Unearthing the true meaning of the ultimate geek rock 00s anthem – now making a Christmas comeback
We’ve all tried it. In a group of friends at a party or a wedding. To hit the impossible falsetto that Brendan B. Brown reaches in the indelible final verse of ‘Teenage Dirtbag’. Unlike the Wheatus frontman, however, we tend to sound more like a cat who’s just had its tail stamped on. Even so, this is a song that transcends generations and musical sub-cultures. It’s one of those songs. Everybody knows it, but very few can do it justice.
Despite becoming something of a karaoke classic, Brown’s relationship with the track is naturally more personal, and profound. Speaking from a studio that resembles a control room from a Star Trek aircraft, he explains that the context and meaning behind the words are perhaps more layered and meaningful than some may have initially given it credit. For the Long Island-born songwriter, Wheatus’ 2000 single ‘Teenage Dirtbag’ is a track about loneliness and identity.
“I’d written the guitar riff in high school,” he starts. “But when I began to consider myself a frontperson for a band, there’s this crisis of identity when you hear yourself back on the tape. Getting through for that for any lead vocalist is this moment of truth – you really need to find comfort in the way that you are. That made me think deeply about where I came from,” he explained.
“That put me back in the summer of 1984, listening to AC/DC all the time, and Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and Van Halen, as well as Prince and Madonna. If I were to propel myself from that moment to where I needed to be, and skip everything in between, how would I do it? That was how the narrative for ‘Teenage Dirtbag’ came to me. It’s an identity song.”
He was quick to refute a story that had been reported across the years – that the song is explicably inspired by a murder in his town. “That is not true,” he smiles, instead sharing a personal anecdote that he believes did play a significant part in the crafting and formation of this song, in a subtle, even semi-conscious way.
“The first memory I have of ever having a crowd watch me do anything, I was getting beat up,” he says, opening up. “There were a group of a hundred kids watching me get my ass whooped. [Those are the] memories you have to forge some positive identity out of. The process of writing ‘Teenage Dirtbag’ was not only an acknowledgement of that, but also a realisation of potential for other things. That’s why it’s a dark song, that has a happy ending.”
One of the happier aspects to the song – even if it came later – is its ability to help popularise the idea of being an outsider, which has since seen ‘geek’ culture rise into the mainstream. It’s songs like ‘Teenage Dirtbag’ by Wheatus, and ‘Creep’ by Radiohead, which helped young people feel less alone – that they weren’t unique or abnormal for being different. Though, as Brown admitted, the co-opting of ‘geek’ culture was never his intention, nor something he envisaged.
“I can tell you that it was nowhere near fashionable to be what I was,” he said. “‘Teenage Dirtbag’ is fictionalised – it’s a fantasy where everything works out, and that’s a bunch of bullsh*t. True loneliness is dangerous, it’s something you have to survive. The trending of it as an aesthetic means, like a lot of things that become very popular, you never really get to the point. Nobody really understands what’s actually going on, which is a little bit sad to me.”
That being said, ‘Teenage Dirtbag’ is still a song that does mean a lot to a lot of people. Still resonating after 24 years, and over five million copies sold, the song has a cult cultural reach that seems to keep growing.
“I did know that it was a strong song and a good narrative,” he admits. “But I was a little concerned about the fact that it was four minutes and 20 seconds long. I knew that was out of bounds, I had enough experience in the music industry to know that, but I wasn’t gonna cut it.
“There wasn’t a feeling of confidence or satisfaction when finishing it, but rather a sense of dread, anxiety and apprehension. You know as strongly as you feel about it, that it could still fail. I knew it was good, but I wasn’t confident.”
You’d like to imagine that passed pretty quickly. That Brown, alongside his band members in Wheatus, who he had formed in 1995 with his brother Peter (drums), and Rich Liegey (bass), quickly found an element of comfort and assurance when the song topped charts around the world. Or perhaps not.
“There’s a certain degree of fragility to its ongoing legacy that I still experience. I feel like it could turn off tomorrow and people could be disinterested, and it could go away,” he says.
Not that you’d believe it if you’ve ever set foot in a Wheatus show. “We know it’s the fans’ song and not ours,” says Brown. “We respect what they expect to experience, a lot. That’s why we work on it on a regular basis.”
One element that requires a special sense of practice, is, of course, that falsetto. When he’s telling us all that he’s got “two tickets to Iron Maiden, baby”, he knows everyone still wants to hear it exactly as they do on the record, and he’s made changes to his own lifestyle to help accommodate them.
“I practice that all the time,” he says. “I don’t drink, I don’t smoke. I try to get a lot of sleep. I warm up sometimes over an hour before we go on stage. There are times when I’m sick or tired where that voice is almost not available to me, and I have to really figure something out – a lot of stretching and stuff. It’s never been easy. Even when I was 25, I wasn’t sure that I could do it, so it’s always been a highwire act, it’s always been a stretch. There are some nights where it’s tough.”
The universality of that verse, and the whole song in fact, has always taken Brown by surprise, especially when he discovers that fellow artists from within the industry are admirers.
Lookin’ back’s a b*tch ain’t it♬ Teenage Dirtbag – Sped Up (and she doesn’t give a damn about me) (Sped Up) – Wheatus & slater
“Recently Quincy Jones did a ‘Teenage Dirtbag’ video on TikTok. The greatest living producer in music and most important musical force of the 20th century in pop, rock and jazz knows my song. How the f*ck did that happen? It was otherworldly,” he says, grinning.
“Recently there was also story that Taylor Swift and her new boyfriend were listening to ‘Teenage Dirtbag’ around a campfire somewhere. Another one of those moments. It’s funny to juxtapose that with the fact that for the first five years of this band, we came home to New York and nobody knew who we were, nobody cared. It’s so bizarre that we’re on this timeline, but we welcome it.”
When a song does reach the level of popularity that ‘Teenage Dirtbag’ now has, it’s all too easy for the scales to tip the other way. For a cult favourite to become a gear-grinder. Has Brown himself ever found himself getting tired of it?
“I’ve never disliked it,” he swiftly responds. “We have never been sick of it or rolled our eyes at the tune – because we like it. It’s a real song that came from a real band, and from a real songwriter. We enjoy it, and people enjoy it. The fact that we’re still doing it 23 years later, and it still represents us, and it’s still fun to play, I have no complaints about that.”
Though evidently still bringing Wheatus, and their fans (and Taylor Swift), a great deal of joy – Brown is still wary of complacency.
“It’s a dream come true but it’s also a big effort, a work in progress, because you have to keep it going, you have to keep it fresh,” he says. “We’re lucky that it’s a song we don’t have to try to love, we don’t have to fake it. That, to me, is a renewable resource of both joy and responsibility.”
Now freshened up again for a 2023 re-release as ‘Just A Christmas Dirtbag’ – and in the reckoning for the prestigious No.1 spot – the song still feels like it’s evolving. Even so, Brown always brings it back to its original meaning, which he feels was best summarised by his own father.
“The last thing I can say about its ongoing return is something my father said once, and this is the only thing that has ever made sense: everybody at some point has to be lonely, nobody gets out unscathed on that front. Some bouts of loneliness and despair are never-ending for people and some phases are part of development. But my father got something right, and that might be it.”
So consider that the next time you’re surrounded by friends singing this at the top of your lungs. Enjoy the moment and the sense of collective togetherness it brings. For that’s truly what music is all about, and what songs like ‘Teenage Dirtbag’ will always do. Even if you can’t hit that bloody high note.
Photo credit: Martyn Goodacre/Getty