Smash Mouth’s “All Star” predates Dreamworks’ Shrek by a full two years, but like U.S. President Abraham Lincoln and Shakespearean actor John Wilkes Booth, history has deemed them inexorably linked. The phenomenon comes to a head next month, sixteen years from the inception of what would go on to become the only redeeming feature of the internet, as the band’s August 5th show in Pittsburgh, PA, will be attended by a hundreds if not thousands of…well, Shreks.
This all began on Craigslist, as most rational endeavors do, before exploding on to Facebook with a thousand attendees listed as confirmed and additional five thousand showing interest in attending the concert, all Shrek’d up in order to “honor” the group. While that doesn’t necessarily mean a thousand or more will show up dressed as the iconic ogre (or “as Shrek's assistant Donkey if you must, but DO NOT bring an actual donkey to the concert”) what it does mean is that come August 6th, the denizens of Online™ will have many a picture and video with which to celebrate this cultural event. Bless.
But, as with all beautiful destinations that make us re-orient our understanding of the world, we must ask ourselves a fundamental question: how the hell did we get here?
The single was used to introduce the world to the title character, who went on to star in four films (soon to be five!), a Christmas special, and a 3D attraction at Universal Studios. The now iconic “SomeBODY once told me…” became forever associated with Mike Meyers’ garish green ogre emerging from an outhouse – among his first distinctly Scottish words were “What a load of [flushing noise]!” – before bathing and gargling with muck, just as “All that glitters is gold” became psychologically entangled with the image of him creating fart bubbles in his swamp not a minute later.
The film went on to have much critical and commercial success, paving the way for the likes of Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away by becoming the first ever recipient of the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. However, it was sometime prior to the release of Shrek Forever After in 2010 that image boards and web communities began taking an ironic liking to the gallant green paladin. Much of it is believed to have started on DeviantArt – a website you’re either familiar with, or lucky enough not to be – with the creation of fan art involving Shrek and Sonic supporting character Shadow The Hedgehog.
The marker sketches began fairly innocent, albeit surreal, with the infamous first comic “Shadow begs Shrek” being a mere four panels sans dialogue or narration. A silent moment between two lovers; longing in the eyes of Shadow, regret on Shrek’s humanized countenance, and the sense that there was a painful story yet to be explored – despite author cmara’s narrative description of the events preceding the panels, and their insistence that “this is NOT a yaoi pic, it's a friendship pic.”
Death of the Author has never felt so pertinent.
Whatever cmara’s original intentions, the dark corners of the internet were soon littered with romantic stories and hand-drawn pornography of these two Too-Cool-For-School characters, now discovering the warmth of sincerity in each other’s arms. Which, fittingly, feels like the crux of the entire Shrek phenomenon – the blurred line between ironic detachment and sincere affection. The original film, after all, rides that exact line by sandwiching a fart joke, crotch gag-laden fairytale parody within a straight-faced inversion of Beauty and the Beast, employing an even more effective variation on its ending to highlight the story’s themes of inner-beauty.
While bizarre first-person text stories of children’s sexual encounters with the ogre were their own thing for a while (“Shrek is love, Shrek is life” began on 4chan, of course), Shrek-centric ancillary content began to explode alongside the mainstreaming of web subcultures and the rise of the internet meme as a tool of mass communication. Before long, glitchy goof videos of Shrek in horror settings like “Shrek Gets Spooked” made the rounds at the same time as the film’s real and horrifying behind-the-scenes animation glitches. The original “brogres” may claim to be an ironic parody of “brony” culture (adult fans of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic co-opting and sexualizing a children’s property), but Shrek as a meme has taken on a life of its own, one that’s moved past the authors who moved past the Shadow comics, away from explicit fan art and disturbing stories of child molestation, swinging back in the opposite direction and becoming inseparable from the pop culture image of the movies themselves.
At this stage, it’s one of the most fascinating examples of post-ironic obsession given the nostalgia that comes with it. On one hand, Shrek is a creepy character, and manipulating him to look horrifying is funny in and of itself. On the other, both Shrek and Smash Mouth are emblematic of the brief period between Scary Movie and 9/11 (of course we’re going there, why wouldn’t we?), where “cool” was synonymous with juvenile and had a rapidly nearing expiration date, where pop-culture-reference as comedic currency was on the rise – the Shrek films are littered with them – and where said pop culture hadn’t yet been touched by the dark cloud of war and terror that defines so much of the modern consciousness.
