Dusting 'Em Off
Revisiting an album, a film, or an event on its anniversary

The Middlebrow Genius of Hootie and the Blowfish

on July 05, 2014, 10:45am

This week’s Dusting ‘Em Off circles back to July 5th, 1994, when a gaggle of South Carolina rockers were callin’ themselves Hootie and the Blowfish and essentially owning mainstream music with one of the most successful debuts of all time: Cracked Rear View. Remarkably, the ’90s gem would go on to become the 16th-best-selling album of all time in the US and certified platinum 16 times. In honor of its 20th anniversary, senior staff writer Ryan Bray decided to spend over 1,500 words explaining why… so indulge him.

As Americans, we hate mediocrity. The thought of doing something half-assed or short of our full potential offends us. We pride ourselves on our hard work and strive to raise ourselves to a higher standard. The words “good enough” or “acceptable” are not in our vocabulary.

That gruff, bear-down, be-all-that-you-can-be mentality has been a cornerstone of the American way of life since the ink first started to dry on the Declaration of Independence more than 200 years ago. But it’s funny how we make so many concessions when it comes to our entertainment. Speaking broadly, we don’t like to be challenged in the things we watch and listen to, at least not too much. There will always be people willing to put in the time and legwork trying to decode Tom Waits’ lyrics or getting into Devo’s early experimental stuff, but far more would prefer something catchy, something that lingers pleasantly in the background and hangs out in your subconscious, something easy. In the words of Rob Gordon, as spoken by John Cusack, “I just want something I can ignore.”

That’s fair, right? Does everything have to take time and energy? After working or sitting in class all day, maybe shuffling the kids to and from soccer practice, isn’t it okay to just have something simple bat around your eardrums? After all, time has proven over and over again that simple pop songs can give you a pretty big shot in the arm, sometimes when you most need it. The world’s a busy and complicated place. We don’t need the music we listen to to add to the baggage.

hootie blowfish The Middlebrow Genius of Hootie and the Blowfish

It’s with this insight into the thoughts and feelings of average, everyday Americans that Hootie and the Blowfish managed to hit us with the most disarming landmark record of the 1990s.

Hear me out. Ever since Cracked Rear View ran wild on America’s collective ass upon its release in late 1994, Hootie and the Blowfish have successfully stood the test of time as the poster children for broad entertainment tailor-made for mass consumption. Nothing on that record is great, and nothing within its 11 tracks is really terrible, either. A few songs are good, while most are in this lukewarm crawlspace, somewhere just about average. If it were an ice cream flavor, it would be vanilla. If it were your neighbor, it’d be the guy mowing his lawn with his Coed Naked T-shirt tucked into his jorts. It’s almost defiantly average, hardcore normcore before such a thing even existed.

This, of course, made Hootie an odd fit for an early to mid-’90s pop backdrop that didn’t take kindly to music that looked on the brighter side of life. Grunge was ugly and miserable, the neo-punks much preferred sneering than smiling, and the Brit-poppers were too aloof and self-aware to let their guard down. What chance did a group of guys from the University of South Carolina slinging feel-good, cookie-cutter blues rock stand at making any kind of an impression on the American public? After all, scores of other safe-to-the-point-of-boring alt-rock bands (who were the guys who sang “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”?) failed to successfully rally around a novelty hit or two, so history was against them from the get-go.

But hey, what do we know? While Hootie’s alt-rock-by-numbers style offended the delicate sensibilities of rock snobs near and far, they were in the vocal minority. Out there in the real world, there was a much lower bar for the band to clear. Despite all the bad vibes that pop music threw people’s way in 1994 and 1995, things were pretty good. No one was at war, the economy was kicking ass, and shit was looking up. Peacetime prosperity was in full bloom, and people wanted a soundtrack to it, something that was light and breezy and didn’t come with any prefabricated sad-sack baggage. Simple pop rock fit the bill, and man did Cracked Rear View deliver. You didn’t have to be an intense music fan to like Hootie. You didn’t have to be anything at all. Christ, my grandfather dug Hootie. When I posted on Facebook that I was writing this article, my aunt commented that she loves Hootie frontman Darius Rucker. Instead, Cracked Rear View had this open-door policy where anyone could get in on the hottest thing in contemporary music. Outside of the 12-to-25 demographic that rock radio and MTV catered to, millions of people gladly accepted the invitation.

