Somehow, even though there were 3,652 days in the 1990s, two of the most insidious hooks of the decade managed to be released on the same one, both of which will ruin your entire weekend if you read beyond this colon: “IIIIIIIIiiiiIIIiiiiIIIiii just wanna fly / Put your arms around me, baby / Put your arms around me, baby” and “Doo doo doo, doo doo doo doo doo / Doo doo doo, doo doo doo doo doo.”
While neither Sugar Ray nor Third Eye Blind — coiners of the above jingles, from “Fly” and “Semi-Charmed Life,” respectively, but you know that — ended up becoming heavy-hitters themselves, there was a cemented feel to these smashes that other one-hit-and-change wonders in the small, confused span between Kurt Cobain’s death and 1997 didn’t really have. Part of it was confidence, the sheer bravado of Stephan Jenkins announcing “I’m packed and I’m holding” as the first words the public would ever hear from him, or Mark McGrath (whose turgid 1995 metal dump Lemonade And Brownies didn’t exactly make him a star) bragging “All around the world, statues crumble for me,” which might as well have been the same. It was like these expensive-haired nobodies knew they finally found their lightning in a bottle.
But the other reason was hip-hop. While rap had long influenced alternative rock in the ’90s (it’s insane that Rage Against The Machine’s eponymous debut arrived only one year after Nevermind), something happened around the time of Beck’s “Loser” in 1994 that made it the fulcrum for most everything to hit alt-radio after. The absence of Cobain was both a literal and symbolic harbinger for a gulf in What Was Next, and Beck helped speed it up by getting samples and loops (and something resembling rapping) into the rock mainstream.
But even the multiple Grammy-winning Odelay in 1996 was fairly rooted in an underground of some kind. It was the follow-up to releases on K Records, and nothing about Beck’s inscrutable delivery really screamed “fame.” Genre-splicers like Korn and 311 were rapidly building their cults, but their sounds were a bit too foreboding and loopy for actual Top 40. Beastie Boys, like Rage, were enormously popular, but never singing created some kind of ceiling in their crossover ascent, not that they really aspired to truly cross over anyway. It was these guys, Jenkins and McGrath, who simultaneously launched campaigns to be famous, with these industrial-strength catchy songs that made a reasonable argument for the peak of hip-hop’s influence on alt-rock just before nü-metal ruined in many’s eyes what that could mean for rap and rock together. The only other tune that really shared the inner nucleus of this sound/attitude/sales Venn Diagram was Sublime’s beaty “What I Got” in 1996, the ultimate nice-guy anthem before fedoras made that a curse, by a maturing ska devotee and heroin addict who was now too dead to capitalize on it.
Given, “Semi-Charmed Life” owes just as much to Pulp Fiction. It’s the most nonchalant glorification of crystal meth in pop history, not to mention being sucked off. And the gleefully self-aware Jenkins knew that his tricky rhythms and jabby delivery from years of ghostwriting rap tunes (supposedly, anyway; I remember reading this widely in the late ’90s around the time he helmed “Rock Show” for Run-D.M.C. but it seems hard to come by accreditations Googling now) would disguise bits like “I was taking sips of it through my nose” and “Chop another line like a coda with a curse” from airplay censors even though MTV backmasked the blatant “crystal meth will lift you up until you break.”
Jenkins’ delivery was clear as a bell compared to the abstract yowls of his grunge predecessors, but it also kept its head down smiling until its Trojan horse mission was complete. (After “Life” was a hit, Jenkins made no secret of its label-horrifying subject matter in interviews, and it cost him upon the release of 1999’s “Slow Motion,” which Elektra ended up partly censoring for referencing everything from cocaine to school shootings.)
Of course, these lurid innuendos in plain sight were “packed,” to use his word, between “the tick-tock rhythm” and “I speak to you like the chorus to the verse,” to cite two filler bits that sound straight out of an Eric B. & Rakim song. Where else would Jenkins have pilfered the art of imbuing a danceable pop tune with such a dark and decadent narrative?
Would-be metal mooks Sugar Ray used their sudden beatwise leanings for something else altogether. For all of its bright-summer flow, “Fly” is patched together from very disparate parts: Super Cat’s opening run of toasted ad libs, Rodney Sheppard’s auto-detuning guitar riff, DJ Homicide’s low-riding breakbeat. McGrath’s lyric is more stream-of-consciousness than it gets credit for, with the weird statues bit and the uplifting chorus and the underlying sadness each time he mentions “my mother, god rest her soul” in all three verses, intentionally nicked from Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally)” despite the well-known dangers of sampling Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally).”
Neither of these songs contains actual rapping (though Jenkins’ delivery is arguably some kind of rapping, probably moreso than, like, Stefan Burnett of Death Grips), not even in the way LFO’s “Summer Girls” contains rapping. Yet both couldn’t have existed without hip-hop. The way these tunes juggle their respective pieces, the push and pull between the hooks and riffs — is it time for that Sheppard guitar part again? Yes it is — and obviously the crucial addition of Super Cat, who was never a superstar in his own right, to “Fly,” gave the most mainstream guitar format of 1997 some real ideas about how the ebb of rock and flow of rap could twine themselves in harmony before Limp Bizkit took over and forever terminated the ability to innocently have a DJ in one’s group.
How do the songs hold up? Pretty well in fact; “Fly” stands out more from its chartward ilk more now than it did then, and McGrath even sounds a bit soulful, in a brotendo way. No fools, Sugar Ray took the money, ran with it, and the sound bore fruit: Spring-break-ready follow-ups like “Every Morning” and “When It’s Over” are more than pleasant to encounter in a Walgreen’s now that they’re not sucking out your life force in mandatory rotation every 30 minutes. “Semi-Charmed Life” remains an absolute classic that Third Eye Blind never did anything like before or since, though they had quite the string themselves with the spectacular “Graduate,” the dreamlike “Losing A Whole Year,” the tender “How’s It Going To Be?,” and their other biggest hit, “Jumper.” All of them locked into their tight backbeat while Jenkins tried on different flows, for lack of a better term, to describe various flavors of fuzzy relationship details.
It’s a shame the new-wavey ambitions of “10 Days Late” and “Never Let You Go” ended up suffering from premature has-been syndrome, and it’s genuinely surprising the relative artistic lightweights of Sugar Ray “lasted” longer, though their good humor probably helped; naming your follow-up album 14:59 is sure in lighter spirits than dubbing it Blue. (Turnabout is fair play, though, as Third Eye Blind matured enough to sing about social workers on their 2009 album whereas Sugar Ray’s was titled, well, Music For Cougars.) Both McGrath and Jenkins turned out fairly harmless and, considering even in his meathead days McGrath’s platform was “Danzig Needs A Hug,” seemingly pretty happy. Jenkins dated and artistically contributed to Vanessa Carlton for a few years, and McGrath (who turns 50 next year, yikes) was always shooting his hand up like the teacher’s pet on VH1’s Rock ‘N’ Roll Jeopardy, which led to a bunch of other TV hosting gigs. They found something else to get them through this life.