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MeaningMGMT has been playing it close to the vest, so the song remains a mystery wrapped in an enigma.
We think the founding duo of MGMT, Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden, want it this way. Left to our own devices to figure out what the heck they're singing about, we at Shmoop naturally turned to the music video for ideas.
Ironically, the most popular music video for "Kids" on YouTube (with 19 million hits!) was not made by MGMT. It was made by some guy named Jon. He put it together for a music video class he was taking at USC. This was two years before the band put out their official video. Jon tells the story himself:
"Just to set the story straight: the facepainted kids in the video are a boy and girl from Los Angeles, two friends of mine, names Raf and Abby. MGMT was not involved in the making of this video, however, they became involved down the line. December 2007: Rushing to make a due date for a USC Music Video class, I ask my friends Raf and Abby to appear in my video. I like the way they bounce off of each other despite completely different personality types, and think they both have interesting faces. Raf didn't want to shave so I didn't push him. We shot in one night, I cut overnight, turn it in and call it the worst thing I've done so far. January 2008: On a whim one night while visiting home in Austin, Texas, I throw the video on Youtube just for kicks. April 2008: Ray Tintori, who has directed 3 official videos for MGMT, finds my fan video online and invites myself and my two actors to come to New York to appear in MGMTs next official video for Electric Feel. May 2008: We go to New York and have a great time on the set with the band and all their friends."
This fan-made video splices clips from different movies, shows, and other pop culture bric-a-brac. The montage is a monument to randomness. Both Charlie Chaplin and Bob Saget somehow make the cut. Our favorite clips come from "Call on Me" by Eric Prydz, a terrible/awesome, more-than-slightly-erotic workout video from the '90s. And of course, through it all you've got Jon's friends, Raf and Abby, dancing around with their faces painted like weird mimes.. It's not surprising that the real MGMT took notice and gave Jon some kudos for a job well done. The video is fun, upbeat, and visually entertaining. It definitely captures the cartoonish playfulness of the song. It's weird nonsensical nature also seems to match the song's deliberate obtuseness. Overall, though, the video seems to only skate on the surface of the song's meaning.
So let's take a second to check out the official video. Maybe it will provide some better clues into the deeper meanings of the song. The video begins with a quote that is attributed to Mark Twain, but we know that it is actually a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche:
"He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you."
It's hard to believe that this misquote was an accident. Ben and Andrew attended Wesleyan College in Connecticut, a top ranked liberal arts school. Their lyrics are generally intelligent and insightful, so there's a good chance the misquote is for a particular reason. What could it be? Perhaps, examining Nietzsche and Twain will give us a hint.
Friedrich Nietzsche as a German philosopher of the late 19th century who, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, "challenged the foundations of Christianity and traditional morality.[…] Central to his philosophy is the idea of 'life-affirmation,' which involves an honest questioning of all doctrines that drain life's energies, however socially prevalent those views might be."
Mark Twain, meanwhile, liked to question just about everything. He was always ready to lampoon the conventions of society with a quick (and almost always hilarious) barb. Two of his most compelling novels, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, take a good hard look at the importance of childhood in order to offer a fresh perspective on adult society.
It seems to us that both Twain and Nietzsche's philosophies can be seen in the official video for "Kids." Perhaps that's why MGMT decided to blur the two together with the misquote. Both Twain and Nietzsche wrote extensively on the hypocrisy of humanity and the stifling nature of "civilized, adult society." Perhaps, MGMT's way of exploring these same themes is by showing us a child trapped in a land of monstrous adults. The video follows a little boy through a surreal day of his very creepy life. At the beginning, the child wakes up to sharp claws grabbing at him through the bars of his crib. His day doesn't get much better. He spends most of it with his disinterested, cell-phone chatting mother, who totes him around through a world where most every adult is a hideous monster. The adults' distorted mutilated faces seem to mimic the ugliness of their lives.
We just hope the kid is careful dealing with all these monsters. If Nietzsche's quote is true, he may end up one himself. Maybe that's exactly what really scares the child. The second half of the quote also comes into play in the video. At the end, the world becomes suddenly animated. The face of Andrew VanWyngarden appears and distorts into yet another terrifying creature. It then splits into a million disgusting pieces, and the kid spirals into black oblivion. It looks to us like the kid has found the abyss, or bottomless pit, that Nietzsche warned about. Yikes… and here we were thinking this song was so upbeat!
The two quotes about monsters and the abyss reinforce each other because they reiterate the same theme: that if you deal with something that scares you or hurts you for long enough, it will inevitably rub off on you in some way. The kid spends his whole childhood "fighting with monsters," and is ultimately doomed to grow into an adult and become a "monster" himself. He is forced to continually stare into an "abyss" of fear and is eventually sucked into it.
Yes, it seems like "Kids" is all about the fear of growing up. In an interview with Time Out London, Wyngarden describes the band's mentality when writing the song: "We were just happy-go-lucky, going crazy on campus. But at the same time we were nostalgic for childhood and there was the threat of post-college life coming."
The "threat" of "post college life" is surely a reference to impending adulthood. With that in mind, it makes a lot of sense that almost all of the adults in the official video are portrayed as threatening monsters. In the end, it seems like MGMT is constantly inspired by this fear of growing up. Like Nietzsche and Twain they express a cynicism for the adult world. Many of their songs are drenched with a nostalgia for the lost innocence of childhood that the adult world tends to steal away. "Kids" is a great example of all this. Sure, the song is upbeat, a bit random, and super catchy, but its meaning seems to be grounded in these universal emotions of fear and longing.