First things first: if you don’t remember “Teenage Dirtbag” or Wheatus, the band that wrote it, let me refresh your memory:
CUZ I’M JUST A TEEENAAAGE DIIIRTBAAAG BAAABY! YEAH I’M JUST A TEEENAAAGE DIIIRTBAAAG BAAABY! LISTEN TO IIIROOON MAAAIDEN BAAABY WITH ME!
That’s the one.
Wheatus released “Teenage Dirtbag” in July 2000 as the title track from their debut album, and it got constant play on MTV and the FM rock stations all summer long. It’s a power pop anthem that combines the brattiest, most adolescent aspects of Cheap Trick with a mid-tempo shuffle and some of the mindless experimentalism that marked post-grunge (yes, there’s turntable scratching). Brendan B. Brown’s vocals fall somewhere between Robin Zander at his most nasal and “Sk8er Boi”-era Avril Lavigne, and the song oscillates between gentle acoustic verses and big, driving electric choruses. It appeared on the soundtrack to the 2000 Jason Biggs vehicle Loser, which I know you’ve got in your collection.
The narrative is familiar teeny bopper territory: A high school dork is in love with a popular girl, and all he wants is to listen to Iron Maiden with her, but “she doesn’t know who I am and she doesn’t give a damn about me.” She has a typical jock boyfriend who would beat the shit out of the protagonist if he found out about the poor kid’s crush, but the gun-wielding, IROC-driving alpha-male is oblivious. Prom night rolls around and our hero’s alone, without a date, contemplating how awful life is, when — lo and behold — his muse walks up and presents him with two Iron Maiden tickets. “Come with me Friday, don’t say maybe,” she utters, and the rest is history.
In a different life, I find this song daft. It’s the kind of one-hit wonder from my youth that I expect other people my age to ridicule as a relic from a time when the fate of rock n roll was so unclear that labels were signing anyone who seemed cooler than the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies.
But that’s just not how I feel. I respect this song, and it boils down to this: I thought Brendan B. Brown was a woman.
::FLASHBACK:: It’s Summer 2000, and I’m working as a lifeguard at the Mt. Vernon Park pool in Alexandria, Virginia. We’ve got a radio in the guard station that we leave tuned to one of the two big D.C. rock stations, 99.1 HFS or DC101. One day we’re sitting around and “Teenage Dirtbag” comes on, and I wonder who this chick is singing. I’m deep in my Misfits phase at this point, so I’m a tough sell on most things that could be considered pop, but there’s something dangerous at play here. A female vocalist singing about her infatuation with another girl — a straight girl — isn’t your garden variety love song. It’s brave. At this point in my adolescence, I’m beginning to ask serious questions about my own sexuality, and I’m learning how to support the first of my friends who have come out, so the story hits home. I’m gripped, and the Iron Maiden reference helps. I think the song is kind of silly, but overall I’m impressed by “Teenage Dirtbag.”
That was how I viewed the song — believing that Brown was a chick — for almost ten years.
A friend exposed the truth about the lead singer’s gender when, predictably, I tried to defend “Teenage Dirtbag” as a victory for LGBTQ issues in mainstream music — the precursor to “Born This Way” and “Same Love,” for example. I don’t know how I missed the video when I was younger, or how I never got into a conversation about Brown’s gender until more than a decade after the song’s release. But it turns out the guy from Wheatus is, in fact, a guy. What I thought was an honest, empowered, courageous song about the pain and anguish a young lesbian must feel when she’s smitten for the first time was actually just sob story by a dude who couldn’t get a date to the dance.
Had I known that on my first listen, I probably wouldn’t be defending “Teenage Dirtbag” here. But first impressions are powerful, and I’ll always choose to look at the song as being told from the point of view of a woman. Everything changes through that lens. The irony is richer, the characters are more compelling, and the message is powerfully subversive. The second verse takes on a particularly chilling new tone that reflects the real violence that LGBTQ kids face every day: “Her boyfriend’s a dick and he brings a gun to school / And he’d simply kick my ass if he knew the truth.” Those lines in that context make “Born This Way” sound tame.
For a while now, I’ve thought it would be great for a woman to do a cover version of “Teenage Dirtbag” and reinterpret the song from that point of view. It was such an obscure hit in retrospect that I figured no one would ever make the effort. Well, my wish came true — and recently at that. Mary Lambert, the singer on Macklemore’s gay rights hymn “Same Love,” covered the song on piano for Billboard’s live performance series in December. Turns out she too mistook Brown’s voice for a woman’s when she first heard “Teenage Dirtbag.”
"I was in high school when I came out," Lambert says in an interview before her performance. "I heard that song and I was floored. I was like, this is a lesbian love song — because I thought it was a woman singing. I was so excited because it captured all those feelings in high school of your first love."
I think her version is wonderful:
So it’s to that extent that I defend “Teenage Dirtbag.” Hokey as the original might seem 14 years later, it’s got staying power. Brendan B. Brown wrote a song that transcends gender and sexuality, earning him a cover by one of pop music’s LGBTQ icons.
You can’t fuck with that.
Previous Entries of "In Defense Of":
Stephen Selman, In Defense Of: Banana Wind by Jimmy Buffett
Jon Mann, In Defense Of: Foo Fighters