You may heard by now that Steve Harwell, best known as the lead singer of the band Smash Mouth, passed away this week from tragic complications caused by a disease called alcoholism. I've always had a soft spot for the "All-Star" singer, and it breaks my heart to know that he met his end in such an awful way. As a tribute to his memory, I thought I'd share an essay I wrote marking the 20th anniversary of the release of "All-Star." What clearly began as a kind-of tongue-in-cheek faux-academic analysis gradually turned into something less funny, as I realize that, hey wow, maybe this really is more serious than I thought.
It was the fall of 1998. Guy Fieri was preparing to open his second Johnny Garlic's Restaurant, while his clone-twin, Steve Harwell, was in the studio with his bandmates wrapping up their sophomore album, "Astro Lounge." Beyond the studio walls, military tensions were rising in North Korea, Pakistan, and Iraq, and a little company called Google had just opened up in Silicon Valley; but all anyone cared about were Bill Clinton's blowjobs.
This was the world into which "All Star" was born.
The members of Smash Mouth knew they had an obligation (as all pop-ska-rock groups do) to deliver a totally sick jam that would also save the world from its own impending doom. They hid an idyllic message in the rhythms of the song, resonating in a cleverly diminished chord in the chorus that took root in our heads and found new life as a sonic meme, a viral idea that would spread from person to person to perpetuate its existence.
Unfortunately, we were all too enamored on "Smashups" and other esoteric Internet jokes to heed the foreboding prophecy lodged within that earworm, and their warning went unnoticed — until it was too late.
Back in 2017, the band shared a screenshot on The Social Media Site Formerly Known as Twitter, depicting the original handwritten lyrics to the hit song.
As you can see, the last line of the chorus was originally different. If Smash Mouth had left that line "Wave bye-bye to your soul" intact, rather than replacing it with "Only shooting stars break the mouooohuould," then perhaps we could have understood the truth sooner, and avoided the predicament that we're in, just as they had intended.
When you look at the song line-by-line in this new context, it all makes sense.
Somebody once told me the world is gonna roll me
I ain't the sharpest tool in the shed
From the very opening of the song, Smash Mouth invokes the imagery of some kind of higher power, and a greater global purpose — and the fact that humans are a bunch of fucking idiots by contrast. He cleverly plays on the idea of the "world" and "rolling me" to allude back to the days when people thought the world was flat, and how they mocked and ridiculed the scientists who tried to tell them otherwise.
She was looking kind of dumb with her finger & her thumb
in the shape of an "L" on her forehead.
In every verse, the narrator stands in for humanity at large, and this case, humanity is largely a bunch of uneducated manual laborers who think that Galileo is the stupid one, standing there making the classic "loser" sign of the 90s.
Except…what if he was actually measuring right angles, attempting to use the physical science to better understand the world?
But no; these anti-intellectual raptors go so far as to mock his masculinity, swapping out his gender pronouns like a trollish Twitter egg. "LOL what kinda loser believes in science?" they say with their French frog cartoon faces, willfully ignorant to the measurable truths of the natural world, and all of the potential it contains.
Well the years start coming and they don't stop coming
Fed to the rules and I hit the ground running
This couplet is revealed as a critique of the US education system, and how for-profit agendas collude with Creationist beliefs through misleading text books that spread mass disinformation across the generations. From an early age, children are told not to break the mold, but instead to fall in line and maintain some preconceived sense of "order" that follows them from school into adulthood, when they start to scold the individuals and revolutionaries for not breaking rules in the "right" way.
This also alludes to the passage of time on a grander scale, and how the anti-intellectualism and stubborn war between science and religion would repeat themselves in endless cycles, even as mankind continues to grow and evolve. Rather than look back and learn from our past mistakes, humanity is encouraged to hit the ground running, and never to question anything—including the fact that we've dealt with all these same conflicts before.
Didn't make sense not to live for fun
Your brain gets smart but your head gets dumb
This is where Smash Mouth predicts the rise of "snowflake" as a pejorative. Imagine Galileo's anti-intellectual haters mocking his gender while they chant, "Can't you take a joke?"
So much to do, so much to see
So what's wrong with taking the back streets?
Now we start getting into issues of carbon emissions and sustainability. Our narrator-as-stand-in-for-humanity is clearly coming from a position of privilege, with no concern about temporal or financial obligations—or the damages that his gas-guzzling joyride does to the planet. It's generally accepted among climate scientists and activists that ecological catastrophe will have a disproportionate impact on marginalized groups, since the rich and powerful can always afford to shield themselves from the brunt of it in their ivory towers.
