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The Never-ending Life of Smash Mouth’s “All Star”

On May 4, 1999, a hit was born—an unkillable one. Twenty years after the song’s release, the band’s songwriter relives the creative process behind it and explores why the sensation has continued to permeate pop culture through memes, YouTube videos, and even an as-yet-unstaged Broadway musical.

An illustration of the band Smash Mouth Ellen Surrey

They really didn’t want to use “All Star.”

It was 2001, and the creators of Shrek, an upcoming animated film about a foul-tempered ogre, had slotted it in as a placeholder track over the opening sequence. It had the feeling they wanted: fun, and edgy yet not too edgy. But the song, by the band Smash Mouth, had been all over radio and television since its release two years prior. It also had been featured in two recent movies, Mystery Men and Inspector Gadget, and licensed for Rat Race, which would be out later in the year. Surely, they should use something fresher.

So Matt Mahaffey, a young artist signed to DreamWorks’ records division, was enlisted to come up with a replacement: a song that was like “All Star,” but not “All Star.” As Mahaffey saw it, it was his task to beat it. He was shown a rough cut of the movie, then wrote and demoed a song that day.

The Shrek team loved it. Mahaffey was flown from Los Angeles to meet the animation team in Palo Alto, and paired with “All Star” producer Eric Valentine to lay down the master. The process took weeks. The cut of the movie kept changing, and the music had to be adjusted to fit. But Mahaffey was excited: His song was shaping up to be the only original number in the movie. “We worked so hard to make it perfect,” Mahaffey said recently.

Finally, the day came to show the completed opening sequence to Jeffrey Katzenberg, then the CEO of DreamWorks Animation. Katzenberg watched, and listened.

When it was over, he had a suggestion. “Why don’t you just use ‘All Star’?”

“All Star”—three minutes and 20 seconds, and four chords, more or less, of sunny pop with trace elements of rap, punk, and ska—was released on May 4, 1999. That August, it peaked at no. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts. In a review of the song’s parent album, Astro Lounge, Rolling Stone singled out the track for its “just-add-water radio jolt.” The AV Club predicted that the band’s “winning summer fluff” would end up nostalgia fodder many years later, while critic Stephen Thompson wrote that the album “may or may not spawn hits.” It was nominated for Best Pop Performance at the Grammys, but lost out to Santana.

Then it never quite went away. Twenty years later, the strange and specific legacy of Smash Mouth’s “All Star” blazes blindingly on. A maddeningly irresistible earworm, a party starter, a karaoke classic, a soundtrack staple, a sporting anthem, a corporate jingle, a monster meme. A track that is guaranteed to elicit cheers (or groans), and feelings of nostalgia, whether it’s played at a dive bar, a sports arena, or a child care center. Smash Mouth has been closing concerts with it ever since, including for the troops in Iraq, Kuwait, and Afghanistan, and at New York’s Irving Plaza, eight days after September 11. It has graced such compilations as Now That’s What I Call Music! 3, Hockey Anthems, Skiing Workout Mix, and 101 Kids Songs. The sports compilation appearances were especially amusing to Greg Camp, the Smash Mouth guitarist and writer of “All Star,” as that was far from his demographic in high school. “There was a very thick line drawn between my friends and people who ended up listening to the song … the sports people,” Camp says. “It was definitely ironic the first time I heard that at an NFL football game, or that I was asked to perform the song [at a] big-time sports thing.”

Along with appearances in Rat Race and Inspector Gadget, “All Star” has popped up on Family Guy and The Simpsons. Its placement in Shrek, Smash Mouth bassist Paul DeLisle would write in his 2015 memoir Walkin’ on the Sun, was “inarguably the single most profound event in [Smash Mouth] history.”

There were also video games—Rock Band, Guitar Hero, Donkey Konga 2—and promotions for Gatorade and Google, Sea World Australia and France Télécom, and, recently, Toyota (“Feel like an ‘All Star’ in the new 2018 Toyota Corolla!”). It was played on the space shuttle Atlantis to celebrate the 50th space walk in space shuttle mission history. As Smash Mouth manager Robert Hayes proudly summarized to Metroactive, Silicon Valley’s weekly newspaper, in 2002: “Every night, you’re watching a show, then it’s, ‘Jesus Christ, there’s that fucking Smash Mouth song again.’”

Inevitably, that ubiquity became a punch line. In a 2010 Saturday Night Live sketch, Jennifer Lopez played a mother consoling her young daughter, who was terrorized nightly by Smash Mouth performing “All Star.”

