Hoots And Blows

Liking or not liking Hootie means nothing -- it's like liking or not liking The Gap: jeans and T-shirts do not a lifestyle choice make.

Get this straight: If you don't like Hootie and the Blowfish, then you are in the minority. Enjoy it, revel in it -- bands like Hootie make "alternative" a viable term, and their reappearance after 1996's Fairweather Johnson ought to be celebrated. Their initial success was, after all, a kind of anti-alternative success. They are the happy Pearl Jam -- Darius Rucker and Eddie Vedder sound uncomfortably alike from time to time. Cracked Rear View appeared on the scene before Kurt killed himself, around the time Pearl Jam took on Ticketmaster, and when not one single rock band appeared to be enjoying themselves. What a breath of fresh air those four nice boys singing songs you could actually hum must have been, and when they played onstage they smiled big, expansive, non-ironic grins. They even appeared to like each other.

And so Cracked Rear View became the second-best-selling debut album of all time, right behind Boston. Shortly thereafter, the backlash began in full force, with legions of enraged anti-fans feverish with Hootie hatred. We haven't collectively abhorred anything so much since disco.

Naturally, this begs a question: What is so bad about Hootie and the Blowfish?

Nothing. Everything. Take your pick. Liking or not liking Hootie means nothing -- it's like liking or not liking The Gap: jeans and T-shirts do not a lifestyle choice make. Choosing whether or not to like Hootie and the Blowfish is like choosing between paper or plastic at the grocery store. They're effectively culturally invisible. No matter how many magazine covers their label gets them on in the publicity rush for Musical Chairs, they'll have as much impact as Muzak in elevators or one of the new NBC sit-coms. None.

They cultivate their lack of influence, though. The more visible they get, the more invisible they claim they are. We're just like you, they seem to be constantly saying, just regular guys. Their clothes aren't fashion statements, just clothes. They make no claim to debilitating depressions, and nor are they manic, Parry Farrellesque carnival barkers. They're just a very talented bar band.

(Yes, that's right, "talented," right there in the last sentence. I couldn't write "Only Wanna Be With You." Could you? It's a great pop song, in that it's instantly digestible and insidiously catchy, but it can also ease into the background and hover unnoticed. The song is an achievement and they've written more than one of 'em. You don't have to like it, but it'd be dishonest to write them off totally as a dumb-luck success story. But, if you want, there's always Matchbox 20 or Better than Ezra.)

Hootie and the Blowfish had the bad taste to address their own backlash by naming their second record Fairweather Johnson -- a fan who only likes a team when they're winning -- and while their new record's moniker is no more subtle, at least it doesn't insult the people who line Hootie's pockets by buying their records. Musical Chairs is, truth to tell, more varied than anything Hootie have done in the past. A couple of songs could almost get some country airplay. But even with the stylistic hopscotch, there's still an overwhelming sameness -- the fries and the shakes at McDonalds have a kind-of flavor characteristic that marks them both as McDonalds; Hootie and the Blowfish have the same problem.

Or is it a problem? For their many, many fans, it's that Hootieness that they want. And they get it in spades. Musical Chairs is full of big hooks, tenth-grade poetry, Rucker's pleasant baritone and just the right ratio of ballads to mid-tempo numbers to rockers. It's a crowd-pleaser for people who like crowd-pleasers. (As opposed to, say, the Smashing Pumpkins, who write crowd-pleasers for people who believe they'd rather not associate with crowds.) If the market's ready for Hootie, it'll sell like hotcakes.

And the market just might be ready for their comeback. With Marilyn Manson and Hole going seriously glam (come on, "The Dope Show" could have been on Station to Station, for chrissakes), maybe we'll be getting a back-to-basics backlash, and Hootie and the Blowfish will be there, leading the charge, wearing polo shirts, khakis and sneakers, getting in some golf when they find the time and offending absolutely no one. If they do, rest assured they'll remain musical wallpaper: present, sometimes noticeable, maybe even functional, but inspiring passion in no one.