In 1999, when Smash Mouth released their sophomore album "Astro Lounge," guitarist Greg Camp knew lead single “All Star” was going to be big — but he wasn’t exactly excited about it.
When he first turned in the album, which did not include the song, he was told by the label that it needed a hit single. The album prior, the aggressive punk-ska "Fush Yu Mang," which had the unlikely garage-rock single “Walkin’ on the Sun,” did well on alternative radio. This time, the label wanted something more. Camp went back to the drawing board and wrote the poppiest song he could think of to get the label off his back. Little did he know that this song, “All Star” would give birth to a unique, persisting cultural phenomenon.
“I was embarrassed turning that song in because it was an obvious hit. I was almost concocted,” Camp tells me over the phone. “I didn’t feel like it represented what we were doing before that. Here’s the poppiest song I could possibly come up with. It was almost a little smart-alecky in a way to write a song like that.”
The song was a hit, peaking at #4 on the Billboard charts. But Camp did not anticipate that it would have such a long shelf life. In part by landing on the "Shrek" soundtrack a few years later, the song would seep into the minds of nearly every millennial in their formative years. As they got into their '20s, "Shrek" and "All Star" nostalgia would become fodder for a massive, now several-year-long running “All Star” remix/mashup meme joke that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere soon.
The song has been mashed up with nearly every existing popular song (even the "Seinfeld" theme), covered in numerous oddball ways and chopped and screwed into mind-melting audio experiments. One producer rearranged the song lyrics in alphabetic order. It hit critical mass in 2016. Honestly, I heard “All Star” in some shape or form more than any other song that year, almost two decades after its initial release.
To try to understand just how big this trend has gotten, I spoke to Sarah Detwiler, who handles the new media and mechanical licensing for Camp’s work at Spirit Music. She says they’ve tracked down close to 10,000 “All Star” related videos on YouTube so far. “And those are only the ones we have found,” she adds.
The song’s initial mainstream popularity took some adjustment for Camp, but he grew to love the song once the band took the song on the road, and incorporated a grittier, faster version into their set. The current meme craze baffles him, but he’s enjoying hearing what people do to his song. I ask him which ones he likes. He tells me about one he heard created by producer James Nielssen that speeds up 15 percent every time singer Steve Harwell sings “the.” By the end you can’t make out anything but crazy unintelligible sped-up noise.
“I remember going, ‘that is hilarious. What a funny idea,’” Camp says. In regards to the overall trend, he’s at a loss for words. “I have no idea why all of a sudden this is happening. I’m kind of blown away that it has so much life to it. I’m just completely flattered.”
Despite “All Star” being a big internet joke, all the producers I interviewed professed a profound love for the original song. Nielssen, who’s 23, told me that when he was 10 years old, and owned his first ever MP3 player, he listened to the song constantly on headphones.
He started doing remixes a year and a half ago. Six months into his remixing, of course “All Star” emerged. His first “All Star” remix didn’t land, so he just kept making new ones. His most popular, “All Star by Smashmouth but every word is someBODY” has close to 4 million views. His favorite, he tells me is the peculiar “Smashmouth recreated from Windows XP sounds,” which has over a million and half views, and sounds a bit like a computer overloading, and Smash Mouth.
“It’s a context for a joke that I think a lot of people, especially in my age range, will get right away,” Nielssen says. “I can’t come up with a good answer as to why it’s so funny. The opening line is hilarious. Not in a mocking kind of way. It’s so good.”
From a producer’s point of view, it’s also a really easy song to remix and mash up. The simple ultra-catchy melody and rhythm just seems to work well with any song, or in any contorted manner.
“The remixing potential of it is something I find appealing. It can be re-contextualized countless times and still remain interesting. There’s not a whole lot of songs that have that specific quality,”says McMaNGOS, who remixed the song with Japanese anime vocals in August of 2012, back when Smash Mouth mashups was strictly a trend within the tight-knit remix community and buried away on Reddit.
A few years later, “All Star” and Smash Mouth jokes (often alongside "Shrek" references) were seeping into mainstream viral internet humor, as in 2014, when a woman responded to a creepy guy’s texts using only Smash Mouth lyrics. The text chain was shared on several comedy sites. Also in 2014, popular, respected mashup artist Neil Cicierega released the critically acclaimed "Mouth Sounds," an album with “All Star” mashed up in roughly half the tracks.
For whatever reason, the internet doesn’t seem to be losing interest in “All Star,” even though the internet’s very nature is to cycle through trends quickly. Detwiler tells me that according to her research at Spirit Music, it’s still trending upward.