You'll never know if you don't go
You'll never shine if you don't glow
These words are sung from the point-of-view of climate deniers, who seem to think that unless they, personally, can recognize the precise moment that a 2°C temperature change occurs, then there's nothing to worry about. Worse, they think that something bad will happen if people stopped using carbon-based energy and greenhouse gases. Until the day that people start literally glowing in the aftermath of nuclear fallout, they're not going to see a problem or care to prevent the seemingly inevitable.
Hey now, you're an all-star, get your game on, go play
Hey now, you're a rock star, get the show on, get paid
And all that glitters is gold
In true punk rock style, Smash Mouth invokes the anarchistic belief that Capitalism is a disease, and that overly-toxic economic competition of for-profit individualization is an impediment to peace and progress. It's all about games and money—the shallow pursuits of dreams of wealth and power used to distract and satiate the masses.
The use of "gold" can also be read as a reference to oil as "liquid goal," and the ways in which oil industry profits have steered most of the social, political, and technological progress of the last century, particularly in the form of Koch-sponsored legislation.
Wave bye-bye to your soul
This should be pretty self-explanatory.
The next verse begins with yet another direct jab at climate deniers who insist that the continued existence of winter and/or snow supports their belief that "the climate is always changing."
It's a cool place and they say it gets colder
You're bundled up now, wait till you get older
The second part of this couplet plays on a double-entendre: it can be interpreted as the condescending voice of an older generation basking in their ignorance and the dismissive of when-I-was-your-age attitudes that reinforce the aforementioned rule establishment brainwashing of the for-profit school system; or, it's yet-another intentionally ironic allusion to rising global temperatures, the idea being that there will be little need for us to bundle up by the time that 2099 comes around because we'll all be dead from freak storms, flooding, or mosquito-borne illnesses.
But the meteor men beg to differ
Judging by the hole in the satellite picture.
In these lines, Smash Mouth predicts our current circumstances in which media, expertise, and evidence are no longer trusted.
These words also allude to the idea that "weather" and "climate" are two separate things — a distinction that continues to elude people—as well as the notion that scientific prediction is not 100% reliable. Climate scientists in particular use the available information to form models and calculations, and while the specifics have been incorrect at times, the larger idea that the climate is changing in disastrous ways still shines through. Climate Critics will always miss the forest for the trees, at least until naturally-occurring brush fires wipe out all the forests.
The ice we skate is getting pretty thin
The water's getting warm so you might as well swim
Crumbling ice floes. Rising global temperatures. Rising water levels, caused by that melting ice. The struggle is real, my friends.
That's right: by predicting our fiery doom, Smash Mouth also inspired the popular "This is fine" meme. This is an historical fact.
From there, the chorus repeats, followed by a musical interlude, before we reach the bridge—ever the moment of change or transition in the traditional narrative structure of pop song writing.
Somebody once asked could I spare some change for gas?
I need to get myself away from this place.
Income inequality has grown drastically in the 25 years since "All Star" first graced the airwaves—and Smash Mouth saw this coming, too, as evidenced in this vignette of a poverty-stricken person forced to beg for change in order to afford gasoline, despite knowing that their own contributions of carbon emissions will get them away from this place, that is, bring on their impending death.
I said yep, what a concept
I could use a little fuel myself
And we could all use a little change
This was clearly intended as an ironic juxtaposition, urging us to make a change from our fossil fuel-based energy system to one of more sustainable production—particularly if we are going to continue taking the back streets (once again, a double entendre both for gas-guzzling fuel waste, and the hope that we could extend human life using biotech advancements that now collide with the ecological damage that threatens to shorten our lives.
And then we return to begin again, as we're once more reminded that the years start coming and they don't stop coming—because the future is inevitable, unless we take action.
But we didn't take action. We just made a bunch of stupid fucking Smash Mouth memes, ignoring the clear warnings they placed before our ears.
That's why the songs ends on that ringing chord, with Steve Harwell's warbling vocals fading off like the dying echo of our not-so-distant future. It's why the song has persisted as a meme: because somewhere in the deepest, darkest recesses of our subconscious minds, we understood what Smash Mouth was trying to tell us.
"All Star" resonates with something primal and shared by all of mankind—but sadly, it was not a truth that we would find within until it was too late.
"Wave Bye-Bye to your soul" indeed.