clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

‘60 Songs That Explain the ’90s’: Goo Goo Dolls, “Iris,” and the Rock ’n’ Roll Fantasy Girl

Talking the massive 1998 hit from the ‘City of Angels’ soundtrack

Warner Bros./Ringer illustration

60 Songs That Explain the ’90s is back for its final stretch run (and a brand-new book!). Join The Ringer’s Rob Harvilla as he treks through the soundtrack of his youth, one song (and embarrassing anecdote) at a time. Follow and listen for free on Spotify. In Episode 115 of 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s—yep, you read that right—we’re covering the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris.” Read an excerpt below.

The fourth Goo Goo Dolls album, released in 1993, is called Superstar Car Wash, and it features a minor radio hit called “We Are the Normal,” in which Johnny Rzeznik writes the music but Paul Westerberg writes the words. They collaborated through the mail and did not remain friends. Paul Westerberg: frontman for the Replacements. The pride of Minneapolis, Minnesota. One of ’em. They’re up there. The Replacements: trashy rock gods, punk-rock gods, college-rock gods, alternative-rock gods. High above me and majestically unlovely. The best rock band ever born, maybe; the best rock band that never got as big as they deserved to get, absolutely.

The Goo Goo Dolls’ arc not so subtly echoes the Replacements’ arc: Early brattiness leads, slowly but steadily, to an escalating shininess and hookiness and sweetness and greatness. A little more power and a lot more pop. But the Replacements never have an ultra-breakout hit. The greatness of the Replacements is never sufficiently acknowledged. The Replacements never succeed. The Replacements implode in tragedy and disillusionment at the dawn of the ’90s, and Paul Westerberg haunts the ’90s and far beyond as a gruff, unappreciated, self-sabotaging super-genius who puts out pretty cool but under-loved solo albums. He gets to be an honorary Seattleite on the Singles soundtrack. He gets to be our link with history. And he gets to watch a bunch of scruffy, sensitive punk ’90s rockers get famous for doing pretty good but objectively not-as-good versions of what he already did. Listen, dude, I loved Soul Asylum when I was 13, but Soul Asylum ain’t coming close to this.

This song is called “Bastards of Young,” it’s off the 1985 Replacements album Tim, and these are among the greatest song lyrics ever written. If we’re talking Replacements albums as a whole, I’m a Let It Be man, myself, their 1984 album, Let It Be. “Androgynous” is the second-best Replacements song. Let’s not argue about this. But so the Replacements, now, in 2024, are a relentlessly beloved and canonized and mourned and constantly remastered band, right? The journalist Bob Mehr wrote Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements, one of the best and one of the saddest band biographies I’ve ever read. And pretty much every Replacements album now has a super-deluxe multi-CD box set reissue, with seemingly thousands of bonus tracks and rapturous liner notes. Most recently, you can buy a $90 reissue of their 1985 album, Tim: four CDs and one LP.

And the crown jewel here, and I’ll spare you the details, the crown jewel is a radically brand-new mix of Tim, of the original record itself. A cleaner, poppier, more commercially palatable mix, and now you can listen to this new, superior version of Tim and imagine that if this version of Tim had come out in 1985, then “Bastards of Young” would’ve been, like, I don’t know, a Bon Jovi–level radio smash, and the Replacements would be the winners. The Pitchfork review of this reissue, written by Jeremy D. Larson, is really great in exploring the alternative history of it all, grappling with this idea: If the Replacements had succeeded, would they still be the Replacements? And meanwhile, this “Bastards of Young” verse consists of, to reiterate, some of the greatest song lyrics ever written. Is this new mix doing it for you?

Honestly though: “The ones that love us best / Are the ones we’ll lay to rest / And visit their graves on holidays at best / The ones who love us least / Are the ones we’ll die to please / If it’s any consolation I don’t begin to understand.” It does not get any better than that. Very arguably, nobody ever gets any better than that. No offense, but the Goo Goo Dolls certainly never get any better than that, including when they get their hero, Paul Westerberg himself, to write their lyrics. But “We Are the Normal” documents, musically—so Johnny gets credit for this—one of the signature moments when “college rock” becomes “alternative rock” and the Replacements (playing the losers) give way to the Goo Goo Dolls (playing the winners, starting now). It happens right here.

That guitar, that crescendo, that burst of distortion right there. I’m in love. What’s that song? I’m in love with that song. The Goo Goo Dolls own the ’90s going forward. They co-own the ’90s. They co-own the very specific realm of power pop too successful to qualify as power pop anymore. And they earn it. You give Johnny Rzeznik seven seconds, and he’ll give you a hook you’ll remember for the rest of your life.

That’s seven seconds of the song “Naked,” from the 1995 Goo Goo Dolls album called A Boy Named Goo, and that’s a pretty rad seven seconds if I do say so myself. Plenty of truly great Goo Goo Dolls songs, seven seconds is all you need, really. You get the point. But A Boy Named Goo also features the first monster Goo Goo Dolls hit, and this one earns all four minutes and 30 seconds.

