The first thing every English major learns to do is present a good close reading. It starts out like this: you analyze a text within an inch of its life, and at first you don’t see much. While cleaning out my closet in my old bedroom at my parents’ house recently, I found an old binder full of AP Language worksheets I had filled out in the 11th grade. “ALLITERATION,” I had scribbled next to any two words that started with the same letter. “ANAPHORA,” alongside lists that repeated the same starting word in every additional clause.
But as time goes on, close reading becomes more fun. After a semester of studying literature in college, I began to see more allusions – Biblical, Shakespearean, historical. Later, I studied Joyce and Pound, two writers who packed so many allusions into their work that it was actually intended for university study, and then on to Flann O’Brien, who built stories within stories, and Bruno Schultz, whose untimely death by Nazi bullet is mourned in at least half a dozen works by contemporary authors like David Grossman and Cynthia Ozick. In time, I began to eavesdrop on more and more of the intertextual conversation that makes studying literature so much fun. As explored in Portlandia‘s “Did You Read?” sketch and Derrida’s theory of deconstruction alike, any given text is inherently, addictively referential.
While getting my finals-fried brain back in gear for my thesis research this summer, I’ve done some close listening that turned into a close reading of sorts. I’ve been listening to a lot of Smash Mouth recently, more specifically Astro Lounge, and I think Smash Mouth deserves a hell of a lot more credit for their lyrics. We’ve all heard “All Star” about a billion times at this point, but when was the last time you stopped and actually listened to the words? If you have as much affection for Smash Mouth as I do, the results won’t surprise you – Astro Lounge offers an entertaining intersection of 90s rock and science fiction with a surprisingly consistent thematic interest in space (the opening track, “Who’s There?” conflates looting with alien invasion), technological devices (“Radio,” “Satellite”), and even the androids/cyborgs (“Defeat You”), along with much less surprising low-brow interests in topics such as marijuana (“Stoned”) and the fleeting nature of romance (“Waste”). Not only that, Smash Mouth offers some pretty sophisticated wordplay along with the silly computer-animated cover art.
Let’s start with one of their biggest hits, “All Star.” Not only is the song infectious, the lyrics contains a variation on a phrase whose etymology can be traced all the way back to 1596, when William Shakespeare (more or less) solidified the version of the saying that we use today. In The Merchant of Venice, Morocco says,
All that glitters is not gold;
Often have you heard that told:
Many a man his life hath sold
But my outside to behold:
Gilded tombs do worms enfold.
Shakespeare’s point is that wealth and glamor aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, and they certainly don’t offer any protection from the wormy, subterranean fate that inevitably awaits us all. There’s definitely truth to this, as evidenced by the phrase’s persistence through years of printed texts and oral tradition. It ranks right up there with idioms like “raining cats and dogs” or “rings a bell,” one of those phrases that seems automatically accessible, like the default software on a laptop.
Smash Mouth capitalizes on that built-in recognition by repeating the phrase – but with a twist. Take a look at the chorus:
Hey now, you’re an all star, get your game on, go play
Hey now, you’re a rock star, get your show on, get paid
And all that glitters is gold
Only shooting stars break the mold
Smash Mouth turns Shakespeare’s quote on its head. Instead of intoning the reality that wealth is ultimately temporary, “All Star” is a song about pursuing ambition, enjoying success, and having fun in a mad modern world on the brink of the Millennium. From this evidence, one might conclude that Smash Mouth isn’t concerned about mortality. Wrong. Check out the next verse:
It’s a cool place, and they say it gets colder
You’re bundled up now, wait till you get older
But the media man begged to differ
Judging by the hole in the satellite picture
The ice we skate is getting pretty thin
The water’s getting warm so you might as well swim
My world’s on fire, how ’bout yours?
That’s the way I like it and I never get bored
The words in these lines are efficient and compressed, conveying a double meaning throughout. In keeping with the song’s account of fame and fun, the first line is vague – “cool place,” “they say” – from which the listener can infer an exclusive in-crowd, a sense that’s amplified with the ambiguous warning, “wait till you get older.” A “world on fire” could be ablaze with creativity, partying, intrigue, and more, but the final line (“That’s the way I like it and I never get bored”) slips so quickly in before the chorus that it comes off as defiant; the chorus takes over so abruptly that the listener almost gets the sense that, given any more thought or less distraction, the fast-paced world of celebrity might not be so pleasant. And that sounds a lot like what Shakespeare was talking about.
The verses take on a double meaning when you consider their connotations of Global Warming. “But the media man begged to differ / Judging by the satellite picture,” the lyrics run on, evoking the thinning ozone layer as they modulate the meaning of “cool” from referring to style to signifying temperature. “Thin ice” communicates risk as well as the melting of polar ice caps. Against this backdrop of impending environmental calamity, the final line (“That’s the way I like it and I never get bored”) is an explanation for frivolity. If the world is ending, why not have fun? That’s the real question Smash Mouth asks, again and again, from “Walkin’ on the Sun” to “I Just Wanna See.” In this context, Smash Mouth doesn’t seem to be contradicting Shakespeare’s phrase at all, but rather using it ironically.
From my earliest memories of Astro Lounge, listening to the album on repeat throughout most of the third grade, the bridge of “All Star” has always been a highlight. Studying English has given me the vocabulary to explain what makes the wordplay in this lyric so appealing. I now know that “All Star” contains my favorite literary device of all: syllepsis, also known as zeugma. Here’s how Merriam-Webster defines it:
Let’s look at the bridge:
Somebody once asked could I spare some change for gas
I need to get myself away from this place
I said, “Yep, what a concept, I could use a little fuel myself
And we could all use a little change”
This example follows Merriam-Webster’s second definition: “change” is splintered into its dual meanings of “fuel” and “to make or become different.” The lines capture both a moment of environmental anxiety and the frustration of being mired in a place and a routine. Though the notion of paying for gas in change seems insane now, according to Energy Almanac, a gallon of regular gas was priced at $1.347 on June 7, 1999, the day before Astro Lounge was released, so it’s not as far-fetched as it might seem today. Still, despite low gas prices, environmental activists in the 1990s were well aware of the pollution and destructive mining associated with fossil fuels. I think the bridge has always been my favorite part for the element of sadness it contributes to an otherwise recklessly poppy song: “the years start coming and they don’t stop coming / fed to the rules and I hit the ground running,” the lyrics continue, only now that the idea of being stuck has been planted, the challenge of seeing the world (“so much to do, so much to see”) seems impossible to meet. That’s why Smash Mouth has proved to be a band whose music has accompanied me as I’ve come of age, and why I’ve continued to listen to them long after even Pizza Hut has stopped using their songs in commercials.
And all of this material for close reading from a band that also brought us a song bluntly titled “Stoned” and a song about a menage a trois fantasy (“Can’t Get Enough of You Baby”).