It seems like there’s been a weird, conspicuous lack of chatter about Steve Harwell’s death (liver failure, per NPR), at 56, on social media today, so I thought I’d just whip up a little blurb in commemoration of him. Of course, the elephant in the room here is “All Star,” the band’s mega-hit from their 1999 album Astro Lounge. In particular, this seems to be a song we’ve all heard over 100 times, that we all enjoy, but that nobody ever will admit to liking. I remember even in those culturally tinny and lean Donald Trump years from 2017-2020, a couple of people disrespecting the song on Facebook, either recording an ulterior version rendered all in one note or just voicing a certain level of playful shame at having heard the song on radio and enjoyed it. It’s like a lightning rod, in a sense — a single cultural figure or development positioned to attact all the blame for a larger malady manifest in society.
What this malady actually might be is beside the point, in a sense — needless to say, anyway, rock music has gotten infinitely poppier since the 1990s, so, perhaps, in a sense, Smash Mouth were ahead of their time. I would say the copiousness with which “All Star” was transmitted in public places in the 20 years following its release more than obviates this claim. “All Star” exists at that sacred precipice in our minds where the plangent and the emotional become the absurd — it’s hard for us to accept that all our fears, all our neuroses and all our joys could be summarized in such an expedited little nugget of the most sugary pop. All this time, we’d thought we were little Leo Tolstoys.
But take over the world, “All Star” certainly did, beside those heinously epochal DJ-scratches leading into the first chorus (let’s at least not trot out Incubus into this discussion), to a far greater proportion than is being acknowledged on Facebook today. Regarding me, in specific, I remember being 15, being too young to drive to go play golf so carting my clubs on the bus with me to the course across town. It was June of 1999 and I remember having “All Star” in my head the entire time. What’s more, my present activities even seemed to jibe perfectly with the song’s message. Don’t have a car? Feel stuck in life? Well, live like a king anyway. Live beyond your means, step out and do something courageous, or He** even just enjoy a summer day golfing and don’t sweat the little things, and you’ll never climb into that dark nook again in which you’d formerly thought you were trapped.
“Walkin’ on the Sun,” anyway, from a couple years before on the album Fush Yu Mang (1997) was the band’s original calling card. I remember Harwell himself, in response to the song’s poppy interface and bright, bouncy disposition, saying in an interview something along the lines of “I’m sick of all this heroin rock.” This is, of course, ironic, seeing as “Walkin’ on the Sun,” lyrically, is nothing if not rife with satire. The social commentary is thick, copious and inescapable: “All their kids were hippy chicks / All hypocrites / Because fashion is smashing the / True meaning of it”. Let’s be honest, though: this, along with “All Star,” were just the music the world needed at this time, to the point where it emerges as a parallel phenomenon to the early grunge dudes pretending to be crazed, back-woods lumberjacks when they really had college degrees: Harwell almost puts on a facade of fun-in-the-sun naivete, when, of course, this musical skeleton is belied by his cutting, analytical sense of our culture and what’s real or not, therein.
The last anecdote I’d like to touch on is a sort of two-pronged ode to the band’s debut album, Fush Yu Mang, which featured “Walkin’ on the Sun” and also a cover of War’s “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” as a secondary single. True to ’90s form, Smash Mouth did up War’s jingle with style, not resting on the original’s rhythms and schemes but rather amping things up into a ska groove, true to contemporary form (this was about the commercial and artistic peak of The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Reel Big Fish and Less than Jake, that is). Riding down to this one Pearl Jam show my friend had nothing but depressing hippy music like Uncle Tupelo and he asked me to pick a CD. The only thing he had I was in the mood for was Fush Yu Mang, an album which had also copiously soundtracked the start of my freshman year at Notre Dame, when the football season was in full force and everything seemed to have an added liveliness to it, at least by South Bend’s standards. Stacked up against today’s pop/punk, with Fush Yu Mang, the broadened perspective, self-deprecation and overall personality were pretty much through the roof. You won’t find a single song on this album that reduces itself to basic romantic themes — everything is sympathizing with another, or making fun of one’s lack of luck with women, to staunch cultural criticism right on to wanting to run a “flophouse,” just because, sugar, it’s weird and so fu**ing ’90s of them. There’s a song making fun of the mob (“Padrino”) and also one that momentarily takes on a serious, perhaps suicidal tinge, before returning to the light, playful bemoaning of being a loser juxtaposed left and right with “The Fonz.”
It took all of this versatility, without question, to solidify Smash Mouth as a legitimate voice in rock, and not a one-hit-wonder, and I don’t think “All Star” would have even hit the same without the precursor of this incredible lyrical variety and personality on its predecessor. Why do people continue to cast off “All Star,” a song so ubiquitous? For its time, it might be a little simplistic and straight-ahead, musically speaking: but it’s the pearl in the oyster of the incredible, multifarious frustration, analysis and ultimate, overarching sense of humor, that informed this band’s work in its founding days, and should serve to bolster its legacy moving forward.
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