10 Years, 100 Songs: #67. “Meet Me in Outer Space…”
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on July 28, 2009
Over the final months of our fine decade, Intensities in Ten Suburbs will be sending the Naughty Oughties out in style with a series of essays devoted to the top 100 songs of the decade–the ones we will most remember as we look back fondly on this period of pop music years down the road. The archives can be found here. If you want to argue about the order, you can’t, because we’re not totally sure what the qualifications are either. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy.
Incubus’s “Pardon Me,” released around the turn of the millennium, is about as good a marker as exists for the point when 90s mainsteram rock ended and 00s mainstream rock began. It carried vague semblances of the previous decade’s sound–mostly from the 311 school of So-Cal hybridization and The Deftones’ emphasis on production and dynamics–but it pushed it into distinctly modern territory, with the atmospheric guiar tones and scratching sounds on the intro, streamlined heavy crunch on the chorus, and trippy, loose bass work throughout the verses. It was a veritable road map for the myriad directions the genre would take over the next few years, indirectly presaging the rise of everyone from Linkin Park to System of a Down to Queens of the Stone Age–even the way Brandon Boyd’s hair looked in the video seemed to provide a template for future generations. It was probably the most important Incubus song, but it wasn’t their best, and it wasn’t the one that ensured their status as one of the decade’s rock superpowers. That would have to be the follow-up, the gorgeous love song “Stellar.”
Hard rock in the late 90s was an almost disgustingly masculine environment. Grunge had been a genre dominated by pissed-off dudes, but its two leading figures–Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain–were avowed feminists, Vedder scribbling “Pro-Choice” on his arm in an MTV Unplugged performance and writing songs on his early albums from the female perspective, and Cobain dating a member of Bikini Kill and rallying against rape in the Incesticide liner notes. Besides that, the gerne had two legitimate heartthrob frontmen in Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell and STP’s Scott Weiland. However, the nu-metal that began to dominate towards the end of the decade offered no place for women at all, catering exclusively to the ids of their young male listeners, and generally casting off women as The Enemy (even the hornier Limp Bizkit songs seemed more violent than anything). And no young lass in their right mind would lust after the dudes from Static-X or Rammstein, or even worse, the KoRn rhythm section. It was kind of fun, being an adolescent male at the time myself, but in retrospect, it was arguably the closest pop music would ever come to a genuine Get Rid of Slimy girlS club.
Enter Brandon Boyd. Dreamy, ripped and of course, perpetually shirtless–those Cali summers really must be ghastly–he alone probably caused more swoons than the rest of popular rock singers from the late 90s did, combined. It wasn’t just the looks that weakened knees, though–with “Stellar,” Boyd showed that he had the power ballad gene in his DNA as well. From that opening line, “Meet me in outer space…” the song is just straight up goofy with naive, gushing sentimentality. Done by a band without the underground cred that Incubus had gained with their early albums, I can’t imagine that they would be able to come out on the other side as a band that hard rock guys would still be OK with liking. But that was the brilliance of Incubus–they were cool and weird and macho enough to serve as the go-to band for most of the potheads in my high school, but sensitive and poppy enough for their girlfriends, too. At a time when rock was at its most sexually segregated, they invited both genders to the party.
And they were good at it, too. “Stellar” may be unflinching in its mash-note puppy love, but it works because it’s because it’s given a musical accompaniment that puts you firmly into that pre-adolescent world of amazement and wonder. “Meet me in outer space” might sound like a fairly sketchy instruction of not for that bendy, fluid, immaculate guitar line played under it. Maybe it’s just me, but I’d think you’d have to be a pretty jaded sort to not be instantly transported back to being eight years old and imagining love as being as magical as that scene in Superman where Christopher Reeve flies Margot Kidder around the city at night. With every ridiculous line (“I’ve grown tired of this place / Won’t you come with me?” “I will hold you close / if you’re afraid of heights”), Boyd just drives this home further and further, but with that rubbery, spacey guitar line going on under it, you just kind of have to give up surrender to the cheesiness. I used to play the song on the original Guitar Hero and feel like I was going to melt during that break in between the first chorus and second verse.
