Celebrity never fully fades away anymore — the president-elect is a reality TV host whose spotlight first dimmed in the early ‘90s — and so it felt in no way odd that I spent much of last week eagerly pursuing an interview with Smash Mouth. Nor was it surprising that I was trolled for doing so; after one of my interview requests got retweeted, some jamoke sent me a bunch of sloppy emails claiming to be the band’s manager, and a pitifully unwoke prankster signed me up for BlackPeopleMeet.com (a site filled with wonderful people who are not there to meet me). Welcome to 2017.
That Smash Mouth is in the news for its social media antics is truly a sign of the times, a case study in the power of the internet, lasting power of celebrity, and strange allure of irony. A California pop-rock band safe enough for Shrek, network TV, and middle school dances, Smash Mouth sold millions and millions of albums in the late ‘90s and early 2000s before their music began to be featured in movies like The Cat in the Hat and cargo shorts went out of style. By 2011, the band’s biggest headlines came when lead singer Steve Harwell ate dozens of eggs (for charity) on a dare from a writer at the Internet 1.0 comedy site Something Awful. Harwell had the dirty two dozen prepared by his buddy Guy Fieri, a nod at the internet’s fascination with the men’s shared (and outdated) aesthetic.
Now the group, which still tours and puts out new music, is gaining notoriety for its bizarro Twitter account. Through Twitter, the band engages individually with fans, picks fights with professional sports franchises, and offers unique tributes to late, beloved celebrities. When George Michael died on Christmas, the band was quick to post a photo of the pop star, affixed with the customary “Rest in Peace” message … and the Smash Mouth logo stamped below. It caused a stir amongst people paying attention to mid-level celebrity Twitter accounts on Christmas; when the group put an even bigger Smash Mouth logo on a photo of Carrie Fisher after her passing last week, it seemed as if they were far more self-aware than many commenters had assumed.
Still, when I finally did get in touch with the band, they didn’t exactly cop to trolling.
“Ummmmm….. I will just say the idea was to honor the deceased the best way we knew how,” bassist Paul Delisle told me via email. “Those posts we’re not meant to gain attention from someone’s death. Our logo is our Stamp Of Approval. But of course we got destroyed and maybe we will do it differently moving forward.”
And yet, the band is not backing away, deleting tweets, or issuing forced apologies (Smash Mouth 1, Cinnabon 0). Unlike many multi-platinum artists, the group’s account is fully run by its members, who compose tweets together, sometimes with the help their management company (the graphic design work is all done by the firm). Smash Mouth is happy to call itself a “heritage act,” and usually its concerts — one-off shows most of the year, and then a two-month summer tour — are attended by die-hards. The band’s members interact with those fans one-on-one, and nobody else really notices; it’s a perfect nostalgia give-and-take, an undisturbed ecosystem (except when they’re tweeting with fans about oral sex).
Over the last six months especially, Smash Mouth has been getting itself into more high-profile conversations. Most notable was October’s tête-à-tête with the Oakland Athletics baseball team, which provided a weirdo distraction during the World Series and the waning days of a brutal election that felt like walking on the sun. The band’s from Northern California, so its members have a rooting interest in the misfortunes of the low-budget A’s, a fact that most observers who documented the exchange failed to pick up on.
“That whole thing was weird because people thought we we’re bashing the city of Oakland,” Delisle said. “Our entire point was the awesome city of Oakland deserves an ownership more devoted to winning. It turned out just fine but it definitely got interesting for a second here in the Bay Area.”
It was a populist move that got trashed by the populace. But by and large, Smash Mouth just doesnt seem to give a shit what snarky people on the internet have to say, because it’s nothing they haven’t heard before. It’s not as if things have changed that much; this isn’t bloated Elvis singing his last shows in Vegas or Gene Simmons making a fool of himself on reality TV. “Sure we get goofed on, but we always have,” Delisle conceded, “so it feels right at home. Millennials rule!!”
And it’s actually a much bolder play than the group’s late ‘90s brethren, like the boy bands that keep it clean and organize cruises for their now-adult fans. They’re swimming in more dangerous waters, for sure. Is that on purpose? Are they being ironic by playing to the millennial crowd? “That’s a loaded question,” Delisle said, punctuating his evasion with a “ha ha ha,” but the band definitely seems to be in on the joke, even if not everyone reading their tweets realizes it.
Take Smash Mouth’s embrace of its affiliation with Shrek. The band’s cover of the Monkee’s “I’m a Believer” was a big part of that franchise’s first movie, and now the group smacks the billion dollar ogre’s mug in a lot of its other graphics, including Christmas and Hanukkah greetings. Sure, it could be an earnest tribute to the big animated lunk, but that’s unlikely.
Distractions are big news stories, as Donald Trump himself recognized. This is how you create a second life for yourself now, how you retain relevance and introduce your work to a new generation. Even the biggest stars now wrap themselves like burritos or chug dirt or whatever it is they’re doing with Jimmy Fallon on the Tonight Show right now, and so Smash Mouth is certainly not above it.
“It’s funny because a large percentage of our fans don’t even know what a meme is — heck, we didn’t really know either at first,” Delisle admitted. “But we have never taken ourselves that seriously. We like the attention, so even though it’s a bit of a goof, it usually centers around our song ‘All Star’ and it still sells weekly like mad. So we take the bad with the good and fully embrace the meme aspect.”