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This month, to celebrate the Internet’s unbridled love for wallowing in nostalgia and even greater relishing of talking about why certain cultural artifacts are horrible, Sound of the City presents First Worsts, a series in which our writers remember the first time… they ever hated a song enough to call it The Worst. (And to be fair, we’re also going to see how these songs have stood the test of time.)
THE SONG: Sublime, “What I Got.”
THE YEAR: 1998.
THE REASON: Displaced self-loathing.
In 1998, I was twenty years old. This may seem a long time to have gone without ever having truly hated a song before; I can only plead in extentuation that I’ve been late to everything else in life too.
I grew up in a cloistered fundamentalist household where secular music was not encouraged; my mother had done the same and never known any secular music anyway (she’s still surprised when she recognizes a ’70s tune that was piped in to her crappy first waitressing job), and my father had given up Eric Clapton and the Allman Brothers at the same time and for the same reasons that he gave up pot and booze on converting to Jesus Freakery a handful of years before I was born. Homeschooled throughout most of the ’80s and getting all my information about current pop culture from Bloom County and The Cosby Show, I never supposed I was missing much, and if I gave secular pop music any thought I was simultaneously frightened of and titillated by what I was assured was an unending stream of sexual promiscuity, vapid materialism, and entirely sincere devil-worship.
It wasn’t until my family moved to Guatemala to be missionaries that I began, at 13, to listen to the radio: furtively at first, as though inviting Suzanne Vega, Bryan Adams, and Shanice under my parents’ roof would jeopardize my immortal soul, and then openly and enthusiastically, taping whole shows of American Top 40 as hosted by Shadoe Stevens onto two C90 tapes, then whittling those down to my favorites on one C30. It was a whole new world, and I loved all of it indiscriminately (including “A Whole New World”). Nothing, from movie tie-in ballads to cheesy European techno to corny pop-rap to screechy boho singalongs, was safe from my omnivorous palate. I soon learned, of course, that much of what I reveled in was terminally uncool—even at the missionary kids’ high school where I was first socialized, there was plenty of pop snobbery to go around—but that didn’t keep me from liking everything, it just taught me to keep quiet about some of it.
Smash cut to four years later—out of high school and back in the States, struggling through an evangelical liberal arts college without enough social capital to make or keep friends, pulled in several different directions by the newly discovered Internet, by the geeky, obsessive lure of comic books, and by my family’s conversion to Catholicism, a temptingly liberational move from a background of suspicious fundamentalism. I’m distracted and unmotivated and fail to register for classes and fail to apply for financial aid, and fail to apply for student loans. I tell myself and others that this is really a virtuous move, that I don’t want to get buried in debt so young, that I’ll go to community college and take care of my gen eds first, but the truth gnaws at me: I’ve failed to make the leap into adulthood. I move back in with my parents, now established in Phoenix, and start attending Mass, and convert in a slipshod private ceremony, and reluctantly become involved with the youth program.
I work temp jobs, driving my deceased grandfather’s old Cavalier with decades-old holes in the upholstery from long-extinguished cigarettes, and listen to the radio. Not Top 40 radio, though—I have at last been socialized out of liking “everything,” and cannot clearly understand the mellifluous R&B and shiny, boasting rap and hard-bodied dance-pop of the late ’90s. So I listen to “alternative” stations instead, a young white man full of angst and humiliation, headbanging along to the Nirvana and Stone Temple Pilots and Rage Against the Machine and Pearl Jam that have taken root and squat unmoving, impregnable, on Phoenix modern rock playlists.
Summers in Phoenix are designed to drive you to despair. I’ve always been suspicious of the conventional wisdom that holds that suicide rates spike in winter; and the few studies that have been done on the subject suggest that not winter but every change of seasons sees a spike in suicide attempts, with summer having a slight edge over the others. From July into October, the city is practically radioactive, with temperatures rarely dipping below 100 even at night, and in the daytime the sun, pitiless and white-hot in a cloudless sky, is a tyrant more totalitarian than any human dictator could ever hope to be. It’s hard to escape the nagging feeling in this environment that nature itself wants you dead, wants the crawling human insects to stop wriggling, let the sun bleach their bones and the cities crumble to dust. Boiling in traffic on I-17 on the way to a dead-end temp gig where the employees resented you and nothing you did had any meaning, heat death began to seem like a good idea.
