rock hall 2020

Once Again, Dave Matthews Band Don’t Belong

I suspect that most of us who had a Dave phase will always look back fondly on our time with him, and the world of dancing nancies and tripping billies he conjured before we were self-aware enough to disavow them. Photo: Francesco Prandoni/Redferns/Getty Images

This essay originally ran in November 2017 around the release of Lady Bird. We’re running it again today in light of Dave Matthews Band’s controversial exclusion from the 2020 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame class, despite winning the Fan Vote by over 1 million votes.

In the year 2000, it was certainly lost on me that “Crash Into Me” was about a stalker. I didn’t have cable, so I wouldn’t have seen Dave Matthews say as much on a 1999 episode of VH1 Storytellers. What I had was a CD copy of Dave Matthews Band’s 1996 album Crash, along with the liner notes and lyrics printed out clear as daylight: “Oh I watch you there through the window and I stare at you / wear nothing but you wear it so well.” It probably didn’t read as “stalker” to me because in high school every romance begins with an act of stalking; behavior like scrawling someone’s name on your belongings or following them home even though it’s not on your way are still socially acceptable acts. I figured that this lady Dave is singing about lives next door to him, and she knows he has a crush on her, and she kind of likes it. They flirt from afar, and it’s very sexy and adult, a grown-up version of Taylor Swift’s “You Belong to Me” video.

I doubt it would ever dawn on Lady Bird, the titular heroine of Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, that the song is about stalking, either. “I thought it was a really romantic song when I was a teenager,” Gerwig told Noreen Malone in New York’s profile of her last month. “I couldn’t imagine a world in which a guy would feel that way about me.” Even those who have not yet had the delight of seeing Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird are probably already aware of its use of “Crash Into Me,” a song which has become a punch line even among people who at one time found themselves swept away by it. Gerwig’s use of it is the best kind of revivification of a maligned artifact — at once sincere and knowing, and ultimately genuinely emotional. It is a song by a band that most would not admit to liking even as an adult trading embarrassing high-school anecdotes, which is why its use in this specific, intimate coming-of-age tale is so perfect.

In 2002 and 2003, the years that the film takes place, the song is at least six years old. There’s no mention of Napster in Lady Bird, but the possibilities opened up by file-sharing is an inescapable part of any early-aughts narrative about finding one’s self. That’s at least how I, a one-time Dave Matthews devotee, can now make sense of the two or so years I was immersed in his music, which I listened to alongside random J-pop acts and the Human League and anything else that piqued my interest as a potential building block of my personality, with little regard for their currency or supposed relevance to my generation. In Lady Bird, the protagonist is a Sondheim aficionado who also has Sleater-Kinney and Bikini Kill stickers on her wall. Nothing is as tidy as it was for, say, the kids in John Carney’s Sing Street, who are singularly, monolithically influenced by the New Wave bands of the time.

But my DMB phase was decidedly analog, borne of terrestrial radio and live shows. My most formative Dave Matthews Band–related memory is also the moment my fandom for them came to an abrupt end. In the summer between my sophomore and junior year of high school I begged and borrowed for a ticket to their concert at Soldier Field in Chicago; my friend’s mom drove us three hours for an overnight trip to see them. Our seats were high and to the left of the stage; with little visibility and horrible acoustics the majority of my first and last Dave Matthews concert were Dave Matthews fans: loud frat boys and scary neo-hippies, the cloud of pot smoke they generated, the flowing beer I could not drink. With a kind of violent jolt I realized that these were not my people. I remember my friend being terribly disrespectful to his mom during the trip despite her willingness to chaperone, and feeling sad and disinclined to grow up if this was what it was going to be like.

But that’s kind of ironic, in retrospect, because my enjoyment of the sound and feeling of Dave Matthews Band’s music was so thoroughly wrapped up in an idea of grown-upness. It sounded like the kind of free jazz, semi-“world music” that would be at the kinds of folk-art festivals my mom would take me to as a child; but it was not my mom’s music, it was mine. Listening to Dave Matthews Band transported me to a world of Zen bon vivant bohemia that couldn’t be more removed from the awkward, anxious realities of adolescence, but which I aspired to nonetheless. My “Crash Into Me,” the DMB song into which I poured all my feelings of longing and unrequited love (about my gay theater crush, it turned out) was “Crush,” off 1998’s Before These Crowded Streets. I laughed out loud when I listened to it again recently; with its smooth sax and seductive bass line, it sounds exactly like a tween’s idea of late-night adult feelings. It’s also still terribly romantic to me. In the climactic reprise, Matthews sings “I mean to tell you all the things I’ve been thinking / Deep inside, my friend / Each moment, the more I love you.” So yes, like “Crash Into Me,” there couldn’t be a better soundtrack for a 14-year-old’s pining.

What must my mom thought of me, a freshman in high school, jamming to this wine-and-ganja music, requesting a specific DMB shirt off their online store for Christmas? I feel like at one point I played their Live at Red Rocks cover of “All Along the Watchtower” for her, trying to find some connectivity between her music and mine. (I don’t think she was very impressed.) But by the next year, I had fully transitioned into my emo phase; the smooth sax and Kronos Quartet cameos had been replaced by young midwestern men howling about the women who had destroyed them. I had learned to tolerate the smell of marijuana, and to remove my DMB CDs from my shelf. I imagine that, thanks to the internet, the cycle of picking up and dropping the music that one wears like a sign, to attract the right people and keep the wrong people out, has only accelerated since 2003. But I suspect that most of us who had a Dave phase will always look back fondly on our time with him, and the world of dancing nancies and tripping billies he conjured before we were self-aware enough to disavow them.

Once Again, Dave Matthews Band Don’t Belong