Chris Barron, the singer in the Spin Doctors, really does look like a goat. It’s not just the straggly blond pubic-hair beard, either–he’s got that goatish all-knowingness in his eyes, a smugness beyond human ken. Combine that with a goat’s distant, unfocused gaze, that weird suggestion that its eyes don’t see you because there’s nothing about you worth knowing, and you have, in the Spin Doctors’ spectacularly casual, winning manner, a veritable aura of smarm and scorn.
In the vast spectrum of prizes offered by pop music, from its promise to reveal the meaning of life in the way a singer turns a phrase to its provision of a good beat you can dance to, hating a band is a pleasure that at times can bring satisfactions that loving a band can’t touch. It might start with some small irritation, the way some guy cuts his hair, the treacle in Juliana Hatfield’s voice, but soon enough it’s under your skin, the music is a disease, and you don’t need no doctor, you just need a gun.
The idiosyncrasy of your own dislike expands into a metaphor out there in the world–people are buying this stuff, can you believe it?–that somehow sums up everything that’s wrong with society, the country, the vile behavior of that clerk at the bank yesterday, the moron who cut you off on the freeway, or Phil Gramm. (This guy is running for president? Of the United States?) It’s wonderful to be able to hate something as safe and harmless as a band, especially when the hideousness of the music has convinced you that true evil lurks in the most trivial gesture–it can make you feel more alive, determined, even heroic in your outrage. That’s why I know I’ll never forget Journey, or the Doobie Brothers, or Jimmy Gilmer’s “Sugar Shack,” or Rupert Holmes’s “Escape (The Piña Colada Song),” or the Spin Doctors. I know I’ll forget Stone Temple Pilots.
STP, in their own quaint acronym, try so hard. Having sold over three million copies of their 1992 debut album, Core, they remain a national joke for their shameless impersonations of Pearl Jam and Nirvana; the follow-up, Purple, may have entered the charts at number one this summer, but the band remains a trivia question in the making. They offer AC/DC without a beat and without humor, Black Sabbath without menace, so you’re left with Deep Purple–not the stuff that falls over sleepy garden walls, but the not very heavy-metal band of the ’70s. True, “Creep,” on Core now sounds absolutely hateful: With Kurt Cobain dead, to hear his misery and his intelligence transformed so blithely into someone else’s kitsch commodity is sickening. Listening to Purple, though, all I can think of is Beavis’s fantasy as he stands at the counter of Burger World, flipping patties, his eyes glazed over, daydreaming: He and Butt-head are onstage before a screaming crowd. Playing air guitar, they crane their necks and grunt the chords: BAH DA DA, BAH DA DADA DA. It’s perfect, it’s everything, the fans go wild. When Weiland barks, “I wanna fuck, I wanna fuck” in “Lounge Fly,” you might just say what you’d say to his MTV soul mates: Good luck.
Despite their nicely cool late-’80s name–“spin doctors,” people whose job it is to get the press to write what they know isn’t true because it’s what people may want to hear; because, therefore, it will sell papers–the Spin Doctors are as much a ’70s retread as Stone Temple Pilots. On both their quintuple-platinum-plus Pocket Full of Kryptonite and the recent summer hit Turn It Upside Down, their innovation is to combine an early ’70s soul beat–busy, distracting, off-kilter–with colorless but functional guitar solos and a vocal style that simultaneously calls up images of Los Angeles singer-songwriters like John David Souther and posthippie outfits like America or Wild Cherry. And yet there’s no question that Chris Barron is his own man. There’s an ugliness, a contempt so low, the way he says the word “bitch” in “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong,” the Spin Doctors’ inescapable breakthrough hit, that Souther would have killed for–an ugliness that in its way is just as violent, if not more so, than anything you can hear in generic gangsta rap misogyny, which I guess makes “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong” more like soul music. Gangsta rappers carrying on about hos mostly sound like they’re saying what they think they’re supposed to say, but Barron sounds like he’s saying what he means. And yet it’s all surrounded by such a miasma of goofiness, of jerky movements and manic grins, that you feel like a fool for taking such a thing seriously–for crediting your own emotional response to what you hear.
Across an album, the Spin Doctors are boring; from song to song, from “Two Princes” to “You Let Your Heart Go Too Fast,” they can be so catchy you might reach to snap them off the radio and find your hand stilled by some invisible force. The shallowness of the music, the condescension in the singing, the preening stupidity of the lyrics–it’s at once intolerable and irresistible, like watching Dick Vitale, or listening to a Bud Dry commercial. I can’t tell the bands and the ads apart anymore. Every time I hear a Spin Doctors song I hear a happy voice, a voice so pleased with itself it can seem like the voice of our time: “Why ask why?” Like Jimmy Gilmer or Rupert Holmes, it’s the voice of the guy next door, the jerk at the next desk, the Antichrist.
Interview, September 1994