The melodrama & magic of "Iris"
In praise of the hit & of its 4x platinum album, Dizzy Up The Girl, on its 25th anniversary
Howdy, and welcome to Good And Good For You, a newsletter about music and feelings. I’m gonna be real with you guys—and who reads these intros, anyway? The stakes are low, yeah?—this piece got rejected from multiple outlets I pitched, so I’m QUITE doubtful that it’s any good at all. But, as my old great-grandfather used to say: you’re doing great, sweetie!!! Jk he never said that. But feel free to leave a comment if YOU’D like to say it!
With the advent of Barbie this summer, we’ve found ourselves in the Roaring Matchbox Twenties. Well, if you’ve found yourself remembering how much you love “Push,” may I interest you in a revisit to “Iris”?
In 1998, with “Push” still in heavy airwave rotation, Matchbox Twenty’s contemporaries, the Goo Goo Dolls, were cooking up their own iconic singalong jams. It’d be a few more years until I heard them myself, once I got a Sharper Image combo CD player/alarm clock/radio in middle school, my portal to KISS FM (96.7) and, therefore, all the faux-edgy alt-pop I’d been missing all my life. It was 2004, and melodramatic, earnest dudes ruled the airwaves with a sensitive fist.
When “Iris” would come on the radio, it caught your attention immediately with those haunting, jangly first notes. Then, the opening line busts in like an angsty Kool-Aid man: “And I’d give up forever to touch you.” Has any real, normal man ever actually said this? Eleven-year-old me certainly didn’t know, or care. What I cared about was the way the song made me feel: like life could be gorgeously, dangerously thrilling.
I’ll never forget the look of exasperation on my guitar teacher’s face when I played him “Iris.” He taught kids to play by picking out the chords of a song they’d bring him and teaching them to play it—ideally, making instrument practice fun. A very cool idea! But it was written all over his classic-rock-loving face: this was pop garbage, and he wished I’d have picked a different song.
“Uhh, this isn’t guitar,” he correctly assessed of the first few notes (it’s a mandolin). “Can we pick another song?”
I felt foolish. There was no prettier song than “Iris,” I had thought, though I could now tell Van didn’t agree with me. I wanted to play it; I wanted to sing it; I wanted to feel it running through my veins. WHEN EVERYTHING FEELS LIKE THE MOVIES!, I’d scream along when I had my radio playing and my mom was out running errands. YEAH YOU BLEED JUST TO KNOW YOU’RE ALIVE! I had no idea what the song was about, but I couldn’t get enough. But that day made me reconsider: maybe “Iris” was just pop garbage.
Last winter, almost 20 years later, I was camped out at my neighborhood 24-hour coffee shop when I heard the unmistakable stair-stepping guitar notes of “Slide,” the album’s other massive hit. It warmed me up from the inside out: the urgent tempo, the mellow tambourines, the full band that crashes in for the strumming guitars that strum, strum, strum in lieu of a lyrical chorus. Guitarist/vocalist John Rzeznik’s husky voice floats over the ringing, simplistic chords, most of the lyrics lost to a case of the mumbles until the bridge crashes in with “Wanna get marrieeeeeed and run away?” A bold proposition! But one I’ve always loved. They simply don’t make men like this anymore—that want to wake up where you are. That won’t say anything at all. The flickering mirage of the Himbo leads us further and further into the desert, I fear.
Then, to my surprise, the album kept playing. More Goo Goo Dolls songs. I’d never really thought to listen to this whole album—had assumed its primary function was as a vehicle for a few sappy-sweet radio hits. But as the tracks kept rolling in the dimly-lit cafe, they continued to pique my interest. It was the night I realized that Dizzy Up the Girl, in its entirety, is worth a bit of pondering. It’s paradoxically both vapid and sincere, basic instrumentation occasionally coalescing in moments not unlike brilliance.
For all his melodrama, Rzeznik actually has a very rich, pretty voice, and it’s the thread that weaves this improbable album together. The catch? He’s not the record’s only lead vocalist. After the first three tracks, all of which sound consistent with the Goo Goo Dolls of “Iris” radio fame, Guy #2—bassist/vocalist Robby Takac—takes the mic and 180’s the vibe. Track 4, “January Friend,” could easily be a shitty Green Day song. And I don’t mean “shitty” like, cool shitty; I mean like this song is kind of dumb. And yet! There is something kind of endearing to it, and it oddly provided a breath of fresh of air between the cloyingly sweet double-punch of “Broadway” and “Black Balloon.” Takac’s dollar-store Billy Corgan impression serves as a bit of a palate cleanser and, in my opinion, makes the album interesting. It time-stamps Dizzy Up The Girl in 1998 and grounds it in a little much-needed rock context, no matter how clumsily.
Then, all of a sudden, Rzeznik and his twinkly harmonics are back for “Black Balloon,” the third radio hit of the album. I can’t help it, I love this song. It’s pretty, pop-ballad perfection. I’d pay one million dollars to dance to this with someone sweet at a hypothetical school dance in 1999. It’s a cheesy, sparkling four minutes and nine seconds of pure cinema.
Flat, crunchy electric guitars break the spell, kicking off “Bullet Proof,” which redeems a slow start with a nice Rzeznik chorus. The next one, “Amigone,” hands the vocals back to Takac, with mixed results, again in the vein of a Green Day with no strong opinions. In the coffee shop, though, it was strangely kinda hitting: like before, the cadence of the album’s vocal tradeoffs kept things lively. I mean, how seriously was I really going to take this anyway? The band’s name is THE GOO GOO DOLLS (a name I have always disliked).
