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By Dr Tom Christie

August 25th, 2014


Few people could have turned on their radio in the summer of 2008 without hearing the sound of Owl City’s famous song ‘Fireflies’.  The ubiquitous synthpop single topped the charts around the world, including the UK and USA, and eventually led to six-time platinum bestselling status.  Brainchild of singer-songwriter Adam Young, a Minnesotan multi-instrumentalist, Owl City’s distinctive brand of electronica has continued to win many fans across the world since the band burst onto the scene in 2007.  After the success of the independently-produced album Maybe I’m Dreaming in 2008, mainstream triumph accompanied the release of Ocean Eyes (2009) and All Things Bright and Beautiful (2010) which ensured that the band has remained comfortably in the public eye ever since.

The Midsummer Station album

It was in 2012 with the release of their fourth album, The Midsummer Station, that Owl City were to address the topic of dementia.  Penned by Young, the track (entitled simply ‘Dementia’) was to explore the subject in a typically thought-provoking and off-kilter manner; as the band had already covered themes as varied as insomnia, environmental pollution and even the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster, the issue of mental illness - a phenomenon which affects a large percentage of society across the globe - certainly could not be considered too far from the beaten track for a group which had already established a critical reputation for deftly subverting expectation.  The song also featured a collaboration with producer and Blink-182 member Mark Hoppus, who provided its distinctive lead vocal.

A pitched battle between euphoria and delirium?

Like much of Owl City’s output, Young’s song is open to multiple interpretations.  Although the word ‘dementia’ is featured regularly throughout the song (fifteen times within a three-and-a-half minute duration), as well as forming the title itself, the listener quickly discovers that they are not by any means witnessing a conventional assessment of the condition.  For Young, dementia proves to be the end result of a pitched battle between euphoria and delirium, causing restlessness, confusion and disorientation.  There is, of course, nothing remotely euphoric about the condition itself - quite the opposite, in fact.  So what does he posit as being the cause of these symptoms?  Here, various analyses are possible.

At face value, the song appears to depict a protagonist who is disappointed and aggrieved after repeated romantic rejection.  Finding a new love interest, this enigmatic figure discovers that they are afraid to declare their feelings to the other party, leading to an emotional tug of war where the exhilaration of new romance is thwarted by fear of refutation, leading to the protagonist being engulfed by competing emotions as they watch their intended partner from afar.  Young explicitly describes this emotional tension as a conflict between passion and (self-)hostility, becoming so intense that it ultimately results in a kind of psychosis.  But in spite of what the song would have us believe, this type of emotive discord does not - of course - describe dementia or its symptoms in a way that would be recognised in any clinical interpretation.  And as Young does not have a tendency to treat such matters either trivially or disrespectfully within his music, an additional reading of the song appears necessary to provide the full picture.

Lyrics speak of delusionary phenomena, of emotional confusion and of personal isolation

Because the central premise of the song is psychological conflict - between love and hate, lucidity and irrationality, self-esteem and self-loathing - it may be conceived that the entirety of ‘Dementia’ is, in fact, a lyrical examination of the condition itself.  The frustration of the protagonist, whose aggravated dissatisfaction superficially appears motivated by an impeded declaration of love, may also be explained by an allusion towards personal rejection in the face of public misunderstanding of dementia, its causes and effects.  The lyrics speak of delusionary phenomena, of emotional confusion and of personal isolation - all aspects of the condition which are much more relevant, and more plausible, than the notion of the dementia-like symptoms being stimulated in a manner as described in the previous interpretation.  In this reading of the song, Young appears to be making a plea for greater awareness of dementia, to broaden comprehension in a way that will increase public support and thus decrease the kind of loneliness and seclusion that the protagonist so affectingly describes.

It is entirely a matter of personal opinion whether ‘Dementia’ uses the condition as a poetic device, an allegory for extreme emotional upset which defies the accepted medical narrative, or rather harnesses it in a way which has the goal of encouraging greater consideration of the disorder.  As is so often the way with Young’s songwriting, the listener is persuaded to draw their own conclusions from the evidence which is presented.  Certainly the material is dense enough for more than one analysis to be drawn, but one fact does appear to remain prominent beyond all others: that Young intends to make his audience aware that dementia is a condition which has far-reaching effects upon the person who is experiencing it, as well as those who are around them.