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Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024
The Observer

And they don’t stop coming and they don’t stop coming and they don’t stop coming

Smash Mouth_WEB
Dominique DeMoe
Dominique DeMoe

In a 2014 interview, Smash Mouth lead singer Steve Harwell gave his opinion on the state of the band, on the verge of its 20-year anniversary.

“Everybody is taking it a lot more serious than we used to, you know … everybody is, pretty much, clean and sober, and not going out and getting f---ed-up anymore and – excuse my language – and, you know, just taking it serious, and singing better than ever, playing better than ever and just enjoying the shows.”

So, when I witnessed Steve hand out a bottle of vodka to the crowd as Smash Mouth closed out a Sunday night in Austin during SXSW, I had to conclude that at least one part of his statement from that interview three years ago remained true. It was a weird show, with Steve giving out more of his drinks throughout the night, inviting multiple women on stage to dance and exhibiting the arsenal of simple yet alluring swaying motions available to his broad, lonely frame. The entire band displayed a collective musical talent that perhaps only a live performance could afford to the average listener. This thought turned my attention to the audience.

As I looked around the room, no one seemed to know the lyrics to such early hits as “Flo” or “Walkin’ on the Sun.” The crowd was a healthy mix of younger and older, but if real Smash Mouth fans still exist, they weren’t in attendance. There was an unfamiliar familiarity in the air, as people struggled to remember songs they may have heard on the radio years ago, coupled with a restless anticipation for “All Star.” The band appropriately closed with this chef-d'œuvre after a flawless transition from their cover of “Believer.” All Harwell had to say before playing the last two songs and walking off the stage was, “I’m a believer, baby.” But what exactly does Smash Mouth believe in these days, and does that align with society’s view of the band?

We know that the majority of the popularity of the aforementioned songs stems from their featuring in the original soundtrack of “Shrek,” a film that was a big box office success and started the highest-grossing animated franchise of all time. A decade later, Smash Mouth’s “All Star” continues to be incorporated into the increasingly widespread meme culture in the wake of an uncomfortable fascination with“Shrek.” One may ask, did “Shrek” kill a band or did Smash Mouth kill a franchise? I believe the former is closer to the truth, except that Smash Mouth has managed to survive as a constantly morphing meme. This adaptation, however, began long before the Internet storm.

“Kidz Bop,” the first album in the Kidz Bop series, released in 1999, had “All Star” as the opening track. The album peaked at 76 on the U.S. Billboard 200 and was No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard Top Kid Audio. That same year, “All Star” was also the opening track on “Now That’s What I Call Music! 3,” which climbed to peak position No. 4 on the U.S. Billboard 200. The industry behemoths had possibly sealed Smash Mouth’s fate the moment the band decided to shift from the foul-mouthed SoCal punk pop sound of their 1997 debut “Fush Yu Mang.” And perhaps at the same time, the “real” fans no longer had the choice but to abandon their love for early Smash Mouth or go into hiding.“Shrek” and everything that followed — Smash Mouth also featured prominently in “Reef Grief!,” a 2005 episode of “What’s New, Scooby-Doo?” — was a way to cash in on the sinking ship of artistic integrity while riding the wave of unconventional stardom.

The San Jose rockers claim to have embraced the meme, and have tried to become more active on Twitter, often incorporating memes into their posts. Harwell noted that sales for “All Star” remain consistent and help keep a strong quote for booking live shows. Steve also believes the song’s sound and positive message help it resonate with a new generation. Whatever that message may be, I can’t help but feel that the meaning contained in Smash Mouth songs has been swallowed, misconstrued and spit up by the tangled webs of corporate music and online dark matter. For better or for worse, the act unfolding before my eyes was no longer simply a band. I was viewing a meme incarnate, a wholly new experience that was both exciting and alarming.