In the YouTube era, the song became the subject of hundreds, probably thousands of musical reimaginings, ranging from the silly to the surreal to the possibly in breach of the Geneva Conventions. There were the ironic cover versions and comical recontextualizations (“All Star” but it’s a gentle piano ballad, “All Star” but it’s spoken-word slam poetry, “All Star” but it’s a TED Talk) and then the sorts of Dadaist musical experiments (“All Star” but every note is C, “All Star” but every word with an “E” is skipped, “All Star” but the lyric “And they don’t stop coming” repeats for 10 hours). In a similarly perverse vein, Jon Sudano’s partly devoted his YouTube channel to renditions of the vocal part of “All Star” over the music of other songs.

Elsewhere, the song has spawned countless Reddit threads, been translated into Aramaic and back (“There was one who said unto me that the universe was going to cause me to tremble”), and rendered in Elizabethan verse. You can test your knowledge of the “All Star” lyrics with a BuzzFeed quiz, or call a 24-hour “All Star” hotline on 830-476-5664 (a handy number, it has been suggested, for women to give out to potential creeps).

If the song is a phenomenon, journalists trying to get a handle on the phenomenon is a phenomenon in and of itself (GQ: “The Internet’s Endless Obsession with Smash Mouth’s ‘All Star,’The Verge: “Smash Mouth: We ‘fully embrace the meme’”). In a segment on NPR in 2018, Smash Mouth frontman Steve Harwell sighed as Lulu Garcia-Navarro, one of the first journalists to report on the Arab Spring in Libya, brought up the ceaseless overabundance of alternative takes on the song.

“Do you have a favorite?” she asked.

“The original,” Harwell responded.

Kevin Coleman, Greg Camp, Paul DeLisle, and Steve Harwell in May 1999
Getty Images

In late 1998, Smash Mouth turned in what they thought was their completed second album. Astro Lounge was both a more focused and more expansive album than their first, as Smash Mouth drilled into the quasi-psychedelic pop-rock of their first hit, “Walkin’ on the Sun.” Camp’s evolving songcraft was on full display.

But delivering a criticism made cliché by many label execs before him, Tom Whalley, then head of A&R at Interscope Records (he would later become chairman and CEO of Warner Bros. Records), didn’t hear a hit. The band needed one, if they were to avoid being labeled a one-hit wonder: “Walkin’ on the Sun,” which had topped the Billboard Modern Rock and Adult Top 40 that January, was a distant memory. He told them to go away and come back with a couple of tracks that had a shot at the charts.

Whalley knew full well it was a tall order. “It’s not something that’s easy to do,” he told me. “They’re very rarely done on demand.”

But Camp was ready to try. Not usually one to listen to the radio, he picked up the latest issue of Billboard, bought some records, and noted tempos, keys, melodies, song structures. One track in particular stood out: Barenaked Ladies’ “One Week,” with its hyper-verbose verses and abrupt mood shifts, and the fact that the vocals kicked in before the music did. (The other group brazenly vocalizing right at top of songs that year was ’NSync. Smash Mouth would tour with them in 2002.)

Maybe because he was thinking in terms of fan service, Camp’s mind turned to Smash Mouth’s fan mail, which he and DeLisle tended to read in the back of the tour bus or at the laundromat. A lot of the band’s young fans were having a rough time of it, being picked on by their siblings, teachers, parents—sometimes for the way they dressed, sometimes for liking Smash Mouth. Camp set out to write a pep talk of a song, a “daily affirmation,” an “I Will Survive” for the not-so-cool kids. Finally, there was the memory of an ex-girlfriend, who used to make the “L for loser” hand gesture at him when he left to play with his cover band in the evenings. “She’d be like, ‘When are you going to grow up, dude?’” Camp told me, adding, “I don’t know if I would namecheck her. Because, you never know. She may come after me for royalties.”

In his basement studio at home in Santa Cruz, California, Camp picked up a breakbeat record. He laid down a bass line over an old drumbeat loop, pressed record, and picked up his Mosrite guitar. At some point during the writing process, he said years later, he probably noticed his sneakers, the ones he always wore: Converse All Stars.

The song begins with vocals, barging in before the music does: one kick-starting syllable on the last unaccented beat of a nonexistent bar. It’s an impolite entrance, a skipping of preamble and niceties.

SomeBODY once told me the world was gonna roll me

Both the record label and the radio stations hated it. “[Radio DJs] like to talk over the beginning of your song,” Camp said. “Which made me fight for that even more. You know: ‘Well, they should shut up when our song plays.’”

The chorus was all G and C chords on a guitar tuned down a half-step, with the monosyllabic pithiness of Dr. Seuss:

Hey now, you’re an all-star
Get your game on, go play
Hey now, you’re a rock star
Get the show on, get paid

While the lyrics urged “go get ’em,” the chords weren’t uncomplicatedly happy. Camp borrowed the chord shape—F#-B-Cdim-B, with that portentous C diminished chord—from the lurking danger of the James Bond theme. Camp’s middle verses exuded anxiety about climate change, as if the band known for its sunbaked sound was questioning its whole modus operandi. And he wanted a whistle—a breezy instrumental break, as if the song had slipped on its Oakleys. Lastly, Camp took out a dusty old record of NASA air-to-ground voice communications, and pulled out a snippet that suggested a proverbial reaching for the stars: “Go for the moon.”

