By Christopher Thiessen
May 03, 2019 at 06:00 AM EDT
Bob Berg/Getty Images

On May 4, 1999, power-pop quintet Smash Mouth released their career-defining anthem and sports stadium favorite, “All Star.” The song hit No. 4 on the Hot 100, and the band’s subsequent album Astro Lounge eventually went triple-platinum. Though the group would never achieve that type of success again, 20 years later, the song continues to pervade public consciousness due to the saving grace of memes.

Smash Mouth debuted two years prior to “All Star” with the double platinum Fush Yu Mang and No. 1 Alternative single “Walkin’ on the Sun.” Interscope Records believed the San Jose-based group had the potential for superstardom and pushed them to become more commercially viable on their follow-up record. But when they submitted the first edition of Astro Lounge, the label didn’t hear a hit single and asked the group to continue writing. 

Disheartened yet determined, guitarist and songwriter Greg Camp (who, ironically, is not a sports fan) persevered, finding inspiration in the letters he received from young fans. As for a title, that came from Camp’s favorite footwear. “I think I was probably wearing Converse All Stars,” he said in an interview with WBUR. As Camp pieced together the lyrics, he set out to craft a pop hit which “could relate to a kid who just needs a pep talk.” “All Star” was born.

Interscope loved the track and released it as a single. The feel-good anthem was an anomaly amidst R&B-inspired hits like Christina Aguilera’s “Genie In A Bottle” and Destiny’s Child’s “Bills, Bills, Bills.” But Smash Mouth embraced their unique place in the pop landscape and capitalized with a headlining tour in 1999 and an opening performance at MTV’s Video Music Awards. Meanwhile, placements in films including Mystery Men (for which a music video starring Ben Stiller, William H. Macy, and more was filmed), Rat Race (which featured the band performing the song live), and Shrek solidified Smash Mouth’s time in the spotlight.

But the band’s story eventually took a downhill turn. When their follow-up record flopped, they were dropped by Interscope. A greatest hits record, a Christmas record, and lineup changes followed, as Smash Mouth plunged into obscurity.

As time went on and the culture of the internet further took shape, Smash Mouth found themselves back in the spotlight. Specifically, “All Star” became a go-to track in a variety of joke videos and memes. According to Know Your Meme, YouTubers first started repurposing the song as early as 2009 with Richalvarez’s “Mario You’re A Plumber” parody, which sits at over 1.5 million views. In 2014, mash-up producer and YouTuber Neil Cicierega hilariously remixed pop songs with “All Star” for his Mouth Sounds album which is currently nearing one million listens on Soundcloud.

However, no one has taken the meme to heart as much as Jon Sudano, a man who has impressively garnered over 900,000 subscribers since 2016 almost exclusively by singing “All Star” over instrumentals of popular songs, from John Lennon’s “Imagine” to Childish Gambino’s “Redbone”. After Sudano and his glorious neckbeard re-energized the track’s popularity, dozens of other YouTubers jumped on the bandwagon, creating hilarious videos such as “All Star but it’s played on the sharpest tool in my shed” and “All Star But It’s 24 Cartoon Impressions”.

It would be easy for the band to be mad about the quasi-mockery, but Smash Mouth took the newfound interest of their old single in stride. “It’s very weird, but we always feel honored when someone takes their personal time to create anything Smash Mouth-related,” lead singer Steve Harwell said in 2017. In fact, Camp revealed that he had “become Facebook pals with [Jon Sudano].” “I just think he’s fabulous,” he told Songfacts. “He gets it, completely. He is the person that song was written for.” While it’s admirable that Smash Mouth still find joy in their 20-year-old hit and embrace its current cultural standing, the reality for most listeners is that “All Star” is a middling pop song whose meme status has kept it alive much longer than is probably warranted.

The track’s long-lasting impact is an interesting byproduct of the internet age. In the past, songs were only granted icon status by industry gatekeepers. Surely, these choices and intentions have always been questionable, and some type of revisionist history was inevitable. But with the rise of memes, songs both great and mediocre (and terrible) have been given equal access to the public consciousness and history books. As the proverb, which Smash Mouth misquoted, says, all that glitters is not gold. But now, songs like “All Star” and “Shooting Stars” can break through. Whether this has a positive or negative effect on music can certainly be debated. On one hand, it means we are subject to listen to mediocrity much longer than is preferred. But then, it also means a potentially much less biased look at musical history. Social media allows the listening habits of millions to be documented instead of the ideas of a powerful few.

We probably need a couple more decades before a clear picture of meme culture’s lasting impact on the annals of music history is revealed. But in the meantime, Smash Mouth isn’t going away. “Sales for ‘All Star’ keep very consistent, and we’ve enjoyed a spike recently,” Harwell told the Daily Dot during the meme’s height in popularity. “Consistent” may be an understatement, as the band’s website indicates their songs were streamed 151 million times in 2018. As for touring, while they may be considered a festival-playing legacy act at this point in their career, Smash Mouth continue to get their show on and get paid.

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