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The Legacy of Wheatus’ Teenage Dirtbag 

November 22, 2023

Released in the summer of 2000, Teenage Dirtbag was the breakout anthem from New York band Wheatus’ debut record. Over the years its cultural significance has steadily grown from karaoke favourite to a compelling choice for artistic interpretation. Returning this autumn as a festive rework, Christmas Dirtbag, we turn the spotlight on the legacy of this mega hit.

Keds and tube socks 

Originally released in June 2000, Teenage Dirtbag was the lead single from Wheatus’ self-titled debut album. Although the track never broke into the US’ Hot 100, the single did well in Australia, Europe and the UK, where it reached number two on the Official Singles Chart. Jump forward over twenty-years and the track has been certified double-platinum. 

Written by Wheatus’ singer, Brendan Brown, the lyrics were inspired by a homicide which took place in his hometown of Northport, New York in the 1980s during a period of ‘Satanic panic,’ sparked by concern around heavy metal music. Of course, the lyrics themselves are much broader, drawing from the timeless adolescent experience of feeling like an outsider. 

Speaking to The Guardian in 2019, Brendan said, “The girl in Teenage Dirtbag is wearing “Keds and tube socks” because I was setting the narrative in the ‘80s. I mentioned Iron Maiden because The Number of the Beast was the most notorious example of “Satan rock” of the time.”

Talking to journalist Sharona Lin in 2012, Brendan recounted the advice his father had given him, “Every teenager has to go through that ‘being an outsider’ thing, at least a little bit. So that story is still the same for people, even if it’s thirty years after I went through it.”

I’ve got two tickets

That sentiment is amplified in the movie Loser. Released in July 2000, Teenage Dirtbag was a key addition to the soundtrack. Written and directed by Amy Heckerling, best known for her film Clueless, it tells the story of an awkward but earnest college student who falls for his complicated classmate. 

The song’s music video featured the movie’s co-stars, Jason Biggs and Mena Suvari, who at the time were at the height of their American Pie fame. While the video recounts the song’s narrative, in the movie itself Bigg’s character buys tickets to see 90s grunge-rock band Everclear. 

Despite its all-star cast and crew, the film fared poorly and Teenage Dirtbag grew bigger than the movie from which it came. Coincidentally, the music video for Wheatus’ follow-up single, a cover of Erasure’s A Little Respect, starred Clueless breakout star Brittany Murphy. 

She rings my bell

In 2020 Wheatus set about to re-record their entire debut record after realising they no longer had the original multi-track session. From their studio in New York, they meticulously recreated every track, including Teenage Dirtbag.

Not only did this include the third verse’s falsetto, surely a feat after twenty-years, but even the distorted snare sound. Brendan also went to great lengths to reproduce the three note response to “she rings my bell,” at one point attempting to crowdsource its origin. 

Talking to Rolling Stone in 2020, Brendan explained his original inspiration, “I tried to juxtapose all the metal that I was into sonically and tonally, and all the ‘Fire and Rain’-type acoustic tones you would hear from a Paul Simon or Indigo Girls record.”

This must be fake

Perhaps it’s that contrast of inspiration that’s drawn such a diverse list of artists to cover the track in recent years. Influential and contemporary acts such as SZA, 5 Seconds of Summer, All Time Low, and Ruston Kelly have put their own spin on the now cult classic. 

Phoebe Bridgers recently stripped and slowed the track down into a heart-wrenching ballad. Then, of course, there’s One Direction’s pure power-pop take, blasted out at stadium shows and immortalised on their 2013 film This Is Us. In the UK, thanks to such highly public versions, the track re-entered the Singles Charts six years in a row, from 2011 to 2015.

Last year, a trend on TikTok for sharing embarrassing photos from your youth brought a new sped-up version into the limelight as artists like Joe Jonas joined in, bringing the teenage anthem to yet another generation. 

Her name is Noelle

What better way to celebrate the joy and fun of Christmas than with a seasonal version of this timeless classic? Released this year as part of their Just A Dirtbag Christmas EP, Wheatus have reimagined their hit with holiday spirit. 

With jingle bells and re-written lyrics, they pull on classic Christmas tropes to rekindle the angsty original. “Does Santa Claus know who I am?” asks Brendan before launching into that formidable chorus. 

The EP even comes with a string-led instrumental, Wheatus collaborating with The Rhythm Method, an ensemble who work to reimagine the string quartet in a contemporary, feminist context, and composer/performer Andrew Livingston. 

From youthful pop-punk hit to adult contemporary creation via a myriad of alternate versions, the legacy of Teenage Dirtbag prevails into another new year.

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