Dating Protocols and Haircare: Nada Surf's Guide to Popularity
Transcendent, fist-pumping, riot-starting songs for teenagers. Every generation has its "My Generation", every cohort of similarly-aged youngsters has at least a few jams that they all know and love, or if they don't love them they can at least dig up some respectful level of nostalgia for them. It isn't always clear what makes these anthems hit home in the way that they do, but when they do, they tend to permeate youth culture like an airborne pathogen, instantly becoming a new expression of a shared, archaic language.
Many of these touchstone moments carry an air of timelessness that works in their favor. By being idealistically driven and vague in subject matter, they are able to potentially become rallying points for future generations (think of Green Day's "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)" or "Love Is a Battlefield" by Pat Benatar, both use general terms and are more about a mentality than a specific set of people or circumstances). Additionally, some can be applied to other groups and don't have to be pigeonholed into adolescent paradigms (Gaga's "Born This Way" and Queen's "We Will Rock You" lend themselves to transference into other social arenas).
But perhaps the most on-the-nose assessment (piss-take? indictment?) of 90's teen-hood is Nada Surf's "Popular" off of their debut LP High/Low. The song is a shining beacon of everything the decade did well: the sing-speak lyrics hail from a 60's era advice book for young ladies, but are delivered with dripping sarcasm and irony; the dynamics shift from quiet to loud in a way made famous by Nirvana, and the Pixies before them; the bass carries much of the melody while the guitar whittles away in the corner until the liftoff choruses; the drums are basic but amped up in the mix in a way that punctuates the layered and shifting emotional tenor. The Jesse Peretz-directed video is also pitch-perfect 90's: a snarky cheerleader, frat-bro football players, the band going incognito to play school personnel, and a twist ending seemingly designed to elicit sighs of delighted exasperation.
Coming almost exactly in the middle of the respective eras of Heathers and Mean Girls, both modern day parables about the spiritual depths that often must be plumbed for a shot at local notoriety, "Popular" is a song that is both obsessed with the idea of popularity and completely terrified of it and its outsized importance in a high school setting. The verses are comprised of statements about what it takes to be popular and how one can achieve that end, and the choruses tear all that down with scathing commentary on the realities of what those things mean in practice. The end result is the inevitable conclusion that popularity is only a superficial consideration that can be detrimental to those on the outside. In the final verse the curtain gets pulled back as the narrator tells us about his plan to limit periods of going steady to one month, allowing young women the systemic permission structure to increase their availability for other suitors ("You don't need date insurance / You can go out with whoever you want to / …every boy in the whole world could be yours").
Nada Surf figured out how to apply 90's-era apathy, grungy angst, and shit-talking to the entirety of the high school social experience. They did so by repurposing words meant to guide the teens of a bygone time into spittle and nervous energy across three and a half minutes of perfect pre-millennial riffage, and all of this created a lasting document of being a teen in the 90s in a way that could have only worked in the 90s.
The band moved on, after the tide receded from this one-hit-wonder watermark they became indie darlings on Barsuk Records with critically adored records like 2002's Let Go. Music moved on, within fifteen years of "Popular"'s release rock had taken a backseat to rap and hip-hop while they became America's preferred idioms of teenaged uneasiness with the status quo. The world kept turning. But for those of us who heard this song in the context of its time, there is a little piece of us that can never move on. A small but vocal part of our ego will always want to be popular.