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Barenaked Ladies Were One of the Coolest, Cleverest Bands of the '90s

Barenaked Ladies Were One of the Coolest, Cleverest Bands of the '90s
James Minchin

[Editor's Note: Fuck Guilty Pleasures celebrates the over-produced, commercial, artless, lowbrow music that we believe is genuinely worthwhile. Like, among the best music ever.]

Ahead of West Coast Sound's 20 Worst Albums of the '90s poll next week, let's talk about the Barenaked Ladies. When I tell people I love Barenaked Ladies, the first thing they usually say is, "I'm sorry." This is because I typically only bring it up after one of my friends has launched into a mini-rant about how much Barenaked Ladies suck. I mention my love for the band to stop the rant before it spirals into ugly territory, the way a formerly overweight person might interrupt a fat joke to say, "You know, I used to weight 300 pounds."

Generally, however, I keep my love of BNL to myself, because most of my friends are bigger music snobs than I am and Barenaked Ladies are one of those '90s bands that, like Spin Doctors and Hootie & the Blowfish, inspire a kind of overzealous hatred that seems totally out of proportion to whatever musical crimes they may have committed. Here, for example, is something Britain's New Music Express wrote about them in 1999:

"Recently I had a dream where Barenaked Ladies were performing their wry, witty, clever hit single 'One Week' on a popular TV show, grinning to each other in that blubbery twat-bearded way of theirs, and I had a huge chainsaw, with which I joyously sliced all their heads off to stop them torturing me further."

"One Week," of course, is the song that started the hate. Before "One Week," most people outside Canada had barely heard of BNL. The few who had and didn't care for their particular brand of wiseass power-pop just dismissed them as Canada's answer to They Might Be Giants and moved on.

I had discovered BNL six years earlier, in the fall of 1992, when their brilliant debut album Gordon started getting airplay on college radio in Western Massachusetts. Amidst the clenched-jaw rock singers of the day, Gordon was a breath of fresh air: a harmony-rich, mostly acoustic, wildly inventive goof of a record, with sardonic tributes to Brian Wilson and Yoko Ono and a song on which an overnight millionaire asks his girlfriend, "Haven't you always wanted a monkey?" Being a sardonic goofball myself, I was hooked.

Over their next two albums, Maybe You Should Drive and Born on a Pirate Ship, BNL matured --a little, at least-- and developed a more conventional pop-rock sound. Their songs remained goofy, but in less over-the-top ways; instead of busting out Yoko Ono impersonations, now they were likelier to poke fun at proto-hipsters ("Alternative Girlfriend") or write drolly ambivalent love songs like "Intermittently" (as in, "I love you intermittently," which perfectly described both sides of every relationship I had in college).

Then came their fourth album, 1998's Stunt, and that infamous lead single, "One Week." When I first heard "One Week" on Top 40 radio, I was psyched that my scrappy little pet Canadian band finally had a Stateside hit. It honestly never occurred to me that Ed Robertson's geeky, motormouthed rhymes would make him the most hated white rapper this side of Fred Durst. I just thought, "Good for those guys!"

But of course the backlash ensued. Rolling Stone dismissed "One Week" as "Gap rap," I guess because "Gap" rhymes with "rap" and, you know, only white people shop there. NME called Stunt "good old-fashioned horrible," while the L.A. Times dismissed it as "Top 40 pop fodder." And pretty much everyone started calling BNL a "novelty act," which is almost worse than calling them "Gap rap."

I get why people hate "One Week." If it's all you know of BNL, then they're just a bunch of smirking Canadians with a dumb name who think vanilla is the finest of the flavors. (You have to admit, though: Ed's got some skills.) And trust me, I hated every single person rapping along to "One Week" in that car commercial as much as you did. Around that time, those people started showing up at Barenaked concerts and incessantly taking pictures of each other during every song that wasn't "One Week."

Unfortunately, after 2000's Maroon--arguably BNL's best album next to Gordon--they really started losing their touch. They released a Christmas album and a children's album. Lead singer Steven Page got busted for cocaine possession and left the band. So now Ed is the primary singer, and although I'll always have a soft spot for Ed, his non-rapping songs were never as interesting as Steven's. Steven gave the band a bit of an edge, even at their goofiest. His best songs, like "This Is Where It Ends," a gorgeous little tune that's either about suicide or going off your meds, (or both), were always deceptively dark underneath all the humor and pop hooks.

So what I'm saying, basically, is hate on "One Week" all you want--but know that in their heyday, Barenaked Ladies were as clever and inspired as any of the so-called "cooler" acts of that era with a similar silly streak (i.e. Beck, Cake, Cracker). Also, know that their accordion player, Kevin Hearn, is Lou Reed's musical director. So they are clearly cooler than haters might think.

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