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Joke’s On You

Written by on February 26, 2022

Oliver Tree @ Shrine Expo Hall [2/19/2022]

I used to think that the best concerts are those where you love the artist and are proven right; after watching Oliver Tree fill the Shrine Expo Hall, I would say the opposite: the best concerts are those where you hate the artist and are proven wrong.

If you do not know his music, you almost certainly know his persona: Oliver Tree has spent years haunting internet culture with his bowl cut, purple and pink puffer jacket, and frustratingly impressive scooter tricks. In the cyberspace, the line between meme-able and irritating is as fine as chalk marks on a blacktop; Tree balances his internet persona like he’s playing a mesmerizing game of hopscotch.

I found myself on the majority side of the aisle that peripherally hated him, opposite to the minority that fiercely supported him. His clothes bothered me, his social media content bothered me, and his infamous music videos did nothing but make me uncomfortable. I did enjoy the song “Do You Feel Me?”, but kept my indulgence hidden from the world and pinned the tune as a fluke in his discography. How could someone with such a brash, brazen, and immature aesthetic produce any more than one good song?

Furthermore, I found the release of his newest album “Cowboy Tears” to be of great intrigue. Why would Tree, known well for his cyber-scooter-nerd persona and indie pop sound, take such a hard turn to left field towards a maximalist red-neck bowl-cut-mullet country album? Why did he recruit so many influencers for his “Cowboys Don’t Cry” video? Why on earth would he fake a country drawl?

And thus I found myself in the pit of the Shrine Expo Hall watching the first opener Sueco take the stage like a reincarnation of Billie Joe Armstrong destined to make emo songs fitting for Tik Tok. With the guitarist’s man-spreaded emo stance and the act’s skeletal middle-finger logo behind them, I felt shuttled back in time to a Vans Warped Tour in its peak year as he skated through an angsty, joyful, and downright fun opening set. Despite his melodramatic lyrics and heavily tattooed neck, as he sang “Sober/Hungover” he could not escape the fact that he grew up with happily married parents who played music in their church– on the balcony above the stage his mom and dad leaned over the railing, mom filming on her iPhone with the flash on the entire time.

Next up, like a Golden Retriever puppy after a long nap, 347aiden loped onto the stage, took in the view and shook his head in disbelief at the crowd gawking back at him. He dove into the energy of the venue as he smiled his way from one end of the stage to the other, finishing up with the song that arguably got him there in the first place: “Dancing in My Room.” It was so obviously the best night of his teenage life, and he showed it. I would have enjoyed his performance based on his enthusiasm alone– the catchy bedroom-pop hooks, infectiously jumpy production and the lyrics drenched in youthful cynicism acted as a nice little cherry on top.

In between sets the interluding music played, and with each passing song the energy in the audience became more palpable: excitement filled the hall to the brim, nearly spilling over into frustration as the clock ticked on. Already, it seemed that Tree was playing with us– withholding his presence, making the crowd so frustrated by his absence that his inevitable entrance became all the more cathartic when it finally arrived.

Donned in his classic puffer jacket (“He’s bringing back childhood puffers!” said a millennial audience member) and sporting an impressive bowl-mullet (bullet?) hair cut, he took no time to get the people what they wanted, opening with “Alien Boy.” He continued on with hits from the earlier phase of his career, dancing his way through tunes like “All That,” “When I’m Down” and “Fuck.” 

When he predictably played “Life Goes On,” one of his worst songs– the needless repetition of the chorus makes me mash the skip button every time– that for some reason the Tik Tok algorithm looked favorably upon, he prefaced it by saying “If you’re wondering why there’s a bunch of kids next to you in the mosh pit, it’s because of this one.” For the first half of his performance, he metamorphosed between various outfits, as if nicely wrapping the first phase of his career up in a little red bow just before throwing it in an incinerator.

“I’m done with that shit!” he screamed before ripping off the iconic puffer. “For those of you who want me to stay the same, fuck you, I’m a person and I can’t live like that.”

His indignant announcement was met with the strongest cheer of the entire night, as he donned a red cowboy suit and made figure-eights on a mini bike. Following this moment came the live debuts of a large portion of the songs on Cowboy Tears. As he sang “Cowboys Don’t Cry,” Tree stood atop a hollow cow statue, and from my vantage point I could see how much his legs were shaking. It felt symbolic of the moment in his career: standing atop a completely new platform, in front of a gigantic audience, praying he wouldn’t fall off.

I had the pleasure of speaking with one of the two producers who worked with Tree on the “Cowboy Tears”, a smiley, subdued individual by the name of Iman Royal, and I asked him about something that had struck me while listening to the album on the drive over: how was it that an artist with such a visually insulting aesthetic could create such enjoyable, genuinely good music? “He’s polarizing. But he’s undeniably talented,” he said.

At that moment, I had an epiphany: Oliver Tree is a genius marketer. By packaging his quiet genius in songwriting with a loud, brash, humorous aesthetic, he had managed to channel all of the attention put toward him on the internet– both positive and negative– in the direction of his music. He invites people to hate him because it forces them to listen. And when they do, they will find it very hard to deny his talent for songwriting.

As he danced awkwardly, dabbed excessively, brought in an alien as special guest, and went through various skits in between songs (including one involving a fart machine that felt directed towards the Tik Tok audience), this epiphany became cemented. The joke was on Oliver Tree, but he was in on it too. In an exemplary lyric on “Freaks and Geeks,” he confesses: “I’m a dumbass, but people love that / And they hate me as much as they show me the love.”

A self-induced encore of “Gone” ended the night, and I realized the significance of the moment I had experienced. In an increasingly polarized world, it feels increasingly rare to have your mind changed completely about something. Tree does just that: he challenges you to acknowledge that he is a mixed bag– part meme, part songwriter, part polarizing, part uniting– and you have to accept the good with the bad. He isn’t the bag trail mix in your pantry– you can’t take the M&Ms and leave the pine nuts. So if you hate him, I understand; but do yourself a favor, and give Oliver Tree a chance.

Photos by Sam Joslyn

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