What helps further establish “All Star” as part of this ironic-yet-not-ironic obsession is the fact that Smash Mouth themselves feel like a time capsule. Their look, their sound, their interactions with fans and even their logo feel plucked from an era before social media was a climate-controlled commodity for bands and brands. They simply don’t give a Shruck about selling a sterilized, watered-down image and instead lean in to both what they were – ’90s edgy-cool, i.e. cool for cool’s sake – and what the internet has caused them to mutate in to.
At the time of the writing of this article, this is the sixth most recent tweet on their twitter page:
Smash Mouth’s own acceptance of what they and “All Star” have become cements the Shrek craze as a part of our mainstream vernacular. Folks who have never heard of 4chan or have never laid eyes on fan art of Shrek staring longingly through a window as Shadow The Hedgehog wines and dines Wreck It Ralph’s Fix-It Felix (no, I’m not making that one up either) have likely stumbled upon one of the dozens of videos of people using Shrek and/or “All Star” in some unrelated scenario wherein the mere mention of them is the punch-line.
That’s Jon Sudano, and chances are you’ve come across him on Facebook, the final destination of the meme cycle. He has dozens upon dozens of videos where the punch-line kicks in early on – you think he’s about to cover an iconic song as it begins, but he breaks in to “SomeBODY once…” etc. along with its melody – and yet the rest of the joke is hard to look away from even though you know exactly what to expect.
Like the pop-culture-as-punch-line humor adopted by Scary Movie, Shrek, Family Guy and eventually The Big Bang Theory, “All Star” and Shrek himself have unintentionally become embodiments of that very modus operandi, wherein despite total and utter decontextualization, the recognition of common cultural language elicits enough of a chuckle for it to pass off as a joke. There’s no longer a line between that sort of zero effort, lowest-common-denominator construction and the extent to which the more obsessive elements of the Shrek meme have grown, like ironic opposition to the irony. There’s no real way to track the layers (heh) of this thing anymore, and attempting to categorize any instance of emerging Shrek content as either wholly sincere or wholly ironic may as well be folly.
How do you label an obsessive phenomenon which has its own obsessive following, and so on? That isn’t a rhetorical question. I’d like to figure it out. I don’t think you can, and given that I’ve spent this entire article writing about a phenomenon that blurs the line between irony and sincerity with no clue as to whether my appreciation for either Shrek or Shrek Culture comes from a place of affection or detachment on either level, the question feels unanswerable. At what point does addressing Shrek with Shrek memes, Shrek memes with Shrek meta-memes, Shrek meta-memes with Shrek cultural analysis, and Shrek cultural analysis with whatever your reaction will be to reading this… cease to be definable?
No, really. I don’t think it matters anymore, the same way the nature of enjoying a so-bad-it’s-good work of auteurial insanity like Dangerous Men doesn’t matter. Shrek memes are the product of unfiltered weirdness; outsider art crafted from the thigh of mainstream studio product, spread so wide and so memetically that they return to their original mainstream status quo after being filtered through deranged and often Dadaist lenses that exploit the perceived emptiness of Shrek (and, arguably, the actual emptiness of “All Star”), clashing with the weight of what Shrek legitimately stands for as a work of art despite its disposable appearance and subsequent repurposing as a vapid vessel for the web’s collective psychosis.
Which isn’t to say it ought to be equated with some sort of “nothing matters” fatalism, if anything it’s quite the opposite. Like the division between “Onions are like ogres… they have layers” as a fable for children’s understanding of emotional depth beyond the superficial, and simply “Layers!” as shorthand for, well, the reference itself, painted with a ridiculous brush for no other reason than the broader phenomenon exists, there’s an oscillation between two different forms of meaning – the sincere and the cynical – when it comes to these ironic/post-ironic internet memes (there’s a similar conversation to be had about Borat, Watto, and to a lesser degree, Bee Movie) wherein “meaning” itself is transmutated, no longer standing for the extremes of the swinging pendulum, but the very interplay that is the act of oscillating between them.
Shrek is love. Shrek is life. Shrek is the Alpha and the Omega when it comes to orienting one’s understanding of online culture, and of intent as it pertains to modern communication. Good luck figuring out whether or not everything I’ve said here is total horseshit, or the most thought and research I’ve put in to an article this year. I’d give you the answer if I could.
If you’re in the area, pit tickets to the Pittsburgh show are $25. You know what you have to do.