I’ve been trying to identify this particular niche of pop culture interest that I am (for now) dubbing the Stray Cats Zone (or, SCZ). The origination of this concept comes from a theory I have that no one would ever cite the Stray Cats as their favorite band. Sure, many people are at least passingly familiar with them, and many people like what they’ve heard just fine, but if asked to name their favorite music, the Stray Cats wouldn’t come to mind. So similar artists will match similar criteria.
It will further help to define counterexamples:
- The Rolling Stones are not in the SCZ because plenty of people would identify them as a favorite band right off the top of their head.
- Dexy’s Midnight Runners are not in the SCZ because a one-hit wonder doesn’t really have the staying power to be widely familiar. You wouldn’t expect anyone to cite a one-hit wonder as an all-time favorite.
- Someone pretty obscure (i.e., not even a one-hit wonder) that would not be widely recognized does not qualify.
The Stray Cats happen to occupy this particular niche, to my mind. They are plenty popular, of course. They have lots of hits and a few platinum albums. They were the posterkids for a short-lived rockabilly revival fad. But for some reason, I have trouble picturing someone who latched onto them and decided that was their favorite band. Maybe for a short time, but wouldn’t such a person move on to something else pretty soon? If rockabilly was really your thing, wouldn’t you go back to the actual stuff and get into Elvis or Johnny Cash? And wouldn’t you eventually like them better? It seems to me that: yes, you would. I could be wrong, but a cursory internet search for Stray Cats fan sites didn’t turn up much – a couple of abandoned (and hilariously haphazard) MySpace pages and a few more general rockabilly sites.
So I guess what this comes down to is a short list of artists that manage to maintain a steady but unspectacular popularity. And it’s been hard to identify others. I think they have to be things that ultimately didn’t seem too unique in retrospect. They’re like a great compromise: a little something for everyone but no one is ultimately entirely pleased. I have been discussing this with K endlessly, because that’s the kind of thing we do. We can think of only a few others so far:
- Huey Lewis and the News – I like Huey Lewis. You like Huey Lewis. Lots of people liked Sports. When “Heart of Rock & Roll” comes on, people are happy. But what happened? Why don’t people wear ironic t-shirts with the Sports album cover on it? I think there just isn’t much for people to latch onto that they can’t find in a lot of other places.
- The Gin Blossoms – a quintessential pleasing but frankly unremarkable 90s band. I like them. K really likes a few of their songs. But aren’t there like a million others like them? Does anyone wish they’d have put out more records? Once you’ve got all of them, you don’t go: “What now? There’s nothing else like this.” You go: “Well, got all of those. Hey, here are some more Paul Westerberg albums I don’t have.”
- Soundgarden – I used to be a grunge nut. Every time I heard a Soundgarden song I reminded myself to go pick up Superunknown. Well, I never actually did. I think maybe Soundgarden fits that compromising criteria particularly well. You might like their sound but Chris Cornell’s voice bugs you after a while. You might dig that voice, but then you’d probably just end up liking Nirvana or Metallica more.
(Here is where a dozen Stray Cats lovers write to comment about how wrong I am…)