And after all...
Wonderwall's rise as the song of the 90s.
About 15 years ago, I was living with some roommates who were both far more knowledgable and well-studied in music than I was and I posed a question.
“What is the most memorable song from the 90s?”
I wasn’t looking to answer what was the most culturally important, best, or biggest hit.
I wanted to know what song, that if you turned it on in any setting, would be most likely to elicit a knowing nod, a smile, or a sing-a-long. What song, once all the dust had cleared from the Smash Mouths and Sugar Rays would stand as the ultimate 90s song?
They proposed a few classics.
“Jeremy. Alive. Evenflow.”
“When’s the last time you heard Pearl Jam in a bar?”
“Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
“Maybe the most un-sing-a-long-able-song ever.”
This isn’t to debate the greatness or cultural importance of any of these songs. There’s probably not a more pivotal music moment in my childhood than the rise of Nirvana. And Ten and Achtung Baby are the cassette and CD (age alert!) that got more listens than nearly anything of my early teens.
But answer the question, Claire.
My stance was simple. For all the songs that wreaked havoc on the 90s, “Wonderwall” checked boxes the others simply didn’t. In some ways, it’s a genre-less song. It’s not a pure rock song (er, alternative?) and despite its simple, catchy lyrics, it’s not a pure pop song, either. With the Beatles-esque hype surrounding Oasis, the song crossed generations. And maybe most importantly, the song is versatile. Is it angry? Is it sentimental? What’s a Wonderwall? Who knows, just turn it up loud in your 1992 Plymouth Voyager and yell the lyrics.
My opinion on this cemented itself five years ago when I started frequenting a karaoke bar in Downtown Los Angeles named Tokyo Beat. My good friend Kevin and I became regulars after he moved Downtown and in exploring his new neighborhood, we happened upon a sandwich sign with an arrow pointing us to a bar on the second floor of an outdoor shopping mall (which somehow didn’t end up being the opening scene of a horror movie).
We hung out at what affectionately became “The Beat” often enough to pick up on some consistent trends when it comes to karaoke.
Nothing kills the scene like someone winding up for 7 1/2 minds of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” (Seriously, just sing “Under Pressure” instead.)
Except “Stairway to Heaven.” (Seriously, just sing anything else instead.)
“Wonderwall” is a karaoke monster and would routinely get requested 2-3 times a night. And it crushes nearly every time. (Both thanks and very sincere apologies to anyone who has heard me sing).
Perhaps what surprised me the most about “Wonderwall’s” frequent karaoke appearances is the regularity in which people much (much 😢) younger than me were requesting to sing it. The song, had in fact become a generational hand me down (with some credit due to popular covers from One Direction, Ryan Adams, and Ed Sheeran). It was just as likely to be belted out by a 40-year-old dude (me, sigh) as a 22-year-old woman, or a group of finance-looking types burning off some steam on a Friday night. And not only was it oft-requested, but when it came up, it wasn’t just for one person to sing, it was for everyone to sing, a magical unifying force brought to us by the brothers Gallagher.
But my opinion and some observations I made at karaoke don’t really prove anything, right? A sample size of me and some randos at a tucked away karaoke bar doesn’t exactly count as hard data.
What about this?
According to Spotify, “Wonderwall” is the most popular song of the 90s, the first song from the decade to reach 1 billion plays on the platform.
1 billion! We’re talking Dr. Evil numbers here!
While there’s a small part of me that’s delighted that I correctly made up the correct answer to a future Trivial Pursuit question 15 years in advance, most of me feels happy that a song that has been such a big part of my life is an experience that I’ve both directly and indirectly shared with so many others. Not just for a small window of time in the mid-90s, but still, 25 years later.
In a 2002 BBC interview, Noel Gallagher said that song was about “an imaginary friend who's gonna come and save you from yourself." And I don’t feel like there’s a better answer for what a “Wonderwall” truly is.
I’ve screamed “Wonderwall” with thousands at Staples Center and the Hollywood Bowl. After Oasis broke up and the brothers toured separately, I’ve had the same experience with smaller crowds at the Orpheum, Wadsworth, and Wiltern theaters. Add to that the countless nights I’ve done an impromptu duet with a stranger, brought together by nothing more than a song.
The names and faces of those who I’ve shared “Wonderwall” moments are largely anonymous, but it turns out that it was the point all along. To share a moment with an imaginary friend, who in that moment is saving you from yourself.
1 billion imaginary friends can’t possibly be wrong.