Some Lessons from Owl City's "Fireflies"

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Owl City "Ocean Eyes"A cute little ditty is making its way up the Billboard Hot 100 charts these days: Fireflies,” by Owl City (Adam Young) on the “Ocean Eyes” album. Many will find the music a bit syrupy, but in my opinion it’s just going to take a little time for Young to give us something more substantial. All the elements are in place for that to happen. Nonetheless, there are things to learn from “fireflies”, both good and bad.


  1. Melodic construction. It follows a sensible process of moving the melody higher in the chorus than in the verse. (I only take issue with the fact that the climactic point of the chorus melody happens almost right away (“I’d like to make myself believe..”) I keep wanting to hear that high Bb hit more in the second half of the chorus, but it doesn’t happen.)
  2. Nice harmonic treatment. It’s a good lesson that you don’t need a ton of chords to come up with something that works. And in fact, there aren’t a lot of chords on this song’s palette. The addition of the F (major) chord at the end of the chorus, when it happens, is a nice touch.
  3. Nice instrumental treatment (though I have something more to say about that below in “The Bad”). Each time the verse returns, there are new things to listen to. For verse 2, the syncopated cello/string lines (reminiscent of a typcial Elton John treatment) provides a nice build on the instrumentation of verse 1. Extra instrumental lines in verse 3 help the energy to build in really effective ways.


  1. The vocal treatments. I really love Adam Young’s voice, and the auto-tuner/various effects on his voice are simply unnecessary in my opinion. And my fear would be that in a very few short years, this song will sound quite dated.
  2. The instrumental accompaniment. Though I think the instrumentation was intelligently done (see above, point 3) there is a danger in doing songs like this that have almost no “real” instruments. This song would have worked better if the synth lines were either laid on top of acoustic treatments, or served as a backing for acoustic instruments.
  3. The lyrics. This gets me to a point that I want to make about the entire album. It’s OK to make a song like this, but it becomes dangerous if too many of your lyrics have a syrupy, child-like feel. And this album sounds a bit like someone who hasn’t had his first beer yet. Young needs to explore deeper issues, give us something more meaningful, and find ways to make us think more.

As I say, the entire album suffers from Young’s adolescent approach to songwriting, to the extent that it at times sounds like an audition for a kid’s TV show. Once in a while, there’s nothing wrong with releasing a song that does that. Even Paul McCartney did “Mary Had a Little Lamb”… but he also did “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?” The result of the similar compositional approach on “Ocean Eyes” is that all of Young’s melodies, lyrics and instrumentations start to sound the same.

If I were advising Adam Young, I’d be getting him immediately with a producer who can snap him out of this sugar fit. He’s a musician with tons of talent. And the other piece of advice would be to get him more involved with musicians who have a harder edge, who are willing to take some creative chances.

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  1. “acoustic isntruments”? Why do you think it’s called synthpop?

    Give us something to think about…figure out what the peck he’s talking about in this song!!! What does he mean by too tired to fall asleep? Well I guess that’s elementary but what’s the rest talking about?
    Do you want something like “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”?

  2. I think Adam is a musical genius. And actually synthesizers are ‘real’ instruments. Adam programs all his own patches-anyone ever tried that? The lyrics and childlike feel are the whole point! Where would the magic be in his music without it?

    Music is a state of mind…


  3. Do you hear yourselves? The guys a 24? year old genius that’s put together an exquisitely refined within his original vision, note perfect to the end; it’s made him a millionaire (soon many times over) and tens of millions of people all over the world happy.

    If we could accept our talents are mediocre, and some people are just way better than us at somthing, I guess we wouldn’t be arrogant Americans.

    Obviously, “everyone” ( many millions) want to hear what this guy does… me and you? uhh, not really.

    Bitter jazz musician syndrome.

  4. I love Owl City’s style, and I don’t think he should change it. He writes in a very whimsical, dreamlike manner, and I have never heard anything quite like it. However, and although I often listen to it to make me feel better, I don’t think that his music is complete syruppy, happy content. In fact, to me his music has always seemed to have a wistful and bittersweet feel accompanying it. They speak not only of wonder, but of endings, of memories, of the briefness of life, of escape and a variety of other topics. It is also my opinion that not all the songs are the same. True, they have the same style, but each is also distinctly different and have different feels if you take the time to listen to them. I would not be averse to Adam trying something new, but I dearly hope he will not lose his persistance in his distinct style and approach that so sets him apart from other musicians and are his best attributes.

