WHEN WE WERE ALL STARS: NOSTALGIA & THE INTERNET’S FORGOTTEN SMASH MOUTH MASHUP

By PJ Grisar

At the tail end of 2016 in the chemtrails of a simpering frog named Pepe, the Memeosphere started playing a familiar tune.

“All Star,” the 1999 Smash Mouth hit, has arrived at a new era of noise pollution—diced up, pasted together or laid like lyrical onionskin over the melody of other works of pop pervasiveness. The internet, reliable in its naval-gazing, has done all the requisite hot takes and think pieces and to a one they are guilty of an error of omission. None seem to take into their reckoning a seminal, and far earlier, piece of “All Star” deconstruction, Neil Cicierega’s 2014 mashup album, Mouth Sounds. But, to understand Mouth Sounds, we must first understand Steve Harwell.

Imagine Harwell, the Smash Mouth frontman, lounging by a pool in San Jose, with his penciled-in soul patch, sunglasses riveted to his temples, feeling like he wants to motivate the world and crunching “All Star”’s soon-to-be ubiquitous hook into an aluminum tallboy. This is where Mouth Sounds starts and where my generation’s collective memory begins.

The album, a 17-track jumble of songs from the ‘90s, ‘80s and early aughts uses “All Star” as its leitmotif (it misses majority by ten tracks, though it guides the whole work). But its first theme comes from much earlier—like, 1868 earlier. Co-opting the tune of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” Cicierega presents a survey of the past, laid out on sonic gallery walls. In the opening track, “Promenade (Satellite Pictures at an Exhibition),” he disassembles “All Star” to match the melody of a classical work. The contrast is comical, bathetically elevating one piece while sinking the other.

Some-some-some; some-some-some; some-some-some; some-some-some, blare Harwell’s vocals, shifted down several octaves to Mussorgsky’s trumpet line. This is our legacy, the fanfare calls; our guide to the ‘90s geist. Christ, it says, is this what we’ve produced?

“All Star” feels right for Cicierega’s nostalgic exercise. Written by Smash Mouth guitarist Greg Camp for their sophomore album, Astro Lounge, a follow-up to the respectably alternative Fush Yu Mang (1997), the single was contrived by Harwell and Co. to be licensed to within an inch of its life. Naturally, it was bundled with a music video for MGM’s offbeat superhero comedy, Mystery Men. The song would outlive the film, which has more merit, and it remains evocative for anyone alive in ‘99 who had yet to develop a musical taste.

I remember being eight and singing it at a restaurant’s karaoke night in Bar Harbor. I remember Shrek kicking his outhouse door open to it. And nearly everyone remembers it as a punchline for its Cali-kitsch koans (“we could all use a little change,” “what’s wrong with taking the backstreets?”), its electro-twang production and its body horror properties—an earworm that latches onto your brain stem at 100 BPM and forces your head into a bob. It’s a natural choice because it’s so synthetic. Synthetic like peroxide blonde tips or tribal tattoos on white people—everything awful about the epoch.

Cicierega might be the most accomplished and extensive pasticheuer of “All Star” of the many, many unwitting imitators who have picked up his work of two years ago. This makes it all the sadder that he fell into the compromise of meme culture: that as a meme thrives and its derivatives become innumerable in Reddit threads, the originator can be lost in the shuffle. There is no patent for recreating a prior property. There is no first only is a collective unconscious anyone can claim. But, beyond our possessive recall, is there something inherent in the song musically that makes it so remixable?

“It’s pretty simple,” says Scott Interrante, a musicologist, the host of the now retired “Pop Unmuted” podcast, my roommate of seven years and a man who once decided to listen to nothing but Nickelback for 48 hours. “It’s easy to find a capella tracks of it and the time signature works with a lot of things.” Essentially, its value is generic and its appeal is to our ancillary associations (Rat Race, those few of us that remember Mystery Men). “It’s really well-placed in terms of nostalgia with Shrek and everything,” says Interrante.

