Smash Mouth's “All Star” as a Response to Nihilism

By Jason Gong

Introduction

Nihilism is the philosophical view that all values commonly held as meaningful are in fact baseless, and nonexistent. It is most often presented in the form of existential nihilism, which asserts that life itself is inherently meaningless. In relation to the universe, a single individual is insignificant, powerless, their beliefs and actions entirely inconsequential.

Nihilism is derived from the latin root "Nihil" which means "nothing," a word which you'll hear frequently when speaking to a nihilist. "Nothing makes sense, nothing matters, etc" (Pratt). Nihilism, as practiced, posits that there are no truths, moral or otherwise. As such, nihilism can be used to justify any action (as these actions have no moral value) or lack thereof.

While Nihilism is a broad term, which further stratified philosophies can be derived from, it is most commonly associated with a pessimistic outlook and unhealthy and even malicious choices. It is this definition of nihilism that will be referred to throughout this essay.

Smash Mouth is an American-Canadian rock band with pop and ska influences, founded in 1994.

“All Star” is the second single off of their second album, Astro Lounge. It was written by Smash Mouth guitarist Greg Camp. Debuting in 1999, “All Star” is Smash Mouth’s most successful song to date. It has appeared prominently in movies and television since its release, and is one of the most recognizable songs to a generation. Its upbeat melody and instrumental stylings combined with its scattered but sincere lyrics ensure that it endures in a way that few other songs can.

“All Star” is many things to many people. A nostalgic 90s hit. An inspiring sports anthem. A comedic cultural touchstone. The song from Shrek. But a deep dive into the lyrics of the song reveal a glimpse into the philosophical mind of Smash Mouth. A mind that, through this song, has shaped many of our own. The lyrics, admittedly simple, with surface level metaphors scattered throughout, cover enough ground to be treated as a thesis on a comprehensive worldview. In 3 minutes and 20 seconds, “All Star” by Smash Mouth defines and rebukes the concept of nihilism, and alludes to a number of other philosophical viewpoints as an alternative.


Lyrics

1st Verse

Somebody once told me the world is gonna roll me

In this thesis I will refer to the narrator/singer as “Smash Mouth”.  I will refer to Smash Mouth using the singular pronoun “they.”

Here, Smash Mouth recalls a conversation with a nameless person, referred to only as "Somebody" and later as, "She." This person tells Smash Mouth that "the world is gonna roll" them, essentially informing Smash Mouth that they are powerless against the forces of the world at large. Forces beyond Smash Mouth's control.

I ain't the sharpest tool in the shed

She was looking kind of dumb with her finger and her thumb

In the shape of an "L" on her forehead

The use of the "L" hand signal indicates that the nameless speaker holds Smash Mouth in low regard, reiterating Smash Mouth's powerlessness.

This feeling of powerlessness against a random and chaotic universe can be extrapolated into a belief that life is meaningless. This is nihilism.

The line "I ain't the sharpest tool in the shed," shows an admittance of ignorance on Smash Mouth's part. This can mean that they either fails to understand what the other is telling them, or that they are vulnerable to accept their negative beliefs. By the end of the first verse, Smash Mouth, who admittedly isn't the brightest, has been told that their actions are meaningless contrasted against the great big world.

The "Somebody/She" in the first verse is the first outside force to introduce nihilistic ideals to the listener. There is nothing that we, or Smash Mouth, can do to prevent the world from "rolling us," at least according to her.

It's important to note that this initial nihilistic rhetoric comes from another person, rather than from Smash Mouth themselves.

When one is newly born and begins to grow, one of the first thought processes to form is a sense of "Self." A sociological approach to Self assumes that there is a mutual relationship between self and "society." The actions and beliefs of the Self make an impact on society; so, too, does the society impact the actions and beliefs of the Self. They are reflective (Stets & Burke, 2003).

