Teens Have So Much to Learn From This One-Hit Wonder

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Time Capsule is an occasional feature in which we unearth forgotten bits of cultural detritus that deserve your procrastination.

There were a few cultural touchstones from 1995 to 1996 that provided my preteen self a sort of unofficial rule book to “being a teenager”: Clueless, obviously The Craft, even more obviously the suburban house party from the video for the Smashing Pumpkins’ “1979,” and the music video for “Popular,” the Nada Surf song that got endless plays on MTV in 1996.

I always think about this song, mostly because I look for it in every karaoke songbook, but lately I’ve listened to it even more than usual because it’s the 20th anniversary of High/Low, the album on which “Popular” appears. Nada Surf also has a new album, You Know Who You Are, and a handful of shows this week.




“Popular,” a ’96 sprechgesang/alt-rock hit, stands out because the video, by Girls director Jesse Peretz, is particularly good. The plot: A high-school cheerleader two-times some quarterbacks at the advice of her nerdy, manic teacher, who appears to teach only one subject, Inappropriate Advice for Teenage Girls 101. The teacher is played by Nada Surf’s lead singer, Matthew Caws, who recites actual text from Penny’s Guide to Teen-Age Charm and Popularity, a 1964 teen advice book by Gloria Winters.  

While I think the song is “ironic” or whatever, there was some actual good advice from the lyrics. For example:

Make sure to keep your hair spotlessly clean / wash it at least every two weeks / once every two weeks.

I mean, that’s just good hygiene. Or this one:

I propose we support a one-month limit on going steady / I think it would keep people more able to deal with weird situations, get to know more people.

I agree. We should all advocate for playing the field at a younger age, because then you learn the following lesson, also sung by Caws:

You can keep your time to yourself, you don’t need date insurance / you can go out with whoever you want to / every boy, every boy in the whole world could be yours

Hear that? Independence? And every boy? Pretty enlightened for 1964. Or 1996, for that matter.

Teens Can Learn So Much From This One-Hit Wonder