The Charming Humility of Sugar Ray
I never had a problem with Sugar Ray back in the 90s. I vividly remember singing along to every word on “Fly” on the eight grade bus with my token chubby friend. But it seems like some folks did have problems. Because it wasn’t cool to like Sugar Ray. How can I be so sure? I refer you back to my second sentence.
It’s not quite in vogue yet to speak longingly of Sugar Ray today. Even if you’re Sugar Ray themselves. On their last album (Music for Cougars), Sugar Ray features Rivers Cuomo. Professional Gap model/vocalist Mark McGrath was reported to have said he fully-well knew Rivers was kind of cashing in on ironic capital here, but he went with it anyway—probably because he knew Sugar Ray is the kind of band a guy like Rivers would make fun of.
Today, Sugar Ray are remembered as the other thing on the radio that wasn’t Eminem or Backstreet Boys back in the late 90s. And no one, I mean no one, when you say the phrase “late nineties,” immediately thinks, “hell of an era for the radio.”
But I think my 14-year-old self was right. Actually he was wrong. Because I didn’t even like them that much then. But now I do.
My brother was at a party a few weeks ago and said when “Every Morning” came one people “went fucking crazy.” And if you’re paying attention to people’s Spotify accounts (mine), you know Sugar Ray is an increasingly not-rare name to flash across the ticker. It seems “Fly” is about to become to our generation what “Don’t Stop Believin” is to our parents. So how in the hell did this happen?
Well, it’d be easy to say Ray is just another one through the revolving door of nostalgic re-appropriation that has given us posthumous, post-ironic love for Hall n’ Oates, pizza rolls, and Bob Saget. But, that’s too easy. It’s deeper than that.
And it’s certainly not late-career heroics. McGrath’s Twitter isn’t anything to screensave. Just some heads-up about rural California bowling alleys Ray will be plugging in at on Father’s Day weekend. And it’s not paparazzi buzz. The sorta-rad DJ in Ray didn’t ended up in a L.A. County coroner’s office with a Wal-Mart bag full of cocaine shoved up his rectum. And it’s not legacy (duh); there is no biopic coming out recognizing the importance of early 2K SoCal pop, chill-wave bands in the artistic birth fluids of buzzworthy acts like Local Natives or LCD Soundsystem’s liner notes a decade later.
It could be artistically—I mean I loved the music (and some of you probably did, too, judging by their string of #1 hits—by “string” I mean, like 3). If you didn’t know, Sugar Ray started basically as a nu-metal band. But when they inadvertently struck oil with “Fly,” McGrath (or the labels) changed their whole sound to this Beach Boys-meets-Rancid thing. Note: this is not the approach of supposedly artistic wunderkinds. So nope. As far as the critics are concerned, McGrath and the Act are still as dead, aesthically KO’d, forgettable as the second I turned down the volume on “When It’s Over” in junior year of high school to something “harder.”
But as you get older, you realize you like celebrities for different reasons. Becky on this site a while back pointed out her graduating crushes, well, I notice the same with celebrities. A few months ago I had a deeply personal conversation with a friend about Hanson. What started as her screaming Conrad Birdie love affair morphed—as she is now an aspiring actress and dedicated to her “craft”—into this admiration of the boys for their artistic integrity (still don’t get it, but just go with it).
So when I was asked recently if I had a celebrity crush, this was my answer: Mark McGrath. And I think it’s because of this reason: McGrath seems to know perfectly well he’s Mark McGrath.
Once on his radio show, I overheard him laughing self-deprecatingly about playing rural casinos and county fairs and L.A. bowling alleys. It was sorta funny, but also a bit off-putting. But then immediately, he caught himself. He gave the politically-correct, “Listen, I’m just kidding. I’m actually very fortunate to be still making music for a living, doing what I love.” And you could tell he meant it.
And when he did the thing with Rivers, he didn’t tip-toe around the obvious fact that Sugar Ray was kinda being made fun (ala Insane Clown Posse and Jack White). He simply said, “Well, any exposure is good exposure, and I love Weezer” or something like that and went with it.
McGrath’s also fairly academic on the subject of rock n’ roll/pop history (again, listen to his radio show). And he seems like he could explain to you exactly why (in terms of musicology and pop culture zeitgeist meeting up) he though a guy wearing a muscle shirt with spiky hair singing California surf pop harmonies over a semi-serious DJ could be popular at that moment in the late 90s.
So, why I like Mark McGrath is because he sounds like a legitimately decent dude. And I don’t mean, “Yah the band’s just normal guys” bullshit that people at headbangers festivals always reassure each other with. I mean, McGrath sounds humble. Like, if you pressed him, he might admit that he loves generic music and knows it’s stupid to like ice-tinged hair spikes, but he asks his stylist to still do them that way in case someone wants a photo or to sleep with him, he won’t be out of luck.
And transitioning out of my quarter life, I can completely respect that.
Turn me around again, bb.