The Goo Goo Dolls song “Name” is not played on a 12-string guitar, apparently. It’s got this bonkers open tuning, right? It’s D-A-E-A-E-E, but it’s not a 12-string. I have always associated this song with the 12-string guitar, with my admiration for, and also seething hatred for, the 12-string guitar, and I am honestly relieved to learn that “Name” is not played on a 12-string guitar because, as any novice guitar player will tell you, it is literally impossible to play a 12-string guitar.

I guarantee you that every amateur teenage guitarist in American history has at some point walked into a Guitar Center and seen a 12-string guitar hanging on the wall—a nice, expensive one, a Martin or whatever—and the teenaged guitarist thinks, I’m gonna take this 12-string off the wall, and I’m gonna play a beautiful, dulcet rendition of “Name” by the Goo Goo Dolls, and the teenager reaches up for the 12-string guitar, and, meanwhile, the 12-string guitar is looking down, and it says, Fuckin’ no you are not. Unhand me, villain. Get back. You can’t play me for shit. You will hurt your hand and, oh, it will make a terrible sound! All the cats in a 15-mile radius all wailing atonally in unison. You will be banned from every Guitar Center nationwide! Your dumbass-lookin’ photo all behind the counter. Forget about it. Put me down! Put me down on the ground, it’s fine!

Seriously, have you ever tried to play a 12-string? Have you ever tried to play, like, an F chord, like a bar chord—have you ever tried to hold down all 12 strings with one finger? Owwwwwwww. Oh, it’s horrible. It is an accursed musical instrument, the 12-string guitar. It is an affront to me personally. That’s right, Mr. 12-String! The Goo Goo Dolls song “Name” is a regular guitar in a weird opening tuning. So suck it!

It’s a lovely song, though, isn’t it, “Name”? I also guarantee you that every amateur teenage guitarist has been dumbstruck by the shattering wisdom of the line: “Don’t it make you sad to know that life is more than who we are?” That can’t be true. I’d never noticed before that Johnny’s voice wobbles just a smidge on the word sad, or there’s an implied wobble, a faint echo of imperfect scuzziness. Nice try, bud. The Goo Goo Dolls are not cool. They are never cool. Cool is not their objective. When I talked to Johnny and Robby Takac—who respected me as a true conversational equal; it wasn’t awkward at all—Johnny remembered the ’90s like this. “Everybody was too fucking cool for their own good. There were certain musicians, you were out in L.A., and you’re rehearsing in a rehearsal room, and then there’s a common area. But if somebody from the wrong band was there, ‘Oh no, don’t talk to them. They’re not fucking cool.’”

And then, in 1998, the Goo Goo Dolls got truly, hopelessly, monumentally uncool, and you know what that means.

It means they had a giant, swooning hit song. Top 10. Peaked at no. 9. It’s called “Iris.” It is, once again, to my modest surprise, not played on a 12-string guitar, so suck it. It is based on the plot of a movie, the plight of Nicolas Cage’s character—he plays an angel named Seth who falls in love with a lady doctor played by Meg Ryan—in a movie Johnny Rzeznik didn’t like that’s based on a German movie from the ’80s Johnny did like. (That’s Wings of Desire, from 1987. It’s streaming on Max.) “Iris” is rhythmically complex. According to a guy on a message board, the “Iris” ​intro is in straight 4/4 time, the verse and chorus are in 6/8 time, the interlude between the chorus and the second verse is 4/4 for three bars going back into 6/8 on the bar before the vocals start, the bridge and guitar solo is 4/4, and then back to 6/8 for the last chorus.

But let’s take a second here and think about Robby. Robby with the pink hair nowadays. Robby the guy who used to sing lead vocals all the time in a scuzzy rock band that maybe used to be called Sex Maggot. Robby the guy who grew up idolizing the Ramones. Robby the guy who now writes and sings his punky, scruffy, lovable songs that fit splendidly between the giant, bonkers radio hits Johnny sings on the bonkers-huge Goo Goo Dolls albums. Robby the guy whose job now, bass-wise, is to go doo doo doo, doo doo doo.

Is Robby happy? Is he satisfied? Is he disillusioned? Is he bored? As far as alternative rock goes, the bigger the hit, the less fun the bass line is to play. That’s an oversimplification, but what isn’t? Who am I kidding? I’m sure Robby is, in fact, just delighted that “Iris” will allow his band to tour lucratively until the end of time. “Iris” is named after Iris DeMent, the phenomenal singer-songwriter Iris DeMent. Johnny Rzeznik doesn’t know Iris personally, I don’t think. Johnny just saw Iris’s name in the newspaper and liked it. But she’s part of the vibe here regardless.

To hear the full episode, click here. Subscribe here and check back every Wednesday for new episodes. And to order Rob’s new book, Songs That Explain the ’90s, visit the Hachette Book Group website.