Smash Mouth’s ‘All Star’ has become the voice of the internet generation
RICHARD S HE explains how a power pop hit from 1999 became the theme song for a generation of jokes, memes and deeply weird nostalgia.
Smash Mouth’s singer Steve Harwell once fronted the white rap group F.O.S., but by 1997, when Smash Mouth debuted with Fush Yu Mang, ska-punk was the new flavour of the month. Their ‘60s-inflected ‘Walkin’ on the Sun’ crossed over onto the charts and made it #11 in the 1997 triple j Hottest 100, just two places below ‘Karma Police’. However, by the time the followup – 1999’s Astro Lounge – arrived Smash Mouth had abandoned all pretenses to being a credible rock band.
At the time, SPIN called them “a goofy but deeply schooled popcore band who sing about getting blunted and nodding off on the American Dream like a bunch of stoner Smurfs”. Their lack of seriousness was their appeal, and ‘All Star’ was the crown jewel. Where the New Radicals’ ‘You Get What You Give‘ combined cynicism, earnestness and a fuck-you end verse into – seriously – one of the greatest songs of the ‘90s, ‘All Star’ was the corporate-rock novelty version. But it was involuntarily catchy, and parents liked it as much as their kids.
Soon, Smash Mouth were soundtracking montages in Shrek, Digimon: The Movie, Mystery Men, Rat Race, Inspector Gadget, and apparently every other movie ever made. As soon as it was recorded, singer Steve Harwell was thinking about about licensing opportunities. “We were going, ‘Gatorade, football, baseball, basketball — this song’s going to be everywhere,’” he told Rolling Stone. He was right, but they were too successful. By 2003, the dream was over. In a more cynical time, Smash Mouth became the goofy ‘90s relic we’d prefer to forget.
But years later, once we were far removed enough from the ‘90s to mock them, the Smash Mouth renaissance began. Patient zero: a 2010 Saturday Night Live sketch where “Smash Mouth” keep emerging from a young girl’s closet to play ‘All Star’ at her. In 2011: the “Smash Mouth eat the eggs“ incident, where Twitterer Jon Hendren, a.k.a. @fart, successfully raises $10,000 for charity to get Steve Harwell to eat two dozen eggs, cooked by his celebrity chef doppelganger Guy Fieri.
Our generation is doomed, and all we can do is quote the lyrics of ‘All Star’ in increasingly absurd settings
But it’s Neil Cicierega’s 2014 mashup album Mouth Sounds that takes things to the next level. Cicierega combines Smash Mouth with everything from Modest Mouse to the Full House theme, even John Lennon – all to horrifying effect. Mouth Sounds was the peak of the internet’s obsession with nostalgia and BuzzFeed quizzes, where everything uncool from our youth collides and forms a black hole that sucks in everything else. Smash Mouth’s ‘All Star’ is the gaping void at its centre. In other words: Nostalgia is the death of original art, our generation is doomed, and all we can do is quote the lyrics of ‘All Star’ in increasingly absurd settings.
Now, the Smash Mouth memes start coming and they don’t stop coming. There’s a new one every month. An audience threw bread at them; they inspired someBODY’s embarrassing teenage diary entries. “Smashups” become not just a subreddit or a SoundCloud subgenre, but a way of life. Some guy called Hot Dad sang ‘All Star’ in reverse; another deconstructed the song so it sounds like the ‘90s falling apart. Will it ever end? This painfully serious trap cover is just the beginning.
The holy grail of smashups is Cicierega’s ‘Imagine All Star People‘. The truth is, ‘Imagine’ and ‘All Star’ are really about the same thing and if you watch this twisted karaoke version for long enough, the blasphemy turns into a collective joy. Where ‘Imagine’ is poetic, every line in ‘All Star’ is a cliché, all of which add up to one giant uber-cliché far greater than the sum of its parts.
‘All Star’ is so profoundly dumb that it comes back around to being profound. “All that glitters is gold/Only shooting stars break the mould” – it’s the human condition. By becoming the most meme-able song of them all, Smash Mouth’s ‘All Star’ has become the voice of the internet generation. It’s not the song we need, but the song we deserve.