Should Ska Fans Hate The Aquabats?
(The title is perhaps too obviously clickbait, but here we are…you clicked it and that’s on you now)
Right off the bat, I’m going to let you know, that this essay may be way too niche for anyone but me to care about. But it is something that I have been thinking about for a while and on the off chance that you internet-people have any interest in the things that occupy my brain, please enjoy.
The actual question I am attempting to discuss is:
I can’t get too deep into the history of the genre or its different musical flavors (plus the various waves and fusions with punk, metal, surf rock, etc…) but it’s apparent that ska music has a questionable reputation. If you are looking for a more thorough investigation into those areas, I HIGHLY recommend Aaron Carne’s book (and podcast) In Defense of Ska.
But as a necessary summation, the public perception of Ska as a genre seems to boil down to: Ska is mindless/frivolous/childish music for dancing and/or eating mozzarella sticks to — Or simply:
I didn’t make the above image, I stole it from the google images search results page (like a normal person) but I think it is incredibly appropriate that the band they chose to represent in this meme is Reel Big Fish.
One thing that I’ve noticed as a trend among Ska fans (aside from their black coats, white shoes, black hats, and Cadillacs) is the active goal of distancing oneself from Reel Big Fish. They are somewhat pariahs of Ska (Pari-skas? Ska-rias?)
I think this is simply because of their popularity. They were one of the most visible (audible?) bands of the late 90’s Ska-boom and therefore subject to more scrutiny than most other bands in the genre.
You could describe their music as sort of frat-bro-party-ska. They even have a song called “Beer,” which was indubitably sung at many contemporary college keggers. Although, to be fair it really isn’t a party anthem if you listen to the lyrics — which I guarantee most people didn’t.
DIY folk-hero and ska-enthusiast Jeff Rosenstock, in the aforementioned In Defense book, was tasked with writing the preamble to the RBF chapter. Within which he defends the band saying, “HEY! They wrote serious/sad/dark songs too, y’all!” (not a direct quote, obv).
But why is it necessary for him to have to defend them in a book that’s entire message is that ska is cool and worth celebrating?
It’s easier to endorse art that is explicitly morally positive or deals with seemingly serious subject matter. It’s the Oscar-bait phenomenon (AKA Ethical Aestheticism).
When people do want to defend Ska, they steer the conversation towards its political roots or Mike Park’s Ska Against Racism both of which are obviously ethically “safe,” and not at risk of being considered frivolous. But music relating to beer, babes, and baseketball (the 3 B’s) are best avoided.
But what about The Aquabats?
They are silly, they dress up in funny costumes, and they play characters/have funny personas. They refer to themselves as “The world’s greatest superhero rock band!”* They are sort of the definition of frivolous, fun, and goofy music (This rules btw. I am not hating on them for this).
*The mythology aspect of their superhero personas also strongly reminds me of Insane Clown Posse but that’s another essay entirely.
So why do ska fans generally not feel the need to distance themselves from The Aquabats?
Is it just that they are so good at what they do, that they transcend the stigma of goofy inauthenticity and frivolousness?
But more likely, it is because they are just less publicly known. The Aquabats are just niche enough that they escape the overly defensive, self-preservation instinct of Ska fans. They’re more like an inside joke — something that the community appreciates amongst themselves and is therefore safe from outside scrutiny.
Reel Big Fish, being the de facto Ska token to the mainstream, lack the insulating protection of semi-anonymity (ska-nonymity?). Their popularity puts them in a position to represent an entire genre and community — which is unfair to put on any one group.
Because of this, the ska community then feels the need to fight against whatever stereotypes are projected onto them in order to salvage the genre and their own self-worth.
Let’s extrapolate some scenarios to explore this further:
Imagine that The Ramones were the only punk band anyone knew. The public perception of punk rock would be, “Oh, it’s a bunch of dudes in leather jackets singing about sniffing glue?”
Well yes, but no. The Ramones are not NOT representative of punk, but there’s obviously so much more to the genre than can be ascribed to Joey and the gang.
Another related idea (because I obviously can’t write anything without talking about Tenacious D)…
In the past, Tenacious D have been criticized for being too crass or offensive; their lyrics being overly sexually grotesque or otherwise inappropriate for consumption. But a comparably disgusting band like Gwar (although not immune to criticism) have not really had the same public flagellations as The D.
(Completely unrelated but a fascinating bizarre relic of the internet: Tenacious D vs Gwar Spacebattle)
Again, like RBF vs The Aquabats, this is because of Jack and Kyle’s popularity. The more seen and heard you are by the mainstream, the more likely you are to be called out for your supposed transgressions — even when said transgressions are fairly mild in comparison to more niche groups in the genre.
One last example…
I have a complicated relationship with jazz music, having gone to a conservatory where most of the musicians were only interested in one particular era of the music and the relevant personnel of that time. Therefore I often will say that I dislike jazz because my experience with the genre is clouded by my time with those close-minded individuals. But a less narrow reading of what constitutes jazz (and music/musicians inspired by it) includes a lot of music that I very much enjoy.
What is the point I’m trying to prove here? I guess, just that associating a genre too highly with its most popular representatives may lead you to some misconceptions about it (and yourself).
So, should ska fans hate The Aquabats INSTEAD OF Reel Big Fish?
No, of course not. They should hate all ska because: Ska Bad.