How do you spell success without using any vowels? If you’re a brainy, five-piece bar band from Winnipeg, Manitoba, it’s simple—”Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm.” That onomatopoeic, gold-selling single, released last October and plugged incessantly on Howard Stern’s syndicated radio show, has propelled the Crash Test Dummies’ sophomore disc, And God Shuffled His Feet, to No. 11 on the American pop charts—lofty heights the quintet had previously reached only in Canada.
The Dummies’ debut, 1991’s folky The Ghosts That Haunt Me, also boasted a catchy ditty, ”Superman’s Song”—a No. 1 Canadian hit that helped Ghosts sell nearly 400,000 copies up north. But the group, formed by megabaritone frontman Brad Roberts as, in his words, ”a recreational activity” for its University of Winnipeg student members, only cracked the U.S. college scene. Since then, however, the increased profile of two radio formats-commercial alternative and adult album alternative (AAA), which plays kick-back thirtysomething rock for the post-mosh-pit demographic-has lent new power to smaller stations. ”I don’t believe AAA has yet been responsible for breaking a band,” says Tom Ennis, vice president of product management at Arista, the band’s record company, ”but I’ll tell you, people (at other stations) look at the AAA format. They (watch) what’s happening with these artists.”
Industry wisdom says that Arista, with a roster that includes Whitney Houston and Kenny G, was particularly suited to mass-market the Dummies after the band elicited a positive reaction from those tastemaker stations. Still, the backlash within the underground world against such barely alternative, prototypical AAA bands as the Dummies, Counting Crows, and the Cranberries reflects the perils of trying to cash in on these credentials. ”There will always be people who don’t want the bands that they enjoy to be successful,” counters Roberts, ”because, frankly, then it’s not an elitist club that (only) they belong to anymore.”