It’d eventually get intolerable, though, if not for the chorus. Quiet / loud was the basic dynamic principle of just about every band that Incubus descended from, so it’s certainly no surprise to see it applied here, as well. Not many songs used it quite as dramatically as “Stellar,” though, where the loudness comes in about two measures earlier than it seems it should, and about twice as loud as you expected. Meanwhile, Boyd summarizes the wide-eyed wonder of the song’s verses in an impressively compact, vague and still somewhat relatable expression of amazement: “How do you do it??? / You make me feel like I do!!!” On the whole, it hits just hard enough to prevent the song from getting overly wimpy, and potentially floating away in its own glazed-over, star-gazing daydreaming. It’s a beautiful thing, especially in the hands of producer-to-the-underground-stars Scott Litt, who came in to help engineer “Stellar” and some other Make Yourself tracks.
With their widespread appeal now confirmed, Incubus was prepped for something that none of the nu-metal crowd had really achieved thusfar–a legitimate pop breakthrough. The mellower, more-accoustic “Drive” went on to be by far the band’s biggest hit, reaching the top ten on the pop charts, despite being by far the least of the three big Make Yourself singles. In any event, the three songs made enough of a lasting impression on modern rock audiences that nobody seemed to mind that the band never approached them in quality again for the rest of the decade, getting more mediocre with each passing year, until the great majority of their catalogue from the second half of the decade just kind of blended together in my head. But for one album at least, and on “Stellar” especially, Incubus seemed a band that really was worthy of forecasting the future of mainstream rock. Not many other bands from that period could had the skill or the desire to make us feel like we did.
(Have any thoughts or rememberances of this song? Want to correct our lyrics or call us out for relying too much on Wikipedia? Please feel free to leave a comment here, or (gulp) Tweet us about it at twitter.com/intensities. Your input is lusted after and appreciated.)
The List So Far:
100. Green Day – “Jesus of Suburbia”
99. The Ying Yang Twins – “Wait (The Whisper Song)”
98. Crazytown – “Butterfly”
97. Taylor Swift – “Teardrops on My Guitar”
96. The Fray – “Over My Head (Cable Car)”
95. Fergie – “Fergalicious”
94. Lidstrom – “I Feel Space”
93. Chevelle – “Send the Pain Below”
92. T-Pain f/ Yung Joc – “Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin’)”
91. The Arctic Monkeys – “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor”
90. Cassie – “Me & U”
89. Nelly Furtado – “Maneater”
88. Mike Jones f/ Slim Thug & Paul Wall – “Still Tippin’”
87. Bat for Lashes – “Daniel”
86. The Darkness – “I Believe in a Thing Called Love”
85. Dynamite Hack – “Boyz n the Hood”
84. DJ Khaled f/ T.I., Rick Ross, Fat Joe, Birdman, Lil’ Wayne & Akon – “We Takin’ Over”
83. Matchbox20 – “Bent”
82. The Game f/ 50 Cent – “Hate It or Love It”
81. 311 – “Amber”
80. 3 Doors Down – “Krptonite”
79. Nas – “Made You Look”
78. Royksopp – “Eple”
77. The Pussycat Dolls – “Don’t Cha”
76. DMX – “Party Up (Up in Here)”
75. Junior Senior – “Move Your Feet”
74. Twista f/ Kanye West & Jamie Foxx – “Slow Jamz”
73. The Streets – “Weak Become Heroes”
72. Jimmy Eat World – “The Middle”
71. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Maps”
70. Snoop Dogg f/ Pharrell – “Drop It Like It’s Hot”
69. Alice DeeJay – “Better Off Alone”
68. Xiu Xiu – “I Luv the Valley OH!”
67. Incubus – “Stellar”