it goes into full-on revivalist church folk in its breakdown, it kind of gets blown away by its own hot air. It’s like, yo, we were all thinking this sounded a little Mumfordy, and we weren’t going to say anything, but now you’ve kind of made it so we have to. “Counting Stars” works fine enough as a vague pop-rock barn burner, but when it gets overtly messagey and Tedder starts scatting about “the lessons [he’s] learned,” it’s time to cut off the triple-distilled moonshine. The lyrics are all vague enough that you can’t quite tell if he’s talking about burning his money literally, as a gesture of anticonsumerism, or figuratively, in a hedonistic YOLO bender of booze and drugs and hookers. (“EVERYTHING THAT DROWNS ME MAKES ME WANNA FLY!”) The song is about some kind of epiphany, but in the end, its all-sizes pop genius comes from the fact that it could be about any epiphany, in any direction.
Final verdict: Folk is a four-letter word.