How Hootie and the Blowfish Popped the 90s Pop Music BubblePosted: May 17, 2012
“What is it about Hootie and the Blowfish that appeals to so many people? The answer was that Hootie, a plain-looking, sports-loving, innocuous band that even a mother could love, fit society’s definition of normal. Today, the question about Hootie is, How long will it appeal to so many people?” Neil Strauss, New York Times, August 1, 1996
Darius Rucker is a country music star these days. He’s two albums into the gig, working on a third and setting out on tour with the most successful young trio in the industry, Lady Antebellum. He can keep showing up at the ACMs all he wants, he will never escape where he came from: a college band born and bred in Columbia, South Carolina called Hootie and the Blowfish.
It was a magical time, known to you and me as the mid-90s. Radio was still fairly diverse. You bought your music from brick-and-mortar locations like Sam Goody’s, Coconuts, Tower Records, Newbury Comics or Wherehouse. If your parents were really cool, you ordered from a CD Club which promised those first 12 CDs for the price of one before you had to order a year’s worth at full price (these somehow still exist, but, unfortunately, they are no longer accepting registrations). The case of CDs you had in the back seat of the Jetta was part personal archive, part conversation starter and, on occasion, used to impress your date after the 7 p.m. showing of Titanic.
Our specific history lesson picks up part of the way into the tale in June 1996. That was when Hootie and the Blowfish’s two-year old album Cracked Rear View received its 14th Platinum certification – earning it honors as the second highest selling debut album at the time. There is rarely a situation that a Wayne’s World quote is not applicable, and I paraphrase from the sequel for the topic at hand, “[Cracked Rear View]? Everybody in the world had [Cracked Rear View]. If you lived in the suburbs you were issued it. It came in the mail with samples of Tide.” The album still reigns in the top 15 of all-time North American record sales.
There really could be nothing more descriptive of the 90s CD-club culture than the Atlantic Records-pressed disc. Supporting the album were four singles that received pretty significant airtime on alternative, college rock, indie and Top 40 radio. By mentioning the song titles (Hold My Hand, Let Her Cry, Time, and, of course, Only Wanna Be With You), you will be stuck hearing them in your head for the rest of the day. Three hit at least 10 on the Billboard Hot 100, with Only Wanna Be With You spending about four months hovering around 6th or 7th. Beyond radio play and in a world without other ways of acquiring music, if you wanted to hear Hootie’s “tribute” to Bob Dylan (that they had to settle out of court about), the solution was that field trip to the $15-a-pop record store or making it one of your monthly CD club choices.
Success bred success for Hootie et al, which was then followed by saturation and even hatred. With killer sales of Cracked Rear View (they were still topping 40,000 copies a week), the group churned out another cut, the sophomore effort Fairweather Johnson, released that same spring of the 14th certification. You can’t name a song off of the disc even though it passed 1,000,000 sold within the first four weeks and was #1 at release on Billboard’s 200. That album was certified triple platinum about two years after its release. For comparison’s sake, that was only four months longer to reach 3,000,000 album copies than Lady Gaga’s debut The Fame. Digest that for a second.
If you’re scoring at home, that means we purchased some 17 million copies of Hootie albums through 1998, when the third part of the Blowfish discography, Musical Chairs, hit shelves. If you can’t name a track on FJ, I would be shocked if you could name the single that got some courtesy play on the cookie-cutter, post-radio-deregulation “Mix” station (It was “I Will Wait”). Somehow, that album, too, went on to go platinum. The stats at the end of the decade: three albums, 20 million copies floating around jewel cases in the United States of America that have long gathered dust.
The last we heard of H&tB was one more Atlantic Records release in 2000 (the cover-driven Scattered, Smothered and Covered, which makes me want Waffle House more than want to listen to it) and a “one last thing before I go country” disc in 2005 from the smaller Vanguard label (Looking for Lucky). Neither performed well.
Part 2 is here, which, among other things is timely because of the news that Boston’s independent WFNX got sold to a major broadcasting group.