This article has nothing to do with The Mighty Mighty Bosstones. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
Sacramento journalist turned author Aaron Carnes had grown weary of defending his love of Ska music. A music with a historically significant past that had become completely overshadowed by the pre-conceived mainstream version that had taken over the minds of many in the music industry. Channeling that frustration into years of research, writing, and dedication, Carnes focused all of it into a book entitled In Defense of Ska. Part personal experience, part historical reference, all completely dedicated to the redemption of Ska music in all it's glory.
OKAY, BUT WHAT IS SKA?
For many, the genre of Ska music may have never fallen on the radar. In fact if you weren't alive and fairly impressionable in the mid 90s, you probably missed it's momentary foray into the mainstream completely. With lead singers dressed in poly blend suits and cringe worthy fedoras Ska music, or at least the version of Ska that was presented by the music industry, hit the air waves with a trumpeting fanfare that seemingly came from nowhere. It filtered through the radio station, made it's way onto teen movie soundtracks and random commercials, and landed on the radar of MTV. But as quickly as Ska entered the scene, it seemingly made it's exit.
"I think it was easy to make fun of the Ska music that was popular in the 90s. It was really goofy, and over the top for a lot of people. But that also made it easy for people to not look into what Ska was and where it really came from," Carnes recounts as we sit together in my backyard, "but there's a lot more to Ska than what people would assume."
The rich history of Ska is one that has flown below the radar for nearly 70 years. Born in Jamaica in the late 50s/early 60s, Ska music pioneers created their own sound by combining a mixture of Carribean Mento, American Jazz, and a distinctive walking bass line that sets it apart from the genres that branched off from it in later years such as rocksteady and reggae.
With it's origins found most predominantly in poor and working class neighborhoods of Jamaica, Ska music played a large role in introducing those communities to the concepts of independence, and the deepening sense of national pride for both those who lived in Jamaica, and those who had immigrated beyond it's borders.
"I think it had a powerful impact on people because it managed to do two things at once. It combined these really danceable and upbeat rhythms with this deeply political messaging and it sort of gave people hope. It gave people the ability to be optimistic while still taking in the importance of the lyrics."
As the music continued to make it's way across the world, it found its audience by being able to seamlessly transform political messages into what Carnes' refers to as "the only music acceptable for punks to dance to."
... AND THEN THE 90s HAPPENED
While Ska maintained a tight grip on it's niche audience, it wasn't until the 90s that it decided to make it's way into the mainstream. Which may be where it all went downhill. Ignoring it's political origins, the 90s scene focused more on the up-tempo beats with over the top lyrics to create music that was… fun. It wasn't powerful. It wasn't super impactful. It was just fun. While there's nothing wrong with fun, it did lend to the ability for Ska to be dismissed as a random blip on music's radar.
"I like those bands too," Carnes comments, "but Reel Big Fish, Mighty Mighty Bosstones, I think those kind of bands are what helped people's interpretation of Ska be this very one dimensional representation. Goofiness. Orange County vibes. Those were the ones that labels wanted to sign at that time. More suburban, more silly, more palatable as a contrast to the grunge and rock that was out at that time."
The 90s were a time of heavy experimentation with record labels. From Grunge to Ska, Swing to Techno, labels were scouting from talent in any and all spaces they could. Proverbially throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what stuck. Ska was one of the many genres that was swept up into that wave, and much like any wave, it eventually crashed.
IN DEFENSE OF IN DEFENSE OF SKA
“It seems like the further we got away from the 90s the easier it was for people to look back at certain moments in this sort of nostalgic time capsule, and the capsule that Ska music fit into was one that just felt so cutesy and kitschy. It made it sort of easy to make fun of the music, the people making it, and the people listening to it."
Which is definitely a true statement for me. Up until receiving a promo copy of In Defense of Ska from CLASH Books, my knowledge of Ska as both a writer and a music fan was limited to my childhood memories of The Mighty Mighty Bosstones guest starring as the house band during a scene from the movie Clueless. It was brief. It was over the top. It was suspenders, and large lapels, and exaggerated facial expressions -- and then it was over. Much like Ska.
Carnes' book manages to change the readers perspective (assuming they had one) by the time the last page turns. From learning the history, to skanking through a day in the life of a music journalist who happened to have been in a Ska band himself, to hearing the stories told straight from the mouths of some of Ska's pioneers, In Defense of Ska gives readers a completely behind the scenes look at how the mighty mighty genre was formed, and how it's die hard fans have been doing everything they can to keep the music alive.
More than just the history though, the true joy of the book comes from reading the myriad of memories that Carnes shares from his own experiences of the music. From being the kid who showed up to a Skankin Pickle show and fell deeply in love with everything that was happening on stage, to the moments spent travelling in a van with East Bay group Vantana Row as they threw impromptu concerts in the parking lots of OTHER concerts happening the same day, you felt the sheer unmitigated happiness of a journalist finding his home among the music that he so deeply loved.
It is through that happiness that you can feel the protective nature of Carnes' work as it shines through the page. He doesn't yell wildly, waving his hands about in hopes that you will finally listen or understand where he is coming from. He doesn't try to berate you into understanding why Ska was and is so important. Instead, he opens his mind and his heart to anyone willing to take a peek inside, and shows off the treasure trove of reasons he has found to love Ska that he has collected over the years.
"The book served to remind me that not only is ska musically interesting and diverse, it is a form of music that historically welcomes outcasts from all races and orientations -- sometimes long before other music had adapted that same attitude. it's also been a place where powerful political messages combined together with this sort of danceable vibe that makes the message more powerful. I think it deserves to have it's place in history. That it should be dissected, and talked about, and held in revelry just like so many other genres of music. It's anti racist, anti establishment roots have an even bigger importance now than people give it credit for. Ska deserves it's due."
SKANKIN UP THE CHARTS
It's been about 90 days since Carnes released the book and in that short time it has made some major traction. From an interview on his podcast with major company Pabst Blue Ribbon (apparently secret Ska fans), to mentions in Rolling Stone, to thousands of copies sold (a feat for any author, let alone a new one) the success of In Defense of Ska reminds us just how many of it's fans have been lurking in the shadows, longing to see the light.
Carnes' book In Defense of Ska is available online, as well as in select bookstores Nationwide. You can also check out the amazing IDOS podcast here, and if you have Spotify make sure to follow the IDOS playlist, which contains every song or band listed in the book, in order.
Finally. As an aside.
The Mighty Mighty Bosstones actually have some really great music, and I'm sorry they ended up being the poster boys for 90s Ska.
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