Our culture has a complicated relationship with the man-child.
For a while there, it seemed like we couldn’t get enough of grown men acting like children, especially in our movies. Some critics claimed that we were glorifying this immature behavior, with movies produced by Judd Apatow bearing a good portion of the blame. These critics usually ignored that most Apatow-brand movies ended with the main character growing up and taking responsibility for his life, but we’ll let that slide for now.
These days there seems to be a man-child backlash, which is good in a lot of ways: as any woman who’s ever tried to play video games online can tell you, the internet is filled with creepy, adolescent-minded adults. On the other hand, you’ve got people holding up Mad Men’s Don Draper as shining example of classic masculinity, and if you’re idolizing Don Draper for being “a real man,” you’re doing life wrong.
Still, I think even the most mature person in the world would agree that arrested development can be pretty funny in small doses. This was never clearer than when Bowling For Soup, class clowns of the pop-punk world, hit the charts with “1985.”
Bowling For Soup had a minor hit two years earlier with “The Girl All The Bad Guys Want,” but “1985” (originally performed by heroes of the Splashdown soundtrack, SR-17) is the song they’re best known for. It’s fitting, too; “1985” tells the story of, a woman obsessed with the pop culture of her youth, and Bowling For Soup are nothing if not pop-culture obsessed. Their songs and their videos are typically a mixture of juvenile humor and obvious cultural references, with the occasional dash of heartbroken against. They are, essentially, a single teenage boy embodied as four adult men.
We found them amusing for a while, but like I said: small doses. The double-shot of humor and nostalgia in “1985” was enough for America, and Bowling For Soup hasn’t had another hit since.
But why? I mean, aside from that thing I said about juvenile humor only being good in small doses. That still stands. But are there other reasons?
Let’s get this out of the way first: most of Bowling For Soup’s albums run for nearly an hour, and that is much, much too long. There are few genres less suited to long running time than pop-punk, and this holds especially true for Bowling For Soup, a band who only knows a few tricks and refuses to learn any more.
Another problem is that the guys Bowling For Soup aren’t that funny. The first single from their follow-up album, The Great Burrito Extortion Case, peaked at 97 on the Billboard Hot 100, which is the pop music equivalent of a polite smile and nod. The song, “High School Never Ends,” certainly didn’t merit much more than that. Yeah, guys, a lot of celebrities can be slotted into stereotypical high school social groups. That’s… that’s a good one. Excuse me, I have to go… uh… do something else.
If “High School Never Ends” was working too hard to stretch a moderately clever observation into a hilarious song, then their next single, “When We Die,” swung way too far in the opposite direction. It was a completely joke-free song that was both saccharine and vague, a deadly combination in a pop song. If the guys behind the song “I’m Gay” want to make me cry, they’d better have a damn good reason.
Bowling For Soup’s best songs struck a balance between sad and funny, wrapping the pop-culture jokes and juvenile humor around some sort of emotional core. “Ohio (Come Back To Texas)” is a single from the same album that spawned “1985”and it holds the dubious honor of being the best Bowling For Soup song ever made. “Ohio” tells the story of a Texan whose girlfriend runs off to Ohio with another guy. The narrator tries to get her to return by appealing to her love of rodeo, Mrs. Baird’s fruit pies and decent Mexican food.
Even if they were never all that funny, at least Bowling For Soup never beat you over the head with their jokes. If a gag fell flat, it’s okay; it was just one line in the song. It’s not like they would pick one abysmally unfunny joke and build the entire song around that, beating the joke into the ground until you weren’t sure if you were even capable of laughter anymore. Yeah, I’m glad that never happened.
Oh, wait, that did happen, and it was called Sorry For Partyin’.
You don’t even need to listen to this album to find it annoying. Song titles like “Hooray For Beer,” “I Can’t Stand L.A.” and “I Don’t Wish You Were Dead Anymore” give you a pretty good idea of the level of wit on display here. All you really need to know, though, is that this album contains a song called “My Wena,” and if you’re not sad right now, you haven’t gotten the joke yet. Try saying it with a Boston accent.
That’s the kind of humor that wouldn’t even fly on an elementary school playground. If a ten-year-old heard that song, he would wrinkle his nose, adjust his thick-framed glasses and sigh about the horrible state of music these days.
“I Gotchoo”, a hip-hop influenced song that segues into a rap-metal bridge, is somehow the least terrible song here. For most bands, making a song that borrowed lyrics from the “fuzzy wuzzy was a bear” rhyme would be the low point of their entire career, a moment that they could never live down no matter how many albums they made with Rick Rubin. For Bowling For Soup, it was an album highlight. Honestly, it was just nice to hear a song that didn’t take a single joke and beat it into the ground.
Mercifully, no singles were released from Sorry For Partyin’. The official story is that Jive Records dropped the band right when the album was released, but I believe that there was a greater force at work. A force… for good. I guess you could say that Sorry For Partyin’ restored my faith in a just and loving God. Thanks, Bowling For Soup!
Maybe that’s a little dramatic, but really, that album is terrible. However, while Bowling For Soup has still not returned to the charts, their most recent album, Fishin’ For Woos, shows that the band is capable of producing music that doesn’t inspire bewildered rage.
On Fishin’ For Woos, the band eschews the one-joke songs of their previous album in favor of producing catchy, lightly humorous pop-punk ditties. It looks like there might be hope after all! The boys have learned that they don’t have to make crass, innuendo-laden, “funny” songs in order to entertain people. And hey, even if they’re never going to be Fountains Of Wayne, at least they don’t have to be The Bloodhound Gang.
In fact, the album’s last track, “Graduation Trip,” shows that the band can make a bittersweet song without relying on pop-culture references for the sweetness. The story of “Graduation Trip” is similar to “1985,” with a middle-aged narrator reflecting on a lost love from his youth. Where “1985” devolved into jokes about Ozzy Osbourne, “Graduation Trip” commits to telling the story of someone who can’t let go of the past. The results aren’t exactly mind-blowing, but when you’re dealing with the boys from Bowling For Soup, any steps toward maturity are impressive.
Actually, scratch that–the men from Bowling For Soup. The band members are all in their forties now, they deserve a little respect. And hey, if they want to keep making songs about friends, chicks and guitars, songs like… well, “Friends Chicks Guitars,” more power to them. Because being a man-child might be unattractive, but no one likes a person who takes himself too seriously, either.
Just… lay off the dick jokes, okay, guys?