“I try to keep up with whatever’s on the top charts on Spotify,” Nielssen says. “It’s either something topical or it’s Smash Mouth. They seem to be the two that work that best. Smash Mouth is always relevant.”
In 2014 and 2015, as remixes were on the rise, producers were mainly mashing up “All Star” with other popular songs. But in early 2016, more artists were taking the song in different directions creatively. That's when it got interesting.
The one that caught my attention was DJ Cummerbund’s “The Sound of Smash Mouth,” released in May of 2016. While the song is technically a mashup with Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” it was really more of a tone remix of the song, or rather a “sad” take on the normally feel-good ’90s summer beach hit song.
DJ Cummerbund, a fan of the song, felt like with of all the remixes, no one was getting at the true nature of the song. He wanted to make the music that the downer lyrics implied.
“It confused me because here you have a song that’s upbeat, but the lyrics are so sad,” DJ Cummerbund says. “I wanted to do the song justice. I took the lyrics as sarcasm before. Everyone’s all happy about it when the song comes on, when really it’s not happy lyrics at all.”
After the remix came out, DJ Cummerbund even spoke with Smash Mouth’s management about collaborating with the band to remake “The Sound of Smash Mouth” together, which they seemed excited about. So far it hasn’t materialized.
When I told Camp about DJ Cummerbund’s thoughts behind the lyrics, he wholeheartedly agreed with his assessment. In the midst of writing the poppiest song of all time, he inserted lyrics that were deliberately melancholy. He had wanted to write about some of the fan letters they’d been getting, many of which were depressing. Kids were writing the band, talking about all the bullying they were enduring, and how cruel and judgmental their parents were — a sincere message which might explain why many millennials unapologetically love the song, no matter how much it seems like they're making fun of it.
“It seems like someone needs to tell them what they’re doing is good. Give them a pat on the back. Keep doing what you’re doing, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. That’s how we got here. We didn’t listen to our parents or haters,” Camp explains.
Camp was excited when he heard the sad version. In 1999, he felt like he was sneaking those lyrics, and liked hearing the music match the words. (“The record company at the time was not looking for a sad ballad from a Disney-friendly band.)
As 2016 progressed, “All Star” remixes got weirder and less attached to the standard mashup format. Nielssen’s songs are all mostly strange exercises in style. Other producers followed suit. It’s gotten to where it seems like there’s a competition to see who can apply the weirdest rules to remixing “All Star.”
In October, “All Star” created an unlikely YouTube celebrity: Jon Sudano, who records himself singing “All Star” over any and every song. It works shockingly well.
This joke dates back a decade for Sudano, who sang the song at a karaoke bar in a Korean restaurant in New Jersey in 2006 over the song “Imagine” to some friends. Over the next decade, this joke would occasionally materialize with him singing the song over other random tunes. Then last year, he thought it would be funny to record himself singing “All Star,” again over “Imagine” and uploaded it to Facebook.
“I figured a couple of my friends would see it and go, ‘huh,’ and just move on. When I uploaded it, five minutes later it had 5,000 views. It was like, ‘what’s going on?’ I didn’t really anticipate it. It all exploded at once,” Sudano says.
After uploading a second video of him singing “All Star” over Evanescence’s “Bring Me to Life,” which got even more views, Sudano decided to start a YouTube channel, which now has close to 700,000 subscribers. Smash Mouth's official channel has about half as many subscribers. “He has actually become so popular that other YouTubers have started creating ‘Jon Sudano-style’ videos,” says Detwiler.
For Sudano, this feels like the world is now part of his inside joke with friends.
“It was a meme to us in 2006. We had all grown up with that song. It was ingrained in our minds. It was always something that popped up once in a blue moon. I never really thought twice about it. My friends are proud of me, and also kind of jealous,” Sudano says.
What Sudano created with his channel absolutely fascinated Camp, who, inspired by Sudano, started to hum the “All Star” melody along to songs on the radio, and was shocked at how many songs that worked with it.
“That melody goes with just about anything. I have no idea how that happened. It definitely wasn’t on purpose. I’m not smart enough to think that far ahead,” Camp says.
While the “All Star” craze might be driven by millennials and their obsession with Shrek and ’90s radio pop, the reason the song has gone to whole new heights, past normal internet jokes that die in a few months, might speak to the universality, and utter, total catchiness of the song. In Camp’s little rebellious moment of giving the label the catchiest song he could imagine, he completely succeeded more than he realized.
The producers that make these remixes agree. After all, they have to listen to whatever song they’re remixing for hours at a time.
“I can go to a high school today and people know that song. I can go to a lumberyard with teamster union reps and they know that song,” says DJ Cummerbund. “You can pretty much go anywhere with this song, which is why I feel that it’s so catchy at any age and it stays fresh.”