Do you remember the first bands you listened to when you got into music? Do you remember why you listened to them? Do you know why you still do?
If you’re my age — a late (or is it early?) millennial — your first exposure was still probably through the radio, and the first bands you remember that weren’t the parental-imposed Beatles, Beach Boys, or Jimmy Buffet (I mean who really likes Jimmy Buffet? Your parents.) were more than likely the same as mine: Third Eye Blind, Sugar Ray, Fastball, Eve 6, Vertical Horizon, Bush…a whole crop of ’90s alternative bands that, like a machine, pumped out some of the biggest hits in music history.
For many these days, those names hold nothing but nostalgia. They comprise some ’90s playlist in their Spotify or Pandora account, or they are buried in their music libraries and kept as “guilty pleasures,” said with a self-effacing, almost apologetic grin.
Well, I’m here to tell you that you’re wrong. Sorry, but it’s true.
Call ’90s alternative lame all you want. Call it butt rock. Call it stupid, simplistic, overly dramatic…I don’t care. The fact remains that there was a whole incredibly financially successful scene that managed to create emotionally vulnerable and sonically driving music that straddled the line between full-on pop fluff and underground legends. Nostalgia sometimes does play a role in how we perceive the artists of our youth, but it cannot solely be credited for the continued success of several of these bands.
Case in point: The Goo Goo Dolls.
It’s tough to imagine that the Goo Goo Dolls have been doing what they do for three decades as of 2016. They have been one of the longest running, most financially successful and critically lauded bands of the last 30 years with some of the most iconic songs of the ’90s and early-’00s in their catalog. I dare you to not tear up during “Iris” or jam out when “Broadway,” “Long Way Down,” or “Slide” (or any number of other GGD tunes) comes on your radio or shuffled playlist. While the group never won a Grammy, they have been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, received a number of other accolades, and sold millions of records. They’ve seen and done it all.
And they are still around.
The Goo Goo Dolls just released a new record, Boxes, and while it suffers a bit from the same pitfalls as many ’90s bands’ modern releases — a preoccupation with electronic flash and production (I’m looking at you Sugar Ray, Eve 6, Matchbox 20, and even you, my beloved Third Eye Blind) — this is the band’s eleventh release, and maintaining the quality of songwriting they have over that many records and that many years is downright improbable for anyone.
To mark the release and note their thirty years together, the Goo Goo Dolls took the stage at the Grammy Museum for an interview and five-song set. Talking with organizers, they couldn’t get over how nice the band was to everyone. The members were incredibly personable, cracking constant self-aware jokes and frequently bursting out with laughter themselves. They went on long, rambling tangents just to tell entertaining stories. They were constantly talking up one another’s skills and encouraging one another.
At over 50 years old, for bonafide successful rock stars, this was remarkable.
The Goo Goo Dolls spoke on the essential nature of collaboration, on being humbled by songwriters half their age and with a fraction of their experience, on the importance of always learning, on the changing landscape of popular music, and they did it all while still coming off as the coolest guys in the room. When they launched into “Slide,” I had to clutch my head to repress my stupid-ass grin. I was seeing the fucking Goo Goo Dolls perform in a hundred-capacity room. I was ecstatic.
That the Goo Goo Dolls remain prolific and adaptive is impressive, but it’s the whole of their discography, however, that’s really interesting. Their record releases can be broken up into trilogies. Viewed from this perspective, Boxes marks the second of this particular era, an era marked by collaboration and openness of songwriting that started with Magnetic.
The influence of others on these albums is audible, but so too is the band’s openness to that influence. Sure, Boxes has some weak songs, and those songs are invariably the ones that hold the most electronic influence — the ones that are trying so desperately to remain contemporary — but the strength of songwriting shows through on epic, arena-filling belters like opener “Over and Over.”
Even the band admitted during their interview that Magnetic shows some awkward seams, but that is mostly due to the members themselves acclimating to the nature of collaboration. Both of those records, however, have an energy and excitement invested into them. The band seemed genuinely enthused at the prospect of doing something new and different.
The previous era — Gutterflower, Let Love In, and Something For the Rest of Us — spread over an uncertain time. Gutterflower went gold and charted well as the follow-up to the Goo Goo Dolls’ most popular record, but each successive release saw their popularity begin to wane.
The songwriting, however, was still clear. Gutterflower is great from start to finish, and Something For the Rest of Us was the band’s ninth record but still resisted that mainstream pop-urge that I spoke about before. These guys were writing for themselves and for their own fans. They were maybe uncertain about the change in musical landscape as rock acts (or indeed any guitar-driven acts at all) gave way to electronic, hip hop, and digitized stars, but that uncertainty doesn’t come across.
Everyone is familiar with the next era back, so I will spend the least amount of time talking about Super Star Car Wash, A Boy Named Goo, and Dizzy Up The Girl. Suffice it to say that nostalgia holds no sway over the quality of those records. Anyone who says otherwise and starts making Creed noises cares too much for appearances and not enough for music. These are nigh-perfect alternative-rock records.
It was in listening to the Goo Goo Dolls’ first era — their self-titled album, Jed, and Hold Me Up — that I had a revelation. Bear with me while I embark on some punk-rock heresy:
The Goo Goo Dolls did Jawbreaker before Jawbreaker.
Jawbreaker, for the unaware, formed in 1986 and released their debut, Unfun, in 1990. Their sound was refreshing and new and smart and totally already done by the Goo Goo Dolls for two records.
I know. Let that sink in a moment.
I didn’t realize it either until I dug into their back catalogue. Furthermore, I realized that the Goo Goo Dolls perhaps best encapsulate what I search for in music and what I have found, largely, in the more extreme genres: earnestness, deliberateness, thoughtfulness, self-awareness, and a sense of striving.
These are the same qualities that I find in so much of what I grew up listening to, so it is no small wonder that I jumped from Third Eye Blind to Converge. Both acts are motivated by the same instincts despite their sonic outputs being wildly different.
It’s why having grown up with the Goo Goo Dolls I have trouble connecting to so much mindless pop music. To the Goo Goo Dolls, a song may indeed be something of a product — it pays their rent and helps fuel their creativity — but that doesn’t preclude if from being art and it certainly doesn’t mean they should chase the cultural zeitgeist around until they are tired, dizzy, and a little nauseous. They stay in their lane, worry about what’s in their paint, and churn out records with respect to themselves, their craft, and their fans, and they never stop trying harder.
And you know what? The same could be said for most of those ’90s bands, so own your loves. They are a helluva lot better than you remember.