In the summer of 1993, I liked Jawbreaker and Jawbox and Samiam. But I worked in a fast-food kitchen with 3-4 other people at all times, none of whom shared my tastes in music. Our solution was quite simple: Whoever came in first to open the kitchen picked the radio station. Some days it was classic rock and some days top 40. But when it was my turn to open the doors, cook multiple pounds of bacon and arrange individual stacks of tomato and lettuce into neatly assembled, ready-to-go hamburger toppings, I chose Modern Rock at the Jersey Shore, FM 106.3.
This would be the first place that I was introduced to the Canadian folk-rock group Crash Test Dummies, and their only hit on US radio, “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm.” At the time, I remember thinking to myself, “This is a really strange song.” That it was doing so well throughout the world (except in the band’s native Canada) was even more baffling. The song was, well, unique to its place on the pop charts.
For one, there is the chorus, or lack thereof a typical chorus. At least no words are sung. It’s simply Crash Test Dummies lead singer Brad Roberts humming “Mmm mmm mmm mmm” on three separate occasions during the course of the song. In typical radio-friendly pop songs, humming isn’t something you run into everyday, nor is Brad Roberts voice, a deep baritone. In fact, both were true anomalies to the Cobain-rich days of August 1993. Perhaps we didn’t know it that the time (perhaps because irony didn’t exist yet) but “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” may have been a direct middle-finger reaction to the Pearl Jams and Alice In Chains of the day. And if that wasn’t the purpose of the song, then perhaps Crash Test Dummies unique approach to song writing was simply in the right (almost-post-grunge) place at the right time, just before an even more radio-friendly version of grunge would arrive in the form of Stone Temple Pilots.
Still, I’ve spent too much of my life trying to blame the world’s problems on the effects of grunge in the early ’90s.
Bill Clinton’s infidelity? Cobain’s fault.
The success of Titanic: The Movie? Definitely the work of Pearl Jam.
So from here on out, I’m drawing a line. You can relax now Vedder. Rather, I should examine the lyrical content of “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm.” Each verse of the song describes the isolation and suffering of children. The first two suffer from apparent physical abnormalities, the third, religion. On the surface, maybe Crash Test Dummies are equating religion with unexplainable physical attributes, but I can’t say for sure. Deeper still, I think it could be that each child is struggling to deal with some form of abuse, but aren’t sure what to do (or who to tell.)
What I always found interesting though, was that Crash Test Dummies doesn’t seem to offer any solutions to these scenarios. Instead, they hum, which I interpret as a sort of non-answer to the variety of problems. And that was always resonated with me: the lack of closure within the song (another anomaly in popular music of any kind.) People don’t want to be left wondering, they wanna believe we put a man on the moon, went Lenny Kravitz’s way and or could be shaped into a great pet for Perry Farrell.
In the end though, Crash Test Dummies had the last laugh. Despite the many accolades “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” would receive for being a notoriously “bad song,” despite being called the “15th most annoying song ever” by Rolling Stone, and despite being ranked #31 on Blender’s list of the “50 Worst Songs Ever,” Crash Test Dummies went on to sell over 1 million copies of the album that contained “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm,” not to mention being parodied by Weird Al Yankovic and used as part of the soundtrack in Dumb and Dumber. All for writing a song that sidestepped the expected norms of pop music, without a traditional ending, and humming as the chorus.
This is what I remember from that one summer when I got really good at cooking 5 lbs of bacon at 9 in the morning.