Thursday, October 15, 2009

1994 Time Machine: Hootie and the Blowfish

Fame is fleeting for just about every chart-topping musical act, but even as they were taking America by storm in 1995, it felt as if Hootie and the Blowfish were on a running clock, the superstars who were also relics from another era.

Built on irresistible harmonies and the tightness of a band that had been honing its craft in dive bars for years, Cracked Rear View was neither a fluke nor an undeserving blockbuster. It sold more than 15 million copies, a remarkable figure made even more so by the slow build the album enjoyed beginning with the fall 1994 release of the single “Hold My Hand.”

The next single, “Let Her Cry,” boosted the band into the stratosophere, and Cracked Rear View finally hit no. 1 in May 1995. The album would generate two more hits, “Only Wanna Be With You” and “Time,” and in perhaps the  best symbol of its inescapability, Cracked Rear View returned to the top spot on the album chart four more times in 1995.

I take an extra bit of—wait for it!!—pride in the success of the album because I gave it a rave review for The Chronicle early in the fall semester 15 years ago and declared the band the future of Southern rock. That review made me look alternately prescient and foolish, because the more successful they became, the less likely it appeared that Hootie and the Blowfish would have a lasting impact on the musical landscape (and the less a writer wanted to brag about his ability to peg the band for superstardom, but I digress).

Cracked Rear View had its share of substance and depth: “Let Her Cry” is a pretty dark ballad and “Drowning” tackled racism in America in general and the band’s home state, South Carolina, in particular. But in the mid-‘90s, Hootie and the Blowfish were the audio equivalent of comfort food in an era in which artists were aiming to make their listeners squirm.

Music was getting angrier and more dangerous. Green Day was recording hit songs about masturbation and drug use. Hootie’s one vice was beer. Lead singer Darius Rucker was earnestly singing “I wanna love you, the best that I can” while Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails was crooning “I wanna f**k you like an animal.”

The band was inescapable on MTV and VH-1, yet it was about as telegenic as those watching the videos (present company excluded, of course). Marketing geniuses didn’t have to waste any time spinning Hootie and the Blowfish as a bunch of normal guys, because they were actually four completely unremarkable looking dudes (in 2009, though, to look at guitarist Mark Bryan is to think Dirk Nowitzki has a twin brother).

Hootie and the Blowfish were too nice to stay atop the charts and too authentic to undergo any sort of transformation, so through no fault of their own, they were destined for the where-are-they-now files even as they owned America’s tape decks and CD players. The band, too, seemed to get this, and even at the peak of their success, they appeared to be preparing for the inevitable slide back to anonymity, as they discussed in this excellent Rolling Stone cover article from 1995.

The band made a winking acknowledgment of its limited shelf life with the title of its second album, Fairweather Johnson, which debuted at no. 1 in May 1996. The albums that preceded and succeeded it atop the charts—Rage Against The Machine’s Evil Empire and The Fugees’ Score—served as another reminder of how unhip Hootie had already become. By 2001, Hootie had bottomed out (or peaked?) as a punch line on an episode of The Simpsons in which Chief Wiggum uses an old Hootie and the Blowfish tape to secretly record a conversation between mobsters.

The band is getting the last laugh though. It continues to tour and record at its leisure, and Rucker recorded a country album and saw his first single go all the way to no. 1 last year. Turns out being true and authentic to oneself, even in cynical times unkind to those without jagged edges, can in fact lead to sustained success.

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