It hits the sweet, or empty calorie spot. It kicks your serotonin around, suggesting that you are both an All Star, in a sports sense, and a Rock Star in the rock sense. It proposes you need not heed the “Somebody” who tells you that you “ain’t the sharpest tool in the shed.” Smash Mouth’s world is one where it “doesn’t make sense not to live for fun”; where when the ice you skate on gets too thin, a recourse is always to swim, and even when the world’s on fire, that’s how we like it. We’ll never get bored!

It, like Mystery Men, is a celebration of being unique if not smart or conventional. Who can argue with that outlook or the simple, ska guitar upstrokes and the snare kick at the bridge and the skittish rhythm section at the chorus that delivers it? Who can fault the charmingly awful production? The carefree whistling that accompanies the warbling baseball commentary “go-go for the moon” and the “wicka-wacks” of a faux turntable all matched with the infectious bravura of Harwell’s performance that hangs on words like “change” and “mold” for dear life?  I guess “Somebody” could quibble with it, but she’s stuck looking “kinda dumb with her finger and her thumb in the shape of an ‘L’ on her forehead.”

With a pre-chewed melody and “Great for All Ages” lyrics (the Rock Star gets “paid” when he could have just as easily gotten “laid”), “All Star” hit at the right moment: an economically secure and, by extension, materialistic and ideologically facile time when its message of exceptionalism was ripe for young ears. Its dispatches of empowerment were reinforced by our parents and spread wider as it enmeshed itself in more franchises. The price for pervasiveness and earnestness is inevitably parody.

Cicierega had a precocious sense of the postmodern. He was, arguably, patient zero for viral videos. Having early access to a computer by the grace of his dad’s job as a programmer, he clocked his Gladwellian 10,000 hours at the desktop thanks to his mom’s decision to homeschool him. In 2001, when he was 14, Salon interviewed him about his flash animation, “Hyakugojyuuichi,” a crudely assembled four-minute clip that would become the Platonic Ideal of art form called Animutation (the ur-Animutation being his “Pokerap”).

The clip is set to a song from the Japanese run of Pokemon and features improviser Colin Mochrie as a sun deity, Jay Jay the Jetplane as a matinee idol, and a chorus of Harry Potter heads, Pee Wee Hermans and Mr. Beans. Ciceirega’s sister’s friend, Molly, and the drummer from a local band, The Unabombers, tween in and out of the frame. Nearly all subsequent Animutations would have some variation of this cast, like a demented Commedia dell’arte.

 Around the time of this video’s release (a mere two years after “All Star” broke the mold), “random” was an adjective that took a lot of abuse among my peer group. “Hyakugojyuuichi” is certainly that in a loose sense. Cicierega used random images saved on his desktop to mask his shortcomings as an animator. But by joining together disparate, malformed parts, Ciceriega crafted something unique to his frame of reference. And by drawing these familiar emblems from our collective Pop, he makes it “ours” from something that was “theirs”—here meaning our elders’.

“Hyakugojyuuichi” and Cicierega’s other early works, are subversive in a way only a kid can be. “The kind of twitchiness and DIY ethic that children have is the lifeblood of internet humor,” he said in a presentation at the XOXO conference last November.

Being bottle-fed “yay for you” media made by the generations above us, we reach an age of cynicism. We learn that every kid receives that “you can do anything” message and come to recognize that some of those kids eat paste. Cicierega’s first visible creation took the rara icon of Jay Jay the Jetplane and plugged him with machine gun fire. Salon chronicled the moment in a fluff piece pegged on his youth (“and he’s only 14!”), the same youth that was undermining this brand of condescension.

“Promenade” ends with an abrupt, suspended “Some” and segues into a few bars of Modest Mouse’s “Float On” before we’re slammed with the inevitable “-body!” where Isaac Brock’s vocals typically begin. And here we have a typical mashup—a vocal track over a surprisingly complementary instrumental. It seems too simple a pairing, until you recognize that Mussorgsky’s first name was “Modest.” There’s an actual virtuosity evident elsewhere.

