To get the ball rolling on any good Smash Mouth joke, you need only start with a simple line: “Somebody once told me.” If you’ve ever heard the band’s defining song (who hasn’t?) you know rest of the line, and the line after that, and probably the entire song. It’s infectious.
To get the ball rolling on any good Smash Mouth concert, I’d wager that you would not start with this simple line: Lenovo and Intel-hosted party. But at CES 2017, that’s exactly where I found myself — invited to a bash featuring music from none other than the internet’s second-favorite band to reduce to a punchline. (You know the first.)
Big-name companies partnering with musical artists is sometimes a curiosity, but not a novelty. Tech companies love to lure in guests at events like CES with the promise of drinks and a free show. In the first episode of Silicon Valley, Kid Rock performs all out to an audience of a couple dozen distracted tech nerds. It’s spot on.
What makes the unholy trinity of Lenovo, Intel, and Smash Mouth so interesting is the greater question of who it’s all for. When I got the invitation for the show, I was unsure of which crowd I’d encounter. The event’s tagline — which, hand to heart, included the phrase, “Like a Yoga that effortlessly transforms in seconds from a laptop to a tablet, our dignified daytime meeting space transforms into a can’t-miss party space at night” — did not give me much hope. The party took place at the AquaKnox in The Venetian, a hotel that like all Vegas hotels I’ve been in, is a maze of casinos, clubs, and crowds. People sipped their free drinks. They nabbed appetizers off plates as waiter waltzed by. Few made conversation, though mostly in pairs or small clusters as stage hands prepared for Smash Mouth’s arrival.
Smash Mouth is a band of two generations: the late Gen-Xers who loved them in college, and the millennials who, today, convert the songs into disposable goofs. Smash Mouth lives on in the halls of internet glory, where the band’s social media persona embraces its meme status. You’d expect IRL to see a post-modernist pop act. But an in-person, with an adoring crowd, you get something else: a normal band.
Bassist Paul Delisle recently told Inverse in an interview that “a large percentage of our fans don’t even know what a meme is.” Based on my experience at the show, that’s true. I spent much of my time pre-show walking around and talking to people at the venue, which was overwhelmingly white and male. When I asked if they’d come out of interest in Lenovo or Smash Mouth, almost everyone told me they were there for the band. No one followed Smash Mouth on Twitter or had any idea of their internet legacy.
“We’re old enough to remember them,” one guy told me. Another was equally eager to see them go on, praising the small space for being “intimate.” When lead singer Steve Harwell hit the stage later, he had a similar observation. It was “the smallest stage I’ve ever played on in my life,” he told the crowd. “So small.”
Smash Mouth’s set list, a piece of paper that laid naked on the stage for anyone to find, included the expected list of hits: “Can’t Get Enough,” “Walking on the Sun,” that one song from Shrek, and of course, “All Star.” I realized that I knew an alarming number of Smash Mouth songs.
The excitement in the room peaked and valleyed not unlike the band’s career itself. Few people danced, but many snapped photos. Near the front was a suspiciously young handful of men and women dancing and taking selfies; this was a squad of friendly influencers there at Lenovo’s behest as part of gaming laptop initiatives. After zipping into the second half of the show, the band briefly huddled to talk. Smash Mouth seemed to make a call; several songs spotted on the setlist were never played. They closed out the night with their most well-known — and memed — song, “All Star.” Fans raised their phones in solidarity. One especially eager guy waved a lighter.
If there was a punchline to this entire performance, Smash Mouth wasn’t waiting around to hear it. The band was fast off the stage before the final song had faded off the speakers. They exited AquaKnox as quickly as they arrived, while their fans milled around the restaurant a little longer.
Most of the murmurs I heard about their performance were positive. I felt a little ashamed of my gawking interest in a bunch of people who loved a band from the early ‘90s. Even memes — wonderful, shareable, relatable jokes — can make us cruel. Snark is a sport and the spoils go to whoever snipes the hardest. Sometimes it’s nice to find authentic appreciation where you least expect to find it.
And sometimes it’s helpful to remember you aren’t just a detached internet commentator; you’re a fan.