Making America Rock Again: How ’90s Alt-Rock Bands Have Returned to Start the Revolution, by Sarah Sweeney

My heart skipped a beat when I recently saw Third Eye Blind raging outside of the Republican National Convention. What could be better than bygone bands protesting—or suddenly even having a voice in—national politics?

Raise your hand if you believe in science!” bellowed 3EB frontman Stephan Jenkins to widespread boo-hissing from the conservative crowd. Volleyed Jenkins: “Boo all you want—I’m the motherfucking artist up here!” 

And thank god. Who better to unleash these universal truths—Doing crystal meth will lift you up until you break, anyone?—than our very own sizzling sheet of Tater Tots otherwise known as American alt-rock artists from the ’90s?

Before climate change faceplanted our collective birthday cakes, before Iraq and Afghanistan crashed our fantasy suites, before a global citizenry armed with social media filmed a live insurrection, we lived in a hedonist pleasure dome for white men, staffed by governors like Pauly Shore and Tom Arnold, and fueled by the freewheeling Clinton presidency. It was a simpler time. A time of Adam Sandler movies, Gushers, and neutered male rock streaming from the FM dial.

It’s precisely that apolitical feel-good stupidity missing from the current political climate. White men's place in the world has been challenged at an unprecedented rate, and while our backs were turned, a cadre of alt-rockers from the musical decade we sloughed through has been lowkey plotting a coup. Its stance? Make America fun again. Make America rock again.

That’s why I found it of particular importance to hit up this year’s Summerland Tour, where Sugar Ray, Everclear, Lit, and Sponge are taking to stages across America not to address timely topics such as police brutality, rape on college campuses, #BlackLivesMatter, Turkish democracy, Israeli-occupied Palestine, HiddleSwift, NC House Bill 2, the Trans Pacific Partnership, the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis, or the future of the UK post-Brexit, but to shower us with a light sprinkling of their hits just when we needed them most.

But where, pray tell, have these unforeseen messiahs been hiding in the years since tramp-stamping our collective consciousness with their earnest anthems of white male ennui?

Turns out, not lying dormant, starting families, nor bartending small-town TGI Friday’s. No, they’ve been waiting for their moment to rise up in a coordinated defense of reason, shrimp cocktail, Mexican lager, and democracy—their truest domains. And because frosted tips are at peak power in the summer months, it was now or never.

Nagged by a feeling that this emerging third party platform would announce its leader right here in Boston, the birthplace of the American Revolution, I trekked down to local command center The House of Blues—loosely modeled after the Democratic National Convention but with more 4Loko—where I slipped past dozing security forces during Sponge’s opening set.

Detroit-based Sponge once contributed the song “Plowed” to the soundtrack of Empire Records (1995), a documentary about a ragtag group of record store employees who wrest their local business back from the hands of the corporate elite. The song remains a mainstay of poker nights everywhere and the highlight of Sponge’s curriculum vitae.

Lit stormed the stage next, hyping the crowd with their one-hit wonder “My Own Worst Enemy”:

Can we forget about the things I said when I was drunk
Didn't mean to call you that
I can't remember what was said and what you threw at me
Please tell me

This band of genteel post-punk poets proved a perfect amuse-bouche for the radical political agenda to come, and by my third tallboy Corona, the spirit moved me to connect with fellow freedom fighters in this developing grassroots movement.

“This is the music I grew up to,” mused Brandon Postemski, 37, of Boston.

“But is this revolution?” I wondered.

“Music is cyclical,” he pontificated. “Whatever was cool 20 years ago comes back again.”

“So, who here would you endorse as president?” I quizzed.

“Art Alexakis,” Postemski replied, not missing a beat. “He’s a better option than Trump. We’ve had Arnold Schwarzenegger as a governor. Why not Art Alexakis?”

Meghan Bradley of Framingham, Mass., agreed. “I’m only 24 and I was listening to Everclear when I was 10,” she said.

It can be argued that a more palatable brand of alt-rock was lost when the pre-fab luster of boy band mania eclipsed the stirring soul-patchness of one Arthur Alexakis. But with time comes healing, and it’s evident that Everclear has spent some time in the Mayan sweat lodge of the soul doing the necessary and difficult work.

To that end, Alekakis’ righteous anger has been pomaded into a smooth fuckboy pixie. The band’s “swim out past the breakers and watch the world die” nihilism has been replaced with Hidden Valley Ranch zest. Launching into hits like “Father of Mine,” “Wonderful Now,” and “I Will Buy You a New Life,” Alexakis and Co. aren’t so much mansplaining as they are man-interpretive-dancing for us what we’ve failed for so long to comprehend: That mediocre, Budweiser-fueled bar rock can, indeed, save American politics.

Despite Alexakis’ presidential potential, it was sentinel Sugar Ray frontman Mark McGrath who readily assumed leadership of what has been dubbed the Shut The Door Baby Don’t Say A Word Movement.

The musician-cum-Extra correspondent-cum onetime Celebrity Apprentice contestant has a viable political axe to grind—with Donald Trump. In 2011, McGrath was ousted from Celebrity Apprentice over Trump-favorite Gary Busey and forced to pack his Ed Hardy bags and go gentle into that good night.

Since that accursed day, McGrath has been quietly simmering, blasting his spiritual core with seaweed wraps and ancient Jimmy Buffett texts.

“If you get your politics from Sugar Ray, you feel love for human beings,” said McGrath after accepting his party’s nomination. “This song is called ‘What the World Needs,’” he announced before graciously sharing a new summertime-inspired culturally-appropriated reggae number.

In between songs, McGrath delivered an impassioned state of the union.

“We always thought that we were gonna be the Rolling Stones,” he lamented. “We never thought that The Strokes or Interpol would be coming around the corner. But ’90s music has just survived, don’t you agree?”

And like a true survivor, McGrath is reaching out to his dissidents in a concerted effort to get this third party off the ground.

“I’m a Lakers fan,” McGrath noted, pointing out a concert-goer clad in an LA Clippers jersey. “But you’ve been rockin’ out to every band, you’ve had your hands in the air. This guy believes in the ’90s! You’re my friend, brother, you’re my friend.”

Casting off the last flecks of ice and frost from their cryogenic thaw, McGrath and Sugar Ray launched into a cover of the EMF anthem “Unbelievable,” firmly spiking the inflatable beach ball of American politics back into a utopian Spring Break.

McGrath ended the set with a rallying cry for all other ’90s bands, making clear that it’s time to get this party started, once and for all.

So, Fuel, Eve 6, Cracker, Verve Pipe, Toadies, Tripping Daisy, Better Than Ezra, Spacehog, Semisonic, Harvey Danger, Fastball, WE INVOKE YOU. The microphone is in your hands. It’s time we listened. Some more.

Tell Me If You're Lying, by Sarah Sweeney
Add To Cart

Sarah Sweeney's new memoir, "Tell Me If You're Lying," is now available for pre-order through Barrelhouse Books..

"Growing up in an eccentric North Carolina home, with aging-hippie parents whose marriage was forever crumbling around her, author Sarah Sweeney was primed for trouble. For drugs and boys. For learning about sexuality from Madonna videos and prank calling teachers and meeting celebrities—including a young Adrian Grenier. For a father’s supposed alien abduction. For escaping the South and even her own family.

Funny, exuberant, and often heartbreaking, Tell Me If You’re Lying examines the lies we’re told as children and the downright unbelievable—but true—stories that comprise Sweeney’s colorful coming-of-age."