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We Should All Be Gaga for the Goo Goo Dolls

Phoebe Bridgers isn’t afraid to love cheesy 1990s alt-rock — let’s follow her lead

When singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers — a darling among younger, depressed white people across the nation — promised to cover the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris” if Trump lost the election, we found yet another reason to hope for that outcome. But, politics aside, the choice of song hit a fascinating sweet spot between millennial and Gen Z culture. Bridgers herself, at age 26, seems to thrive on that cusp, drawing fans from both sides of it. All of them lost their minds for “Iris.”

The Zoomers, who eagerly anticipate any and every new track from Bridgers, were thrilled to hear her and fellow songwriter Maggie Rogers harmonize on a beautifully sorrowing, finger-picked guitar duet, firmly in the “Sad Girl” genre that’s proven itself an undeniable force in the Spotify age. If the tune itself sounded familiar, it did so in a strange and distant way — plus, Bridgers and Rogers throw a couple of melodic twists in there. For an elder millennial, however, “Iris” is deeply embedded in musical memory, a song that spent nearly a year on the Billboard charts and all but defines the late-90s alternative rock crossover hit. Featured in City of Angels, a cornier American adaptation of a Wim Winders film, in which Nic Cage plays an angel who falls in love with a mortal Meg Ryan, “Iris” also gained blockbuster fantasy romance vibes.

Because it remains the Goo Goo Dolls’ biggest, most recognizable hit, it’s easy to forget that the band had a long and interesting career — both before and after. In fact, for those who’d come up on their college radio-friendly, pop-punk, lo-fi sound, it cemented a disappointing transition to commercial sellouts that began with the success of the single “Name” on 1995’s A Boy Named Goo. With their new sheen and frontman Johnny Rzeznik’s jewelry-and-feathered-hair aesthetic, they made a fine staple of movies and especially teen-oriented TV shows like Dawson’s Creek, Charmed, Beverly Hills 90210 and 7th Heaven, where they occasionally appeared as themselves. The price for this exposure was that they were now a kind of corporate shorthand for cool, which, as everyone knows, is deeply uncool. Together with their off-putting moniker (Rzeznik came up with it quickly in the mid-1980s, when they needed one for a gig that night, and has said, “If I had five more minutes, I definitely would have picked a better name”), the soaring adult-contemporary vibe of “Iris” and similar output felt schmaltzy. Or, you could say, like “goo.”

In other words, you probably didn’t want your friends to catch you listening to the Goos, especially if you’d invested in a musical identity that shied away from Top 40 stuff. On paper, then, it could look as if Bridgers and Rogers are rehabilitating the group’s image, and mining the comedy of rescuing an overplayed 1998 hit from its chiming bombast with a stripped-down version. Except I’ll bet, knowing what wonderful musicians they are, that there was nothing but respect in this choice — that they knew, perhaps better than any casual listener, how good the bones of the song really are, with its unusual tuning and shifted time signatures. And “Iris” came, Rzeznik says, after a long struggle with writer’s block, brought on by the pressure to top “Name.” It is the major breakthrough that followed a smaller one, and also, a bittersweet ode to the band you can no longer be. They’d already been recording and touring together for a decade, and some new, broader horizon was hardly guaranteed. Then, suddenly, they were megastars.

But even then, they were still happy to play a huge free hometown concert — in a torrential rainstorm:

When the industry made “alternative” bands like the Goo Goo Dolls, Matchbox Twenty and Third Eye Blind into a profitable mainstream trend, they set them up to be the big, bland acts against which the blog-favorite upstarts of the early aughts felt edgy and experimental. Pitchfork appears to have reviewed none of the Goos’ albums, even retrospectively; they did, however, write up the Bridgers/Rogers cover and another, of “Name,” by the indie band Real Estate, earlier this year. It’s almost as if the distance of nostalgia has allowed artists and critics alike to admit that they secretly still admire the clean and semi-cheesy guitar pop that was everywhere at the very dawn of digitized music — MP3s, Napster, iTunes and the rest of that revolution.

You couldn’t ask for better ambassadors to this period than the Goo Goo Dolls, who have endured another 20 years, never trying to be anything but purveyors of huge, catchy hooks. If this is their renaissance, they deserve it. A new Christmas album? Don’t mind if I do. My Spotify activity is public, and I’m jamming “Indestructible,” the lead track from their 2019 record, Miracle Pill. It is uplifting, normie bliss. Might go for a run later with this on repeat. Why not? I’m 35 fucking years old, and I want to rock out like the aging white dweeb I am.

Thank you, kings.