hootie rolling The Middlebrow Genius of Hootie and the BlowfishThere you have it. In a weird twist of fate, perhaps the one guitar rock band most out of step with its mopey grunge and punk peers ended up capturing the true spirit of the ’90s better than just about anyone, even if they had to cheese their way into the hearts of the broadest cross section of music fans possible to get it done. Cracked Rear View is a lame-rock masterpiece, a testament to the power that can come with buying real estate in the middle of the road. Hootie’s first step toward world domination through placid pop rock came with “Hold My Hand”, a song that sounds like summer feels: light, refreshing, happy, carefree. It all starts with Rucker, the frontman with the booming but soulful voice, the guy who effectively was Hootie in the eyes and minds of the rest of the world. The song’s opening line, sung over a lilting guitar with a little bass anchoring it all down, pretty much serves as the record’s (and the band’s) overarching thesis. “With a little love, and some tenderness/ We’ll walk upon the water, we’ll rise above this mess.” Who can say no to that? Then there was the chorus, a forceful, arena-ready refrain about holding someone’s hand. The band perfected boring, middlebrow pop rock so well it made you wonder how so many other bands that played it safe failed where Hootie succeeded.

But that’s really what punched up Cracked Rear View. These guys made everything look as easy as it sounded. With Hootie, you didn’t get the feeling they were selling you this prepackaged, musical version of the perfect American existence, even though they were. They sounded happy, like they believed in the songs that they were writing and putting out there to the world. And in the end, that’s 80 or 90 percent of the battle. Hootie followed up on “Hold My Hand”‘s breakthrough success by rattling off a handful of equally likable, unoffensive singles in rapid succession. “I Only Want to Be With You” pretty much recycled “Hold My Hand”‘s dopey, lovestruck themes in different words and phrases, not that it mattered to anyone. The accompanying music video, a SportsCenter-themed parody with an endless number of cameos, pretty much nailed Hootie-mania on the head when ESPN’s Dan Patrick deadpanned, “You can’t stop Hootie. You can only hope to contain them.”

The hits kept on coming with “Let Her Cry” and “Time”, two singles that cooled the band’s penchant for gushing sentiment but still retained its heart and soul. Those four songs helped Cracked Rear View finish as the highest-selling record of 1995 and, as of now, the 16th highest selling record of all time in the US according to the Recording Industry Association of America. But if you delve deeper into the record, it’s easy to suspect that almost any song could have been released as a single to massive success. From lead track “Hannah Jane” all the way through to the album closer “Goodbye”, the songs are all cut from the same comfortable cloth. There’s no reinvention of the wheel here at all, and the lack of depth is almost startling. But in the world of pleasing but easily dismissed pop rock, no one did it better than Hootie did on Cracked Rear View.

As the saying goes, all good things must ultimately come to an end. In Hootie’s case, the end came almost as suddenly and without rhyme or reason as its meteoric rise. The band took on the unenviable task of following up on Cracked Rear View with Fairweather Johnson in 1996, and just like that the Hootie hysteria died. The band that in 1995 had stormed the mainstream like Normandy had disappeared quicker than that baby in The Leftovers. Of course, that’s not totally true (the band would go on to release three more records through 2005, and Rucker is currently in the midst of a successful solo career), but that’s how it felt. That said, the legacy of Hootie and the Blowfish is something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they’re almost inarguably the most unlikely success story of the ’90s, but on the other, they’re one of the era’s most curious flameouts.

In the end, Cracked Rear View‘s insistence on playing it safe might have helped make it one of the biggest and most popular records of the decade, but it was the eagerness to win everyone over by veering toward the middle that ultimately did the band in. Like Henry Hill in Goodfellas, the things that brought about Hootie’s rise to power ultimately led to their downfall. When you cater your music toward a fanbase made largely of casual appreciators, it’s hard to keep up that success and momentum. Eventually people moved on to the next big thing, and while Hootie continued to do well for themselves in the wake of their mega successful debut, they never scaled those heights again.

Maybe so, but they’ll always have 1995.