This was the frame of mind I was in when I first heard Sublime’s “What I Got.” It was late in the song’s popularity cycle—Sublime’s self-titled final album was released in 1996, and the song had peaked on the modern rock chart in the fall of that year—but I hadn’t heard it before, and Phoenix area rock stations playlisted songs so far past their prime that they had Jane’s Addiction, Violent Femmes, and Clash songs in regular rotation. Almost immediately, it rubbed me the wrong way: Bradley Nowell’s lazy-drawler-turned-goonish-toaster vocals, the “guitar like a mother__ing riot” solo that was neither motherfucking nor a riot, the tepid, bottom-free reggae rhythm that made me embarrassed to be white and felt, though I wouldn’t have used the word at the time, skin-crawlingly appropriative. But more than all of that, what I really hated was what I perceived as an air of entitled smugness. “Lovin’ is what I got, I said remember that.”
Lovin’ was exactly what I didn’t have, paralyzed by a lingering fear of social contact from my insular youth, and misanthropically mistrustful of anyone I met anyway. I did get angry at the bills I had to pay, because I had no way to meet them, and a future that could once have prepared me to do so slipped vanishingly over the horizon. As the steaming sun beat down at exactly the right angle to be out of reach of the car’s sun visors, the song jangled tauntingly at me over and over again, insisting that I remember that some guy I didn’t know and was not disposed to like had got lovin’, and more importantly that he had the social and financial resources to be able to preach his dippy gospel of good vibes without fear of anything worse than his dog running away. And I was very decidedly not a dog person.
I don’t fully understand why Sublime inspired this loathing, rather than any number of equally hateable acts of the era, from Sugar Ray to Limp Bizkit to Creed. I liked Sugar Ray, possibly because they didn’t seem to believe their own bullshit, successfully ignored Limp Bizkit’s existence, and fell hard for Creed, because I was in exactly the right self-flagellating, proto-Catholic frame of mind to embrace “My Own Prison” as an earnestly bellowed penitential rite. I wasn’t familiar enough with Southern California’s topography of class markers to identify Sublime’s Long Beach origins as being substantially different from (say) No Doubt’s Orange County—but a song like “Santería” (which I literally only realized for the first time was not the same song as “What I Got” when I started listening for this piece), with its embrace of vato slang, tough-guy posturing, and intentionally lazy singing, read to me as both appropriating Chicano street culture and not-so-covertly mocking it, after the fashion of smug white frat bros who listened to hip-hop and called each other “homie.”
Even as late as 2008, on a road trip to visit an ailing grandmother, when my brother finally prevailed on me to stop playing my mixes of music from throughout the twentieth century and let him play one of his CDs for once, I drove through the flat, dead plains of western Nebraska with clenched teeth and murder in my heart as he grooved along to Sublime. I had slowly begun to piece my life back together after a bottoming-out in the mid-noughts, and the loathing, both for myself and the world, conjured up in their thin-gruel grooves, brattily attitudinal lyrics, and constant deployal of tropes from Jamaican, Chicano, and hip-hop culture married to a dreadlocked white guy’s “hey man, I’m just being me” evasion of responsibility, came flooding back to me. Only my desire to avoid a screaming match with my brother prevented me from pressing eject and sending the CD winging across the highway at 80 mph.
SO HOW IS IT NOW?
The amateur musicologist in me, the one who got obsessed about music in large part thanks to Allmusic’s Influenced By and Followers lists on each artist page, can still take a breath, note Sublime’s importance as a major nexus point of Southern California pop/rock in a lineage running roughly from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Hot Chelle Rae, with elements of third-wave ska (this way to the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Reel Big Fish), Chicano hip-hop (Cypress Hill isn’t far off), surf-dude philosophizing (Jack Johnson and Jason Mraz are right around the corner), and every Venice Beach busker with a hemp necklace and a tattoo calling you “brother” as earnestly as he can. The sad and weirdly specific details of Bradley Nowell’s life-destroying heroin addiction—of which I was totally, and willfully, ignorant at the time—may not be noble in themselves, but they place him within an identifiable tradition in pop/rock mythology. However little I identify with their fanbase, I have no right to assume that their admiration for, inspiration from, and attachment to Sublime’s music isn’t entirely genuine and even an ultimately positive thing—
Wait, never mind, one of their more popular singles is still called “Date Rape.” Fuck Sublime forever.