How TikTok Changed Wheatus’ Relationship With “Teenage Dirtbag”
Their 22-year-old hit song found new life. It’s likely not the last time.
Turns out everyone has had a “Teenage Dirtbag” phase. Lady Gaga went through one. Paris Hilton, Lil Nas X, and Halsey, too. Even Demi Lovato — who, come to think, is now back in hers.
Over the summer and seemingly out of nowhere, TikTok adopted the aughts-era alt-rock band Wheatus’ 22-year-old song “Teenage Dirtbag” as the latest viral challenge. The TikTok sound spurred over 751,000 videos, with Nina Dobrev, Christina Aguilera, and Joe Jonas’ versions all securing over 13 million views, proving the universality of an angsty teen phase.
For Brendan B. Brown, the lead singer of Wheatus, “Teenage Dirtbag’s” sudden success was a surprise, sure, but it wasn’t unprecedented. Since its release in 2000, when it was a hit in Australia and Europe, the song has experienced numerous revivals.
Brown calls them “flare-ups.” It happened in 2008 when “Teenage Dirtbag” featured in the HBO miniseries Generation Kill. And again in 2013 when One Direction performed the song on their 2013 Take Me Home tour, as well as in their subsequent concert documentary This Is Us. (No, not the Mandy Moore TV show.)
“It's like shingles,” Brown tells Elite Daily, noting they’re accustomed to the quiet periods of working as touring musicians and independent recording artists. “That is who we are — that sort of low-level thing — and then [“Teenage Dirtbag”] just decides to be a thing.”
“Teenage Dirtbag” has long been a cult classic, covered by generations of alt-rockers. Dashboard Confessional, Ruston Kelly, Phoebe Bridgers, and current rising pop star Jax have all cut their own rendition of the track.
The latest surge is a little different. It’s part of a recurring phenomenon of legacy artists finding mainstream success in this digital, nostalgia-obsessed era. Just look at the surprising year Kate Bush is having with “Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God),” a song from 1985 that found a resurgence thanks to Stranger Things.
Wheatus’ most recent surge couldn’t come at a more serendipitous time. They’re working on a double-album re-release of their 2000 eponymous debut record, including previously unreleased music from their vault. Earlier this month, Brown was in the studio gearing up for a show in Connecticut. It was just one of many on their increasingly full calendar.
Brown took a few minutes to chat with Elite Daily about going viral decades later, meeting King Charles in the aughts, and embracing the “kelp and shells” of life.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Elite Daily: How’d you first hear “Teenage Dirtbag” was going viral on TikTok?
Brendan B. Brown: I have this guy in my life called Rick, who fixes our guitars. I used to apprentice under him when I was 21 years old…He goes, “So is your band having some kind of resurgence?” I was like, “Man, I hope so, what do you mean?” And he said, “Well, my daughter…” And then of course his daughter is 13 or whatever and has a TikTok account. And it was that.
ED: At what point did you realize this is more than the normal flare-up?
BB: [The band] said [sic] to each other for about a week and a half, “This is going to be over soon.” Then it was, “Wait a minute, Madonna just did one. And oh, there's Gaga and Terry Crews and Lil Nas X and Cheech and Chong. Oh boy!” I lost track of the number of artists I respect and admire doing it, which was stunning to me.
ED: Have you noticed a TikTok-induced IRL increase in Wheatus interest?
BB: Yeah, our booking agent is talking to us 25 times more than he normally does. We did Sirius XM [a few weeks ago.] We went in there and did a day at the studios performing. They let us bring our full live rig in to set up, so it was a proper full rock show.
It's all happening again, it feels like.
ED: Between “Teenage Dirtbag” and Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill,” it’s interesting to see decades-old songs have success.
BB: She was trying to do something that we never had any kind of challenge on, not even close as a woman in [the] 1980s music industry. She must have stories that would make you vomit. I do feel that's a special kind of challenge that I can't relate to, so she's in another league on that. But you're right. I think surreal is a good word for it. I think [it’s] bizarre. There's a twinge of, oh, didn't anybody know that we were OK before? Are we suddenly cool?
