Article Thumbnail

MAGA Mark McGrath Reminds Us Smash Mouth Is on the Right Side of History

Two similar 1990s bands took very different paths in the 21st century

President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort was the venue for a New Year’s Eve celebration packed only with people you’d want to spend the whole night avoiding: Rudy Giuliani, Charlie Kirk and — wow, look at that, Mark McGrath of alternative rock band Sugar Ray. 

Now, McGrath had never been an explicitly anti-Trump guy. He competed (and lost) on The Celebrity Apprentice, and once Trump was elected president, he offered the most tepid criticism imaginable, saying: “The rhetoric I saw him using during the campaign is not the Trump I knew, you know? He was always a gentleman; he was always kind.” Whatever his reservations in 2016, though, McGrath was willing to let his personal impression of the man guide his thinking: “My experience with Trump has always been positive, so, you know, he’s president and let’s hope for the best.” Love that optimism.

Cut to three years later — after a period of American decay that I wouldn’t call “best” or even “acceptable,” with rollbacks of human rights and a spike in hate crimes — and McGrath is happy to ring in 2020 at Trump’s mayonnaise palace. Hard to show up at this party without tacitly endorsing brown kids in cages and white nationalism, right? Not to mention the guy’s been impeached. Little room for doubt, anymore, as to what kind of regime we’re living under. The “just give him a chance” ship sailed long ago, and so, McGrath takes his place among the MAGA shit-tier celebs. Say hi to Vanilla Ice, bro.

And yet, while the garbage politics of McGrath are wholly unsurprising given his current reputation as the guy who will gladly accept cash to record a video in which he dumps your boyfriend for you, it also throws into stark relief the majesty of a band that were very much colleagues of Sugar Ray. While McGrath’s outfit formed in Newport Beach, California, they emerged in San Jose, to the north of the state. Both groups found success in the 1990s with guitar-forward pop singles that showed traces of the West Coast ska sound. At one point, they were going to play a four-day festival on a cruise ship together (sadly, this never came to pass).

The other band? Smash Mouth.

Smash Mouth have had their struggles in the past decade. A 2015 lowlight was this video of lead singer Steve Harwell losing his mind at a Colorado crowd that threw bread at him during a set. On Twitter, they fought desperately against the youth who consider them “the Shrek band” due to that movie’s inclusion of their hit song “All Star.” But along the way, a funny thing happened. Not only did we start to respect Smash Mouth for their karaoke-ready music, frozen-in-time sense of fashion and undyingly earnest pride in each — they also proved themselves to be outright progressive.

Besides advocating for eating pussy, Smash Mouth have posted in support of trans rights, dismissed the concept of a “straight pride parade” and blasted police for arresting an NFL player on a charge of marijuana possession. It rules.  

What’s more, they’ve ascended from band-as-punchline to a band that can lean into the joke. A popular conspiracy theory, for example, has it that Harwell is actually Guy Fieri, the California chef and Food Network host whose frosted tips and flame-patterned shirts are an exact match for the Smash Mouth frontman’s visual aesthetic. Another performer whose star has faded might have rankled at the comparison to the pudgy inventor of “donkey sauce,” but in fact, Harwell and Fieri are longtime friends and collaborators, and better still, Harwell now appears to delight in sharing photographic “evidence” that they are not one and the same dude.

Embracing or encouraging the dumb meme about yourself is a king move, and it’s not always a simple one; Mark McGrath last summer tried to spin his infamous meltdown over being called “Sugar Gay” into a pro-LGBT statement, one sort of undercut by his support for a decidedly anti-gay administration.  

Good and evil. Darkness and light. Chill and wack. In the 1990s, you could be forgiven for mixing up Sugar Ray and Smash Mouth, two Top 40 radio acts that telegraphed a suburban swagger beloved by white kids — my CD collection at the time said as much. History doesn’t stand still, however. Or, to quote Smash Mouth: The years start coming and they don’t stop coming. Good on Harwell and crew for living true to their own wisdom while chumps like McGrath eat country club wedge salad with the rich ghouls trying to implement an ethno-state. One has to be ready for what comes next, willing to learn about and challenge injustice. Otherwise, you might as well be walking on the sun.