A product of the early aughts, my childhood was a heady mix of Razor scooters, Gushers gummies, and Smash Mouth on repeat. That lightly psychedelic ska-rock was the soundtrack to some of my most gleeful and giggle-studded moments, starting around age 5 or 6 in the backseat of my parents’ Subaru. The impact of Smash Mouth on my generation of kids, who grew up zealously spitting every lyric to “All Star,” is being revisited with the death of the band’s lead singer, Steve Harwell, who succumbed to acute liver failure Monday at the age of 56, the band’s manager confirmed to The New York Times.
Smash Mouth originated in San Jose, Calif., and landed on the scene in 1997, two years after I was born, with their breakout album “Fush Yu Mang.” The band’s illustrious career — which included a Grammy nod and inclusion in the soundtrack of Oscar-winning animated film “Shrek,” for which Smash Mouth’s “All Star” was the theme song — was revived in the internet era, when the band’s aesthetic and discography became the obsession of meme-makers worldwide. Meme kings and queens knighted Harwell as the Guy Fieri of pop music, in tribute to another overly earnest backyard-BBQ type who famously overuses the hair gel. The meme-ification of Smash Mouth was something the band occasionally resisted but mostly leaned into, with Fieri and Harwell (real-life friends) posting pictures together to “prove” they were not, in fact, the same person, a conspiracy theory lightly pushed by some of the internet’s more chaotic denizens.
In my own life, Smash Mouth is shorthand for childlike joy. Their music is an invitation to see life through Harwell’s boxy, rose-colored sunglasses — the beer-in-hand (or for kids of a certain generation, Capri-Sun-in-hand) anthems of suburbia. Harwell was to elementary schoolers what Jimmy Buffett, who died Friday, was to many of their dads.
Smash Mouth played one of the first concerts my family went to see in California, after we’d moved to San Diego for my dad’s job in 2001. We’d left behind our lives in Connecticut, and everything we knew about seasons and deciduous trees, to head west — to the land of perpetual sunshine and flip flops. Our true assimilation to California culture began in those plastic stadium seats, belting out “Holiday in My Head,” the Smash Mouth cover of the Monkees’ “I’m A Believer,” and, of course, “All Star.”
I have a memory of listening to one of the band’s early hits, “Walkin’ on the Sun,” while looking out the window of the bedroom my brother and I shared at our grandparents’ farm in Ontario. We would visit for a week each summer and do fun, kid things like swim in the Georgian Bay, ride ponies at the town flea market, and help our grandma collect eggs from the chicken coop for breakfast. In the early years of farm visits, my brother and I would play songs on our sleek, portable CD players, until we graduated to the even sleeker iPod minis.
Like many younger siblings, I idolized my older brother and wanted to be just like him. He would listen to the deep cuts on “Get the Picture” and “Astro Lounge” and I would follow suit. Songs like “Always Gets Her Way” and “Radio” still teleport me back to those summer nights, when we would lie awake in the dark after everyone else had gone to bed and whisper to each other from across the room, trying to come up with the most spectacular layout for our dream house or hotel, until one or both of us fell asleep. My brother’s imaginary houses always had indoor water slides — something perfectly outrageous that likely would have been Steve Harwell–approved.
And while Smash Mouth has certainly been the butt of many an internet joke, I earnestly loved their records. “Get the Picture,” released in 2003, was one of my most listened-to albums in elementary school, as the world and I made the transition from CDs to iPods, records to playlists.
Though they’ve long been beloved by the pre-teen set, Smash Mouth isn’t a kiddie band, per se. (I recently discovered they have a song titled “Sorry About Your Penis,” one I somehow missed in elementary school.) But their deeply charismatic music and persona lit up the worlds of so many kids my age who fell in love with Shrek and Fiona and devoured Smash Mouth’s highly saturated fish-eye music videos, which delivered carefree vibes in a package slightly different from their contemporaries — less punk than Blink 182 and quirkier than Sugar Ray.
Everything about Smash Mouth in those days said “don’t take us too seriously,” from their pencil-thin goatees to their statement sunglasses and their head-scratcher of a band name. It always felt like Harwell and the boys could just as easily be found grilling a pack of frozen Bubba burgers at the local park — unironically sporting socks and sandals and puka shell necklaces — as they could selling out arenas across the world. They didn’t look like the rock stars of days gone by. They occupied a new category, one that was distinctly ‘90s-aughts, electrified by the seemingly endless possibilities of the future ahead.
In recent years, the band has had its highs and lows. Smash Mouth has been active on social media, engaging with the meme crowd and also taking strong stances on various social issues, especially in support of LGBTQ+ causes. But one of Harwell’s final live performances came to an unfortunate end in 2021, when he slurred through the set and cursed at concert-goers. His reps told the New York Post at the time that the erratic behavior was “directly linked” to his “long-term medical issues” including cardiomyopathy and acute Wernicke encephalopathy, which impaired his motor functions.
In truth, whether or not Smash Mouth or Harwell were the perfect role models was never all that relevant. It may very well not have been Harwell’s intention for his music to be played at every fifth-grade birthday party from 2003 until the end of time. But regardless, his legacy is wrapped up in the sheer delight of childhood and the promise of the early 2000s — the equivalent of fearlessly careening down a hill on a Razor scooter, feeling invincible, and knowing, intrinsically, that only shooting stars break the mold.