Part of Camp felt dirty and mercenary about having written a song at the bidding of the record label. His original handwritten lyrics contained the line, “Say bye bye to your soul” (later changed to “All that glitters is gold”). “This would be the first time that I had to do something that the record company told me to do,” Camp said. “And I was kind of like, ‘Well, you know, I guess here we are.’”

Another part of him was worried that his bandmates would reject the song’s in-your-face poppiness and positivity. As keyboardist Michael Klooster told VoicesRiverCity.com in 2017, when Camp announced that he’d written two new tracks, he said, “There’s one I really like. One I kinda hate”—(meaning “All Star”)—“but I think it’s gonna work.” (The other one was “Then the Morning Comes,” a more personal account of the emptiness of touring life. “It’s a lot more my speed of a song,” Camp told me.)

At about 1:30 a.m. on a Sunday night, in either late January or early February 1999, Camp arrived at the One Double Oh Seven Club in Santa Cruz—a regular destination for him, since it ignored the recent statewide ban on barroom smoking—and ran unexpectedly into DeLisle.

“Come out to my truck right now!” Camp said, wrenching DeLisle from the pool table. In the parking lot, Camp played his two just-finished demos. DeLisle preferred the other one.

But when Harwell heard “All Star,” he knew instantly it was a life-changer. “We were going, Gatorade, football, baseball, basketball,” he told The Baltimore Sun in 2005. “This song’s going to be everywhere.”

“This song will do exactly what the record company wants it to do,” their producer, Eric Valentine, warned them. “But it is going to sail this band straight into the sun. Like, there’s no turning back. You cannot put that toothpaste back in the tube.”

“Pretty much everyone was concerned,” said Camp. “We definitely had to take a vote and go, are we going to do this?” Not that there was that much debate. “Nobody said, ‘Let’s just be broke and make sure our friends think we’re cool.’”

Like the rest of us, Camp cannot escape “All Star.” He encounters it “sometimes once a day” around Los Angeles, where he now lives. It can be a drag; friends will sometimes excitedly draw attention if and when the song plays in public. “They’ll say, ‘Hey! This guy wrote this song!’” Camp said. “Yeah, that’s annoying.”

It can also be touching, like the time he overheard a random kid singing it, to himself, in a public playground. And there’s that one temp lyric that he never got around to changing, which bothers him a bit—the vaguely koan-resembling but obviously tautological, “You’ll never shine if you don’t glow.”

“I needed something to rhyme,” said Camp, “and that’s all I had at the time. And all of a sudden it was on a record and I didn’t change it.”

Harwell and Camp
Getty Images

Though Harwell is the familiar face of Smash Mouth, Camp was its unsung creative leader, and its sole songwriter in its glory days. He enjoys his anonymity, and feels bad for Harwell, for whom that type of inconspicuousness is impossible. “Steve can’t really walk out his door without somebody saying something to him.” Camp was also arguably Smash Mouth’s voice of reason, initially concerned about the band maintaining its all-holy artistic credibility. He voted against the band appearing in an ad for Pepsi, and really wasn’t a fan of the idea of licensing it to Shrek, either. Eventually, though, his pleas either dissipated or were drowned out by a flood of money.

Today, licensing requests come up a few times a week. “I mean, even this morning I was getting asked by our publishing company if it was OK to use it in two different things,” Camp said. He approves most requests, unless they want to modify the lyrics to be blatantly advertorial. “Like, you know, ‘Hey now, you’re a hamburger guy.’”

He wouldn’t deny that the royalties have been decent. The song helps “pay our bills,” he said. (DeLisle has said the song bought him a house.) “It just doesn’t stop, you know,” Camp added. “It’s an Energizer Bunny of a song. It just does not stop.”

In recent years, Camp has marveled over the continued life of “All Star.” He has also fielded endless questions about whether he’s seen this or that version, and he has witnessed his song being subjected to some pretty strange stuff. Camp is still trying to figure out what the hell is going on.

“Well, I don’t think it’s like the coolest thing in the world to like Smash Mouth, or that song,” he says after a long pause. “You’re not going to be scoring any points by liking it. … It’s just like, hey, here’s something from our childhood. You know, it’s like if I were to like walk around and sing the theme to like The Partridge Family or The Smurfs or something like that. It’s not because I genuinely love that stuff. It’s just good, and it’s fun, and it’s something from my memories.”

