I’ll begin in the way that all professional, serious writers do: with a story about poop.
Once, not so long ago, I spent five summers of my life toiling away at a summer camp on the edge of a lake in the boonies of Eastern Washington. During meals, we would blast kid-friendly music on the massive speakers that hung from the rafters of the lodge.
Whenever I heard the intro to Imagine Dragon’s “Radioactive,” I would beat a retreat to the single-occupancy bathroom in the basement, where I relieved myself in contented silence. In my mind, the only reason Imagine Dragons existed was to act as a reminder to rage-poop during lunch. I can’t say my stance has changed since.
At the risk of putting too fine a point on it: I don’t like Imagine Dragons. I don’t like their stupid songs that sound like somebody Xeroxed Mumford and Sons, gave them worse haircuts, and made them head up a worship band in one of those big-budget megachurches.
I resent their ubiquity that has turned every trip to Target into a Boschian hellscape in which I flee their diet-Chad Kroeger vocals by trying to bury my face in a pile of premature Christmas decorations.
And lest you think me a wanton hater, you should know that the majority of professional American music critics agree with my take on the band. Rolling Stone, in a review of their latest album, called the Las Vegas quartet, “stoic engineers of content delivery systems.” A headline from the Guardian proclaims the same album, “lifeless electronic-tinged arena rock.”
And yet, people are into them. Like, a lot of people. A few weeks ago, I was scanning the list of shows coming through Key Arena when their name caught my eye. Apparently the Dragons were taking their sentient saltine selves on an arena tour yet again.
Yes, you read that right. This isn’t even the first time people have paid good money to watch these dudes dramatically pound on percussion pads in front of a bajillion dollar light show.
Because I’m an asshole, my first response to their Key Arena stop was derision. After all, I’m a person with taste. I go to rock shows and DIY art events. I own vintage t-shirts and my coffee is prepared by a beautiful person with tattoos and opinions on Bauhaus (the band and the art movement).
But my curiosity still nagged at me. How could they have become so popular? Who is paying to see these people, and why? What is it about their music—that strange amalgamation of worst-impulses-U2, Foster the People, and the least offensive bits of post-grunge—that would make a person say “YES PLEASE, LET ME GET ANOTHER SCOOP OF THAT???”
Eventually my curiosity became too much. I would, I decided, go to the source: real, live fans. Obviously I wasn’t going to attend the concert—despite what the stack of empty DiGiorno pizza boxes by my fridge might lead you to believe, I have standards—but maybe if I talked to some fans in person, I could understand what I was missing.
A bit of background for those of you who are unacquainted with the Dragons’ work: lead singer Dan Reynolds (yes this is the actual name of a human person and not a character on One Tree Hill), and drummer Andrew Tolman meet at BYU as students; they add some other members, some of whom leave after the release of their first EP; guitarist Wayne Sermon (another TOTALLY REAL NAME) and bassist Ben McKee both join the group; somewhere in the mix they release more EPs and get signed to Interscope after filling in at a festival for fellow uber white dude band, Train.
At present, they’ve released three full-length albums and have cemented their status as a fixture on commercial radio. You will no doubt recognize them if you’ve ever spent time in a dentist’s waiting room.
I am a “millennial,” which is another way of saying “kind of lazy,” so I figured the easiest place to begin preparing for my voyage into the dark heart of Imagine Dragons fandom was to listen to their discography on Spotify.
It took me approximately 35 attempts to get all the way through their three albums. It’s not that Imagine Dragons make bad music per se. It’s just that their songs are so riddled with lazy “woah-oh” choruses and lyrical cliches that I’m not sure why they bothered to make them at all.
On Friday, the night of the show, I made my way over to Key Arena. The doors opened at 7:30 p.m., but when I arrived at 6 p.m., a line had already formed. It was made up primarily of what looked like families. A number of the people I spoke with mentioned that they were accompanying their children to their first concert. The average attendee was between 10 and 18 or looked 35 and older. There were few people in between.
The first avowed fan I talked to was Bailey, a nineteen-year-old from Seattle. “ I feel like I connect to the band’s story,” she told me. “I feel like that’s where my love for them comes from. I feel like they’re real people.”
Another woman, Tanya from Omak, who had surprised her daughter with tickets, echoed that sentiment. “To me, the lyrics touch something inside me. It’s like ‘Oh this is nice, I get this, this makes sense to me.’”
Others cited the dance-ability and positivity of the music as reasons to enjoy it. Ember, a young person from Redmond, described the music thusly: “If you stray away from their biggest hits they have a really nice beat to them.”
Many of the fans I spoke to also pointed to Imagine Dragons’ position as a rock band within the dance-heavy realm of pop music as a reason for their appeal.
“I like that they’re on the radio and hip but it’s rock, so you hear something different when you listen to them,” a fan named Brittney told me. “I like pop, but it’s nice to hear Imagine Dragons on the radio. It just mixes it up.”
As I walked away, I still felt dissatisfied. I’d spoken to real people who’d paid real money to see this band, and none of them had really made me reconsider my stance.
Nobody had even given me a my-terminally-ill-father-and-I-used-to-jam-out-to-“Thunder”-before-he-passed justification that would’ve left me feeling like a callous asshole.
But the more I thought about it, the more it felt like maybe I wasn’t ever going to get it. And after a while, I realized that might actually be ok.
Recently, my mom came to a Tacocat show in Spokane with me. I bought her a shirt from the opening band, Itchy Kitty, because she thought their name was funny, and afterwards she told me that it meant a lot that I’d invited her.
I remembered being 15 and feeling so intensely lonely because I was a weird, faggy kid in a conservative community. I thought about how nice it would’ve been to do something like that with my parents, how it would’ve made me feel less wrong somehow.
If Imagine Dragons was going to give that feeling to other people than maybe it didn’t matter if I got it.
I mean, I spend $5 a day on coffee. Who am I to judge?