In Defense of Sublime
By: Bree Davies
I thought I would have to wait until the 20th anniversary of Sublime's 1996 self-titled mainstream breakout album to write about how fundamentally misunderstood and judged Sublime is. I have so many feelings, probably too many, about a band whose legacy is beaten up almost as much as Insane Clown Posse's (who are possibly the most DIY music-makers on the planet, by the way) by people who tend to lean toward the appearance-based criticism that often bashes music embraced by the working class.
But then the A.V. Club published Jonah Ray's scathing take down of "What I Got" as part of its HateSong series, and I was handed my Sublime platform.
First, I want to say that I get that HateSong as a series is supposed to be a little satirical, but in previous editions, the reason for not liking a song has never read like a giant misguided, misinformed anger dump on a band. Like most discussions by people who have never listened to Sublime past its handful of radio hits, this piece read like a circle jerk among music elitists. And that is boring to read. Luckily, though, this circle jerk laid out all the talking points I needed, so here are some of the common complaints about the band and why I think they are unfounded.
Third wave ska (and anything remotely close to or related to it, like Sublime) sucks
I get it. Many critics hate happy-sounding music (especially with horns) and anything that doesn't emphasize the backbeat in 4/4 time. But the third wave ska movement was a big and important one, ushering bands into the mainstream like the Aquabats, Reel Big Fish and, of course, No Doubt, while changing the way rock radio sounded forever.
Many of the third wave success stories -- like all the bands listed above -- were also from the thriving Long Beach/Orange County scene, which also birthed, uh, Sublime. Though the core of the band didn't include a horn section, "Date Rape," one of Sublime's best-known songs, did, and Brad's rampant reggae-style guitar-playing will forever link them to a style of music that defined an era.
Brad Nowell was the uncool Kurt Cobain
They both came from working-class backgrounds, they both were heroin users who struggled with it until death (and in Brad's case, died from it), they both were more famous and sold more records after they were dead, and they both came into the mainstream in the mid-'90s. So why does Kurt Cobain get treated like dead royalty and Brad Nowell get the bum rap of being the lesser-than frat-dude version?
Their music, though both built on punk's foundation, was different. Their songs were about different experiences and different ways of living. But the '90s were, like any other times in modern music history, filled with musicians who made very dissimilar-sounding music but were still marketed to the same audience. I grew up in the '90s, and guess what? Nirvana and Sublime were equally and aggressively marketed toward Lollapalooza ticket-buying, disaffected suburban alt teens.
What I'm saying is, to your average sixteen-year-old music fan in 1996, Nirvana and Sublime could be enjoyed all the same. I say this as a person who was sixteen in 1996, loved both bands and saw no difference between one and the other. And though I love both of these bands with all of my heart, it does suck that they have become the classic rock of our current time and are in the annoying constant rotation of mediocre rock-ish radio stations all over America. Why this only seems to sour Sublime's legacy and not Nirvana's, I don't know -- other than the fact that people love to hate on Sublime.
I should also add that sometimes, for whatever reason, Sublime lands in a listener's "guilty pleasure" category. To me, "guilty pleasure" is a just cop-out way of saying, "I am judging myself for liking the music I enjoy based on what other people think of me." Which is dumb and unrelated to the music in question. Art is art. Putting a context around what makes it cool or socially acceptable will get you nowhere, other than hiding in your bedroom listening to music so that no one finds out you like it/Sublime.