Steve Harwell, the founding lead singer of the California alternative band Smash Mouth, passed away on Monday at the age of 56. Harwell's death brings attention to the journey of their hit song "All Star," which has become an everlasting presence in pop culture and the music industry. The track first took shape during the making of Smash Mouth's second album, "Astro Lounge," following their initial success with "Walkin' on the Sun" in 1997.
The band submitted a collection of songs to their record company, hoping to find a radio hit. However, they were told that they hadn't produced a single yet, leading them to continue working on new material. According to Robert Hayes, the band's manager, this setback was the turning point for "All Star." Meanwhile, Greg Camp, Smash Mouth's guitarist and primary songwriter, revealed that the song's theme of embracing one's flaws and being a lovable loser came from fan mail. The majority of their fan mail consisted of messages from fans who were bullied for being Smash Mouth enthusiasts. This inspired the band to create a song for their fans.
In 1999, “All Star” was featured in various film soundtracks, including “Inspector Gadget” and "Mystery Men." The original music video for the song incorporated clips from "Mystery Men," which starred Ben Stiller and Janeane Garofalo. However, it was the inclusion of “All Star” in the opening credits of the 2001 animated film “Shrek” that truly solidified its status as an iconic track. “Shrek” went on to become a global box office success, grossing $484 million worldwide.
Years later, the emergence of social media and fan-made content propelled “All Star” to new heights. The generation that grew up watching “Shrek” began creating countless memes around the song, resulting in a surge of popularity. Memes such as the Bill O'Reilly samples and the “Star Wars” lyrics version gained significant traction. YouTuber Jon Sudano also contributed to the trend by creating covers of the song, often combining it with other popular hits. Furthermore, a creative individual even reconstructed Modest Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" using samples of Harwell's voice. One of the most popular adaptations of “All Star” came in the form of a Mario Bros. themed version with original lyrics, garnering 1.6 million views on YouTube.
The success of “All Star” exemplifies how user-generated content and social media have become crucial platforms for artists to reach wider audiences in today's fragmented media landscape. This phenomenon has breathed new life into old tracks and propelled newer songs to viral fame. Examples include Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road" and Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams." For "All Star," this ongoing exposure led to opportunities such as Smash Mouth performing a snippet of the song in a Progressive insurance ad in 2020. As a result of the meme culture surrounding the song, it has accumulated nearly a billion streams on Spotify alone.
In a 2017 interview with music site Stereogum, Harwell expressed mixed feelings about the memeification of "All Star." While he acknowledged the value of exposure and the financial benefits it brings, he also admitted that having one's work reduced to a joke was not always enjoyable. He understood the entertainment factor, but he didn't necessarily love it.
As the news of Steve Harwell's passing spreads, fans and music enthusiasts reflect on the impact of “All Star” and its enduring presence in popular culture. The journey of this song, from its humble beginnings as a band's attempt to land a radio hit to its transformation into a meme-fueled phenomenon, serves as a testament to the power of social media and fan engagement in shaping the music industry.