Early words learned by children include "I" and "Me". Those words are meaningless, however, without the words that are soon learned after, "They" and "Them." The idea of Self only exists in relationship to that which is not the self. The Other.

And so it is through our relationship with others that our identities are formed. And the first Other introduced in All Star is an antagonistic one extolling the “virtues” of nihilism.


Pre-chorus

Well the years start coming and they don't stop coming

Time marches on and there is nothing we can do to stop it. Recognizing this, and attempting to reconcile our short lifespans with the magnitude of eternity, is a near impossible task. Some answer it with religion. Others with the goal of doing good or achieving pleasure. Nihilism tells us that there is no answer, and that seeking one is a hopeless endeavor.

Fed to the rules and I hit the ground running

As stated, the Self is defined largely by the relationship to society. One way that society directly affects or imposes upon the Self is through rules; agreed upon etiquette or laws that define what actions are acceptable and unacceptable for the self to take.

Smash Mouth acknowledges that their individuality and beliefs are in conflict with the “rules” of society.

Recognizing this, Smash Mouth “hits the ground running,” choosing instead to form their own system of values as detailed throughout the song, rather than accepting those imposed by the society.


Didn't make sense not to live for fun

One conceit of Nihilism is that nothing in life makes sense, as there is no such thing as objective truth.

Here, Smash Mouth parses out the idea of what makes sense in life in order to refute this point.

The idea of “living for fun” itself is conflated with another philosophical viewpoint, hedonism. Hedonism argues that the objective of life is to derive as much pleasure from it as possible (Weijers). With this line, Smash Mouth doesn’t give a full endorsement of a hedonistic lifestyle, they merely refuse to rule it out.

While it is unprovable to say that "It makes sense to live for fun," Smash Mouth obfuscates this idea by utilizing a double negative, giving us a response to nihilism that doesn’t claim to fully make sense of life, but offers us one possibility.

Your brain gets smart but your head gets dumb

Smash Mouth alludes to the difference between knowledge and wisdom. While knowledge is the quantifiable sum of what we know, wisdom is the application of what we know and our process of continuing to learn.

“I know that I know nothing” is a phrase commonly associated with Greek philosopher Socrates, one of the founders of Western philosophy. A nihilist may view this as an affirmation of their beliefs, that all the knowledge one can learn is ultimately meaningless without objective truth. However, to Socrates, wisdom begins with wonder, and to “know that I know nothing” is to maintain a sense of curiosity to continue asking questions. In this sense, a smart brain is one that contains large amounts of knowledge, and a dumb head is one that has stopped seeking to learn.

So much to do, so much to see

So what's wrong with taking the back streets?

Time is endless and the world is large, but our lifespans and ability to experience are not. While we may never know what comes after oblivion, we can do our best to explore the world around us now. In motivational poster terms, "It's about the journey, not the destination."

You'll never know if you don't go

You'll never shine if you don't glow

If you live in fear of the chaos around us, or in fear of standing out, you will limit both your experiences, and the knowledge of what makes you unique.

This implies that, from Smash Mouth's point of view, to know, and to shine, are both acts worth doing, regardless of their impact or lack of impact.

Chorus

Hey now, you're an all star, get your game on, go play

Throughout the chorus, Smash Mouth uses the second-person point-of-view to address the listener directly. By referring to you as an all star, Smash Mouth creates a stark contrast to the interpersonal dynamics of the first verse. The phrase indicates that no matter what others say or how the world treats you, you are special. You are an all star.

As a whole, “All Star” promotes an individualistic lifestyle. Individualism is the philosophical stance that emphasizes the value of the individual or self. It puts forth the idea that the individual is the most important thing, and is central to all else. Thus, each individual is inherently special. Inherently All Star.

Harkening back to the idea of "living for fun," play is an important aspect of life. With this line kicking off the chorus, the text of “All Star” indicates that it may be the most important aspect of life.

