One of the weird phenomena about getting into your 40s is that you become old enough to watch the stuff that wasn’t cool from your youth suddenly be reappraised by a new generation. (Remember how Friends was a super-popular but lightweight sitcom? Well, now it’s great.) The latest reclamation project could be Hootie & the Blowfish, a band whose name was a punchline in the 1990s — both because of its goofiness and for the middle-of-the-road sound the group mastered. Nevertheless, a Hootie revival has been in the air for a couple years now. This week may have simply helped make it official.
To celebrate Pokémon’s 25th anniversary, Post Malone just released a cover of “Only Wanna Be With You,” the third single off Hootie’s phenomenally successful 1994 debut Cracked Rear View, which is 21-times platinum. “Only Wanna Be With You” remains Hootie’s highest-charting single, and Malone’s version doesn’t significantly alter the original’s musical DNA: It’s still a strummy, earnest ode to true love. The song has zero edge to it.
No doubt the cover will generate newfound interest in the South Carolina band, and Hootie frontman Darius Rucker, who’s apparently good friends with Malone, spoke about how happy he was with the rapper’s take. “It’s awesome to see that a song we wrote almost 30 years ago continues to resonate as it really speaks to the lasting life a song can have when people connect with it,” he told Variety. “I love seeing someone like Post put his own spin on it like he does with everything he records.”
A band like Hootie is ripe for rediscovery. Emerging in the mid-1990s, the quartet flew in the face of the fashionable sounds of the time. They didn’t have the angst of grunge, the S&M of Nine Inch Nails, the danger of gangster rap, the snotty impudence of Green Day or the perfect pop sheen of Mariah Carey. What Hootie had was a complete lack of pretension — they were just ordinary dudes. “We are beer-drinkin’ buddies,” guitarist Mark Bryan said in a 1996 Entertainment Weekly profile. “We’re lucky in that we’ve been successful and all we’ve had to do is be ourselves. And if the perception of that is ‘the revenge of the normal,’ then that’s fine.”
Formed at the University of South Carolina, where Rucker and Bryan met as freshmen, Hootie weren’t alone in championing a regular-guy ethos. Around the same era, no-fuss rock bands like the Wallflowers positioned themselves as modest, tuneful alternatives to alternative rock’s attitude and assaultive guitars. The back-to-basics earnestness of the music — paired with sensitive lyrics about relatable topics such as love and insecurity — gave these groups a sense of authenticity at a time when MTV’s image-conscious branding made other acts seem showbiz-y.
The apogee of this normie movement might very well have been March 31, 1994, when David Letterman suffered through a bratty, profanity-laden appearance from Madonna on Late Show. Posturing and insufferable, the pop superstar represented everything that was self-aggrandizing and shallow about contemporary music — and so, when musical guest Counting Crows came on right after to play their painfully plaintive ballad “Round Here,” the unabashed sincerity felt genuine, not to mention a balm after Madonna’s affectations. Groups like Hootie and Counting Crows were singing about “real” things — they weren’t phonies.
Rucker’s deep, resonant voice — polished where his contemporaries’ were often proudly raw — made the straightforward sentiments in “Hold My Hand,” “Let Her Cry,” “Only Wanna Be With You” and “Time” massive hits. Part of Hootie’s backstory involves the long road they had to travel to get record companies to give them the time of day — who wanted heartfelt, unflashy bar-band music? — but, of course, once Cracked Rear View started getting its hooks into radio, a large swath of normie listeners turned off by edgier new sounds embraced the album’s nostalgic pull like a cozy old sweater. Even the group’s most despondent songs felt reassuring — they wanted you to feel safe in the warm glow of their singalong spirit. There was an inviting earthiness to the material with its R.E.M.-lite guitar jangle and mellow vibes. If the 1990s were a period of aloofness and alienation in alternative rock, then Hootie proved, by contrast, to be friendly and approachable. Like a folksy politician with his sleeves rolled up, this was music you wanted to have a beer with.