In truth, Smash Mouth has battled for respect nearly all along. Even a glowing review of Astro Lounge in Spin referred to the band as the “slightly lumpier cousins of No Doubt and Sugar Ray.”

There have been times when the band has invited ridicule. At some point, the band’s Twitter account began picking petty fights with anyone who dared to suggest that they owed their success to a computer-animated ogre.

But the truth—which Smash Mouth seems to recognize themselves—is that becoming a punch line has played a large part in their longevity and success. Without the “All Star” jokes, the band might not be such a household name. Sophie Dickinson, associate editor at KnowYourMeme.com, believes the “All Star” meme phenomenon comes from a place of “hate-turned-ironic love.” “The era-specific quality of the song set itself up for a resurgence of some type but, mostly, the song owes its lasting success to Shrek,” she says. Timing was an important factor: Today’s most prolific meme creators came of age at the peak of the film franchise’s popularity.

Pete Gofton, a musician and music lecturer at Goldsmiths University in London, argues that “All Star” is just a handy “vessel of transmission”—making a statement on the song itself is not the point. “The most successful memes, shitposts, and Vines have little if anything to do with the actual content itself,” he said. Memes are their own art or language, “with their own internal logic and rules and references. The content they use is pushed beyond the point of being funny or making any kind of sense in and of itself.” There’s no deep meaning or even obvious comedy in, for example, a version of “All Star” in which the vocals are five beats-per-minute slower than the instruments. “But it functions within the parameters of communication of understanding what a meme should do.”

Both Dickinson and Gofton observed that the song’s inherent attention-seizing qualities are part of what makes it such an appealing plaything for internet mischief-makers. “I think the way it announces itself straight in with the vocal makes it perfect material,” Gofton says. “Internet memes need to reduce something we recognize to a series of associations we can get within one image, or a second or two.

“My personal theory is that it’s a combination of its simplicity, immediacy, and being in the right place at the right time, as a weirdly contextless but memorable song by a one-hit wonder. … You don’t seem to get a lot of memes made out of songs that are well-known classics, or from artists with lots of hits or big back catalogs, I think because memes need to exist in no other context than itself.”

It’s not all memes for memes’ sake. There are plenty of recontextualizations of “All Star” that seem to stem from a place of genuine affection for the source material. “The most exciting thing about this song is that it’s deceptively simple,” said Allison Frasca, creator of All Star: The Musical, the as-yet-unstaged Broadway musical comprised entirely of rearrangements of the song—as a love song, a tango, a patter song, a nightmare ballet. “It may be only four chords, but those four chords are for everybody. They can be hopeful, triumphant, mysterious, or ominous.”

All Star: The Musical centers on the story of a “spunky small town girl with a dream as big as the sky,” Frasca told me. The concept, she explained, sprang from musical theater performers riffing on the “‘All Star’ but it’s …” concept while backstage. The idea of “‘All Star,’ But It’s a Really Dramatic Musical Theater Number” just stuck.

“To me, it’s a song about taking chances and aiming high no matter what,” she said. “In writing the show, and listening to the song hundreds of times, I’ve come to have a deep appreciation for the song to the point of tearing up.”

Whatever it is that’s going on, perhaps the greatest testament to the irrevocably magnetic pull of “All Star” is this: Even those who claim to abhor the song have a begrudging awe for its powers.

“We lash out, we mock Smash Mouth, we reassure ourselves that this is a terrible song,” Tim Richardson, one of the hosts of the podcast Why I Hate This Album, said in an email. “But secretly we know that none of that will ever get it out of our heads.”

After “All Star,” everyone—the new fans, the record label, the rest of the band, cowriters over the years—wanted and expected another world-conquering hit from Camp. “Once you have something like that under your belt, they want you to continue to do that over and over and over again,” said Camp. “And they make it sound easy. Like, just do that again.” Camp likens it to heavyweight boxing: “You can’t keep doing that kind of stuff over and over.”

Camp left Smash Mouth in 2008, came back for a bit, then left again in 2011. Today, he works and plays with various musician friends, gigging and doing session work around Los Angeles. His main focus is working in his private studio where he’s made music for A Dog’s Purpose, the upcoming indie thriller Diery, and both Netflix’s The Kissing Booth and its future sequels.

In recent years, with its rotating personnel, Smash Mouth has been “almost like a cover band” of itself, Camp says. They continue to play his songs on the road, with Harwell openly admitting to concert audiences that, yes, he knows that most of them are there to hear three songs, but they should “try to have fun until we get there.” And then, as promised, every night, the closing song sends the audience out on a terrific high:

All that glitters is gold
Only shooting stars break the mold.

That last line happens to be a mixed metaphor, but who cares.

Darryn King is a writer in New York.

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