The Meaning Behind “Kids” by MGMT and How It Helped Define Rock’s Spirit in 2008

Sometimes, timing is everything. MGMT began with two college students who mocked rockstar clichés on their single, “Time to Pretend.” They wrote Let’s make some music, make some money, find some models for wives, but then something crazy happened.

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They signed with Columbia Records, graduated college, and watched their debut album Oracular Spectacular climb the Billboard charts. By 2008, MGMT’s spacey electro-pop carried the wave of the summer. The album’s third single, “Kids,” followed “Electric Feel,” leading NME to name Oracular Spectacular the album of the year.

Yet underneath their snotty wit, you’ll find catchy and danceable pop songs. The down-up-down-up octave bassline on “Kids” recalls the Brit-prog sound of Muse. However, while Muse distracts themselves with skull-crushing guitar riffs, the apocalypse, and Mars’ rocks with faces, MGMT writes glam psychedelic pop with hints of a Britpop record collection.

From the song’s origins to its (multiple) music videos, “Kids” helped define rock’s spirit in 2008. So, who are these kids, and what’s it all about?

Time to Grow Up

MGMT’s Andrew Vanwyngarden and Ben Goldwasser write with nostalgia about adolescence. The inspirational song dots childhood steps while doling out feel-good wisdom like Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young.”

Unlike Dylan’s classic, “Kids” doesn’t transform as easily into a children’s book, but an aspirational message against ’70 British prog rock and psychedelia creates a wistful playground daydream.

You were a child
Crawling on your knees toward it
Making Mama so proud
But your voice is too loud
We like to watch you laughing
You pick the insects off plants
No time to think of consequences

The chorus speaks to haunted family trees and the ghosts of inherited or learned impulses. But it’s also about control—disciplined control and an autonomous future. All families have generational baggage young adults (and old ones) must navigate. You try to keep the good and discard the bad, but it’s not always easy. Part of growing up is leaving your parents’ shadow.

Control yourself
Take only what you need from it
A family of trees wanted to be haunted

The brooding synthesizer offsets sweet messages of hope. The foreboding keyboard predicts the many roadblocks up ahead. It’s not all doom and gloom; the boom-bap drum beat keeps things moving.

Kids Make a Video

In December 2007, Jon Salmon, a University of Southern California student, faced a fast-approaching deadline for his music video class. He invited two Los Angeles friends to dance in his video, set to MGMT’s “Kids.”

Salmon filmed and edited the video quickly before turning in the assignment. They joked that it was his worst work. A year later, while visiting his family home in Austin, Texas, Salmon uploaded the video to YouTube. As of this writing, it has nearly 53 million views.

As a result, MGMT’s video director, Ray Tintori, invited the three friends to New York to appear in the band’s video for “Electric Feel.”

Monsters and Toddlers

Tintori directed the official music video for “Kids.” It follows a toddler terrorized by monsters while his mother ignores him. Monsters surround the child’s crib and flex their claws. His mother takes him from the crib, and while walking down the street, the child sees humans as monsters.

The video changes between live action and animation. During the animated segment, the child runs from a monster onto the hand of a giant Vanwyngarden, who transforms into a ghastly creature and eats the child.


The video’s opening quote wrongly cites Mark Twain. It’s a Friedrich Nietzsche quote from the philosopher’s 1886 book Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future.

“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.”

People are good at becoming what they protest. Within a family dynamic, kids rebel against their parents for various misdeeds. Children can either repeat their parents’ behaviors or break the cycle when they grow up.

College Kids

MGMT formed while Vanwyngarden and Goldwasser were students at Wesleyan University. The college bubble is an exciting time for independence with limited responsibilities. They wrote “Kids” against the backdrop of college while still (hopefully) forming into adults.

Around this time, bands like Vampire Weekend—following paths made by The Strokes and The Walkmen—redefined guitar-based rock bands. MGMT, equipped with synths, is part of this tradition.

It’s telling that they began their career by mocking rock clichés. They took their own advice from “Kids” and used it in their art: Take only what you need from it.

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Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Panorama

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