  5. Adam Young prides himself in unrealistic music. he alows the lisseners to leave their lives for a moment and enter a world that he creates. a large percentage of his audience are teenagers that suffer from depression and need to escape. if he lost his “sugar fit” he would loose his fans. as far as an “adolescent approach” goes, if you think he isnt trying for this then go look up his song Hot Air Balloons.

  6. Hey there. I enjoyed reading what you had to say about “Fireflies”. One thing that I think you underestimate, being your age, is that this may not sound good to you. This is a very opinionated post, yet you write it like it is a rulebook of songwriting. This song hit number one for a long time, in both U.S. and Canada (these are the only countries I know of) Obviously, he did something right. As for the “Use real instruments” bit, I really don’t think that is necessary. It is his style, and what you want him to do is change to fit your tastes. As for his lyrics, there is no need for some constant person whining about his love life anymore, there is no need for someone to be angry anymore. It’s about time that someone actually decided to write positively. You are clearly displaying what I call “Idiot Music Syndrome” in which you look more into how the music is made to determine whether it is good or not, rather than enjoying the mere wonder that it has to offer you. He always says he wants to convey optimism in all of his writing, which is a wonderful outlook. What you really need to look at now, is who wrote the song that got #1. You didn’t. He did. You are a biased, and unappreciative musician, and you don’t understand the new-age genre’s, and you never will being your age. And like another person here said – “His genre is electronic, not alternative, he doesn’t need real instruments” Rather, he doesn’t want to use real instruments for the sake of creating his genre. I don’t appreciate what you have said here, I feel as though you are writing about something that has passed you by.

    • Hello Adrien:

      Thanks very much for writing. I think you make some good points, and certainly time will tell if his writing and performance style have the legs to continue.

      On a separate issue, you sound like an intelligent musician who is capable of making succinct points. So terms like “Idiot”, and the claim that someone is incapable of understanding today’s music because of their age, make you sound less like a discerning musician, and more like a fan with hurt feelings.

      My guess is that you’re better than that.

      Thanks again for writing.

  7. I really enjoy Owl City. I think that Mr. Young has perfected his own sound, which is uniquely his own. I applaud his bravery to do his thing, to mine this vein he’s found, without regard to “conventional wisdom”. I think that his work is iconoclastic in this sense.

    Like several other posters above, I find it refreshing that someone dares write songs about simple, happy, wondrous things – without angst and sorrow. There’s plenty of that available, if that’s what you’re into – and indeed we all are, from time to time.

    I am appreciative of another element of his style: I don’t know what to call it, so I’ll go with “idealism”. The fact that everything is done essentially in an all digital realm, he has the opportunity to make every note, every sound – exactly what he intends, and perfectly cleanly executed. This includes his use of Melodyne on his voice. With respect to autotune and vocals, I feel that he uses this technique in a way unlike nearly all others who use it. He uses it not to “clean things up”, but as an element of this “idealism” style, to get precisely what he wishes from his voice (which isn’t so good live, IMHO).

    Just my two cents.

  8. Gary-

    Great balanced post! I’m really glad that you just didn’t criticize Owl City, as almost every music blogger has– you really keep an open mind and I love that about you.

    Many of the posters said most of most of things I wanted to say, but I’d like to add a few comments:

    1. Melodic Construction. It’s interesting… Owl City is criticized for being too mainstream, but here he is criticized for being too different. In this case, a different criticism is valid. This unusual melodic contour is something he ‘borrowed’ from Ben Gibbard the frontman of Death Cab for Cutie as well as Owl City’s forebearer, Postal Service. Ben has developed a very unique way of providing a little bit of surprise by putting the height of the melody in a place that isn’t typically seen. It’s a nice trademark that really works and makes Ben’s song so identifiable. It’s like Thom Yorke setting up camp on the 7th in a chord- happens every song. Postal Service designed the template for a platinum selling indie pop album and once Owl City got signed by a major, it’s clear that his producers encourage him to follow the proven template by getting even more in touch with his inner Ben Gibbard. I rather like the melodic shape.