Speaking of dolls, maybe it’s recency bias, but I can’t help but listen to Dizzy Up The Girl in the context of Barbie. As much as the film purports to be about women—and in many ways, it is—Barbie is a movie about a guy with really big feelings who is, against all odds, wildly endearing. And what is the secret to his charm, his “Kenergy”? It’s all about silliness. This is a guy completely freed from the shackles of ego. He’s got his earnest moments, and he’s got his unhinged moments, but he doesn’t take himself too seriously. Like his musical number says, He’s Just Ken.
It’s why “Push” fits so exquisitely in Ken’s character arc. Because, despite the contextual jab at Guitar Guys, there’s something so acutely satisfying about seeing Ryan Gosling put his entire ass into these nonsensical lyrics—just like Rob Thomas does in the original. It’s something this era of Top-40-alt-boys knocked out of the park: a certain level of guilelessness. And it’s charming, because how many men do you know who you can sincerely call guileless?
Contemporary reviews of Dizzy Up The Girl were largely unfavorable. They took issue with its unseriousness. Rolling Stone accused the band of “wandering into the minefield between maturity and schmaltz,” and called “Iris” “one big hunk of summertime cheddar.” (Which I think they meant as an insult, but sounds amazing, actually.) The reviewer for USA Today said Rzeznik’s “unfortunate tendency toward sentimentality smother the trio's lilt and kick.” What that verdict doesn’t account for is that sentimentality is a viable currency of the heart.
As the album unfolded and my coffee mug grew cold, I realized that the two Guys of this album need each other. Guy 2, Takac, is the shot—he tempers the syrupy ballads and keeps Dizzy an album that’s playable in a grungy coffee shop. Guy 1, Rzeznik, is the chaser. He brings the sappy magic. The duality of man: each vapid and sincere in equal measures.
The third-to-last track is “Iris,” the album’s—and the band’s—great crescendo. It’s a song that’s almost gaudy, but its unbridled strings, absurdly too-long bridge (do NOT attempt this song at karaoke!), and audacious lyrics pull off the stunt. And, of course, the song wouldn’t work if Rzeznik wasn’t a genuinely good singer. It’s a gorgeous, outrageous song about nothing. When everything’s made to be broken, he wails, I just want you to know who I am. Like Ken, he roams the bright fields beyond ego’s constraints, beckoning us to follow.
In the final two songs on the album, as if “Iris” cast a spell, the dust settles on the two Guys’ tradeoff. In “Extra Pale,” Takac gets a short, choppy grunge joint, finally dialing in his weird singing to the point where it sounds like it belongs next to some ballads. To close out Dizzy, Rzeznik reenters with a few actually interesting guitar riffs and a soaring final chorus. Shot, and chaser. It’s a fitting coda for an exaggerated moment like “Iris.”
For maximum “Iris” enjoyment, I highly recommend this YouTube video of the Goo Goo Dolls’ 2004 performance of the song in Buffalo, NY—Rzeznik’s hometown. Nothing could possibly match the song’s melodrama better than pouring rain, and our brave boys not only endured the elements, but embraced them, shaggy wet hair drooping down over furrowed brows, the set going off miraculously free of any electrocution indicents.
The beleaguered, soggy crowd shrieks with renewed delight when they realize that the show will not only go on amid the downpour, but to the tune of their favorite hit. While some bands resent having to play their Big Song over and over again, Rzeznik’s face shows delight in the duty. He scans the crowd every few seconds, clearly drawing energy from their enthusiasm. Perhaps this performance’s magic originated with them, the rain-soaked crowd waving their arms in time with those three lilting chords. Takac’s ratty pink hair flies as he diligently headbangs his way through the set, roaming the stage and absorbing his share of the audience’s fervor.
At 2:28, right before the weird, long instrumental (the Karaoke-r’s Curse, as I call it), the side-stage camera takes over—and Rzeznik, smiling, motions for it to turn away from him, toward the crowd. Dim through the dark sheets of water, the audience responds with a cheer.
About a minute later, the music slows, and Rzeznik exhorts the good festival-goers: “I want you guys to take this one home, alright?” And, of course, they aced the assignment. Wet to the bone, each one of them screaming the words of that silly, humongous radio hit like it was the needle drop on the imaginary movie of each of their individual lives. A thousand deluded, joyful main characters, Rzeznik and Takac not least among them.
The hits from Dizzy Up The Girl endure not because they’re in any way cool; quite the opposite. In fact, in the cultural shadow of ‘90s Cool giants like Kurt Cobain, these songs provide the inverse of aspirational coolness: conspicuous sincerity. A good, corny, life is a movie kind of song is actually a rare gift, and this band—alongside a couple other silly-boy hitmakers of the time—gave us several, lovingly peppered amidst a hodgepodge of oddly charming rock tracks.
There’s something about this Goo Goo Dolls era that I (and, I suspect, many others who aren’t brave enough to say it!!) find irresistible. Let the endearingly imperfect album ring through our broken nation’s coffee shops; let the beloved hits maintain their foothold in our favorite playlists. In a cruel world that punishes our sentimentality, these songs bring, as one review described in an attempt to be derogatory, a “passionate ordinariness” that rewards it. It’s insane that the reviewer meant that descriptor as an insult; I think it sounds lovely.
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