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Reel Big Fish: A Self-Aware Parody at the cost of Ska as a Genre?

By Jonathan Skufca | 14/2/17 1:00pm
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I grew up loving ska, especially the third-wave ska that was popular in the 1990s. A copy of The Mighty Mighty Bosstones’s  Let’s Face It was one of my favorite CDs my Dad gave me, among copies of Blues Traveler’s  Four and Huey Lewis and & The News’s  Sports. I clearly got my pretentious music taste from him. All that notwithstanding, as a trombonist who was a dyed-in-the-wool band geek who was also an angsty teenager, I couldn’t get enough of the combination of punk and ska that the third wave could provide. So I went online and listened to other bands, and found Reel Big Fish’s “ Sell Out” from their major-label debut Turn The Radio Off and fell in love. It, to this day, is one of my favorite records and I recall jumping the gun trying to order the vinyl repressing of it. But I never really knew that ska was kind of a “joke” of a genre—checkerboard Vans and belts, fedoras, gaudy shirts, and the signature “skank” dance sort of became a meme and a lot of modern ska groups, such as DC’s own Kill Lincoln, do a great job of playing into the stereotype without being too showboaty.

Reel Big Fish, on the other hand, ham it up to ridiculous levels. They’re never seen without gaudy printed shirts. And I swear their last few albums have just been an attempt at re-creating Turn The Radio Off. Take “ I Know You Too Well To Like You Anymore” from their most recent record Candy Coated Fury, and compare it to “ She Has a Girlfriend Now” from Turn The Radio Off. Both incredibly juvenile songs about relationships clearly appealing to teenage boys (I still very much understand why I fell in love with them). Not that that is inherently a bad thing, but it makes it hard for ska to be taken seriously as a genre at times.

However, most die-hard fans of ska genuinely do not care and are probably listening to it mainly as a source of nostalgia, especially given how massive 90’s pop culture seems to be now, as ”90’s Kids” experience nostalgia for most likely the first time. And it is not like bands in the past haven’t run on nostalgia alone, especially referring to genres that were short-lived and gimmicky, like disco and most 1950’s pop. Is Reel Big Fish, then, as they continue to perpetuate these stereotypes, ensuring that ska-punk will have the same fate? I sure hope not. There are still plenty of great ska-punk bands who are not riding the nostalgia train, including the aforementioned  Kill Lincoln (although technically on a hiatus), and Streetlight Manifesto. Catch 22 made a concept album about the life of (dirty Marxist) Leon Trotsky, and it’s the furthest thing from the gaudy showmanship of RBF to share a genre label.

Don’t get me wrong, I still love RBF (mainly because of my general man-child nature) but I also love ska. They should not be at odds with each other.