Fish Just Wanna Have Fun

It's a sign of the times that a band can achieve success with a song called "Sell Out," which claims that the band has done just that and urges its fans to do the same. But are the band members sincere, or are they just making a joke? Reel Big Fish, a ska-punk outfit from Orange County, California, originally raised the issue in 1996, with its Mojo Records release Turn the Radio Off. The CD has since gone gold, selling more than 500,000 copies, mostly on the strength of "Sell Out" and the like-minded "Trendy." At first the uptempo, horn-fueled "Sell Out" sounds like a sarcastic attack on the music industry. The "record company's gonna give me lots of money, and everything's gonna be all right," the band sings. And "Trendy" -- a song familiar to Florida Marlins fans as the team's World Championship season theme song ("Everybody's doin' the fish, yea! yea! yea!") -- claims "it's not so bad bein' trendy, everyone who looks like me is my friend."

Surely these odes to rampant clannishness could be delivered only with ironic intentions, right? No sane, with-it band, especially one fueled by punkish rhythmic fire and comprised of members in their early twenties, would promote the mindless kind of conformity that makes, say, Brave New World so terrifying, correct?

As "Sell Out" propelled sales of Turn the Radio Off in mid-1997, the answer seemed to be yes. Music Connection, a Los Angeles-based trade publication, called "Sell Out" "a humorous jab at the recording industry." Press Enterprise in Riverside, California, referred to the song's message as "industry-bashing," and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, a major-market daily newspaper, wrote that the band "epitomizes the modern punk irony," later stating, "their current hit, 'Sell Out,' details the evils of the music industry,... and the band benefits from the very structure they claim to despise."

But the press got it wrong. The fact is, the band's two hits, and in many ways the band members themselves, offer not a trace of irony. "Sell Out" was actually a reaction to fans who were claiming, back in the mid-'90s, that songs from an earlier, self-released Reel Big Fish EP were garnering too much radio play. But "Sell Out" suggests that the band is eager to do just what the title says, and "Trendy" drives the point home.

"'Trendy' is nothing too deep. It's not so bad being trendy," bassist Matt Wong said from the band's tour bus in Utah. "The song is a stab at being anti-everything, anti-this, anti-that. Everybody's that way; so now you're part of a trend. You say you're not, but not being trendy is the trendiest thing of all."

Wong's argument was that Reel Big Fish's anti-rebellion is really a form of rebellion. But not every one of his statements, and certainly not all the band's lyrics, back him up. For example, Wong said at one point that Reel Big Fish is "kind of a backlash to the late-'80s, early-'90s music scene, where everything was angst-ridden and the world was crappy." But rather than counter the doom and gloom of the grunge era with clever jibes, some of the band's lyrics reveal a similar world view. "Sell Out" opens with "Well, I know you can't work in fast food all your life" and later adds, "No more flippin' burgers puttin' on my silly hat."

In "Join the Club," the singer states: "I was gonna go and start a band, but everything I wanna do has already been done... [W]e try to be different, but I guess that's nothing new." And "Everything Sucks" continues these sentiments with the chorus "I'm giving up, I know everything sucks, and this is gonna be the last time you hear me complain."

Hopelessness, career anxiety, apathy -- they're all featured in Reel Big Fish songs, and they're the same Gen-X issues that Wong claims the song "Trendy" attacks. Musically speaking he may be right. The band's music is always propellant and tuneful, with high-pitched horns blasting Third Wave ska-punk melodies. But at the core of Reel Big Fish is an apparent restlessness that the band, as individuals and songwriters, haven't faced up to. In this context "Sell Out" may be their way of saying that playing the corporate game is the only road to happiness.

"Yeah, the world is crappy," Wong says, "but I want to have fun again. The problems are still gonna be there, but what can you do about it?"

Despite the pessimistic cracks in Reel Big Fish's happy-go-lucky facade, Wong has a healthy sense of humor that allows him to appreciate the eccentricities of life on the road. The night before he was interviewed, the band played a "blind date" show in Denver. Sponsored by a beer company, the show's audience was made up of contest winners who hadn't been told who would be performing. So, when showtime arrived, 600 clueless winners were standing around, waiting for the mystery band, when suddenly someone blasted Van Halen over the PA system. At that point Reel Big Fish walked out and began to play. The crowd, perhaps expecting something more Van Halen-esque, wasn't impressed by what they saw or heard.

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