We may not all remember it, but most people are at least aware that for a brief time in the ‘90s, Ska was a commercially viable genre. The Jamaican-rooted two-tone that was developed in the United States by the likes of the Toasters in the 1980s saw a rare light of fairly high public popularity, spearheaded by bands like Reel Big Fish and No Doubt.
The question that most people ask, is what happened? Most people asking this either aren’t paying attention to all the music still out there or are people that genuinely enjoy and regularly listen to ska, not understanding why it has not held widespread popularity. Bands like Streetlight Manifesto, The Slackers, the familiar Reel Big Fish tour, Suburban Legends, Big D and the Kids Table, not to mention a slew of new and lesser known ska bands are still around and well enough. I am pretty sure I even heard a Sloop John B cover by Me First and the Gimme Gimmes in Wolf of Wall Street the other day.
So ska never did really die, it just went underground—but something did happen to it that pulled it from the sphere of profitable, popular, trendy music; in fact I would say about four things did.
One: The 1990s produced a lot of silly movies; and then they ended. The lighthearted, goofy nature of these movies often suited ska as a genre. Clueless, BASEketball, Good Burger, 10 Things I Hate About You, and Empire Records were all pretty silly movies, and somehow I don’t think disco, grunge, or the power bands of the ‘80s would have fit in as well.
Two: Bands that started off with ska influences in the ‘90s didn’t stay that way, often developing into harder sounds. For a lot of people, the Flatliners’ Destroy to Create album will always be their best, Rancid has some ska sounds occasionally mixed in their discography due to their Operation Ivy vets Armstrong and Freeman but is more associated with punk, plus the break up of bands like No Doubt didn’t help anything. In certain cases, overexcited record labels trying to pick up young ska bands only to mold them in a slightly different and less-exciting way should also be held at fault.
Three: Let’s take a moment here and actually blame fans. Because let’s be honest, popularity is built on the backs, or rather the unrestrained, illogical fanaticism of preteen and teen girls. Bands based on this age group tend to be transient (see: any boy band of the 1990s or The Spice Girls) but extremely profitable. This genre is still around but the bands themselves are mostly forgotten or only hold nostalgic interest.
Ska’s peak in the United States is viewed as when it was in a bunch of teen movies. Here is where we see a significant similarity in punk and ska music, one that has been partially to thank in saving them both: while some, even many kids and teenagers grow out of their punk/ska phase, there is a large group of people that do not. And perhaps even more importantly, the young kids coming into these genres still go back to the bands of their roots (often bands that ended years before their birth), like the Sex Pistols or The Skankin’ Pickle, or even bands further back like Los Saicos and the Specials or Toots and the Maytals.
Four: It sounds kind of simple, but it is totally true: ska bands have a lot of musicians. I live with a trombone player, some of my friends play sax and trumpet in ska bands; I have even dated a couple of them. Good luck getting nine people together once a week to practice.
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