The thing that keeps normalizing us and making it feel just fine is this notion that whatever [“Teenage Dirtbag”] came from – whatever the idea was behind it, its origin, [or] its impetus – the only survivable factor in the song is how people see themselves in the narrative.
ED: “Universality” might be the word.
BB: Which is weird because I do not think there is a universality of generations. I don't think anything that I learned growing up in the ‘80s is particularly valuable or even nice now. I'm not envious of young people, but I am glad that it seems to be a bit of a better, less crazy [and] hateful environment to grow up in.
ED: Those feelings of “Who am I?” on “Teenage Dirtbag” transcend.
BB: I think you're right. The individual process of constructing your own identity, that is maybe universal although unique in each circumstance.
ED: Who's a favorite artist that’s done the “Teenage Dirtbag” trend?
BB: Heidi [Klum] to this day is the only person who's ever guest-vocaled for the girl part on stage with us, and she approached us with it…Seeing her post that video and do her own “Dirtbag” thing was like, oh, there's Heidi. It's a true moment of nostalgia for us from the time when the song was new.
The other one was Alicia Keys. I had presented an award with her back in 2001 at the MTV Europe [Music] Awards. We presented [an award] to Damon Albarn for Gorillaz’s “Clint Eastwood,” and I was so unbelievably nervous just because [I was] this dildo kid from Long Island who had no experience in showbiz…She said, “Hello,” and it was suddenly the calm came. So having bumped into those two wonderful people back in the day and having them acknowledge it again was, for a band like us, really interesting.
ED: You got on TikTok, hopped on the trend, and one video has over 3.5 million views.
BB: Yeah, we intend to engage a little bit more as well...[Finding] more musical partnerships is going to be my focus in the coming months. Just try and learn the platform slowly after this huge blip, which is exactly how things went for us in 2000 and 2001. Huge blip, and then learn the music industry slowly.
ED: So you're seeing a mirror between the song’s release and this recent success?
BB: I think 10 or 15 years from now, if we're still alive, the chart will look eerily similar.
ED: Does that mentality keep you going forward? At some point, the song is not going to have the intensity it does now.
BB: Every big wave that crashes on a beach leaves some things on the shore, right? Through the years, we have made good friends with those pieces of kelp and shells and things. Those are the people who are basically extended members of our family. They're always in the front row at shows, and we always have a chat at the merch table. Sometimes I go to breakfast with them, if we're in town long enough. We hang out. We have meetups. As the song has multiple generations of these moments where it explodes, we have multiple generations of these extended family members.
ED: You almost had training for how to respond to a moment like this.
BB: Yeah, we did. We played the Prince's Trust Party in the Park for Prince Charles in Hyde Park in 2001 and again in 2003. We formally met Prince Charles on the second one, and he came up to me. We were all standing in a line, and he said, “Hello, did everything go OK today in terms of the technical side of things? Because it sounded fantastic.” I only felt like saying to him, “You don't have to do this. I'm just a dipsh*t from f*cking Suffolk County, man.” I know you've been prepped. That television audience that day for live TV was 11 million, and the audience in Hyde Park was 250,000 people. And it was nerve-wracking as hell.
You say to yourself, “They're going to find out who we are any minute, and that's going to be it.” But when you play that song in front of those people and the connections there, it doesn't really matter who you are [or] where you came from. It becomes irrelevant. They want that thing.
ED: I imagine you're probably often wrestling with a lot of observations about your career.
BB: That's all I have to think about. I wake up in the morning and stare into my coffee and I'm like, “Am I still a musician? How?” Doesn't make any sense.
ED: Do these flare-ups validate the “Am I still a musician?” question?
BB: Oh no, not really...We got used to being a low-level touring band. We're not going to be used to being this blow-up band. Although it does happen. It's something we're familiar with. It's like a comet that comes around unpredictably, but we're pretty sure we think it might return. So we kind of keep rehearsing really hard on being ready for stuff...I'll never feel validated, or a better word would be “established” maybe?