Photo via Rainmaker Artists
"This song is about my ex girlfriend," Bowling For Soup frontman Jaret Reddick told the crowd at New York’s Irving Plaza last Thursday, introducing “Emily”—one of those songs I listened to so much in middle school that I will never, ever be able to forget the words. “She's not here because I shot her in the face... with my penis.”
2002’s Drunk Enough To Dance (the album that spawned the Grammy-nominated single “Girl All The Bad Guys Want”), along with classics like Avril Lavigne’s Let Go and Puddle of Mudd’s “She Hates Me,” was part of the highly embarrassing canon that shaped my (and maybe your) personal seventh grade soundtrack. Not only that, but Bowling For Soup was one of my first “rock shows,” a nerve-wracking experience that set the stage for what, by now, probably amounts to hundreds more ear-damaging nights in grungy clubs. So I went to Irving Plaza to see Bowling For Soup last week (“Why?”, asked so many of my well-intentioned friends) out of genuine, nostalgic curiosity as well as to confront my own mediocre-music-loving demons.
Bowling For Soup is an even less threatening version of bands like Green Day, Simple Plan, and Good Charlotte—bands that took the anti-establishment aesthetic of punk, watered it down, and plopped it on top of songs that were comparable, grit-wise, to the pop-friendly alt rock of Smash Mouth. Their “punk” side also meant these songs were generally about things that made your mom roll her eyes (but not so edgy that they needed to be censored): how girls “just don’t understand,” penises, and poop.
But that’s exactly the point. The only real requirement of music when you’re 12 is that it makes your mom roll her eyes (and if it’s easy to listen to, all the better). Bowling For Soup rode this wave of radio-friendly rebellion quite successfully, landing four songs on the Billboard Hot 100 from 2004 to 2006 and releasing a gold album in 2004, A Hangover You Don’t Deserve. Snobby before I had taste, I had already abandoned them by then—too “mainstream”—in favor of the far more Seattle-y Modest Mouse and Postal Service. As such, last week’s show was the first time I’d listened to BFS in more than a decade.
Packed wall-to-wall with people of all ages (how a teenager in 2015 knows who Bowling For Soup is, I can’t be sure), the show looked like it could have been straight out of a time capsule from 2003, and literally no one would have been the wiser. After all, that’s part of why we were there. A whole slew of people in Nirvana shirts and studded belts followed the lyrics to the band’s song “Punk Rock 101” to the letter (“My Dickies, your sweat pants / My spiked hair, your new Vans”), searching for the kind of nonconformity that you used to be able to buy at Hot Topic. There were a few aberrations in the eerily retro crowd—for example, a 50-something dad in a Bowling For Soup shirt (we’ll forgive him this cardinal sin, as he’s a dad) who was literally jumping up and down for every single song.
After a competent if fairly anonymous opener called Ivory Tribes, who brought their own flashbacks to an earlier era of indie rock, as well as chants of “B-F-S” and some premature moshing, Bowling For Soup stepped on stage. They were a little older, a little fatter (as Reddick—formerly “the hot one”—pointed out sadly, he had just bought his first XL T-shirt that day), but ready as ever to churn out some throwback goodness (their most recent album is a compilation called Songs People Actually Liked, Vol. 1). To be clear, listening to pop-punk from the early-mid 2000s is not in and of itself unpleasant. It’s kind of great! Basic rock beats and the chugging of distorted guitars are a solid formula for a reason.
Listening to stage banter that sounds transported from a middle school cafeteria, though, is something else entirely: butt jokes, fat jokes, sex jokes, and a very, very ill-advised Caitlyn Jenner joke inspired cackles from the mostly white, mostly male crowd. A song called “My Wena” (whose refrain is “My wiener is lonely tonight”) inspired rabid audience participation. I might have laughed when I was 12. At that point, though, I also thought “Girl All The Bad Guys Want” was didactic, unable to recognize the fundamental dissonance between being cool and “listening to rap-metal” (or that any guy who says, “She'll never know that I'm the best that she'll never have” is automatically trash).
Still, there were also all the enthused fans (one sign read, “You’re the Band All The Bad Girls Want”), the various people who got to sit in with the band (including a 17-year-old named Elan who had first played with them five years prior), and of course, the hits. Reddick’s voice has not changed one iota, making renditions of “Life After Lisa” and “The Last Rock Show” perfectly nostalgic. “It’s nice of you guys to be here,” Reddick said earnestly, “even though we haven't had a hit in a while.” The show’s biggest surprise was a cover of Fountains of Wayne classic “Stacy’s Mom” (which may or may not be the song that made me want to play bass), closing the 2003 pop-rock circle.
Bowling For Soup’s radio-friendly brand of belligerent music never needs to grow up. If the support they got at Irving Plaza is any indication, they could keep playing “Girl All The Bad Guys Want” to full houses for years to come. They don’t need me. The world may have changed (a little), but deluded tweens like my (former) self will always their “stick out your tongue at The Man” kind of rebel status appealing, at least until they discover music that doesn’t have to rely on faux-inappropriateness to annoy their parents. Not to mention there will always be the beer-swilling men of all ages who came to the show looking for an excuse to “let loose” and “rock out” (add in some extra air quotes, for good measure). Bowling For Soup was like their belligerent, offensive safe space. The band turns 21 this year (hence, the “Finally Legal” tour), all thanks to these people, who still want to hear about how women are terrible and poop is funny. Their sense of humor, though, still hasn’t passed puberty.
Natalie Weiner is a writer living in New York. Follow her on Twitter.