‘FANDOM’ — a middle finger to modern love and music

Waterparks broke expectations with their third studio album FANDOM. The version available at Target includes two bonus tracks -- a home demo of one of their songs, and an acoustic version performed in the lead singers bathroom. (Photo courtesy of Ellie Bruno)

Oranges, clocks, toxic fans, broken hearts, and green hair. Somehow, these are the elements of another genre-bending album by Texas three-piece Waterparks, consisting of Awsten Knight (vocals), Geoff Wigington (guitar), and Otto Wood (drums). While the band is still technically lesser-known (some have even considered them to be “indie”), they’ve gained a lot of attention over the years. 

They burst into the mainstream flow after three EPs — two of which were done without any record label support — and the release of their first album Double Dare. The era of blue and yellow associated with the first album brought on a whole slew of fans, popularity, and challenges. Expectations set, a (loud and often obnoxious) fanbase was built, and critics were putting the band into the “pop-punk” stereotype. When their second studio album Entertainment dropped, a mix of hard-core love and hatred rose from the era of purple with the album, many saying the band went too pop and sappy. Fast forward a year later — the plans for their third album Friendly Reminder were scrapped in March 2019, and in its place FANDOM rose to destroy the expectations of their audience.

There are heavily mixed reviews on the beginning of the album, starting with the explosive “Cherry Red”. Knight himself said on Twitter that this opener started as something entirely different. What started as a mess of corrupt files became a happy accident of an indescribable sound — the perfect way to start an album. One writer on Wall of Sound recognizes this but is “a little disappointed by [the song]” because of how abrupt it is; the opener is only a verse and a chorus before fading into the next song. The general consensus is clear: This is not anything Waterparks has done before, and this is just the opening song. 

After a quick transition into Wigington’s fast-paced electric guitar, “Watch What Happens Next” lets the listeners into Knight’s anger towards both his fans and the music industry in general. The chorus is chock-full of sharp jabs: From his past record label (“Got nothing from my label/ B*tch, pay me what you owe me”) to fan responses to his artistic decisions (“I put autotune on ‘Worst’ and caught all their disgust”). Knight is tired and angry — he wants to create art on his terms, not his fan’s ideas of what he should do. 

The blunt anger of the second track dies down into “Dream Boy”, a passive-aggressive take on fan expectations wrapped up into a bubblegum-pop song with underlying pop-punk roots. Being one of the only songs on the record to not have swears and easily one of the happiest ones, “Dream Boy” actually made it onto Radio Disney’s Top 30 list, and has been blowing up on stations for its playability. With this in mind, Knight is still able to put his insecurities of the “saturated and inflated” expectations fans have built up around him. 

Up next is my personal favorite — “Easy to Hate” is a banger of a breakup song, with distorted electrics and a unique spin on the pop-punk standards that a review on Kerrang! said “throw[s] out the rulebook.” Luckily, this song was saved from the now-deleted Friendly Reminder and clearly belongs on this album. Full of colorful metaphors that date back to the band’s first album — and maybe even further back — that elaborate how this past relationship has changed over the years. The tone shifts as noises of a bustling restaurant fill the space; “High Definition” is a significantly slower and distorted ballad of loneliness and heartbreak from being on the move for their career. In a video interview with Rock Sound, Knight explains that “It’s about not being able to get close to people, because of what we do…  Or, you know, starting to have some kind of stature and not trusting the people who hit you up, because people may not have done so much before.” 

With that heartbreaking idea in mind, the band does a total 180 and hits the audience with “Telephone”, a song written in 2018 about a pretty girl in Target. Yes, that’s literally what it’s about. Upbeat piano keys and claps are as bright and shiny as the future hope that Knight has with this mystery girl. The song abruptly ends with a sample of the 1988 movie The Wedding Singer and perfectly captures how Knight feels about this disposition — “He’s losing his mind (Knight), and I’m (the girl) reaping all the benefits.”

Now it’s time for the highly controversial “Group Chat” — a simple 14 second “song” that one review on Wall of Sound says “grinds my gears” and isn’t needed. In reality, the short interruption is a signal of a turning point in the album. The band explains that this simple track cut into fan culture and the persona the band must put on for fans. A dead-sounding Knight follows through the rest of the tacks, some fully displaying this darker underlying idea of a two-sided persona. 

“Turbulent” is a perfect example of this apparent anger; a breakup song filled with angst and swears was the first single dropped off FANDOM, shocking fans with a new sound of rage and betrayal. It’s a combination of two major themes — heartbreak and the stress of music, in a mash of electrics and violent beats. Knight himself said that this was the turning point in the creative process; this was the song that led them to scrap their original album plan.  

The anger switches to sadness as Knight’s somber voice sings in tune with an acoustic guitar. “Never Bloom Again” continues the heartbreak arc in the storyline, and is well loved by reviewers who enjoy the bittersweet heartache. The acoustic follows into “I Miss Having Sex But At Least I Don’t Wanna Die Anymore”, and is full of bluntness and honesty. Beneath the sharp lyrics and brutal honesty, a dark, manipulated voice edges into the second verse; a common element that follows into the rest of FANDOM, as if the dead tone in “Group Chat” infected the other tracks. 

“War Crimes” is the next notable track — a whole year-and-a-half compressed into 3 minutes of pure anger and cynicism. Callbacks to both Double Dare (“I wear you like a halo” became “give back my halo you stole”) and Entertainment (“I think you saved my life” became “I saved my own life”) reach into the darkness that Knight has felt for almost the past 2 years. Explosive undertones and a blend of programming with the iconic Waterparks noise brings this track to life. The pure pettiness and rage drips into the next track “[Reboot]”, which was released before the album as one of the most sonically unique ones on the album. Another well-loved song, critics praise the pop-rap style — a deep, dark, quick-singing Knight separates this track in particular away from the rest, and twists the idea of a “dream boy” on its head. 

Fans back in 2018 will recognize track 13 — “Worst” was released by Knight’s personal YouTube account and tweeted out a link before being quickly deleted due to label issues. It was a heavily autotuned song that sounded more like a demo than a finished product, and Knight agreed. Reworked in response to the initial backlash (in “Watch What Happens Next” the line “I put autotune on ‘Worst’ and caught all their disgust” shows there was pushback from this unofficial song) it’s more polished and refined — with cute adlibs and harmonies, a heavy bassline, and that ever-present darkness lurking at peaks of aggression. This rework is then followed by a slowed down, dreamy version of “Dream Boy” aptly named “Zone Out”, almost like a reflection on the ever-present theme of perfection and expectations. 

Finally to wrap up the album, “I Felt Younger When We Met” is explosive and dark; distorted lyrics whipping back to “Cherry Red” — “I said I love you to death/ So I must be dead” — and an easy sing-along that recaps the entire journey of FANDOM. From the heartbreak arc, the idea of being perfect, and the cyclical nature of moving on, the ticking clock that wraps up the song is a reminder of the clock on the album art — this is a story of time. The fact that “I Felt Younger When We Met” was written to fade into “ Cherry Red” is something few artists have attempted; Knight succeeded in creating a spiral of beautiful insanity that is his brain.  

If you’ve stayed with me through this rant and gotten to the end, I highly recommend listening to this album. Try to listen for the first time with no distractions — just close your eyes and absorb the sounds, and don’t skip tracks or you’ll miss the subtle transitions. Everything for this album was carefully curated for perfection, so listen to it with that in mind. 


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