Hey now, you're a rock star, get the show on, get paid

Performance is a method of connecting with others. When one performs, they are recognized by those that they are performing for. The idea that there is value in this form of human-to-human recognition is antithetical to Nihilism.

"Get paid" is in reference to knowing your value as an individual. To perform for payment is an acknowledgement that your actions have value.

And all that glitters is gold

Humans, and animal life at large, are attracted to shiny things. Society chooses some of these shiny things, such as gold, to place value on. This line posits that anything that one places value on is inherently valuable. Whether it be a tin can, or actual gold, if it glitters, it's gold.

Only shooting stars break the mold

To "break the mold" is to stand out, to do something that has never been done before. From a nihilistic viewpoint, such an act is pointless, as acts themselves have no worth, and therefore there is no reason to try.

But Smash Mouth encourages us to try anyway. In spite of everything, we must try.


2nd Verse

It's a cool place and they say it gets colder

You're bundled up now, wait till you get older

This verse shares a rhyme scheme and cadence with the pre-chorus rather than the other verses. It is faster and more aggressive, matching the tone of the lyrics. Here, Smash Mouth alludes to the idea that the world is "cold" as a metaphor for uncaring.

But the meteor men beg to differ

Judging by the hole in the satellite picture

Smash Mouth acknowledges the irreparable dangers of climate change. While the first verse features Smash Mouth being antagonized by a peer, this verse deals with a global threat to life itself.

The ice we skate is getting pretty thin

"On thin ice," is a phrase that indicates great risk. Safety and danger separated by a thin margin. The wordplay in this line blends the meaning of this metaphor with the actual effects of global warming. This line poses the question of how we should approach this very real possibility of impending doom.

The water's getting warm so you might as well swim

Here, Smash Mouth combines the literal and metaphorical to tell us to enjoy the time we have and find the best in the situations we're presented with.

My world's on fire, how about yours?

That's the way I like it and I never get bored

A world on fire is a phrase associated with a sense of global chaos. By evoking this imagery, Smash Mouth again hammers in the threat of our impending climate crisis, before tossing it aside, by suggesting that he enjoys it.

Smash Mouth claiming to "like" the increasing climate change is most likely hyperbole. The line suggests that Smash Mouth finds danger and the unknown to be a fun, and even meaningful aspect of enjoying life.

Chorus (2nd Time)

Hey now, you're an all star, get your game on, go play

Hey now, you're a rock star, get the show on, get paid

All that glitters is gold

Only shooting stars break the mold

Hey now, you're an all star, get your game on, go play

Hey now, you're a rock star, get the show, on get paid

And all that glitters is gold

Only shooting stars

This song fucking rules.


3rd Verse

Somebody once asked could I spare some change for gas?

I need to get myself away from this place

Here, a new "Somebody" requests money from Smash Mouth in order to buy gas to escape their current situation. While Smash Mouth has already walked us through an antagonistic interaction with the "Somebody" in the first verse, and an uncontrollable crisis in the second verse, this is the first time in the song that Smash Mouth has a decision to make. And an ethical decision at that. Does Smash Mouth help the other in this situation? Or does Smash Mouth ignore their request for help?

I said yep what a concept

I could use a little fuel myself

And we could all use a little change

Smash Mouth's positive response without question is the first indication of their actual moral philosophical values. It's clear that Smash Mouth believes in helping others, but it's unclear as to why.

A utilitarian viewpoint would say that Smash Mouth gave the "Somebody" money in order to maximize this person's happiness (Nathanson). A deontological viewpoint would say that Smash Mouth believes that the act of giving itself is inherently good (Ethics Unwrapped). But nothing in the text indicates that Smash Mouth adheres to these or any other ethical moral philosophy systems.

Perhaps the best hint we get is the line, "I could use a little fuel myself." By identifying with the "Somebody", Smash Mouth displays empathy and thus feels compelled to help them. The verse offers a tangible example of the Golden Rule ("Do unto others"), a maxim predominant in many major religions and philosophies. While the Golden Rule in its many translations and variations serves as a helpful ethical aphorism, it doesn’t necessarily encompass or adhere to a single ethical philosophy (Puka).

