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I Stood My Ground on the Mountain
somehow this is a post about butt rock
Album: Lemon Parade
You know Tonic, even if you don’t know that you know them. Their single “If You Could Only See” was so huge that it became a pop-music black hole: It was completely inescapable (which seems good!) but it also completely swallowed the image of the band who wrote it (which is less good). And so the band, probably unfairly, gets labeled as a one-hit wonder.1
I don’t care about any of that. This is a post about the time Tonic wrote a vaguely butt rock song.
For the uninitiated,2 butt rock is basically anything that sounds like Creed.3 The genre emerged in the post-grunge landscape,4 but got caught in the uncanny valley between classic rock and hard rock. In fact, I'd argue that butt rock is classic rock for people who don't like classic rock and hard rock for people who don't like hard rock. Common elements in the genre include gravelly and over-performed vocals, chunky-ass guitar tones occasionally complimented by acoustics, bass players who are way too impressed with themselves, a completely unearned sense of seriousness and superiority, and lyrics that touch on some combination of mountains, fire, invocations of god(s), and the idea that women are objects to be won and/or opponents to be conquered.
If someone calls your band butt rock, you have been insulted.
So anyway, Tonic was decidedly not a butt rock band. They were post-grunge, yes, but in a forgettable,5 alternative, radio-pop kind of way. But nestled into Lemon Parade, the band’s 1996 debut, is “Mountain,” a kick-ass track that embraces many of the tenets of butt rock: There’s the folksy acoustic jangle to open the track, the try-hard soulful vocals, the incredibly drawn-out harmonies, the explosive crunch of the chorus, and the lyrics that are meant to be epic but read like the ramblings of an addled brain—and which hit for the mountain/fire/god/female-objectification cycle.6 Vocalist Emerson Hart doesn't quite have the weight of gravel to his voice that you'd expect for the genre, and yet if you close your eyes and tell yourself it's Scott Stapp singing, well, you might be convinced.
If it sounds like I'm making fun of "Mountain,” rest assured I am, but I need you, dear reader, to understand that I also legitimately think this is a great song. It’s got the aesthetic appeal and absurd earnestness of Tenacious D’s “Wonderboy” or “Tribute” but without the humor, and that is, somehow, a remarkable achievement. The song reaches a special height in its back third, when everything peels away for a delicate, minimalist bridge that ends with nothing but Hart intoning—what else?—“on the mountain,” before a cataclysmic guitar solo comes bearing down on us. The shredding leads to one last chorus, this time with even more vocal affectation,7 concluding with Hart shouting the word “name” as if it were spelled “nay-EEM” which, I mean, no notes. Perfection.
On my normal ranking scale, I would give “Mountain” four out of five stars. But on the butt rock scale, which I think we can use here, I give it five mountains, or 100 DOD Grunge pedals, or 1 million butts, whatever the system is.
Aside from being a pejorative term that the band probably wants to avoid, Tonic simply wasn’t a one-hit wonder: “If You Could Only See” was actually the band’s second hit. Its first, “Open Up Your Eyes,” was moderately successful and features a cameo from Mick Fleetwood in its extremely-’90s video. Beyond that, the band’s third album, 2002’s Head on Straight, was nominated for Best Rock Album at the Grammy Awards. I’m a fan of both. (I also saw Tonic while they toured with Head on Straight and they were fantastic.) I am weirdly willing to die on the hill that Tonic was at least a two-hit wonder.
God bless you sweet, innocent people. I’m sorry for adding the phrase “butt rock” to what I assume are your otherwise impeccable vocabularies.
There are a shocking number of definitions for butt rock, many of them often conflicting with one another. I’d argue that this one gets a lot of important elements right, particularly the genre’s lyrical themes, but it also makes a terrible poop joke and paints large groups of people with unfairly broad strokes. For my money, the ur-text in defining butt rock comes from Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron who once said, “Butt-rock is just the stupidest, basic, three-chord rock that you can possibly play.” That feels right. Three chords, loud amps, can’t lose.
I can’t believe how academic these footnotes have become, but I should clarify that there are some definitions of the genre claiming that cheesy hair metal bands like Warrant are the real butt rock acts. To my great shame, those bands were once described to me as [grimaces] “cock rock,” and that name, however crude, somehow feels more correct? The answer is probably that those hair bands should be classified as first-wave butt rock with the post-grunge entries as second-wave butt rock. Which would then make Imagine Dragons the standard bearers of third-wave butt rock, right? God, I’ve thought too much about this.
For the record, I (obviously) love Tonic. But the fact that no one on earth seems to remember them earns the “forgettable” here.
Let’s just take a peek, shall we? “She / she came down / from the mountain / and I / I stood my ground / on the mountain / like a fire I’m drawn to her lust / I can’t run from her but Lord I must / like a demon I’m drawn to her flame / I’m gonna burn calling her name.” At the risk of oversimplifying my questions: What? So she came down from the mountain, but our hero stood his ground … also on the mountain? Was she at the top of the mountain and he was already halfway up so she met him in the middle? Was he going up to meet her? Running down in fear? And then “like a fire” he’s drawn to her … lust? And “like a demon” he’s drawn to her … flame? That’s not poetry, it’s just backwards.
And also the incredible background vocal that just keeps repeating “Mountaaaain!” after every line. Tremendous. A+.