Hippo Campus: Cryptic Maturity

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Back in 2014 the band Hippo Campus released their first EP, “Bashful Creatures.” Despite their small early following, Hippo Campus continued to release music and build a loyal fanbase. Three years later, they have released three EPs, a full album, and have toured internationally. Listening to their music over this three year period, I have noticed a particular recurring theme featured prominently in the group’s songwriting: Hippo Campus uses the theme of “coming of age” throughout their music by writing cryptically, connoting a sense of lost innocence both lyrically and musically, and by implementing the concept of necessary maturity.

Hippo Campus presents the theme of “coming of age” throughout their music by writing cryptically as a way of illustrating the complexity of their reality. One of the hallmarks of Hippo Campus, especially the lead singer Jake Luppen, is the cryptic and at times nearly incomprehensible lyricism used in every song that they release. The band members are young, the oldest being only 22 years old. Because of this, each member has been making the transition into adulthood while writing songs for the band. The cryptic aspects of their music reflects their state of confusion toward their listeners. As a kid, you likely have little to no knowledge of what the world is really like. The social, cultural, and political, aspects of the world as lost to you. Upon reaching a certain age, your reality is shifted completely, and you are exposed to the real world. This development in a young person’s life is confusing and startling. In the song “Baseball,” Jake Luppen asserts, “there’s somethin’ fiction ‘bout the way that reality’s going,” (Baseball, Hippo Campus). He is using the paradox of a “fake reality” to represent the internal tension generated when one’s reality is difficult to relate to or keep up with. 

Luppen expounds on this idea in the song “Western Kids” when he sings “But the sickness sleeps inside our bones/With solipsistic overtones,” (Western Kids, Hippo Campus). Because the only thing that one can prove exists is one’s self, all humans are predisposed to a narcissistic view of the world, especially when young. It takes a lot of adjustment and maturity to become comfortable with certain aspects of the world you live in. In the song “Epitaph,” Luppen, commenting on his own writing style, sings, “I’m a cryptic writer, I’m an ignorant fool,” (Epitaph, Hippo Campus). When one clearly does not understand the world around them, they may be perceived to be an “ignorant fool” by observers; but at a deeper level, someone who writes cryptically, but who does not actually understand the topics about which they speak, is attempting to mask actual ignorance! In both lines, Luppen uses cryptic subtext in an attempt to convey an understanding of complex truths and preserve a sense of control over the emerging complexities of his music and developing adolescents.

Hippo Campus ensures the prominence of the theme “coming of age” throughout their music by cultivating a sense of lost innocence through their lyrics and compositional techniques. While growing up, being exposed to tragedy, loss, violence, and everything else that comes with humanity guarantees loss of your innocence, to at least a certain extent. Your ability to be ignorant to the problems and opportunities around you dissolves, and in many cases, this warrants taking the situation into one’s own hands. 

In Hippo Campus’ songs, a lot of the time characters are faced with either a devastating setback or an exciting opportunity, in which their fate is placed in their own hands.  This causes a loss in innocence and causes the character to think or act in a drastic and dramatic way. In their song “Monsoon,” the band addresses the tragic death of band member Nathan Stocker’s sister. Luppen sings, “should wash the rest of her youth away/and carry on with it as she may,” (Monsoon, Hippo Campus). As eighteen year old Makenzie Stocker learns more and more about the opportunities that await her in adulthood, her innocence becomes lost to the past as she takes strides toward the future. During this part of the song, piano can be heard in the background, but it sounds as though it is drowning, like it is helpless and is watching the rest of the song play out from the background. This is now a reflection of Nathan’s realty. He is helpless to the circumstances of the situation, and must act as people expect him to after loss, such that whenever he tries to speak his mind, he is drowned out by the more important situation at hand, just like the piano.

In a similar vein, “Buttercup” is about a girl constantly fighting and standing up for herself. Luppen sings, “I’ll be fine on my own, she said…,” (Buttercup, Hippo Campus). “Buttercup,” like ”Monsoon,” is about a girl who is outgoing. Life throws obstacles at her, but she perseveres. But through fighting so much, she becomes numb to feeling, and loses her innocence. She is sure that she will be fine on her own, does not accept help, and therefore is alone. The dynamic arc of this song parallels the feeling of being confident but alone. At times, there is a strong, loud beat, and the vocals are loud and empowering. But in others, the guitar and vocals sound intimidating and harsh. This represents the feeling of empowerment a person can receive when they are independent, but also the ridicule and humiliation they receive when they realise that they are not strong enough to stand alone. 

Hippo Campus conveys their connection to the theme of “coming of age” throughout their music by exploring the concept of necessary maturity. When growing up, it is important to not lose your sense of humor and your appetite for fun. Hippo Campus incorporates this into their music by writing songs about young love, and using warm sounding guitar and piano riffs. 

Alongside these more enjoyable aspects of adolescence however, there are many responsibilities that come with becoming a young adult. In many Hippo Campus songs, someone with a fun or shy personality must put their childish ways aside in order to grow into the person that they want to become. In “Buttercup,” Luppen sings, “scale a tree, snap a branch so you can’t leave.” He illustrates that in order to maintain confidence in her successful future, she had to learn maturity and burn unsuccessful bridges. In the song “Monsoon,” Luppen sings, “My chin held shut so my heart can talk louder.” He is explaining that actions speak louder than words, and that what he says does not reflect what he intends to do. By using actions to communicate, he puts forward his best self and matures through neglecting his verbal impulses.

Hippo Campus uses the theme of “coming of age” throughout their music by writing cryptically, incorporating a sense of lost innocence both lyrically and musically, and by implementing the concept of necessary maturity. It is important to support and identify the themes of new bands and artists because it will increase your knowledge of musical themes and songwriting. But it will also encourage new generations of musical artists to make unique advancements in and express themselves through music.