I have friends who are into ska and complain about how the music and scene completely disintegrated since the late 90s. They sometimes wonder what factors contributed to that wrong turn, and what could have prevented it, but really, it’s not that difficult to see. All you need to do is think about what popularized ska, and simply follow that path again. But the last time around, ska did make a number of near-fatal mistakes. Here are the biggest blunders – and hopefully our knowledge of them will prevent future screw-ups from this funky scene.
1. The supporting of crappy local bands
As Cervantes once said, greed is the root of all evil. And greed in the ska scene took two forms: kids who couldn’t get enough of the ska, and young crappy bands who were happy to oblige. The former couldn’t be happy with the Sublimes and Leftover Cracks of the world who were already producing excellent ska, so they generated a demand for more. Bands popped up to fill that demand and line their pockets… only problem was that they sucked. Yet ska kids continued to support them in their greedy hunger, and this glut continued until 99% of ska sucked. That much concentrated suckage was one of the largest contributions to the downfall of the music.
2. Acting elitist, excluding others
You have to give Christians credit – they know how to convert people. If the early Christians didn’t want anyone else in their club, we’d all be praying to Zeus right now. So conversion, or inclusiveness to use a prettier term, is vital for the survival of any group. Interestingly, ska fans were reluctant to open their gates to others. Maybe it goes back to greed, not wanting to share. Or maybe it stemmed from some self-defeating, self-hating, mass-suicidal psychological disorder. Regardless, it’s not something you see often in music scenes, where everyone wants everyone else to appreciate their music. Just look at pop music – it has survived this long because the fans aren’t trying to hide the music from each other. They support inclusiveness, pushing the music on radio and MTV, trying to get others interested. The ska scene’s aversion to radio play, videos, and even educating people on ska’s fascinating 20-year old history, had effectively closed the doors on those who could’ve replaced the ranks of those who left.
3. Preferring swing and rockabilly over ska
And many ska fans left because they became seduced by the swing and rockabilly revival movements. Instead of keeping one foot planted in the ska scene, they all ran full steam into a new scene, burning bridges behind them. And from what I hear, those wagon jumpers are now mainly listening to emo and Liz Phair.
4. Including the wrong people
I mentioned that the ska scene excluded many. But those they did include were unsavory. The late 90s saw skinheads being accepted into ska circles. Yes, skinheads!
5. The splintering of ska
One day, ska is Less Then Jake, Bosstones, and No Doubt (though some would argue that last one – but their return to ska on their latest “Rock Steady” should remove any “doubts!”) The next day, you have ska-funk, ska-jazz, ska-this, ska-that. Now, I’m not saying that the evolution of music is bad, but I don’t believe the scene was mature enough to handle it. Immediately, bickering sprung up over which type of ska was better. Coastal wars were the norm. Ska-jazz especially turned off a lot of fans: Long jams, soloing, and lengthy song durations sapped the energy and fun danceability from ska. It soon wasn’t rare to see upwards of 8 musicians on stage, each taking a turn to bore the hell out of you.
6. Stealing music
A friend of mine owns a computer. One of the things he does on it is download ska music – without paying for it. I asked him why, and he replied: “I don’t have the money, and I can just get the songs on the Internet.” Is it any wonder that bands couldn’t afford to survive, especially with upwards of eight musicians in their band?
7. Negative behaviors
Ska fans, otherwise respectable-looking in suits and sweaters, decided to call themselves “rudeboys” and act rude to people. This turned off many, including, I’m sure, radio stations and MTV.
8. Not crossing over into rap
While taking on many permutations, ska didn’t follow metal’s lead into rap (the only thing that saved metal, incidentally). Racism or just plain stupidity?
9. Bad girl-guy ratio
Go onto any ska message board (on the Internet), and you will find mostly guys. The ska scene is one big wiener fest – no wonder why so many people left it! And it’s also no wonder why so many left it for emo – where the guys and girls are equally represented, and even weep together.
10. Warped sense of quality
As previously mentioned, ska fans were rabid over crappy, local bands. But how did they feel toward the bigger, touring bands? They resented them. A backlash against the more popular ska bands, like Smashmouth and No Doubt, was fueled by ska fans’ immaturity. Not wanting to share their music, and having the local bands to supply what they need, the bigger bands who were shouldering the scene fell under the weight of negative attitudes. And like Ayn Rand’s Atlantis Shrugged, many of the bigger bands gave up the ska and went on to play pop music – where they could be appreciated.