I went to a Mets-Padres game recently with my good friend Amy Rose. We met up outside a bodega in Clinton Hill to take the G to the 7 train to the stadium. My pockets were heavy on the way over because I had a special gift for us.
We hugged hello and I pulled out two small paper bags, each containing a tall can of Sublime Mexican Lager, a collaboration between San Diego’s AleSmith Brewing Co. and the legendary Long Beach band in honor of the 25th anniversary of their self-titled album, which was released on July 30, 1996. “Holy shit,” she said excitedly.
After we cracked open these frosty brews, Amy Rose told me that she'd been a big enough fan to put together an entire high school presentation on Sublime, including a section dedicated to late frontman Bradley Nowell’s dead pet Lou Dog. It was a moment where we recognized something in each other, a shared connection to one of the most critically reviled but hugely popular bands in history—a group that I spent a good chunk of my life abhorring, until recently having a change of heart.
In the quarter century since Sublime hit shelves in Tower Records everywhere, it peaked at the no. 13 spot on the Billboard charts, went platinum 6x’s over, and helped make "ska punk" a menace to the mall soundsystem. Sublime has probably become most synonymous with the barefoot-inside-a-7-11 community and bro culture as a whole. On Spotify, six of the band’s top ten tracks are their most played, with “Santeria” racking in 420 million (and counting) alone. That’s right, 420 million. Look at god work. I can almost smell the bong water.
Anywhere a white person with dreadlocks roams, bonfire staples like "What I Got," "Santeria," "Doin' Time," and "Wrong Way" will surely be there, playing through their ear buds, soundtracking a particularly sick hacky sack session, or added to a playlist titled “Trevor’s Kickback Jams.” But they are also a staple among Mexican, Black, and Asian kids—skaters, punks, cholos, dorks, whatever—in my neighborhood and beyond.
It’s easy to make these sort of cliché jokes about the band because they really do epitomize the very concept of cargo shorts music: alternative enough to seem radical but bland enough to be (mostly) inoffensive. As a result, their audience is massive and wide-ranging: How many bands’ music can you hear played at a frat party, a skateboarding competition, a kickback in the hood, or a Chili’s? Comedian Brian Posehn hit on pretty much all the reason why Sublime is such a divisive band in The AV Club’s Hate Song. Their popularity runs deep, and in certain parts of the U.S., they are inescapable. I am from one of those parts.
Sublime was an intrinsic part of my upbringing in San Diego, a city that so prides itself in its sunny and mellow disposition it’s practically the encapsulation of a Sublime song. Take these lyrics from “What I Got,” for example: “Why I don't cry when my dog runs away / I don't get angry at the bills I have to pay / I don't get angry when my mom smokes pot / Hits the bottle and goes right to the rock / Fuckin' and fightin', it's all the same / Living with Louie Dog's the only way to stay sane.”
There are also these fine words from “Caress Me Down”: “Mucho gusto me llamo Bradley / I’m hornier than Ron Jeremy / And if you wanna get popped in your knee / Just wipe that look off your batty face.” Count ‘em: that’s two cultures being appropriated.
Like Sublime, San Diego (and other parts of Southern California) preaches the gospel of chillaxin’. For context, the carpet at the San Diego airport has stickers that read “spread good vibes” as a response to COVID. All that is largely tied to its surf and skate culture, which also helped birth its punk and ska scene. This is where the appropriation of Jamaican stereotypes and culture comes in. Then there’s the large population of Latinx people and the city’s proximity to Mexico, which inevitably impacts the local culture. Long Beach, where Sublime comes from, is just 94 miles away. Long Beach as in “with so much drama in the LBC it’s kind of hard bein’ Snoop D-O double G.'' So yes, hip-hop and rap, like everywhere else in the world, have a huge influence in the area, and the mix of all this creates a powder keg of bravado, boyish immaturity, a preternatural lean towards good vibes, and the “appreciation” of various sounds and cultures.
The local alternative radio station, 91X, keeps the band on heavy rotation (by mandate, from what my friends at the station used to tell me), along with other San Diego-centric bands like P.O.D. or Switchfoot, and bands that are SoCal in spirit, like 311 and Red Hot Chili Peppers. So it’s truly everywhere, all the time, nearly impossible to avoid and as a result the lyrics to “Californication” sit there in your brain, being known.
The archetype of a local San Diegan—drives a vehicle with Tribal Gear decals, longboards to the fish taco joint, wears Chucks to weddings, perhaps enjoys hula hooping at the beach—is a long-running joke among locals, and while it would be reductive and inaccurate to say this is what all of San Diego is like, there's some truth to it. And, the effects of nature and nurture mean that while I haven’t owned a pair of flip flops since high school and the mere sight of an acoustic guitar puts me on high alert for the threat of “Tears in Heaven,” I kind of love this shit. I love a Home Goods-looking wall sign that says “Positive Vibes,” even if I’d never allow one in my apartment. I love the excessive use of a shaka gesture. Multiple men have shown up at my door for a date on a skateboard! These are all a product of my environment that endear me even if I’m poking fun at them. And accepting Sublime into my heart after two decades of rejecting them is the final concession to this truth.
