CONFESSIONS OF A ’90s SURVIVOR
Santana (feat. Rob Thomas) – Smooth
I can remember the first time I heard “Smooth.” It was early in the summer of 1999, and my family was making its way north from the Chicago suburbs to our cottage in Wisconsin’s north woods. We never really listened to radio on these trips — mostly because in driving long distances, we were only able to hold onto a station for 45 minutes to an hour, but moreso because my sister and I always prepared for road trips by carrying with us a host of cassettes or CDs to dissuade my father from resorting to his Steely Dan or Jethro Tull compilations. Although my opinion on the Dan has grown more favorable as I’ve aged, I still don’t like Tull. It’s just the way it is.
Anyway, I had been sleeping for a few hours of the journey, but somewhere around Oshkosh, I woke up and surveyed the area to determine where we were and how much further we had to go. Seeing we were in Oshkosh was a disappointment. Sure, it was pretty much the halfway point for the journey, but it still meant another two to three hours until we reached our destination.
I think the real reason I woke up is because I heard my dad eject my sister’s cassette from the car’s player, and relieved at the thought of not having to endure an hour’s worth of Janet Jackson singles, I started flipping through my traveling music library. In the meantime, the radio played this Latin-sounding track with a somewhat dark undertone to it. My ears perked up when the song came to the “And if you said this life ain’t good enough…” bridge. I love a good bridge. Always have. Hardest part of the song to master, I think, so if you can muster a good one, you almost immediately have my respect.
Nevertheless, the radio was kind of crackly, so I wasn’t able to put my finger on the voice singing the song. Not interested in waiting through another few songs to hear the DJ reveal the artist’s identity, I reached for a Paul Weller CD and handed it up to my dad.
If I’d only waited. You see, I’d spent the previous two years uncertain of a lot of things in my life (I was a teenager, after all), but one thing I was absolutely sure of was the fact that I hate, HATE, HATED Matchbox 20. I hated their name, I hated every note I heard from them since I first listened to “Push,” I hated their look, I hated their unceremonious aspirations to sound middle of the road, and I pinned everything on the slightly psychotic looking Rob Thomas.
I also hated the fact that the girl I was dating at the time loved them.
What this meant was that anytime “Push,” “3 a.m.” or “Real World” poured forth from the radio or MTV, I turned to whoever else was in the room or immediate vicinity and began a pointed diatribe about why Matchbox 20 was precisely wrong with music in this day and age.
When I returned home after the week long trip up north, I was hanging out with some friends and “Smooth” came on the radio.
“Ah!” I exclaimed. “I heard this one on the radio last week. This is a good tune!”
“I thought you hated this guy, Paul?” one of my friends said.
“How could I hate this guy? I just heard this song the other day. I don’t even know who it is.”
“It’s Rob Thomas.”
Bad enough to openly admit I dug something associated with Rob Thomas, the song proceeded to climb to unbelievable heights in the pop music stratosphere and pretty much establish itself as the dominating force on radio, television and in the general public consciousness for the next four months. Every time the video showed up on MTV or VH1, it was like a recurring kick in my gut. It’s not that my friends pointed and laughed at me for admitting I liked it — hell, everyone liked the song. It was just that I had to live with myself for admitting I liked something associated with Rob Thomas (and worse still, continuing to enjoy the song, albeit on a far lesser level). Rob Thomas. That goofy idiot in the video alternating between a completely superfluous cowboy hat and pulling ridiculous faces during an impromptu street performance in Spanish Harlem that somehow inspires everyone to go out and dance on black asphalt despite the obviously sweltering heat. That Rob Thomas…
Of course, “Smooth” wasn’t really about Rob, despite the fact that he co-wrote it. The song and it’s popularity had a lot more to do with Carlos Santana and the groundwork laid up to that point endearing American audiences to Latino music.
Sure Marc Anthony had had some success. Enrique Iglesias enjoyed even more. And Ricky Martin? Forget about it. But while “Livin’ La Vida Loca” can still bring back nauseating memories for many a white man unable to dance, the Ricky Martin album had nothing on Santana’s Supernatural.
Featuring not only a collaboration with Thomas, but also “duets” with Everlast, Dave Matthews, Wyclef, Lauryn Hill and Eagle-Eye Cherry, the album was a veritable celebration of ’90s music at large. What’s more, it prompted the same enthusiastic response from people who’d loved “Black Magic Woman” 20-odd years prior and were now parents to the budding Dave Matthews and Matchbox 20 superfans.
Finally! An album that could bring the two generations together! Sure, talk about safe sex was still too difficult of a subject to broach and lord only knew why junior decided to dye his hair blue and then cut it like that, but he liked Santana! Just like his old man did all those years before!
To give you an idea of just how inescapably huge this album was, my Spanish teacher that year actually played it in class while we did workbook assignments. First off, this guy was a football coach and one of the most intimidating physical presences of any of the staff Willowbrook High School. Second off, he seemed to not like anyone enjoying themselves in his class if they weren’t able to conjugate irregular verbs. He actually once made an example of me in class because I was having difficulty with the present participle.
“You mad that I’m singling you out in front of everybody, niño?” he asked.
“I, I–” I stammered, not so much mad as just hoping to hell one of my classmates would raise their hand and say the right goddamn form of the verb.
“I don’t need more friends, niño,” he continued. “I have enough.”
OK, that kind of bothered me. Not that I wanted to be his friend, but that was just an arrogant thing to say.
Yet there he was playing Santana, and not minding the fact that all the girls in his class were grooving in their seats to “Maria, Maria” and “Smooth” while all a bunch of idiot boys professed their undying admiration for Everlast during “Put Your Lights On.”
The thing I found ironic about all of it is that despite the much ballyhooed Latin explosion of the late 1990s, all it really amounted to was a momentary appreciation of Latin rhythms and a handful of artists of Latin descent. “Bailamos” had a Spanish title, but English lyrics, and at the end of the day, it was just a sappy a piece of crap as “My Heart Will Go On.” “Livin’ La Vida Loca” had a Spanish title, but simplistic English lyrics about a crazy girl that could have been cribbed from any old blues song. Supernatural became a phenomenon, but people only really paid attention to the songs sang by white boys or hip hop artists.
Which, all added up, only makes me that much more blown away by the success of “La Bamba” in the 1950s, for God’s sake.
But the song’s biggest redeeming quality (aside from that killer bridge) is that it started to break Matchbox 20’s back. Even the band’s biggest singles prior to “Smooth” proved not to be a patch on the track’s popularity, and sure, they had a few hits afterward — “Bent” and “Unwell” come to mind — but again, nothing on par with the impact of “Smooth.”
I’ll be honest, I still laugh very hard to myself thinking about the band’s bassist watching the video for “Smooth” for 300th time in 1999 and bitterly muttering, “F*cker…” as he wonders to himself why Rob couldn’t just have saved that idea for the band.
As it went with so many hits of the 1990s, the continual audio and visual bombardment ended up testing too many people’s patience. Teenagers went back to their Fatboy Slim CDs and dyed their hair different colors. Their parents went back to their Carly Simon and Steely Dan records and wondered if junior’s continual need to change his hair color might necessitate a prescription for Ritalin, if not Prozac.
But hearing the song again is kind of refreshing 10 years later. Even if it does make me have to face Rob again. I tell you, if it weren’t for that bridge…