In the final line of the verse, Smash Mouth uses the word "change" to mean both the literal loose money he has available, and to mean an adjustment to the current status quo. Smash Mouth is unsatisfied with the current state of the world, but through this act of kindness is able to adjust it, however slightly.


Pre-chorus (2nd Time)

Well, the years start coming and they don't stop coming

Fed to the rules and I hit the ground running

Didn't make sense not to live for fun

Your brain gets smart but your head gets dumb

So much to do, so much to see

So what's wrong with taking the back streets?

You'll never know if you don't go (go!)

You'll never shine if you don't glow

It's important to note that a second "go" is added to the penultimate line of the second pre-chorus. It changes "You'll never know if you don't go" from a statement to a command, further cementing the fact that Smash Mouth wants us to make an effort in this life, in the face of all the random chaos and factors against us.


Chorus (3rd Time)

Hey now, you're an all star, get your game on, go play

Hey now, you're a rock star, get the show on, get paid

And all that glitters is gold

Only shooting stars break the mold

And all that glitters is gold

Only shooting stars break the mold

Further repetition is used to drive home the point of the final two lines.

Where nihilism tells us that everything is meaningless and without value, the line "all that glitters is gold" refutes that the value of everything is defined by us, and that this is perfectly reasonable.

And "Only shooting stars break the mold" tells us one last time, that only those who strike out against the nihilistic hopelessness of the universe will have lived a life worth living at all.



Conclusion

“All Star” by Smash Mouth is one of the most ubiquitous songs of the past few decades. It’s immediately recognizable to a global audience and evokes feelings of nostalgia and a sense that you can accomplish anything. It’s a song for underdogs, by underdogs.

Greg Camp has stated that he got lyrical inspiration while looking down at his shoes, a pair of Converse All Stars (Kessler, 2018). To him, the phrase represented an inspirational aphorism to pep up artistic kids feeling down on their luck. And with the phrase, he went on to write a song that took that down-on-your-luck feeling, and brought it to its philosophical conclusion, nihilism, and then refuted it with the wordplay and inspiration.

In spite of the powerless you may feel in a world of chaos and disorder, you should rise up and make your mark anyway. Life may have no inherent value, but it does have the value that you create for yourself. After all, you’re an All Star.

References


Deontology. (n.d.). Ethics Unwrapped. Retrieved from https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/deontology

Emerson, S. (2017, April 17). My World’s On Fire: We Asked Smash Mouth If ‘All Star’ Is About Climate Change. Vice. Retrieved from https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/qkqdm7/is-smash-mouth-all-star-about-climate-change-global-warming

Kessler, M. (2018, July 13). The Origin Of Smash Mouth's 'All Star,' An Unintentional Sports Anthem. WBUR. Retrieved from https://www.wbur.org/onlyagame/2018/07/13/all-star-smash-mouth-band-song

Nathanson, S. (n.d.). Act and Rule Utilitarianism. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from https://www.iep.utm.edu/util-a-r/

Pratt, A. (n.d.). Nihilism. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from https://www.iep.utm.edu/nihilism/

Puka, B. (n.d.). The Golden Rule. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from https://www.iep.utm.edu/goldrule/

Stets, J. E., & Burke, P. J. (2003, January). A Sociological Approach to Self and Identity. Handbook of Self and Identity. Retrieved from

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/252385317_A_Sociological_Approach_to_Self_and_Identity.

Weijers, D. (n.d.). Hedonism. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from https://www.iep.utm.edu/hedonism/

Jason Gong is a Philadelphia-based writer and professional technology guy. He has written for Points in Case and Philosophical Idiot and co-written several short films. He runs a podcast called Page to Frame, where he and his friends read books and then watch movies based on the books, and then talk about them. You can find him on Twitter @page2frame.

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