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Everclear and the Kings of "Late '90s Confusion Pop"

Please do tell me everything is wonderful now.
Please do tell me everything is wonderful now.

"Late '90s Confusion Pop" is a genre term that may have been coined, originally, by my friend Daniel Schurgin of the band Gay Kiss. It describes a series of mainstream alt-rock acts from the late '90s who released very accessible pop hits and whose influences seem myriad to the point of almost being indiscernible. In my opinion, the crowning achievement in this genre is "Better Days (and the Bottom Drops Out)" by Citizen King; other notable figures in the genre include Sugar Ray, Smashmouth, the New Radicals, and the Dandy Warhols.

The genre seems like the result of power-pop music adapting in the wake of grunge, pop punk, third wave ska, the swing revival, latin pop, hip-hop (DJ scratches on any guitar-driven pop number from the period is a good indicator), and Oasis. The usual result of Late 90s Confusion Pop songwriting are songs that sound bright, kind of punk, and kind of alternative, but never delve too deeply into the subcultures or nerdy genre consciousness of their cumulative influences. It is usually, on a superficial level, carefree and unintrusive. A lot of classic '90s Confusion Pop hits have made the jump to Adult Contemporary.

Everclear occupies a particularly interesting space in the canon of Late '90s Confusion Pop.

The band's earliest stage involved sounding like a major-key-oriented Nirvana -- people who only liked songs like "On a Plane" and "Aneurysm" -- with a country twang similar to some alt bands that were on the same kick, like Better than Ezra and Matchbox 20. But 1998's So Much for the Afterglow set the band on a much more pop-oriented course that it seemed to stay on. While these songs are certainly peppy and fun-sounding, most of them aren't destined for adult contemporary immortality in the same way that something like "All-Star" by Smash Mouth was.

The majority of songs on that album deal with the erosion of American values -- most notably the parental abandonment anthem "Father of Mine," but also the other single, "I Will Buy You a New Life," which addresses materialism and poverty, and the title track, which describes an emotionally fraught sexual relationship. A band that previously wrote songs like "Heroin Girl" didn't seem quick to compromise lyrics about addiction, waywardness, and underachievement as their sound became more accessible.

It may be possible that someone in the band or a label exec realized this, as the following album, Songs From an American Movie Vol. 1, features what is probably the song that gets the band the most grocery store airplay, "Wonderful", an ostensibly optimistic track about escapism on an album that was mostly about lead singer Art Alexakis' divorce.

To provide cultural context: The relatively inoffensive song was featured on the soundtrack to the Haley Joel Osment vehicle Pay It Forward, the male-centric rom-com 40 Days and 40 Nights, and an episode of Scrubs. There also is a bizarre insistence on the part of an unknown Wikipedia editor that the song was used during the commencement ceremony of the 1999 graduating class of Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. However, this is most likely apocryphal seeing as the song was released a year later.

 

American Movie also features "AM Radio", an almost squeaky-clean ("getting high" is censored in the radio version, but it's a reference to using marijuana in the '70s, man) piece of cookie-cutter '70s nostalgia that seems to pander more to the parents of people listening to Everclear in the year 2000 than the actual listeners.

To me, it seems like it had to be the work of some marketing person, although I will concede that That '70s Show was on the air at the time. I don't think the song was as successful of a crossover hit as "Wonderful" because I don't think I have heard it in a grocery store before.

Past these two sort of anomalous entries in their catalog, the career of Everclear has mostly been that of gritty (by standards of mainstream rock music at least) Late '90s Confusion Pop up until the present. They dabbled a tiny bit with what I like to call "Turn of the Century Power Pop", a style of low-intensity pop-punk I associate with bands like American Hi-Fi, Eve 6, and early OK Go.

This period features a single called "Rock Star" that is featured in the Mark Wahlberg '80s nostalgia flick of the same name. However, they've stayed true to their roots in the sense that most stuff following So Much for the Afterglow pretty much sounds like that album and the late '90s in general. I think Everclear is okay with this. A recent video for a single called "Be Careful What You Wish For" even has a guest appearance by Late '90s Confusion Pop king Mark McGrath.

I wonder if this is what fans want from Everclear -- that, just as Everclear tried to sell '70s nostalgia in the early 2000s, they'll sell them late '90s nostalgia in whatever the hell this decade is called. Maybe they want to hear the hits; maybe they want to hear the deep tracks; some of them might claim that the Nirvana rip-off phase of the band was their best period.

Regardless, and for better or worse, this weekend Everclear will take them back to a time when pop music was still confused.

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