is-sublime…cool-again?

Is Sublime…Cool Again?

Lately, I’ve been seeing vintage Sublime T-shirts all over the place. There’s no one kind of person who wears them. Maybe this guy scored it from an older sibling; maybe that girl dropped a few hundred bucks on Grailed; maybe that 17-year-old got one at Hot Topic. It’s become a little like the Joy Division T-shirt: you see one everywhere you go, but you aren’t exactly sure who is a fan and who just likes the way the shirt looks. But the shirt has been making me wonder: do people just like the Sublime T-shirt because we’re stuck in a neverending cycle of retro? Or is Sublime…a good band?

I should say: I used to like Sublime. And then, when I was 14, an older punk kid I looked up to said they sucked, so I didn’t like Sublime anymore. That was it. I stopped listening to Sublime cold turkey. It was all a flurry of random punk and hardcore sub-genres from there. I’ll also admit: yes, I dabbled in the dark skarts. It wasn’t an intense phase, but I definitely skanked with glee when they played Reel Big Fish at a school dance. The one truth I’ve learned is you can’t outrun your ska past. I can admit that all now, but I still can’t look somebody in the eye and admit I like Sublime.

It’s time to fix that. Lately, the whole ska narrative is changing. The author Aaron Carnes wrote In Defense of Ska, an intelligent look at the much-maligned genre and its various “waves,” from 1960s Jamaica to today. The Washington Post recently declared “The ska revival is here”; every other person you see has a pair of checkerboard Vans; Jeff Rosenstock re-recorded his critically-lauded 2020 album No Dream as Ska Dream. Pitchfork loved it. And, as all those Sublime T-shirts seem to suggest, people seem to be paying attention.

This week marks the 25th anniversary of the release of the band’s third and final album, released two months after the lead singer Bradley Nowell died of a heroin overdose. Time, we’re told, heals all wounds. It’s also supposed to let you move past your childish punk rock hangups. I can admit that I bopped my head and sang along with the drunk guy butchering “Santeria” at karaoke. I can admit—I think—that Sublime ruled, and that maybe that I’ve placed too much emphasis on fandom and the tastes of other people. That maybe I’ve let Sublime’s core fanbase ruin my enjoyment of the band’s music while at the same time, I based my own tastes at a younger and more impressionable age on what a couple of people thought.

Or maybe not.

I started my investigation by asking everybody who I thought could offer a nuanced opinion. I texted a music-business buddy: “Do you know any cool music people that like Sublime?” All I got was, “Lol no.” Brian Dishon of the indie pop band Sweet Nobody copped to reluctant fandom. “They were really important to me at a very formative time in my life as a young musician and they served as a introduction to a lot of other music that probably would have passed me by — the Minutemen, Bad Brains, even things like Primal Scream and Mudhoney,” he said. I also asked one of the teenage skaters in my neighborhood. “They’re cool,” he said. Preliminary results: Sublime are sort of cool.

Not everyone agreed. “They were like if Pennywise dabbled in ska,” Brendan Kelly said, referring to the contemporary Manhattan Beach punk band. “Regardless of the band’s intent, they were like a bug light for jock bro types. They claimed ska, but played a real dorked out, nerf version of it.” His gripe might be a little personal: when Sublime was blowing up, Kelly’s band Slapstick was one of the most popular bands in my hometown, and they were probably the best ska punk band from the period. Others toed the same line. “To be honest, I almost never think about them,” said Franz Nicolay, a musician and writer best known for his work in the Hold Steady and who played on Rosenstock’s ska album. “It always struck me as music for chill, fratty jocks—the band equivalent of a Bob Marley tapestry on a dorm-room wall.”

Sublime in 1995.

Steve Eichner

Don’t get me wrong: Sublime is still popular. Just ask the six million monthly listeners on Spotify. Yes, the band wrote some awful songs—“Date Rape,” if the title didn’t give it away, is about sexual assualt and its tasetlessness ruins its catchiness—but they also have some really good ones. They’re fun in a very 1990s give-no-fucks way. It was music made by and for exactly what the members were: California stoners who liked skateboarding and listening to punk, reggae, rap, and whatever else was on when they were pulling bong hits. Sublime’s lack of pretension sometimes crosses the line into silly—but sometimes I like that.

Of all the people I talked to, Perry Shall, host of the T-shirt show “T-Time,” offered the most nuanced response. “I think musically they were doing some cool shit,” he said. “I think [Nowell] was straight up lifting stuff from songs the way rap samples things. A lot of their songs were being played the way a DJ samples except with a full band.”

That, I think, is the best way to make peace with Sublime: by understanding that the band represents a moment in time. It’s a specific moment, dominated by a very Gen. X sensibility—“You can mash anything together and make it work”—that made the 1990s a really great time for music. For a time, this quality was everywhere. I was introduced to jazz albums via hip-hop song samples. After the Judgement Night soundtrack came out, I thought that maybe rap and metal could work together, the horror of nu-metal nowhere on the horizon. That sort of very ‘90s thinking seems to be making a comeback. People care less about genre these days. In fact, a recent tweet that made the rounds from the non-profit Sociological Science claims that these days “shows the modern formula for having high status tastes: you like every genre.” That was Sublime’s whole thing and why they’ve come back around a quarter century later. Because genre is dead. “Cool” might be dead. Like whatever you like. We’re in bizarro land forever. Spark one and put “What I Got” on the Sonos. Life is good.

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