The Diamond
Hootie and the Blowfish - Cracked Rear View

the Diamond is an apt name for albums certified for 10 million + sales by the Recording Industry Association of America. The hardest substance on earth: insoluble, impervious to penetration, secure in itself. "The formation of natural diamond requires very specific conditions," Wikipedia says. The aim of this feature is to define what made Cracked Rear View, Come On Over, Boston and The Lion King soundtrack not just sales benchmarks of their respective artists' careers, but inexplicable loci at which shrewd marketing and the inscrutability of mass market taste met to produce high-quality entertainment no one breathing could escape. This column will also study why artistic peaks like Rumours, Born in the U.S.A., Thriller, Can't Slow Down, and Hysteria deserved their sales. Each entry in this series will pose the question: why should we separate art from commerce?

Hootie and the Blowfish’s debut album, Cracked Rear View, has sold over 16 million copies in this country to date.

Let that sink in for a moment. Bruce Springsteen has never sold that many copies of a single album in the United States. Neither has Aerosmith or Prince or U2. The best-selling Rolling Stones studio album in the U.S. is Some Girls, and it’s sold ten million fewer copies than Hootie’s inaugural effort.

Scanning the upper echelons of the all-time best-selling albums list, you won’t find a more unassuming, improbable name than Hootie’s, and chances are rather excellent that you never will. Sure, Boston shouldn’t have outsold those above-mentioned artists either, but they also revolutionized studio craft and remain an acknowledged classic-rock warhorse. And yes, Alanis Morissette also moved a shit-ton of units in the mid-90s only to fizzle out by decade’s end, but at least she posed an arresting, kinetic persona and earned widespread critical acclaim.

And then there’s Hootie and the Blowfish, a scruffily unprepossessing, seemingly unambitious four-piece from the thoroughly unsexy environs of Columbia, SC, who slapped together a dozen thick ‘n’ friendly frat-pop tunes that somehow ended up kicking Purple Rain’s everloving ass.

Granted, Cracked Rear View wasn’t some piece of four-track hackwork, not with former Mellencamp and R.E.M. producer Don Gehman behind the boards. And these were some undeniably sturdy tunes (more on that later). Nonetheless, Hootie’s stratospheric success stands as perhaps the most extraordinary instance of an artist perfectly stumbling onto its cultural Zeitgeist in all of rock history. It may be remarkable that this particular bunch of goofily earnest golf enthusiasts so resoundingly conquered Billboard and MTV, but when you look at the mid-90s milieu that sustained their ascent, it doesn’t seem so strange at all that some amiable group of bekhakied drinking buddies would take the world by storm.

So let’s think about 1994 and ’95, the year Cracked Rear View was released and the year it outsold every other record in America, respectively. Clinton years. The PC era. A country that wasn’t mired in a morass in Iraq, and hence had the time and relative prosperity to feel guilty about things like being white and male. Culturally, the pulse of the period was perhaps most accurately taken by TV’s "Friends"—genial, self-absorbed, complacent (don’t underestimate the "Friends”-Hootie connection by the way—one landmark episode involved the gang attending a Blowfish show, and just out of sheer milquetoast kinship the two phenomena deserve to be inextricably linked).

By the same token, we didn’t need hedonistic, blindly blissful music to help us tune out a war or national tragedy or a moribund economy. Absent those elements, we likewise didn’t need calls-to-arms to rile us up or caustic cynics to cut our villains to shreds. We were sensitive, cocooned, and self-involved (or maybe I just felt that way because I was 14), and needed someone to reflect our emotive soft-touch tendencies while gently reminding us about all the not-so-nice stuff going on outside our own navels—the stuff we’d no doubt get around to fixing as soon as we resolved our Mommy issues.

Of course, the first musical manifestation of this prevailing mood was grunge, which was loud, humorless, equality-minded, and sad. But couldn’t we be sensitive and socially well-meaning without being quite so loud and sad?

Here’s where Hootie enters the picture. A band that had the requisite messy feelings and social conscience but chose to clothe its emoting not in flannel and dropped Ds, but rather in rootsy guitar-pop and convivially beery vocals. And the lead singer was black! Everyone can enjoy that!

Hootie and the Blowfish’s genius lay in the fact that it made plenty of breezily enjoyable radio pop but also (thanks primarily to Darius Rucker’s earnest baritone) managed to signify things like "soul" and "authenticity" and “social concern” in order to attract older listeners and the entrenched likes of Rolling Stone. The hooks were plenty good enough to snare even half-interested listeners, while those who genuinely lent an ear could also readily be heartened by the group’s displeasure at the Confederate flag in "Drowning" as well as its concerns over gang warfare in "Time."

More than anything, even in a decade where seemingly everyone was wearing his solipsistic heart on his sleeve, these guys were especially emotional. Rucker talks about either himself or someone else crying non-fucking-stop throughout Cracked Rear View, whether it’s the comparatively manful confession that "the Dolphins make me cry" on "Only Wanna Be with You" or the admission "cried myself to sleep last night" on "I’m Going Home." Or perhaps you prefer "every time I see you it makes me wanna cry" from "Running From an Angel," or maybe the simple "you left me crying" on "Time." Or the whole of "Let Her Cry" for that matter.

What prevented all this sharing and caring from drifting off into either proto-emo preciousness or plain hippie blather was Hootie’s punchy, immaculately deployed sound, as heard on deathless radio staples like "Only Wanna Be with You" and "Let Her Cry" as well as satisfying non-radio cuts like "Hannah Jane" and "Running From an Angel."

That said, Cracked Rear View is miles from being a classic, and really just pleasantly listenable on its best day. From where I sit right now though, I can acknowledge there are at least some agreeable tunes here, and ultimately the main thing keeping me from enjoying the record thoroughly (OK, maybe aside from the touchy-feely lyrics) may just be Rucker’s set of straining, consciously gritty pipes.

Of course, I wasn’t always so charitable. One of the main reasons I was so interested in investigating the Hootie phenomenon was due to what a lightning rod they were in my high school when I was in 9th and 10th grade. I had been a grunge kid, but as its popularity began to flag I started turning towards slightly more unconventional fare (PJ Harvey, Sonic Youth, etc.). To my increasingly arty, pop-phobic tastes, Hootie was anathema. Liking or disliking the band became an absolute badge of identity, at least to my own grubby little circle of friends who were most certainly not drinking the Blowfish kool-aid.

Clearly I was in the minority then, but history's borne out my teenage assessment of Hootie and the Blowfish as vacuous, flash-in-the-pan crap. Funny enough, now that Hootie's ignominious status is secure (their albums cheaper than blank tape, as Chief Wiggum once observed), I've softened somewhat on their collegial, uncomplicated sound. Though it still doesn't mean they're off the hook for outselling Born in the U.S.A.

By: Josh Love
Published on: 2007-09-25
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