Taking Up the Numbers Challenge Again

So, my brother’s recent post about bands with numbers in their names originated not just from a conversation he had with a childhood friend, but also from some riffing that he and I did on the subject. Yes, as the commenter Jake keenly observed, my brother left far too many bands out of consideration. And, as my brother insisted, this is not accidental: he really just wanted to (1) denigrate Third Eye Blind while (2) defending an under-remembered and muscular-sounding band named Seven Mary Three.

The list below will be going through “Changes” too

To add to the chaos, I insisted that the fact that there was a brief glut of bands with numbers in the their names and the putative quality of Seven Mary Three were separate issues worthy of their own hypotheses and debates. So, let’s start with a new list of 90’s bands with numbers in their names (this first one is in no particular order.

  1. U2
  2. Blink 182
  3. Eve 6
  4. Boyz II Men
  5. 98 Degrees
  6. .38 Special
  7. Nine Inch Nails
  8. Ben Folds Five
  9. 2Pac
  10. Sevendust
  11. Third Eye Blind
  12. 311
  13. 4 Non Blondes

From this list I will exclude U2 and .38 Special because they really come from the 1980’s. In addition, I want to subtract 2Pac and Boyz II Men for two reasons: first, 2Pac belongs to a totally different aesthetic category and comparing him to Third Eye Blind is like comparing Shakespeare to Haiku (the only common ground is that both are music and poetry respectively).

Second, in both 2Pac and Boyz II Men the ‘numbers’ in the name, at least at my hearing, are homonyms—2Pac was often written as Tupac and therefore the number signification is secondary just as the Roman numeral II in Boyz II Men  is a ‘clever’ stand in for the preposition ‘to’ and therefore not really a number at all.

(That’s not to say I don’t love both. “End of the Road” was one of those songs that was so successful that it destroyed the band. Tupac should still be with us).

So, after extracting bands for the sake of temporal, generic and semantic parameters, we’re left with (note, the list still is not ranked in any order):

  1. Blink 182
  2. Eve 6
  3. 98 Degrees
  4. Nine Inch Nails
  5. Ben Folds Five
  6. Sevendust
  7. Seven Mary Three
  8. Third Eye Blind
  9. 311
  10. Matchbox 20
  11. 4 Non Blondes

Now, I for one am tempted to follow my sister’s suggestion and leave 98 Degrees in there just because some band needs to be the worst of the lot. And, furthermore, I will not extract 311 from the list even if it gives my brother the ‘screaming fantods’. So, let me take a first stab at ranking (and, for this post I will partially concur with my brother’s high rating of Seven Mary Three):

  1. Nine Inch Nails
  2. Ben Folds Five
  3. *Seven Mary Three
  4. 4 Non Blondes
  5. Blink 182
  6. Third Eye Blind
  7. Matchbox 20
  8. Eve 6
  9. Sevendust
  10. 311
  11. 98 Degrees

There are two interesting things to note about this list before continuing. First, despite the fact that there were many trans-Atlantic acts in the 1990s, all of these bands are American with too many coming from California (Third Eye Blind; Blink 182; Eve 6; and 98 Degrees). Second, I don’t think it is fair to include Ben Folds Five and Nine Inch Nails on this list.

Why? First, both bands have a sound that immediately separates them from anyone else. Second, because of that sound and the cultural space they occupy, they are so clearly better than the other bands as to distort the list. The distance between the second and third spots above might as well be in miles or light-years.

And, my Trent, who does not?

Pray-tell, from where do the other bands hail? 311 is from Nebraska. Seriously, Ne-fucking-Braska. We can blame Matchbox 20 on Florida. Seven Mary Three are from Virginia: they met at The College of William and Mary (the alma mater of Jon Stewart!). According to Wikipedia, they named the band after a radio call sign they heard on the show CHiPs. Sevendust is from Georgia and I care so little about the band that this is the last thing I will say about them. I will also reserve comment for 4 Non Blondes until a later time (as a one-hit wonder, the band may be dismissed; as a songwriter, however, the lead singer deserves a little more notice).

Blink 182 is defensible for the following reasons. For a period of time, they put out decent music and amusing videos. I never owned an album by them, but I never got angry when they came on the radio. In this video, I especially like the send-up of bands like the bottom-dweller 98 Degrees.

Now, my brother wants to discount this group because they are, at best, tertiary punk (the first generation coming at the end of the 1970s; second at the beginning of the 90s with acts like Green Day and Rancid). But I don’t think that this is necessarily fair. Blink 182 had serious air time and a lot of fans.

This song was positively inescapable in 1998.

Eve 6 is mediocre 90’s faux-alt rock. I place them above 311 because they only dominated the airwaves once and that hit song was anodyne enough (catchy at times, but too many words. Way too many words).

