FFWDing to the Best Part: “Teenage Dirtbag,” Wheatus (2000)

There aren’t enough “story” songs anymore. Popular in the early days of rock ‘n’ roll, songs with a narrative structure — a clear exposition, climax, and resolution all within five minutes or less — have fallen out of favor in our modern and increasingly monotonous times. Now, we are lucky if we get one verse and a bridge served up with the hook.

In the span of just four minutes, seven seconds, however (and that includes a 20-second intro), power-pop-punk outfit Wheatus tells a perfectly fulfilling tale of unrequited love, adolescent angst, isolation, bullying, heavy metal fanhood, loneliness, and finally … satisfaction.

The video features Jason Biggs as the titular character and Mena Suvari (I had to try really, really hard to not type “Mira Sorvino” there).  Now this was because they were also the stars of the movie Loser — the soundtrack of which “Teenage Dirtbag” is from — but having never seen this movie (obviously), I think of these kids as  Jim and Heather from American Pie, and then I wonder why Jim is lusting after his buddy’s girlfriend. And THEN I think of Chris Klein, who plays said buddy, which leads my thoughts to his modern-day counterpart (Cory Monteith, natch), who is no longer with us … I have to step away now. THANKS A LOT, WHEATUS. And that was a lot of commas.

Ahem.

Best part?3:17, when the story within the song crests simultaneously with the musical score.  In the third verse, we find out (SPOILER ALERT — after 13+ years) that the hipster chick has had her eye on our pathetic protagonist all along, and all is right with the world. Guitars swell, and we hit the second bridge, a touch more raucous than the first. Damn, I love this song.

 

There have been covers, including one in 2006 by my all-time favorite a cappella group, the University of Virginia’s Hullabahoos.   (Spotify link here. Supposedly. Amazon link here. ) And in doing my “research” (a/k/a pulling the YouTube clip), I noticed that the fine young men of One Direction also covered it in concert. Their voices are a little too polished/theatrical versus raw, in my opinion. But “A” for effort. Love you, Liam!

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4 thoughts on “FFWDing to the Best Part: “Teenage Dirtbag,” Wheatus (2000)

  1. I approach this with a completely blank slate, having never heard of the band or song. It’s a very 00s piece of Weezer-like power pop with a “revenge of the nerds” theme. We get mixed messages about the guy’s self-image; either he thinks he’s a dirtbag, or he thinks she doesn’t know that “she’s missing [something great].” Either way, Weezer themselves never admitted such romantic vulnerability.

    It’s hard to fit a whole three act story into a song, as evidenced by the questions left hanging here. Her boyfriend drives an IROC-Z,. a late 80s Camaro. That car would have been a fetish for lead singer Brendan B. Brown (born 1973) when he was growing up. Did it still carry that same “awesome car!” connotation in 2000 when Wheatus hit it big? Or does the girl’s boyfriend have an old car that used to be awesome but now is just the best he can get? If so, how much more pathetic is our protagonist, who doesn’t even have a junky car? Or perhaps we’re just supposed to pretend that it’s 1989, and his IROC-Z just rolled out of the GM dealer lot, the envy of his peers.

    The video, by filling in some of these blanks from the song, also warps the scene. Is the girl really one of the school beauties as depicted in the video, or is it just that when you’re lonely and hormonal, you can set your heart on pretty much anyone, turning her into Mena Suvari (or even Mira Sorvino) in your head? Never mind that Jason Biggs is only “Hollywood ugly,” which means that he’s a reasonably attractive man by sane standards. How would the scene have played differently with Clea DuVall and Martin Starr?

    The video for Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me” (2009) has a similar concept, including the prom climax, although Swift’s lyrics depict the actual ending to this scenario: The loser is left pining for the unattainable object of desire. By contrast, the lyrics of “Teenage Dirtbag” instead turn into a wish-fulfillment fantasy. Not only does Girl leave Car-Guy for a guy she’s never spoken to, but she’s asking him out on a date! To see Iron Maiden in concert! Again, much more exciting to a late 80s teen than an early 00s teen. What would a less anachronistic referent have been? Pearl Jam?

    Interestingly, Billboard magazine’s review felt the song would speak to kids “who prefer hanging out behind the gym with a smoke to Latin club.” Ah, yes, Latin club, that well-known hangout for cool kids. Puts the “Roman” in romance, amirite? Honestly, what teen doesn’t feel like a teenage dirtbag? Even the quarterback and the cheerleader and the honor society president find themselves estranged from one group or another, and it always stings. Comic book hero-freaks like X-Men and Spider-Man tap into this alienation big-time.

    I’m not enthused with Brown’s Billy Corgan-esque vocals, but he does get props for the gumption to sing the girl part in falsetto on the last verse.

    • I always thought the song sort of took place in, say, the late 80s/early 90s — when Brown would have been in high school himself. The Keds, the Iroc … it makes more sense. Iron Maiden would have still been a little dated, but maybe that’s the point. They weren’t even the “cool” metal band that one was ostracized for liking. They were the past-their-prime metal band.

      I also think Martin Starr is only “Hollywood Ugly,” and getting better each year.

  2. Martin Starr 2013 looks like a normal human being. Martin Starr 2000 looks like Napoleon Dynamite masquerading as Beaker, though it’s possible some of that is hair and wardrobe (and super big glasses).

  3. Pingback: FFWDing to the Best Part: “Kind of a Girl,” Tinted Windows (2009) | Neurotic City

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