David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 90: Nada Surf (Popular)

July 25, 2020

This is the year of my 40th reunion of my high school graduating class.  We were supposed to do it in July, but COVID-19 has now pushed it to October, and I wouldn't be surprised if it gets moved again. I don't anticipate going. I went to my 20th (I think that was the one) but with the advent of Facebook, I know almost everything I could learn by seeing these former classmates.

I find it hard to even see how it will work out.  A battle has been brewing on Facebook about our high school mascot, the Mohigan, and our logo, a Native American headdress with the M representing either/both Morgantown and Mohigan. Ironically, I have owned nothing with my high school's name or logo on it since I graduated . . . until about a month ago when I got a sweatshirt and a t-shirt with the headdress logo as part of the "gift" for purchasing the MHS alumni directory. I wear it around the house, or like today, when I mowed the yard, but not out in public. The controversy on Facebook is whether it is an insensitive name and logo. As I read some of the commentary, I sense some ages-old disagreements manifesting themselves in the fate of the headdress.

For most of us, high school is something to escape, to survive, to put in our rear view mirrors.  In part, that is because everything about high school seems so damned important at the time. When do we call it out for what it is: painful pictures of popularity.

Nada Surf's "Popular" has always been my favorite song about high school life, even beating out The Ramones' "Rock And Roll High School." "Popular" has the appropriate level of arrogance, narrow-mindedness, and self-absorption that permeates every high school through the history of time. Even now, as everyone keeps talking about how kids need to get back to secondary school this fall, despite the challenges of COVID-19, especially because of the socialization, I want to scream, "Who the hell are they kidding?" 

After about 6th grade, everything is about popularity. "If you want to date other people," Mathew Caws tells the teenage girls from his "teenage guide to popularity" (an actual 1960's guide, written by a t.v. actress, of all authorities, he apparently used for most of the lyrics), "be prepared for the boy to be hurt and rejected/even if you've gone together only a short time/and haven't been too serious." The verses are spoken more than sung, initially in a pedantic, unemotional tone, but eventually with the passion of a preacher, all encompassed by a driving beat.

Nada Surf sings the chorus, and not just the song's chorus, but the Greek chorus that represents the powers-that-be in any high school: "I'm head of the class/I'm popular/I'm a quarterback/I'm popular/My mom says I'm a catch/I'm popular/I'm never last picked/I got a cheerleading chick."  The music in the chorus is a magnificent assault of noise, the kind of intense wall of sound that seems a marvel when coming from a trio. Given the track was produced by The Cars' Ric Ocasek, who couldn't have been the popular guy in high school, everything about the song mocks the popularity it captures.

The song continues with a regularity that aligns with the grind that is school: teacher droning through the verses, the chorus made up of the noise of the hallways or the lunchrooms or the playgrounds hammering home the drama of homecoming queens, football heroes, and cliques. The video linked below recognized this dynamic, casting Caws as a bespectacled teacher, the band playing on the football field with scenes from an actual New Jersey high school.

Of course, the sad irony for Nada Surf is that this is all they are known for, much like your football hero who still scuttles around his home town reliving his 4 touchdown performance for Polk High School against Andrew Johnson High School. Nada Surf recorded many more albums, but even I, the nerd who might have remembered them for "Zen Brain" or "Treehouse" off of High/Low, the 1996 CD featuring "Popular," hasn't bothered to keep up with them. I guess they need to be on Facebook.

"Popular." Nada Surf. High/Low. Elektra. 1996.  Video link here.

Day 89: The Replacements "Can't Hardly Wait."

Day 91: Men At Work "Overkill."

See complete list here.