So that leaves me with Third Eye Blind and Matchbox 20 (I will leave my brother’s contention that Seven Mary Three is better than either band unquestioned). I have some issues with Third Eye Blind, but they are not as severe as my brother’s antipathy. The single “Semi-Charmed Life” dominated 1997 and it is a catchy and well-done song.

What always pissed me off about it was that people misunderstood the song as praising a certain life style when it was really lamenting it. I distinctly remember a girl with a lip ring waxing poetic about how the song reminded her of doing ecstasy with her boyfriend who was on the Appalachian trail all the while her associate in another room was selling little bags of a wide variety of reality-altering substances.

Yes, you read that right. Drugs. Appalachian Trail. Third Eye Blind. That is my word-association list. Yet, I must admit, that this band’s reputation was saved for me by the clip above—that unexpected moment in the surprisingly good Yes Man when Jim Carrey sings “Jumper”. I am, truly, a sucker for surprise singing in movies and television (“Afternoon Delight” in Anchorman still cracks me up; Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s musical episode still makes me weepy). But this scene made me rethink both the song and the band. Covers can do that kind of thing, right?

This brings me back to Matchbox 20. Contra my brother, I cannot rate this band higher than Third Eye Blind. In agreement with my brother, I hate this band mostly because of Rob Thomas. By all accounts (and I have read about him and listened to interviews with him), he is a decent and kind human being. But his music is thoroughly mediocre, uninteresting and annoying. The summer of 1997, which witnessed the release of Matchbox 20’s debut album (along with Third Eye Blind’s debut and other horrors) was the final and painful nail in alt-rock’s coffin.

So, another thousand words wasted on bands with numbers in the name. What have we learned? Primarily, the phenomenon was a 90s American trend that seems to have crested around 97/98. Whether or not Seven Mary Three deserves my brother’s admiration is a question for another time (like, 1996 or something).

Are there bands that aren’t on this list? Any suggestions for a cause of this alpha-numeric agglomeration?

4 comments on “Taking Up the Numbers Challenge Again

  1. Jake says:

    My best theory for the emergence of band names with word-number combinations in the 90s is that a similar strategy used to create unique email addresses was applied to create unique band names. When someone wanted the email address johnsmith@hotmail.com and found that it was not available, they often added a number to the end of their name (johnsmith99@hotmail.com) to create a unique email address. However, this theory really does not hold up to a number of the bands on this list, as most were formed prior to 1996 and the launch of Hotmail.

    When looking at the origin of each band’s name it is also difficult to come to one overlapping theory that encompasses each band’s reason to incorporate digits into their name. Ben Fold’s added the number five for alliterative purposes. The same reason I suspect was used in naming Nine Inch Nails. Eve 6 was named after an X-Files episode. Third Eye Blind is based on the metaphysical idea of a mind’s eye. Sevendust was named after weed killer. 311 was named after a police citation. Blink 182 seems to be the only band where my theory above works, as they were originally named Blink until an Irish band of the same name complained. None of these name origins seem to have anything tying them together, or identifying a new appreciation for numbers.

    I suspect it is merely a coincidence that many numeral-themed band names happened to have some radio success in the same decade. It is likely not due to their names, but that they contributed to the genres that were popular at the time. Bands have been using numbers in there names for decades. The B-52s, Three Dog Night, Jackson 5, UB40, 10,000 Maniacs, and Take 6 all come to mind. And even since the 90’s we’ve had Three Doors Down, Sum 41, Five for Fighting, Maroon 5, 50 Cent, 30 Seconds to Mars, +44, and One Direction. The variety of these bands genres tells me that use of numbers is not exclusive to any one genre.

    Perhaps, the use of numbers makes it easier to remember a band’s name? Maybe, bands had lucky numbers that they wanted to use? Probably, there have always been a large number of alpha-numeric band names, just with the wider variety of music more have had some commercial success, and we’ve become more aware of them.

    • theelderj says:

      Ahh! More bands I didn’t think of.

      I like the idea that the bands added numbers to differentiate themselves from other; I think that the explanation that they sound cool for alliterative or allusive reasons is also a good suggestion (‘sounding good’ is, fairly or not, probably the origin of many band names). And I am pretty sure that if we could, in any way possible, create a database of all popular band names from the past 30 years there wouldn’t be a statistically significant higher proportion in the 90s. It is one of those phenomena that is only a phenomenon because we’re looking at it.

      Although I do like the mock academic argumentation we can apply to the problem.

  2. […] (and, if you haven’t had enough of this topic from this post, my brother takes it up again) […]

  3. […] (and, if you haven’t had enough of this topic from this post, my brother takes it up again) […]

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