Songs of the Year—1998 The Next Big Thing

Songs of the Year: “Give Me Daughters”, Jonathan FireEater; “Underground”, Ben Folds Five

Runners up: “Torn”, Natalie Imbruglia; “St. Louise is Listening”, Soul Coughing

Honorable Mentions: “Doo Wop”, Lauryn Hill; “The Rockerfeller Skank,” Fatboy Slim

1998 was the year that alt-rock died. I swear it. Later, it was reincarnated as “Indie”, but the death throes had started the year before. Pearl Jam and 311 (!) released live albums; Green Day went soft with “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” and Matchbox 20 acquired yet more fans. It was soon to be Jay-Z’s world and I was merely living in it.

In the year that Alanis finally thanked India, when Shaniah Twain was kept from conquering the world by Celine Dion and Cher and while we all started to endure an overwhelming onslaught of boybands and young R&B performers (Aaliyah, Destiny’s Child, Brandy and Monica), I started to stop listening to the radio.

No Lisa Loeb, for sure

What a terrible year for music—one that anticipated worse years to come. The top three singles? Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On”, Cher’s “Believe”, and Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing”. Napster couldn’t be deployed soon enough. Radio was dying or dead. I was in the dishroom, or behind a bar, or carrying trays of lobsters to tables begging for the radio to be turned off.

When I wasn’t playing bad cover songs or trying terribly hard to put together a band that sounded like Guster, I was probably in a classroom or a dishroom. In abandoning the radio, the Rhythm Guitarist and I entered a seemingly endless search for the next big thing. If we were still playing cassettes, we would have worn out Guster’s Goldfly and Soul Coughing’s Irresistible Bliss. But we weren’t. We had CDs. If you’re careful, they play forever.

The year was short on big things. What was I listening to? I loved the Ben Folds Five live album Naked Baby Photos, was slightly disappointed in Soul Coughing’s last album El Oso, Cake’s immensely disappointing Prolonging the Magic, and the wildly successful and only sometimes cloying You’ve Come a Long Way Baby by Fat Boy Slim. I wasn’t cool enough to know about Bright Eyes’ Letting Off the Happiness (which I wouldn’t hear for four years).

I was cool enough to have the short release Tremble Under Boom Lights by the soon-to-implode Jonathan FireEater. The nearly incomprehensible lyrics on the lead track “Give Me Daughters” detracted nothing from the distanced B3 organ, the throaty and deep voice of the vocalist, and the gritty dirt of the recording. The song structure is loose, but repetitive enough to be memorable.

I still remember blasting the song from the dishroom and having a stranger or two drop by to ask what the hell it was or to compliment our good taste. See, this album was New York cool before the Strokes were even a band. This record was garage post-grunge but before the Hives crossed the pond. How did I find out about it? A friend from home told me that it was the next big thing. And I? I just liked the song. (Although, when I hear it, I still can’t help but tasting rum or bourbon for some reason…)

(Jonathan FireEater never made it big. The band broke up. Some of them formed the Walkmen who gave the world a few good tracks but were still wildly underwhelming in the long run.)

In a year that nothing new glitters as gold, what should a music lover do but turn back or inward? I stayed obsessed with Ben Folds Five thanks to the live album released that year. Naked Baby Photos isn’t a concert album, but rather it is a collection of live performances and rarities. It is also a collection of hilarities. The song “Really Bad Idea” has Ben Folds claiming he’s “retarded” in the chorus; an improvisation from a radio show features Folds freestyling (this resulted in my bandmates and I calling high-hats “tasty” and saying “New York City” in cartoonish voices for the next three years).

A great song on the album that mocks music listeners, poseurs and the alt-rock scene altogether: “Underground”. The song starts out with a lament that many of us will claim as our own:

I was never cool in school
I’m sure you don’t remember me
And now it’s been 10 years
I’m still wondering who to be
But I’d love to mix in circles, cliques, and social coteries – that’s me
Hand me my nose ring (Can we be happy?)
Show me the mosh pit (Can we be happy?)
We can be happy underground

(A member of the audience, in response to the line “I’m sure you don’t remember me” shouts “who the fuck are you?” and Folds laughs.)

The song is at once lark and lament. Folds satirizes the identity-searching and flexible character of pop-culture poses all while demarcating his own place within such poses. He invites his audience to mock itself and him under the guise of poking fun at those around them. Folds’ lyrics, harmonies, and piano playing frame the song as something of a show-tune, but one that anyone can sing. The overall effect is one of happy surrender to the absurdity of identity construction. I think.

In any case, I washed dishes to this song. I ran to this song. I made pizzas to this song. And I learned over and over I would never be able to tell a story like Ben Folds could. Then the next album came out. Then the band broke up. And another year passed us by without providing the next big thing.

Horrors: NSync, 98 Degrees, Britney Spears, Cher’s “Believe”, Celine Dion, “Closing Time” by Semisonic, “Getting’ Jiggy With It”

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