In certain corners of the internet, Smash Mouth’s “All Star” is almost as inescapable now as it once was on commercial radio.
Fifteen years after it graced the opening credits of Shrek, the song is experiencing a strange resurgence, cropping up in the oddest of circumstances. Except now, the version you’re likely to hear bears only a passing resemblance to the hit 1999 single. The song’s being reflected back from the internet’s funhouse mirror—distinctly familiar but warped and removed from context.
In the last few months, “All Star” has been remixed hundreds of times, with varying degrees of success, colliding with everything from Seinfeld to Carlos Santana’s “Smooth,” while YouTuber Jon Sudano has racked up millions of views singing the lyrics to “All Star” over unexpected tracks like Adele’s “Hello.”So what does Smash Mouth have to say about all of the startling attention? “Our standard answer is “Hey We Invented The Meme,” lead singer Steve Harwell told the Daily Dot via email.
He’s referring to the original remixes, an estimated 10 in total, that Harwell says the band’s label at the time, Interscope, commissioned to coincide with the release of the band’s second album, 1999’s Astro Lounge.
But the meme history of “All Star” isn’t quite so linear. While it’s unclear when the song first started gaining traction online, the Verge traces back the band’s favor in weird internet circles to "Smash Mouth Eat the Eggs,” a 2012 campaign in which noted prankster Jon Hendren (Twitter alias @fart) somehow managed to convince Harwell to “eat eggs until he either cried or was sweating so hard it looked like crying.” Even better, Guy Fieri, who looks suspiciously like a younger Harwell, made the introduction at the event, which raised $10,000 for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. “All Star” played in the background.But it still took a few years after that for “All Star” remixes to start cropping up on social news site Reddit. Now, there’s a forum, r/SmashUps, devoted exclusively to mashing up “All Star” with other songs; it boasts over 2,600 subscribers and averages at least one new remix a day. It’s there you’ll find such strange concoctions as “All Star” set to the Robocop Gameboy theme, Disney characters singing “All Star,” or “All Star” crossed with Kanye West’s “Good Life.”Some have attributed the recent resurgence to the handiwork of James Nielssen (Twitter alias @cool_as_heck), who has twisted and contorted “All Star” through a series of increasingly bizarre concepts: ramping the vocals higher while the music gets lower, replacing every word with “someBODY,” and making the entire song speed up 15 percent each time Harwell says “the.” This wave of conceptual remixes is part of a larger web culture trend, one that the Verge has dubbed “the technical meme.”
Think of technical memes as the Ikea furniture of internet culture. You take a mechanically achievable formula and ironically apply it to pop culture novelties, like a 1990s nasal rock anthem or a forgotten Jerry Seinfeld cartoon.
We’ve seen this play out in the context of Smash Mouth in a number of ways, not just Nielssen’s remixes but in a backwards cover and the rearrangement of the song in alphabetical order. “All Star” has also collided with the Bee Movie—another focal point of technical memes—a couple of times, notably in this version of “All Star” that plays the Bee Movie trailer 60 percent faster every time Harwell says “the.”These maddening offshoots are practically impossible to listen to from start to finish, and chances are they won’t make you LOL IRL (or “alol,” if you prefer), but you’ll smirk briefly before racing to close your browser tab. And that’s what gives this particular type of meme its novelty: It’s more about the concept and the execution than the lulz.
This latest twist in the inexplicable saga of “All Star” memes has directly coincided with an increased interest in Smash Mouth, as captured by these two charts in Google Trends.Smash Mouth hasn’t directly benefited from the “All Star” meme, at least not to the same degree as other comparable viral sensations. In February 2013, Billboard began factoring YouTube views into its Billboard Hot 100, a change that immediately catapulted the “Harlem Shake” to the top of the charts. More recently, Rae Sremmurd hit No. 1 after the duo’s “Black Beatles” became the backing track for the Mannequin Challenge, and the #RunningManChallenge lifted Ghost Town DJ’s “My Boo” to No. 29 on the Hot 100—two decades after its initial release.
Because “All Star,” by contrast, is subverted in some way, that all but ensures it won’t register with YouTube’s Content ID system, which copyright holders use to identify and manage their content on the platform. Even still, Smash Mouth insists the band has experienced a ripple effect.
“First off, sales for ‘All Star’ keep very consistent, and we’ve enjoyed a spike recently,” Harwell said, noting the band’s recent Geico campaign. “It also really helps keep our live performance quote [for bookers] super strong.”
Harwell thinks it’s the song’s sound and positive message that’s helped it resonate with a new generation.
“It’s a fun song to remix and mashup, that’s for sure,” Harwell wrote. “The pocket it sits in lends it to work with tons of songs for mashups.” He added later, “The feel of the song initially is super fun and poppy, and the lyrics, although sung in a fun way, actually delivers important messages people can relate to.”
There’s no denying the song’s appeal. It hit at the tail end of a quickly forgotten boom of late-’90s SoCal pop-punk (see Sugar Ray, No Doubt) that dominated pop music. “All Star” earned the band a Grammy nomination in 2000 for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group, and it was featured in multiple movies, including the Ben Stiller throwaway comedy Mystery Men. But Harwell’s comments explain the song’s popularity—not its meme appeal.
The closest comparison to the “All Star” meme would be the Rickroll, the familiar bait-and-switch that redirects people to Rick Astley’s 1987 hit “Never Gonna Give You Up.” While most Rickrolls result in a viewing of the aforementioned YouTube video, skilled practitioners of the craft have elevated the form by inconspicuously sliding the song’s key lyrics into unexpected places, like Bitcoin addresses or, in perhaps the most well-known example, the first 40 lines of a physics term paper.Something similar is happening with “All Star,” too. It’s not just remixes and technical memes. The lyrics have been turned into a movie trailer. The song also crops up crop up pretty much every time the band tweets. Harwell insists that the band appreciates all of the attention.
“It’s very weird, but we always feel honored when someone takes their personal time to create anything Smash Mouth related,” he said.
But I get the feeling that he’s gritting his teeth while forcing a smile. Smash Mouth has a terse relationship with the internet, to say the least. The band is overly sensitive about its legacy, quick to point out to trolls on Twitter that “All Star” was a hit “before Shrek was even green lit,” as Harwell put it to me via email, pretty much unprompted.
It has to be grating to be consistently overshadowed by a joke you can’t control, to be caught in a meme’s holding pattern—unsure of whether people are laughing with you or at you.
For better or worse, Smash Mouth can’t escape its own meme.