    2. Changing his style. This is his 3rd album (a self-produced EP , CD and then Ocean Eyes) and and he hasn’t changed his style. Even his side project is a very similar sound. … and he doesn’t vary his style at all on Ocean Eyes. Sometimes consistency is bad, but sometimes it’s really good. When I want ice cream, I get an ice cream cone–and I don’t want it the flavors to be sour– the same thing with Owl City. If I just want some pure ice cream ear candy, I put on Owl City and he never fails to cheer me up. If I’m feeling like I want to be stretched a bit, well that’s what Steve Reich is for…
    3. Live Instruments. He makes synth pop music. T-Pain, Britney Spears or any other electronic act isn’t criticized for their lack of acoustic instruments. Similarly, I don’t criticize Dave Matthews Band b/c he doesn’t have a rack a synths. I think Adam getting in touch with his inner grunge would be about as authentic as Pink’s ‘serious’ second album–Missundaztood– really phony rock music, IMHO.
    4. Over tuning. For the record, on his major label release Owl City’s producers really minimized the use of Melodyne (software similar to Autotune, that can be used to achieve a similar overtuned affect, while maintaining the integrity of the transients.) So definitely don’t listen to ‘Maybe Im Dreaming’ For me personally, I think it adds to the over produced, too perfect sound in the album. He’s not trying to be edgy. Again, I don’t want jalapeno bubble gum–I prefer mint.

    5. Lyrics. They are often criticized; but he’s doing really well for himself– as you say, there must be something right if so many people like it. His lyrics appeal to his fan base –teenage girls (and apparently me.) I also think there is something to be said for concrete clever word play instead of the usual metaphors. I much prefer his lyrics over the other stuff on the radio right now. I kinda like it when a pop singer doesn’t pretend to be a poet laureate.

    Anyways, thanks for covering this song– great post… loving your website!

  9. For your bad comments
    1. His voice, owl city uses some auto tuners. But most artists now a days do, its simply to make the recordings sound more deep and pure, they do not use Auto tune live. Other than auto tune he uses and echo or ping pong effect, you have to admit if he didnt use those the songs would sound bland. not as good. He does use this effect live.
    2. Almost no real instruments? I disagree, in his recordings not everything may be a real instrument, but thats A RECORDING! If you ever see owl city live, everything is done with real instruments, the shows have a violin player, a chelo player, a drummer. There are 2 pianos/Keyboards that owl city uses to make his electronica noises, also Adam plays the guitar.
    3. Adam’s music makes me happy, its nice to have a change. All of his lyrics arent “Child like” And there are deep subjects that he explores using medifores, his music is simply upbeat and friendly. If you want deep lyrics from him listen to: “The Technicolor Phase, Cave in, Meteor Shower, If my heart was a house, Strawberry Avalanche.

    There ya go.

    • Hi Brandon:

      1. I have to disagree with you on this point. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who says auto-tuning makes a voice sound “deep and pure.”
      2. I was talking about his recording, not his live act. If he’s using real instruments in his live show, it’s time to give them more prominence in his recordings.
      3. Adam’s music makes me happy, too. My only worry about a singer like this is that he needs to explore a deeper side of his personality. For him, we’re definitely in a “what more ya got?” situation.
      4. I will definitely give those tracks you mention a listen.

      I appreciate you taking the time to respond to my (bad) comments.

  10. The lyrics are a little illogical and sporadically abstract. Not the good “abstract”, just like a random computer generator. It takes a great stretch to metaphorize every verse in that song. So I applaud Godata99 to have such a job… or making it all up.

    If Owl City aspires to be one of those twee/indie musicians out there, he needs to stop making songs that cross between the results of a lyrics generator and childrens music. Even twee had more sense.

  11. Hey Gary,

    So I agree, and disagree.
    1) I didn’t really think about autotune dating it, but that’s a good point. It will definitely turn him into the “oldies” in the future, but at the same time dating is not always bad. There’s alot of 80’s songs I’d probably hate without the big drums and rediculously high vocal lines.