Cicierega told Salon his favorite bands were alt rock duo They Might Be Giants and Danny Elfman’s New Wave outfit, Oingo Boingo, which back in the ’80s made liberal use of drum machines, keytars and skeleton imagery. His work under the moniker “Lemon Demon” shows their influence with a prog rock love ballad built around the jargon of Reaganomics and a synth-metal litany of sitcom titles “Everybody Loves Raymond” and some straight fare, “Eighth Wonder” a dead ringer for a TMBG tune with its oblique lyrics, breathless chorus and off-key organ. Each indicates an understanding of theory and a capacity for original songwriting courtesy of his salad days tinkering with MIDI.

neil
Neil Cicierega

“D’oh”, the third track on Mouth Sounds—and the first not to feature “All Star”—is a revolving door of references spinning through Dave Matthew’s Band’s “Ants Marching.” To the pitch of the fiddle, Homer Simpson grunts his annoyance, counterpointed by the distorted “Yeah Baby”s of Austin Powers, the barking of Pork Chop from Nickelodeon’s Doug and the late interruptions of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” and the Talking Heads’ “Once in A Lifetime.” Part of the fun is guessing which theme will sneak in. But the way Cicierega syncopates the different elements and gets them to leapfrog over each other makes the track, and others like it, dynamic and even danceable. Think of these catchphrases like grace notes or horn lines—or even disco strings.

In his review on Music Putty, Ben Simon claims this busy track is where the nostalgia is “taken to its most equally incredible and horrific extreme,” but he doesn’t go into why.  Truly, this is Anti-Nostalgia. The past divorced from context and singled out for absurdity; a splash of cold Ecto-Cooler or slime that reminds us of the supposed simplicity of the past and the emptiness of its promises approaching an impossible, unanticipated future. It’s like Proust’s madeleine, only the Millennial equivalent is more likely a Dunkaroo. In the track, Cicierega attempts to reconcile the prurient (Sir Mix-A-Lot, Austin Powers) with the innocent (Doug) and the existential (David Byrne’s midlife crisis anthem). Is it any wonder Millennials are confused?

Should you recognize these tunes as the soundtrack to your younger years, you’re left with Byrne’s question “How did I get here?” from a world of crossed media signals to tangible responsibilities? But it’s a question posed by and unknowable to all the artists sampled, each man-children in their way. Mix-a-Lot’s and Powers’ views on sex could be more mature. “Goes to visit his mommy,” Matthews whines of his “ant.” All are grappling with the adult world from an ideological booster seat. In that way, it’s a common inheritance.

Cicierega celebrates a kind of arrested development. “I think it’s important to be nostalgic as much as you can and stay in touch for who you were as a kid,” he said at XOXO. “You wanna keep those synapses alive so it’s easier to remember that everything is wonderful and hilarious and new.”

In the past, Cicierega demurred to having a philosophy. “Mostly I’m trying to make myself laugh,” he said in an interview with FastCoCreate. “I really do enjoy making a mess of ’90s and ’80s top-40 hits. That’s part of the bizarreness for me—knowing that they all kind of occupy the same part of people’s brains, for the most part.”

So do Campbell’s Soup Cans. Sharing a collective unconscious is no mean thing. But Mouth Sounds is unintelligible to someone born outside a certain pocket.

If I were to subject my 16-year-old cousin to the track “Alanis” (“You Oughta Know’s” vocals over the “Full House” theme), she would be thoroughly confused. She wouldn’t know (and she oughtn’t) that Dave Coulier is, allegedly, the subject of both songs.

Mouth Sounds is a uniquely Millennial artifact, a postmortem of the worst, best and in-betweens of our coming up. And to anyone who doesn’t get what Cicierega’s driving at, or even for someone who does, the album is often unlistenable in its cacophony.

