It’s your junior year of college, and you’re studying abroad in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Again, like with the previous Oral Hit-story on ‘Smooth Criminal,’ read this as if you are the “you.” Your mind will be blown.)
Despite what your parents believe—that their hard-earned money is being funneled into a world-class education at one of the most prestigious institutes of higher education in the United Kingdom—you are out nearly every night of the week, downing double-vodka Red Bulls by the fistful; voraciously snogging unnamed foreign girls on nightclub dance-floors as the disco ball glints above your head; and regularly waking up hungover, with the faint odor of vomit, doner kebab and chips-and-cheese on your tongue. (Basically, every Arctic Monkeys song two years before the band even existed.)
It’s October 2000, and you’re living proof that Y2K didn’t happen. “Nothing happened and nothing will,” you tell yourself. “America is invincible!”
“I was lying on my futon mattress in a converted living-room apartment in Floral Park, Queens that I was paying $200 a month for…”
It’s a normal Wednesday evening, and you and your five friends bundle up into a taxicab and head for the Cavendish. It’s a dance club on the outskirts of Edinburgh—right where the quaint little city starts turns into Trainspotting. Wednesday nights are special nights at the Cavendish. Double-vodka Red Bulls are 2p (just two English pounds!) all night long, so that teeter-tottering line between drunk and wired will be impossible to avoid. The DJ spins the usual: “Sandstorm” followed by Robbie Williams’ “Kids” followed by S Club 7’s “Reach for the Stars.”
But then, like out of some dream, a record comes on that you’ve never heard before. It’s got a good backbeat, a strummed acoustic guitar, and you’re digging the chick lead singer’s cherubic voice.* And in pounds the chorus! Wow, you say to yourself. What a fucking jam. The song? Wheatus’ “Teenage Dirtbag,” which tells the story of a tough-luck high school dork, who dreams of taking the pretty girl, with the dickhead boyfriend, to an Iron Maiden concert and the prom. Sounds sort of like you—if you could exchange Iron Maiden for the Notorious B.I.G. and forgive your prom-date for making out with some other guy later that night.
Fourteen years on, and the song—which hit No. 1 in three countries, No. 2 in the U.K. and No. 7 on Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks chart in the U.S.—remains a perfect pop-rock relic. It’s weathered the apocalypse—September 11th, the Axis of Evil, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, George W. Bush—and continued to be just as happy-go-lucky as the first time you heard it in that nightclub. Wheatus, it turns out, is the brainchild of Brendan B. Brown, who has continued putting out great music and now lives down the street from you in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. His new album drops in November, with some super-famous collaborators (see below). He graciously invited you to one of his recent gigs—opening for Alien Ant Farm—to talk “Teenage Dirtbag,” which still randomly runs up the charts from time to time. Here are the results.
The self-titled album, Wheatus, came out in the first year of the Millennium but seems to be clearly steeped in the ’90s alternative-rock tradition. Was the original idea to put it out during the ’90s?
No, we became a band in the ’90s. I don’t feel as associated with the ’90s as people say. I think we’re more associated with the ’70s [laughs]. But yeah, it’s people’s interpretations. There was no overt intention to be a ’90s band; that’s sort of an impossible task.
You have a pretty high singing voice. In fact, the first time we heard the song, we thought it was a chick singing. Can we blame you for making high-voiced dudes like Coldplay’s Chris Martin a thing?
[laughs] No. You have only him to blame for that.
‘Teenage Dirtbag’ strikes me as something that was stripped directly from your past. Was ‘Noel’ a codename for another high school love interest?
Yeah, very much so. There was a Noel, but she was in my brother’s grade. If you look up a guy named Ricky Kasso and a murder that happened in Northport, Long Island, in 1984, you’ll know more of what it was like to be a dirtbag. I grew up in Northport, so when I was 10 years old, that all happened. And there was a lot of ‘Satan in music’ and all that stuff.
Do you remember where you were when you wrote the song?
I was lying on my futon mattress in a converted living-room apartment in Floral Park, Queens that I was paying $200 a month for.
The meat of the song takes place in the 1980s. Were you a heavy metal dude who smoked cigarettes before class?
Yeah, very much so. I didn’t smoke cigarettes. I hate cigarettes. I’ve always hated cigarettes, but I was definitely a heavy metal dude.
So you listened to Iron Maiden like the narrator in the song?
Huge in the UK: Brendan and co. rock out in Hull, England. Photo by Ian Rook.
The dirtbags where we grew up had their own clique—and dirtbag girls and dirtbag hangout spots. Did you have earlier drafts where your dirtbag went after one of his own?
No, there was nobody like me. [laughs]
The song was heavily bleeped—especially the part about the boyfriend bringing a gun to school. Do you ever regret writing that line in wake of all the school shootings that’ve happened recently?
No, I don’t care. I know what I wrote. What Sony did to it isn’t my …
Didn’t it piss you off that they bleeped it?
No, I mean, it’s so feeble. It’s not even censorship, it’s not that powerful. It’s just fear. I actually feel bad for them because they’re so scared.
Prom night comes to play in that last verse. Do you remember your prom-night theme? Did you have a date?
I went to both my junior and senior prom, [and] neither was incredibly enjoyable. Senior prom, I went with a friend’s sister, who was very nice, but I don’t remember themes. I don’t remember anything from it, really, other than during one of them, there was an incredibly nasty car accident that we drove up on.
These all seem like very American themes, which is why it’s odd that the song was more popular in the U.K. Why do you think they responded to it so positively over there?
Here in the States, there was a very milquetoast delivery to crossover radio stations to try hard to make it a pop song before it was a rock song. I actually think it kind of spans both territories, but it should’ve been allowed to kind of grow on its own. As it has done in the 14 years since it was released.
Jason Biggs from Orange Is the New Black stars in the video, along with his then-American Pie co-star Mena Suvari.*** Did you have any memorable video shoot interactions with them?
Ah, they were both lovely people. Jason Biggs struck me as a kind of funny New Jersey kid. I didn’t get to know them very well, but they seemed like cool people. I follow Biggs’ wife. Biggs’ wife is funnier than he is. [laughs]
In the video, you’re wearing two t-shirts that say ‘Commack’ on them. Any significance to that?
Commack is a town due South of Northport. At the time, there was a sort of a glorification of the inner-city violence of the ’80s and ’90s, and there were a lot of white kids who had no excuse to be acting so hard, who I didn’t look to as friends or peers, and I thought it fit to make their capital Commack. Rich white kids who act gangsta are pretty boring.
In the end, the song’s video implies that the dirtbag’s interaction with the girl in the end was all a big dream. Was that how you wrote it in your mind?
That was the director, Amy Heckerling, and the director from our video, a guy named Jeff [Gordon], who got together on that and figured out that it was going to be smarter to show it as a dream so they could get around the plot of the movie Loser.
Was that how you envisioned it?
No. I saw us playing in a rainstorm. My protagonist for my video brought a porn star to the prom.
Do you ever get sick of playing the song?
Never. Not even close. Not once.
*You find out later that it’s not a chick singing at all, but a high-voiced dude.
**Yes, that One Direction.
***The pair co-starred in the movie Loser, too; the song is on its soundtrack.