Before I heard this song, I was convinced that Nada Surf was this really lite indie band. The only other material of theirs I’d come across was the (admittedly great) cover of Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark’s ‘If You Leave’, which like many of our pre-University music choices, was informed by the whims of music director from The O.C. Fair enough, I’m not going to claim that I was a cool enough 9 year old to have totally vibed on ‘Popular’ when it became a stratospheric summer anthem in the States in ’96. But let me tell you, sonny, that even now, it’s a right good kick in the backside. From those opening minor notes ringing out from Matthew Caws’ distorted guitar through to the hilariously accurate lyrics themselves, this may actually be the ultimate companion piece to being a teenager even if it’s not as abrasive as all that Incubus and Nirvana that I was using as an outlet.
It’s surprising that ‘Popular’ ever became popular, primarily because it utilises a highly underrated form of performance that comes off a bit like musical beat poetry. It’s the kind of thing that the recently deceased Gil Scott-Heron excelled at, but it’s risky as all hell; if you get it wrong, there’s a very good chance you’ll end up looking completely talentless. But as I have subsequently learned, Nada Surf are a pretty intelligent band, and what they lack in form they make up for with perfect depictions of the adolescent American condition. Caws’ increasingly hysterical guide for how to break up with teenage boys seemingly pays absolutely no attention to the accompanying instruments, but repeated listens will make obvious the way that they jack up the volume and intensity as he reaches breaking point before each chorus. Formulated madness is a brilliant thing, especially when your bass player has dreadlocks.
If you’d never seen a John Hughes film, you could get the entire gist of his greatest teen movies wrapped up in these three verses. From going steady to breaking hearts without making a big scene to how to brush your hair, it’s an absolutely perfect delineation of how earth-shatteringly important stupid things seem to be when you’re young. Also, from the murmured disaffected party voices at the beginning through to the crunching chorus itself, this seems to me like the perfect companion to Weezer’s ‘Undone (The Sweater Song)’. It’s middle America at its best, and you don’t need to possess any kind of higher-order meaning to adore this tune. It’s like Odelay-era Beck meeting Eels at a thrift store and fighting over the last flannel shirt. How could the results not be incredible?
Nada Surf – ‘Popular’
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