There are few songs that have earned ongoing YouTube meme status: Toto’s “Africa”; Rick Astley’s “Never Going to Give You Up”; and best of all, Smash Mouth’s “All Star.”
“All Star” didn’t reach meme-icon status by itself; it worked in conjunction with one of DreamWorks Animation’s most popular movies, Shrek. Smash Mouth released “All Star” in 1999, but the hit single was popularized again in 2001 thanks to Shrek, where it played at the very beginning of the movie.
Critics have panned various Shrek installments, and it’s clear the series isn’t one of the all-time greats (despite more than $1 billion in box office sales and a fifth movie reportedly in development). Their critical and cultural reputation have led both Shrek and “All Star” to exist in a space that reinforces what makes a good meme: Everyone is in on the same joke. It’s easy to riff on the core reason for the ridicule. Both “All Star” and Shrek are kind of ridiculous, so why not make them even more ridiculous by reimagining them in the most ludicrous ways imaginable?
The mega success that Smash Mouth’s “All Star” has found online is similar to Shrek’s own place as a weird internet phenomenon. With sites like YouTube, DeviantArt, Tumblr, 4chan, Reddit and Facebook, people were able to hone in on their appreciation, both ironic and honest, for Shrek and “All Star.” In 2012, an image board dedicated to Shrek, ShrekChan, launched for fans to upload various memes they created or stumbled upon.
“All Star” in particular has found a new home on YouTube, where users have been remixing the song to create something funny, tragic or downright unlistenable since 2009. A YouTuber known as Rich Alvarez uploaded the first known parody, “Mario, You’re a Plumber,” which starred Nintendo’s beloved character. The video currently has 1.5 million views. Although it’s unclear as to why it took nearly eight years for the song to pop off again, the video’s release came during the same period that users uploaded many of YouTube’s biggest viral videos, such as “David After Dentist.”
More of these videos have been made and gone viral over the years, with different YouTubers mastering the art of using the song to create unique remixes. The most recent master of the “All Star” remix is an English lad named Joe Jenkins.
Jenkins uploaded his “All Star” parody covers six months ago, in May. The first video, “All Star by Smash Mouth but it's played on a $1 piano that I found on ebay,” has amassed more than 1.4 million views since it was first uploaded. It was the success of that video that led him to create a dozen more, Jenkins told Polygon from his home in England.
“I suppose it started off with my finding other things to do with my channel, and I thought, ‘Right, well, “All Star” has done well in the past, so I can do it again,’” Jenkins said. “So I did it a couple of times, and then I suppose it sort of became a habit and sort of became my thing.”
Since that initial video, Jenkins has uploaded 18 other videos where he plays “All Star” using miscellaneous objects. There’s “All Star but it's played through the hole in the satellite picture and with my spare change for gas,” “All Star but it's played on the sharpest tool in my shed” and “All Star but it's played on a thicc cat,” which has nearly 1.9 million views. The method of playing “All Star” he returns to the most, however, remains the tiny $1 piano that he bought off eBay. It was that purchase that made Jenkins want to play around with songs defined by their meme status, he said.
“I think I realized [the potential for funny videos] as soon as I got the tiny piano because it made such a stupid sound,” Jenkins said. “It took me so long to actually do anything that even when I finally did make the video, it was on my channel for about a month it got barely any views. Then suddenly out of nowhere — I don’t know what it is, maybe the YouTube algorithm — it got 100,000 views in two or three days.”
Jenkins admitted that he wasn’t a big fan of the “All Star” meme when he was first introduced to it, but after the success he found on his channel, he’s become defined by it. “All Star” has forever changed Jenkins’ status as a YouTuber, but he’s not the only one affected by it: Smash Mouth is, too.
“It's all crazy to us to see all the new different formats,” Smash Mouth’s lead singer, Steve Harwell, told Polygon via email. “Heck, the internet wasn’t even up and running when we started.”
Part of the reason Harwell believes that the song continues to dominate online is because the track was ahead of its time, and that it’s especially well-suited for mashups. But it took a while for the band to warm up to the idea that millions of people were ridiculing “All Star,” Harwell confessed. When the memes started popping up in 2009, “All Star” was 10 years old, and the band didn’t understand why it had suddenly become the go-to for memesters and pranksters around the world.
“At first it was weird, and we were a bit guarded and resistant,” Harwell said. “But as we dove into it more and focused on it we started ‘getting it.’
“Plus, to be honest, it has really spiked the sales [of the song].”
As “All Star” has gotten bigger, Harwell said, people have asked the band to star in their mashups, remixes or covers. It doesn’t sound like that’s something the band will do anytime soon.
“We feel it's best for others to do it,” Harwell said. “We’ve had requests, but none of them has felt right. We feel if other people do it, it adds to the beauty, but if we did it, we feel it would cheapen it.”
Even with Smash Mouth’s approval of the meme, YouTubers still face problems with copyright infringement. Jenkins said that he’s run into a few copyright issues over various “All Star” videos that he’s posted, but he knows that there’s not much he can do about it.
“Every now and then, I don’t know who it is, they seem to have this little search through for anything ‘All Star,’ and they find [a video],” Jenkins said. “Then they claim it. I don’t have much of a case against it because it is their song. They pretty much have all the power in the situation. They could probably choose to say, ‘Hey, I want all your revenue,’ but instead they say, ‘We’ll just share the revenue with you,’ so I still get some.”
The question, just like with almost everything on YouTube that uses existing content, is whether these “All Star” remix videos fall under fair use guidelines. Fair use is the legal reason why content creators like Let’s Play personalities can get away with uploading large chunks of video games to YouTube. As long as creators are commenting on or altering the game in some way — and publishers aren’t complaining — YouTube allows them to keep their videos up and monetized.
Harwell didn’t say whether Smash Mouth has claimed copyright infringement on any of these videos themselves; instead, he said, that decision rests in Interscope Records’ hands. A YouTube representative previously confirmed to Polygon that the platform doesn’t act as a mediator for copyright disputes, although it does its part in verifying claims.
“When copyright holders work with us to provide reference files for their content, we ensure all live broadcasts are scanned for third-party content, and we either pause or terminate streams when we find matches to third-party content,” a representative told Polygon.
Unless the rights owner files a copyright infringement claim, like in the case of third-party Rick and Morty streams on YouTube, YouTube lets videos stay up, even those that toe the line of legality.
“You can define it in two ways,” Jenkins said when asked if his “All Star” remixes should count as fair use. “It is sort of a parody, but it’s also a cover, and I don’t know much about fair use here, but it is [the record label’s] song,” Jenkins said. “I’m using their property. It’s fair for them to think it’s theirs because it is.”
Getting dinged from time to time for copyright issues isn’t enough to get Jenkins to stop remixing “All Star.” Jenkins said he’ll continue contributing to the meme culture of “All Star” until people stop watching. With his most recent “All Star” video approaching 75,000 views, it doesn’t appear like that will happen anytime soon.