Third Eye Blind and the Alt-Bro Protest Song
On Tuesday, Third Eye Blind, the ’90s band whose biggest hit, “Semi-Charmed Kind of Life,” made meth sound cute, played a purposefully shitty set in Cleveland in an act of protest against the Republican National Convention. The Convention has been playing out less like a Convention and more like fan fiction about a Convention, so it made a strange sort of sense.
These were the heroes we’d been waiting for! Bold, aimless men, time travelers sent here to rescue us from modern fascism without violence. They saw what we had missed all along — all you have to do to fight Trump is play unpopular Third Eye Blind songs. “You can boo all you want,” frontman Stephan Jenkins told the audience in Cleveland. “But I’m the motherfucking artist up here.” And how.
Whatever trolling of the audience Jenkins did, it was pretty tame. “If you find yourself getting co-opted by an RNC event and that’s against your values, not saying anything about it is a political statement in itself,” he said in an interview with Vice’s Bijan Stephen. “We took it easy on them [but] we did play ‘Non-Dairy Creamer!’”
Of all the crummy, alt-bro protest songs released in response to the Bush era, “Non-Dairy Creamer,” from the band’s 2008 EP Red Star, is one of the worst. The title sort of speaks for itself (it’s about being “fake”) and the lyrics are all over the place. Jenkins attempts a critique of obesity, school shootings, religious extremism, Iraq, STDs, “women and their fake tits,” and…hypocrites? I think? At one point he just starts chanting “young, gay Republicans,” but it’s not clear why. You couldn’t accuse him of avoiding political engagement, but it’s very easy political engagement — the kind you’d hear from any ambitious college freshman. (Jenkins was valedictorian at UC-Berkeley, which he mentions frequently.) Musically, the song is bland — goofy ’90s pop rock that’s been left out in the sun too long.
Good intentions don’t necessarily make good music. “As bad as it may sound, I’d rather listen to a good song on the side of segregation than a bad song on the side of integration,” folk singer Phil Ochs once declared. He was a white guy, so it was probably pretty easy for him to say. Some songs (including some of Phil Ochs’) are just bad. Others, like “Non-Dairy Creamer,” are profoundly lame. Back in February, Jonathan Luxmoore and Christine Ellis lamented the death of the folk protest song in the Guardian:
“Protest songs are no longer seen as an effective form of communication,” says Malcolm Taylor, a folk music expert and former librarian at the English Folk Dance and Song Society. “There’s so much ammunition for them, and if you wrote one that happened to catch on, you could potentially reach millions. But whereas Billy Bragg and his generation would have strapped on their guitars and headed for a street corner to make their point, today’s discontents prefer Facebook and other social media.”
This isn’t really the case. Protest songs are out in force: look at Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” Beyonce’s “Formation,” J.Cole’s “Be Free,” Kanye West’s “We Don’t Care,” Lauryn Hill’s “Black Rage,” even Childbirth’s “I Only Fucked You as a Joke.” What the end of the Bush era saw was a decline in the acceptance of “protest” music predicated on suburban outrage. The alt-bro protest song was nice. It was a hero in its own mind. It provided a dramatic setting for Ethan Embry or Freddie Prinze Jr. to get the girl at the end of the rom-com. But it was also whiny, lacking in nuance, and aimed at a demographic that was confused about what “disenfranchised” means. It’s sort of fitting that now, in our last summer before the end of the world, Stephan Jenkins — well-intentioned but weirdly out of touch — should emerge from the wilderness of playing casino shows to speak once more for the bros.
“They call it KFC/ ’Cause it’s not really chicken/Hot Cheetos for breakfast/ Make a young student sick and/ Did you ever think someone’s trickin’ you…you, you, you?” Jenkins sang. The crowd booed him, but faced with an enemy like the 2016 Republican Convention, Jenkins looked sympathetic. Across the nation Third Eye Blind was once again, briefly cool. Ten bucks says Freddie Prinze Jr. got laid Tuesday night.
R.I.P., Alt Bro Protest Music. Here are some songs to mourn its passing with.
Conor Oberst, “When the President Talks to God”
People love this song for some reason! Critics do, at least. But it’s not really as cutting as Oberst wants to it be and I know his whole “thing” is sounding like he’s on the verge of tears but it doesn’t really work here, if it actually works anywhere.
Green Day, “American Idiot”
Ughh. You know what I mean.
New Found Glory, “No News is Good News”
I tried — I did — but I couldn’t get through this one.
John Mayer, “Waiting on the World to Change”
This is the music you’d get if you crossbred Don Henley with a sentient yeast infection.
Honorable Mention: OPM, “Heaven is a Halfpipe”
Four minutes of quasi-spiritual speculation about an afterlife where one is blissfully free from constant mistreatment by The Man for the simple act of skating seems like it would fit all the criteria for what makes an alt-bro protest song so terrible, but this is actually great. You should listen to it.