Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? On our show 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s, Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla embarks on a quest to answer those questions, one track at a time. Follow and listen for free exclusively on Spotify. Below is an excerpt from Episode 47, which explores Blink-182 and “What’s My Age Again?” with help from Dan Ozzi, author of Sellout: The Major Label Feeding Frenzy That Swept Punk, Emo, and Hardcore (1994-2007).
Blink-182 formed in Southern California in the summer of 1992. High school kids from the suburbs of San Diego. Original lineup was Tom DeLonge on guitar and vocals, Mark Hoppus on bass and vocals, and Scott Raynor on drums. They called themselves just Blink until some other band in Ireland named Blink threatened to sue them. Ergo Blink-182. They swear the 182 doesn’t mean anything. If that number does have a secret meaning it’s probably gross. Their first show was at a bar called the Gorilla Pit, nobody showed up, and after three songs the bartender gave them free Snapple if they’d stop playing. So they stopped. The band improves. The band makes a few demo tapes. In 1994, Blink-182 start selling a glorified demo tape, basically, called Buddha, which is, thankfully, less problematic—spiritually, at least—than the name Buddha would imply. Almost 20 years later, the website MusicRadar asked Tom DeLonge what his influences were, in these early days, and Tom said, “It would have been strictly the Descendents. I was trying to emulate that band. Really punchy guitars; fast, simple and formulaic nursery-rhyme love songs.”
So. The Descendents.
Descendents—or the Descendents, choose your own adventure—formed in the late ’70s in Southern California; their first official album, Milo Goes to College, came out in 1982. Listen to that today! It’s fantastic. A landmark for pop-punk. A landmark for putting the word College in the title of your punk-rock album. A landmark for snotty but semi-vulnerable punk rock about, and also for, the suburbs. For example: This song is called “Suburban Home.” It sounds sarcastic but maybe it’s not.
There’s a documentary about the Descendents, came out in 2013, called Filmage, and Mark Hoppus shows up, as a talking head, and calls the Descendents “the punk rock Beach Boys.” So there you go. Early Blink-182 aspires to SoCal pop-punk greatness, so think Bad Religion, and Pennywise, and the Vandals, and NOFX. NOFX, from L.A., who started putting out records in the ‘80s—their second album, from ‘89, is called S&M Airlines, the album cover is ridiculous—NOFX have perhaps the clearest spiritual connection to Blink-182, given the don’t-act-your-age ethos, given the extra-juvenile juvenilia, the silliness alongside the snottiness, the poop and pee and so forth. Parents just don’t understand, and neither do the ladies. This song’s off the 1991 NOFX album Ribbed, see if you can guess what the cover looks like. It’s called “Shower Days.” It’s about how NOFX frontman Fat Mike doesn’t like the days when he has to take a shower.
NOFX wrote an autobiography, came out in 2016, called NOFX: The Hepatitis Bathtub and Other Stories, it’s quite possibly the gnarliest and grodiest band biography I’ve ever read, and I’m here to tell you that I don’t think this song is sarcastic in the slightest.
That’s about the time she walked away from me. This is the greatness, and the grodiness, to which young Blink-182 aspires, on Buddha. It’s OK. It’s a demo. It’s mean-spirited in a good-natured way, if that makes any sense. Here’s our friend Mark Hoppus singing a song called “Fentoozler.” He’s singing to a lady friend. It’s not going well.
Tom’s guitar solo doesn’t go so great either, if we’re honest, though if you squint you can hear the prototype to a guitar riff that he will put to far more effective use … later.
In the meantime, for Tom’s part, he’s tired of being strung along himself. This song’s called “Romeo and Rebecca.” I like to imagine Rebecca just asked him to take a bath.
You can roughly divide early Blink-182 songs into two categories: Girls are a waste of time versus Girls have decided I’m a waste of time. Both approaches have their merits. Tom and Mark, as distinct songwriters and singers, both have their merits as well. Tom has the higher and more explicitly punk nasal whine; Mark’s a little more deadpan, a little droll, a little more tuneful to my ears. What they share—what they hone and magnify in one another, especially when they’re bantering onstage at great length—is a devotion to potty humor, to masturbation humor, so absolute that it approaches a sort of religious ecstasy. A monastic devotion to onanism. We’re talking about dudes who waited until their mid-to-late 20s to call an album Take Off Your Pants and Jacket. We’re talking about dudes who named one of their most consequential tours the PooPoo PeePee Tour. We’re talking about dudes who named their holding company Poo Poo Butt Inc. As Tom once explained, “We did it because it was the most immature, dumbest thing ever. We thought it would be funny to have our accountants, managers, and attorneys having to say that over the phone every day.”
And right now we’re talking about these dudes when they’re just out of their actual teens: no major-label deal yet, no account or attorneys yet, no wives or children yet. In 1995 Blink-182 put out an album called Cheshire Cat. Mark’s got most of the good songs, including the one called “M+M’s.” He’s singing to a lady. He’s trying to convince a lady that he’s not a waste of time. It’s astounding, really, how convincing he sounds.
I said Mark was a little more tuneful. Best song on Cheshire Cat is a Mark song called “Wasting Time.” He’s infatuated with a lady. He is envisioning the ideal romantic relationship with this lady. He’s gonna rhyme something with modern art. You have 10 seconds or so to guess what. Starting now!
And yet this song is genuinely affecting. Tender. Romantic. Is it well-recorded? Not really. Is it undeniable, all-time, top-tier, god-level pop punk? Not yet. Is it lyrically clever? Fuck no. Blink-182 are not clever. No American band in rock ’n’ roll history is less clever than Blink-182; no American band in rock ’n’ roll history has worked harder to prove that being clever is overrated. Fuck being clever. Rhyme fart with art, if that’s what you feel. Rhyme fart with art if you think that’s how you’ll get the girl.
To hear the full episode click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.