I’ve loved punk, ska, and reggae ever since my young adolescence—discovering the sounds early from typical artists like Bob Marley or The Ramones, to then finding the versions that melded the sounds in exciting, archaic ways, like The Clash, The Specials, The Slits, and Bad Brains. It especially spoke to me as a teen with an activist heart (I even wore a jacket on which I had sewn a large upside down American flag on the back for a good chunk of high school) because of its roots in protest and politics. In the wrong hands, however, that melding can get you some real cringe shit. You know it when you hear it. And you will hear it often in the greater San Diego area.
I’ll admit that I was a Sublime fan in high school, partly because I only had the radio, a small handful of CDs, including the City of Angels soundtrack, and very little access to the then still burgeoning internet. I wasn’t really aware of what else was out there, but they also had a hold on my environment. At that point in life, I wasn’t familiar then with the concept of containing multitudes and biculturality, so it was confusing for me to be a border-raised Mexican American girl who listened to The Smiths AND Minor Threat AND Public Enemy AND The Stone Roses AND Rage Against The Machine AND Mariah Carey AND Sublime AND, for a short period in the dismal nü-metal era of the early-00s, Powerman 5000 (I know, awful) AND, of course, the City of Angels soundtrack. Then came the garage rock revival of the early aughts, with bands like The Strokes and The Hives and I was even more excited, and confused. I took in so much because I didn’t understand who I was yet and found things I enjoyed in all kinds of places. And the harsh ways that high school forces you to classify yourself within tight subcultural confines to determine who you’re allowed to hang with meant I stood in severe danger of being called a poser. God forbid! It's no wonder I eventually chose a career that empowers and even requires me to be culturally omnivorous.
While there was a lot I liked back in my teen years, it eventually dawned on me that some of it was considered “bad.” Embarrassingly so. Sublime fell into that category, so it had to go. The fact that Sublime was a band of white dudes from the LBC making culturally appropriative jam band music catered to a hyper dude audience, with problematic lyrics and a lead singer that blatantly and routinely affected a Jamaican or Mexican accent, only solidified that decision. Factor in the fan base of wrap-around sunglass-wearers who had been oppressing me with their chillness or dickish broiness (that includes women) my whole life, and it was game over. I put away my puka shell necklace and closed the drawer on Sublime.
And then, I eventually got old and exhausted. I stopped caring about what was cool, and just liked what I liked, and let others like what they liked. I stopped believing in the concept of “guilty pleasures” because fuck it, why feel guilty about what I like if it isn’t hurting anyone? Being an asshole about insignificant shit affects the vibe, and as a San Diegan I simply cannot allow that to happen.
Three years ago, I moved to New York, where I had no family or friends. Building a whole life here in my mid-30s was, at times, a disgustingly awkward experiment. I missed home; I missed burritos; I missed people generously using the word “dank” as an adjective; I missed hearing “Caress Me Down” blaring out of a Toyota Camry as they skidded out of the Mission Valley Islands parking lot. I came here because New York is specifically NOT San Diego, but that didn’t mean I didn’t crave the small comforts and quirks of Southern California life.
Then, on a night out at the karaoke bar with new friends from work, someone put on “Santeria.” I heard that familiar opening guitar strum, the one that used to incite an eye roll when it played for the 500th time in a day on the radio, and felt real emotion. The absence of the band in my everyday life became real as soon as I heard it again, and it signified the absence of home. But here, in Beats Karaoke in Williamsburg, was a little piece of it!
I got up and scream-sang along, joking that they could turn off the screen in the karaoke room because I knew this shit by heart. Being in that karaoke room 3,000 miles away from home, with new friends from Atlanta, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Minnesota, and a bunch of other places, I was surprised to learn that Sublime had permeated the culture in their hometowns too. Maybe the lifestyle Sublime championed was more aspirational for them in their landlocked states, but even so, their backyard keggers and raucous after-school drives to a fast food joint were also soundtracked by the band. They shared that love-hate relationship, or had a straight up love-love one. Many more nights singing Sublime followed, and at some point it became a marker for me as the resident Southern Californian in the house.
It was a slow transition; one I didn’t realize was happening. I went from actively despising Sublime and everything they represented, to mocking them and their tight grip on my hometown’s culture, to being endeared to them because of it. Suddenly, I’m singing along, referencing the band in Instagram captions, being gifted a Sublime hoodie from a friend, and wanting to talk about their impact. Overall, I’ve built a career out of so-called “guilty pleasures,” even dissecting the way they are harmful or how and why we consume them. You can love something and still call out its problems in the hopes of creating greater cultural understanding.
Being far away from home and then living through a pandemic changed my perspective on so much about home and the experience of joy. Embracing joy into your life, even from the corniest of places, is a nice feeling. Letting go of concerns about coolness is freeing. It sounds stupid to go on record with this, but Sublime epitomized that for me. In many ways, it’s their ethos and the ethos of San Diego and who knows how many other towns in Southern California and beyond. For that I raise 40 oz. of freedom to them. RIP Lou Dog.