The Barenaked Ladies – Who Is This Band For?

je_barenaked ladies illustration

Nicholas Friesen @Nicholastronaut January 25, 2016

My first encounter with the Barenaked Ladies was this 1992 PSA that ran on the Saturday morning Fox Kids block, in between episodes of Bobby’s World and X-Men. It features the band, dancing around for 90 seconds, singing about how accepting an alien whose head looks like fruit (as opposed to “a fruit,” which would be offensive) would bring on racial harmony. No really, a tag at the end simply says “racial harmony.” It’s been stuck in my head for years, and now it’s stuck in yours, too.

I also remember being in Grade 4, skating around at Saint’s Roller Rink, listening to “If I Had $1,000,000” and thinking it was weird that a song had a spoken word part about Kraft Dinner, all while I struggled with my anxiety about dancing with the girl I liked while wearing roller skates.

I guess for these reasons, I’ve always thought of this band as a kid’s band.

The thing is, I’ve never really known what audience this band is for. No other band sounds like BNL, with its a cappella raps and Public Enemy covers on DIY cassette tapes, or its super clean production and carefree endorsement of Chickadee China (the Chinese chicken). There’s a Christmas album and a Hanukkah EP, an acoustic record and one called Grinning Streak featuring the four remaining band members frowning on the cover dressed like the cast of Reservoir Dogs. There are singles about chimpanzees on postcards and wanting someone to be your Yoko Ono. There’s a kid’s record called Snacktime! from May of 2008, the last to feature singer Steven Page before he was arrested the following July for fourth degree criminal possession of a controlled substance (charges which were dropped in April of the following year, around the time he left BNL).

Until fall 1996 (when the live record, Rock Spectacle, was released) it was easy to mark the band as a Canadian oddity, just some quirky guys singing about Kraft Dinner and Grade 9, popping up on Much Music to deliver an interview filled with dad jokes while wearing cargo shorts. The band was endearing, because it was so hopelessly Canadian. How could this band ever succeed outside the CanCon system? They didn’t look like the cast of Friends, more like the cast of The Drew Carey Show.

But Rock Spectacle was an obvious play at American success, meaning the band would be leaving us soon, onto America and all it offered. Released only a few months after the band’s third album, Born on a Pirate Ship, Spectacle is a live compilation, pushed in the states with a flashy new video for “Brian Wilson,” a song we’d all been quietly enjoying in Canada for a few years. The Ladies looked about as spiffy as they ever had in the clip, and the video wasn’t a straight live performance piece; it featured the band lip syncing to a track recorded live, mixed in with b-roll of people frozen in time (instead of video of the actual live performance heard on the record). It’s not unlike the video for the Rolling Stones’ cover of “Like a Rolling Stone,” released a year earlier on the live album Stripped. It just screams fake, faker than usual videos – reminding you that you’re watching a video and that the band is miming to a performance, taking you out of it completely.

And then of course, Stunt happened.

You couldn’t go anywhere in the summer of ’98 without hearing about how Ed Robertson hoped the Smoking Man was in whatever episode of The X-Files was on in the background while he penned this masterstroke of silliness. Yes, I owned (Still own? Yup.) a copy of this one, but I didn’t buy it myself. I asked for it for Christmas, a sure sign that I was interested, but wouldn’t be too disappointed if I didn’t get it. It’s actually the only BNL CD that I own, and I’m not sure why. Gordon is a great record (I used to listen to the cassette at my friend’s place growing up) but I only ever got Stunt, the record that everyone else got, which I guess is what you do when you’re 15. Everything else the band released always just seemed like it didn’t fit next to anything else I was listening to. Try putting a BNL song on a mix and hoping there is flow. There’s no way to do it. Open a side with it, throw it in the middle, nope. It’s going to stick out like a sore thumb. But I suppose, that’s the genius of the band – it offers something different.

On pop radio it’s refreshing. On Much and MTV you could program “One Week” in between Weezer and Spice Girls and things would all work out. But what sane person is listening to all of these artists together? It jumps out too much to be background music. Just who is this band for?

I worked at a few record stores that no longer exist, and every time a new BNL CD came out, the first in line were a few guys in black rimmed glasses with comic book referencing logo tees, not unlike the characters on the Big Bang Theory, that show BNL recorded the opening credits song for (ensuring each member’s kid goes to a very good college). Then when Snacktime! came out, a few parents shuffling through the mall would smirk, throw down the Visa card and hope that this would be the least annoying children’s album in their SUV. In ’98, before I worked at HMV/MusicWorld/Best Buy, I would see the girls in my junior high class with fresh copies of Stunt in their CD wallets next to Hanson’s Middle of Nowhere and whatever N’Sync record came out that year.

How could a band with a theoretical niche audience cast such a wide net? And do these fans stick around past the initial introductory single?

Unfortunately, the “about” section of bnlfans.net tells me nothing about what it means to be a fan, only that BNL has its own ice cream and beer. The social media feeds for this site really just talk about what the band is up to, and there doesn’t seem to be a convention at which Kraft Dinner is served (though you can take a cruise with BNL). The band’s fans did manage to influence BNL to cancel a SeaWorld concert in 2013 though, so as a group, the fans appear to be a socially conscious crew.

I seem to remember there being a genre in between emo (what emo meant in ’97, anyway) and math rock called geek rock, and maybe BNL fit into that, or maybe I made it up. Napster didn’t have categories like Songza.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with being a BNL fan, it’s just always confused me. I remember the last day of summer before starting Grade 12, sitting around in my basement with friends. The video for “Pinch Me” came on Much, maybe for the first time. We all joked that the song just sounded like a slowed-down version of “One Week” and groaned at the “I just made you say ‘underwear'” line. As 17-year-olds, we were not impressed. I also remember showing those friends Porky’s on VHS that afternoon – which they hated – and a friend asking why no one had killed Ludacris yet when one of his videos came on. Seventeen-year-olds, man.

It’s a weird thing, to be a Canadian band with American success in the ’90s. You enter into this upper echelon next to Bryan Adams and Sarah McLachlan, not quite near Celine Dion or Shania Twain, but close. You’re expected to sell a lot, now that you’ve made that leap. You’re expected to be perfect and polite. You’re also expected to come back to Canada and do all the things you used to do, like an Intimate and Interactive episode on Much, which BNL did, and which I think I have somewhere on tape. But you probably won’t tour the places you used to, not until the American success has blown over, anyway.

I guess all you can really do is hope to reach as many people as possible, which is what BNL does with its music. If you can reach kids, adult males, teenage girls and even perform your hit on The West Wing during a Rock the Vote episode, then you’ve got something figured out that no one else in the music industry does. Or maybe you’re just a musical genius.

Nicholas Friesen tried to buy Kraft Dinner tonight at 7-11 but they only had those little self-serve snack size containers, which does not a meal make.