    2) I disagree with the need for acoustic instrumentation. The song is awesome because of it’s sparatic electronic melody. I think live instrumentation would take away from the happy electronic vibe he’s shooting for.

  12. yeah, I totally agree; what we need more of is ‘hard edged musicians’. that way Adam can sound just like everyone else. Mainstream all the way!

  13. I agree with you guys. I think he is great with the instrumentation, lovely synth lines there, gives a delightful feeling. But he’s got to cut down on the “cuteness” of his voice — Young’s got a very good voice, don’t get me wrong, it’s just that he probably needs to put more essence to it, sorta give it more weight. I agree with you that the auto tuner on his voice is unnecessary. Makes his voice light and floating.

    Yes, he does have a lot of talent and lots of potential to explore and try out other types of playing. Please don’t make the whole album sound the same. It’ll be a bore. I think the “exploring deeper issues” part isn’t just about the lyrics being child-like; it’s more like the way he sang it, or the whole feel of the music — like I said, needs more essence.

    Thanks for pointing out the good and the bad.

    My ratings for Fireflies: 6.8 / 10


  14. Hi Jake – Thanks for your comments. I agree especially with your comments on his lyrics, but I guess what I’m thinking is that I wonder if there’s room for something deeper here. Young seems like an intelligent musician, and his music is obviously well-planned and thoughtful. Short of making your grandma cringe, I am hoping that his next offerings will go somehow in a new direction. I think his musical intelligence makes him the kind of person who’d be successful by taking some chances.

  15. His genre is electronica. Not alternative. He doesn’t need “real” instruments. Also, he does play guitar witch this song at his live shows. Second, the vocal treatments with auto tune sound good because once again, his genre is electronica. Third, Adam is known for his light, happy lyrics. He shouldn’t have to have lyrics like most band today that would make your grandma cringe. His music is happy.

    • Jake I just want to thank you for defending this guy. I am tired of hearing the dark (adult) music. Is it wrong for me to like listening to songs that are up beat and happy? Does this make me a child? This music makes me feel like there is some light left in this dark world.

      • I love him, but he’s not attacking Adam, so he cannot being defended. The point trying to be put across is simply that if you make your music more diverse and appeal to more people, people will like you more.

      • *sigh* This isn’t about happy music or not. The blogger, in his own opinion, just doesn’t think “Fireflies” was well written. There is also (this time, my opinion) a fine line between pure whimsicality, and forced, commercialized, pseudo-whimsicality. Just listen to twee, like Belle & Sebastian and Hello Saferide. That’s the original ‘happy music’ for you ^^

        Ps. “This music makes me feel like there is some light left in this dark world.” It depends on which side of the planet you face, figuratively speaking. The world can be a happy place; it can also be that “dark world”. Although this is partly based on unforseen circumstances, it is mostly how we choose to view life. My two cents.

      • “penaltykillah”, I don’t think you’re understanding my blog posting if you believe the point of my post was to say that the song wasn’t well-written. Give it another read.

        -Gary Ewer

      • Yes I do need that reread. Memory’s a bit hazy – the last time I read this post was a year ago, shortly after you published it. (I subscribe to the follow-up comments.) Apologies.

  16. I really like this song, as it reminds me of my profession. Being a Building manager of a 2 building High-rise complex, that is primarily elderly people… It relates very well. Well it does to me…

    “you would not believe your eyes if ten million fireflies lit up the world as I fell asleep“

    All the problems and repairs that come in each evening, that I will have to deal with the next day

    “Cause they fill up the open air and leave teardrops every where. You`d think me rude, but I would just stand and stare“

    They are always whining and complaining about this and that.

    “I`d like to make myself believe that planet earth turns slowly“

    Months go by like weeks, as I am always very busy holding down the fort.

    “It`s hard to say that I`d rather stay awake when I`m asleep“

    I get calls all the time throughout the evenings, being on call. I have to work a lot of hours each and every day as well.

    “Cause nothing is ever as it seems“

    Murphy`s Law is always sitting on my shoulder!

