As our fellow citizens of dystopia walk these cold 21st-century streets with tiny speakers plugged into their head-holes, we can only wonder: What are they listening to? Probably some podcast. Or maybe the situation is even worse. Maybe they’re trying to block out the sound of Imagine Dragons.
Has humanity ever listened to so much music against its volition? Imagine Dragons in the gym. Imagine Dragons at the mall. Imagine Dragons in three out of five movie trailers before the feature presentation, which also features a song by Imagine Dragons. Imagine Dragons at every public sporting event held inside every arena or arena-shaped thing. Imagine Dragons in television commercials for computers and video games and Jeep Cherokees. When the devil met Imagine Dragons at the crossroads back in 2012, he found a way to take all of our souls. He promised to play “Radioactive” in every Uber.
The only way to explain this music’s smothering omnipresence is that it performs a public function that we once expected rock-and-roll to perform. It radiates an aura of loudness, and it feels vaguely aggrieved for its privileged place in the world, but it ultimately aspires to communal uplift — which means that Imagine Dragons wishes it were Queen, but only in concept. There is no sex, no humor and no chest hair to be found in any Imagine Dragons song. If there’s any friction to it at all, it resides between the anti-authoritarian platitudes and the virulent melodies. This is music that makes you feel like it’s watching you.
But, as you may have heard, rock-and-roll can never die — not as long as America’s power people remain convinced that we still need this stuff to fill our Transformers movies and our telecasts, like they did on Monday night when Imagine Dragons headlined the halftime show at the national college football championship in Santa Clara, Calif.
For 10 difficult minutes, the band played almost all of the songs you forgot you had ever forgotten. There was that one that goes, “Thunder, thunder, thun-thunder” (“Thunder”). And the one that goes, “Believer, believer!” (“Believer”). Alas, it didn’t play the one that goes, “Radioactive! Radioactive!” (I forget what it’s called.)
Roughly seven minutes into the show, Lil Wayne teleported in from a Parliament-Funkadelic concert circa 1977, then disappeared again. Even less explicable: a careening falsetto oooh-oooh solo from lead singer Dan Reynolds during “Thunder” — which felt audacious until you remembered that this is how drunk people sing the guitar solo at karaoke. How can this band be this famous?
As invasive as it is, Imagine Dragons does not inhabit this space alone. Like a flock of confused superheroes in an overcrowded comic book movie, a mini-constellation of rock-and-roll grave blockers have congregated at the dull center of rock’s trickling mainstream — and, interestingly, they each took different paths to arrive here. Fall Out Boy got here by following the fault line between emo and jock jams. Twenty One Pilots got here through millennial Sublime pantomime. Thirty Seconds to Mars came from Hollywood. Coldplay came from England, with detours through Radiohead worship and EDM dabbling.
We used to mock music that felt this airless by saying it sounded focus-grouped. Nowadays, we taunt it by calling it algorithmic. Same thing. Instead of expressing its humanity, this is music that aims only to fulfill the expectations of an audience that doesn’t really know what it should expect anymore.
But if audiences are still feeling anxious about the death of rock-and-roll, they shouldn’t. Musical traditions don’t die. They might fade in prominence or dwindle in circulation, but they don’t slump neatly into rectangular pits of earth. And yet, we’ve made Imagine Dragons into the everlasting Glade PlugIn of the world. A band with no imagination guards an imaginary tomb.