Back then, I wasn’t a fan, for all the reasons I mentioned above. Cracked Rear View and its follow-up, 1996’s merely triple-platinum Fairweather Johnson, were too easy-listening — too good-time likeable — to take seriously. Didn’t these guys understand that great music wasn’t ingratiating? The sign of a true artist was someone who challenged the system, not someone who makes nice. Especially in an era in which Nirvana railed against selling out, Hootie epitomized safe corporate rock. Rucker’s melodies were crowd-pleasing at a time when hip musicians were largely contemptuous of such a stance. The fact that everybody loved them made me kinda hate them. As music critic Robert Christgau put it back then, “Hootie’s demographic sweep insures an amorphous, casual, passive audience.” This backwards-hat-wearing roots-rock wasn’t for me. I wanted to be engaged and riveted by what I was hearing — music wasn’t meant to be pretty wallpaper.
But, of course, lots of people enjoy the aural equivalent of pretty wallpaper — folks have busy, stressful lives, and a lilting tune like “Time” can be soothing when you’re suffering through a bad day. That’s as true now as it was in the 1990s, but what’s different today is the attitude around what’s considered “respectable” musical art. In the past few decades, poptimism has become so ingrained in our culture that artists who, a generation ago, might have been dismissed are now taken seriously for their pop chops. (It’s a sign of societal progress that we properly appreciate Taylor Swift for her genius — although I’m not sure that would have been true if she’d come up in the age of grunge and Mariah.) As a result, things that are popular are no longer automatically viewed with suspicion — hence, the uncomplicated love younger viewers have for Friends. Millennials and Gen Z don’t have to be burdened by questions of artists “selling out”: They can just like Hootie because they’re catchy.
Of late, even established critics have been imploring us to reconsider Hootie. Two years ago, the New York Times’ Jon Caramanica made the case in a convincingly argued profile titled “Hootie & the Blowfish, Great American Rock Band (Yes, Really).” In the piece, he explains their dilemma succinctly: “Hootie has hovered in a critical no man’s land for decades — not a cause célèbre for progressive young thinkers, not outré enough in its day enough to merit reassessment. Especially in the 1990s, when subculture was brand, Hootie’s evident (but misleading) plainness was a team no one wanted to bat for. (There was also the dismal, unforgettable name, an amalgam of two college friends’ nicknames. A residue nothing could wash off.)”
And Caramanica reminds us that Cracked Rear View wasn’t as milquetoast as people think, pointing out that Rucker wrote a song, “Drowning,” that condemned the South decades before our current drive to remove symbols of the Confederacy: “Why is there a rebel flag hanging from the statehouse walls? / Tired of hearin’ this shit about ‘heritage not hate.’” Never forget that, no matter how easygoing this quartet’s music was, they were fronted by a Black man who grew up in the South: Almost all prominent rock bands of the era were predominantly white, and no doubt the amount of racism he experienced at the height of Hootie’s popularity must have been excruciating. (The success he’s gone on to have as a solo country artist is equally remarkable considering that genre’s similar lack of diversity.)
So, there’s definitely reason to give Hootie their props, even if their music is merely blandly pleasant. Hearing Post Malone’s version of “Only Wanna Be With You,” I was reminded all over again how hopelessly corny Hootie & the Blowfish were. (After a long hiatus, the group actually reformed to release 2019’s Imperfect Circle, a fresh new slate of inoffensive, kickback beach tunes) But, like back in the 1990s, a big audience exists that craves Hootie’s brand of comforting corniness: After all, contemporary saps such as Ed Sheeran do very well, and especially in the midst of a pandemic, listeners are flocking to lo-fi YouTube streams as a way to cut down on anxiety. Rucker’s band has more drama and protest in their music than people assume, but its surface sunniness may be just what some folks need right now. Blandly pleasant can be a bit of a relief sometimes.
When I was younger, I sneered at the idea that people dug middle-of-the-road music to feel better. But although I won’t be turning to Hootie anytime soon, it’s clear that they’ve got their niche. When the world starts to look bleak — when the latest cutting-edge music seems scary and weird — Hootie & the Blowfish is the sort of sonic hug that can feel restorative. Just so long as we agree not to give Dave Matthews Band a reassessment, I’m good with it.