Rob Thomas sounds like he’s singing through an industrial fan in a deconstructed “Smooth(“Melt Everyone”), which could sound less like Steve Reich’s “It’s Gonna Rain.” “All Star” is given the Tool treatment (“The Sharpest Tool”). Daft Punk and Kanye’s Nietszchean rehashings—what doesn’t kill me makes me harder, better, stronger, faster—meld with Smash Mouth’s ’97 hit “Walking on The Sun” (the club-ready “Daft Mouth”). The chimes that played over various ‘90s TV studio title cards go on ad infinitum and ex nihilo (“Alanis”). “Mambo No. Five” appears (“Bega Interlude”).

My 16-year-old cousin is too young to know about Will Smith’s rap career, so “Vivid Memories Turn to Fantasies,” ripped apart, garbled and decoupaged back together from his Men In Black credits rap, would be lost on her. Because it isolates the “Bs” out of “M.I.B.” (“What’s that stand for?” “Bees”) she’d probably assume it was some kind of reference to the newly memeified Bee Movie.

Memes belong to the committee of the internet and exist to be changed within their formulas, (a caption amended on an image, an image on a caption). The source of the original is obscured with each new alteration, though the character of it stays true within a format. This Dog is suspicious, this College Freshman is naïve. My cousin would almost certainly be able to recognize “All Star” because in all of its permutations and the bulk of the tracks on Mouth Sounds, its essential form remains unchanged, recognizable, and still monolithic because in its own way it says it all by saying very little.

She can savor in the sacrilege of Cicierega pairing “All Star” with John Lennon’s “Imagine” (“Imagine All Star People”) almost as well as I can. It can’t be sandblasted from the timeline so long as Shrek’s smirking face lingers somewhere in our mind.

“The way these albums work, you can probably think of a plot or a mythology to them,” Cicierega told FastCoCreate of his follow-up, Mouth Silence. “I started telling people that it takes place before Mouth Sounds because it’s before ‘All Star’ came out, and that’s why ‘All Star’ doesn’t feature on the album. Then I came up with a story about how they take place in parallel universes, and there’s a war of music going on, and one universe has Smash Mouth and the other doesn’t.”

Who would carry the banner for Smash Mouth in a war of music? I’d sooner enlist under “Semi-Charmed Life Legion,” of Mouth Silence or the a capella inanity of “Rock a Pella’s USO.” Silence is a much easier album to sit through, as its building blocks are largely easy listening. It’s gotten a lot more press because of it. But if the alternate reality, where Smash Mouth doesn’t exists deprives us of Mouth Sounds’ sonic tensions, its blasphemies, its Reichesque soundscapes, I’m not prepared to live in that world. Not just because it seems preoccupied with bestiality.

In a post on LiveJournal, a user named Jerronimo found a brimming basket of Easter eggs in Mouth Silence where “All Star” breaks through its alternate universe. His findings: the album art features Cicierega holding his index finger in front of his pursed mouth, hushing us. But, his thumb is extended at a right angle making the “L” that famously adorned “Somebody’”s kinda dumb-looking forehead. When songs are reordered and sped up or their HTMLs stripped down, lyrics from “All Star”are found in the code and some buried audio plays quietly beneath. It cannot be silenced.

“All Star,” because it is awful and—its worst crime—listenable, by any timeline’s metric, resists the forces of quality and shifts in taste striving for its relegation to ephemera. Works like Mouth Sounds keep it in the public imagination even as Steve Harwell’s relevance resides entirely in Twitter feuds with the Oakland Raiders or headlining a ‘90s concert in Brooklyn. He may not be the All Star he was crooning for and neither are we. “The years start coming and they don’t stop coming,” but as long as Millennials are making media, and as long as we’re living in the past, “All Star”’s star may never fade. No replacement has emerged, unless trolls become the new ogres. Then we may be stuck with that dumb Justin Timberlake “dance” song for 17 more years.

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