    “Cause I’d get a thousand hugs
    From ten thousand lightning bugs
    As they tried to teach me how to dance“

    They often try to tell me how to do my job, or to con me into getting extra`s done in their apartments, like new floors, sinks… etc. Looking for freebies that are really not needed.

    “A foxtrot above my head
    A sock hop beneath my bed
    A disco ball is just hanging by a thread“

    Tenants that make too much noise that live above me. and the mechanical and garbage rooms that are noisy below me.


    Again weeks are like days, and months go by like weeks… etc.

    “Leave my door open just a crack
    (Please take me away from here)
    ‘Cause I feel like such an insomniac
    (Please take me away from here)
    Why do I tire of counting sheep
    (Please take me away from here)
    When I’m far too tired to fall asleep“

    I think the above part is self explanatory!

    “To ten million fireflies
    I’m weird ’cause I hate goodbyes
    I got misty eyes as they said farewell“

    On three occasions, I have had to deal with the elderly that have perished in there apt, and have a family member call and have me go and check on them…. only to find out the worst… Again more work to clean it up!

    “But I’ll know where several are
    If my dreams get real bizarre
    ‘Cause I saved a few and I keep them in a jar“

    This part is more of a chuckle, as I would love to keep a few with walkers in a jar, s I would peer into the jar they`s all be shaking there fists at me!


    But hey dont get me wrong.. I do love my Job, and I do care deeply for my tenants,a s I would go to the end of the earth for them. Some are bound to there apartments.. and none of there families ever visit them.. they are lonely, and have lived a lot longer than I, and I have always respected my elders……

    Or, maybe I just have a twisted mind.. But I do really like this song!


  17. Hi Ian:

    Thanks for your very good thoughts on this song. I think my main concern with it is, as I said, not so much with what he’s done, but rather that it’s important for artists to explore a full range of artistic expression. Owl City is imaginative as far as it goes, but for me, too many of the songs have a similar “naiveté”.

    The first time I heard the song, I was actually quite excited by the freshness of his approach. But over time, once I started listening to the whole album, I became a bit disappointed that all of the songs had that similar approach, and it began to wear thin.

    But I certainly agree with you regarding the imagery, and his ability to allow the listener to visualize. Now I just hope that his next album goes in a different direction somehow.

    Thanks again!

    • For me, I think that the “syrupy lyrics” and “naivete” are half the reason I enjoy listening to his music. They draw my mind back to younger days and simpler ways of looking at things. This seems tied into his simple yet playful musical style.

      I do hope his next album has something different going for it, but also that it would retain the childlike sense of awe at the world, whether it be examining positive or negative situations. I feel that music and society both need more people to see things in ways that are “naive” and innocent and I really really hope that his mainstream success doesn’t wind up killing the main thing he has going for him that is exceptional: the innocence and wonder expressed in his lyrics.

  18. The great thing about Owl City is that it isn’t like other music. It uses puns, and imagery that are intended to make the listener actually think about what they are listening to. You’ve heard of the “show don’t tell” expression? Where the author doesn’t just tell the person what is going on, they allow the person to experience thoughts, emotions, and experiences.

    Ocean Eyes, and all Adam’s other music isn’t so shallow as to assume the listener can’t understand what is going on without a closed explanation, ie. “This happened, then this happened, then this happened, then that happened.” And because of this, it isn’t the same as mainstream music. It doesn’t try to hide it’s message in clever puns and analogies. Adam’s music works and moves through the listener, allowing for meditation and thought. Perhaps having to dwell on the music is something that more people should do.

    This music is very inspiring, emotional, spiritual. The imagery in the songs are delightful. They move through the listeners mind and soul, allowing for auditory visualization. A lot of people just see music as something to listen to, some way to get an issue accriss, but Adam Young has effectively turned his music into something that goes beyond listening. It can be visualized, and felt on an emotional level. It is an experience that doesn’t rely on narrative, but on the process of discovering what music actually is.

    I can see why Owl City is said to be either something to love, or something to hate. It is art. Some enjoy a piece. Some despise it. But what’s fascinating is the people who can see the value in a great piece of art, not because it fits the cultural mold, but because it goes beyond the boundaries of that mold and becomes something in itself much more beautiful.

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