In October 1991, a polite singer/songwriter from Lincoln, Nebraska, named Matthew Sweet released his third album. There was no reason to believe it would be a commercial success. Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch were sucking all the oxygen out of the charts alongside Mariah Carey, and though Nevermind had just come out, Nirvana had not yet infiltrated every household in America. Sweet had been dropped from A&M, and was now on still-emerging BMG imprint Zoo Entertainment.
But Girlfriend, a mix of grungy pop and sarcastic lyrics, proved to be Sweet’s breakthrough. He had written the material after the breakup of an early marriage. For the song “Girlfriend,” Sweet, who had spent time in Athens, Georgia, sang in a vaguely Michael Stipe-esque voice of his desire for a hook up: “I want to love somebody / I hear you need somebody to love.” This romantic yearning provided a little something for the ladies in the house. For the dudes, there were crazy guitar solos that somehow did notdetract from the tune’s catchiness. A video interspersed then-cutting-edge anime clips with slivers of Sweet looking like some pre-Jordan-Catalano dreamboat. The song reached No. 4 on the Billboard Modern Rock Charts, and was a Top 10 choice of many critics. (It wasn’t his biggest hit, though; that distinction belongs to “Sick of Myself,” a cheerful-sounding ode to low self-esteem off his 1995 album 100% Fun.) More important than chart position, “Girlfriend” provided solace for many broken-hearted souls in flannel (including this one).
Sweet is celebrating the album’s 20th anniversary by playing Girlfriend in its entirety on an East Coast tour that winds up November 3. He is also doing selections from Modern Art, his new album, out on Missing Piece Records. In between shows, Sweet reminisced with SPIN about the song’s creation in 1991 and it’s unlikely two-decade lifespan from a New Jersey heartbreak to MTV, Britney Spears flicks, and video games.
The last line of “Girlfriend” is “I’m never gonna set you free.” It’s a little stalkerish there for a minute at the end. Is that intentional?
[Laughs] Yeah, I think that’s my sense of humor. A little bit dry. There is a sense of humor in the songs even when it’s darker.
Where were you were when you wrote “Girlfriend”?
I was living in Princeton, New Jersey, in a little house that was built in 1780. I’d moved outside the city to have room to record at home. I was married really young, and my marriage was breaking up there. My ex-wife moved into the city, and I was left in Princeton on my own. And so some of it had to do with the end of that. Then I met a new girlfriend the next year. So part of it has to do with positive feelings, [laughs] and some of it has to do with negative feelings.
Where did you record it?
We recorded it at a place called Axis on 54th Street in Manhattan. It was definitely a song I already had finished. I didn’t think that much of it. To me it was sort of a jam session, not particularly a heavy thing, more of a pickup line. And you know everybody used to tell me whatever the dumbest song is, they’ll take it as a single. So that ended up being the one. My manager, Russell Carter, was really obsessed with that song, seeing if he could get it on the radio. I had no concept of being on the radio. I just wanted to make records. I look back and think that was pretty cool that he had that idea.
Did the song change at all in the studio?
I don’t think it changed much. I had this law that we couldn’t have any reverb on the record. It had to be really dry because I like that sound on some of the Beatles records. I do think we did one version of “Girlfriend” that had a little echo on the vocals. We ended up using the totally dry version.
When you play it live, do you ever use reverb now?
[Laughs] Not that I know of. Whoever’s doing sound has control over that, because I’m on the other side of the speakers but I would guess generally no. Although, frankly if there’s something I want to use reverb on these days, I don’t hesitate.
Have you always played it at every show?
I don’t think we ever left that one out. People really wanted to hear it.
Was there ever a time when you didn’t want to play it, but you knew fans would be disappointed so you did it anyway?
I’ve been asked that a lot: “Do you get sick of having to play the same songs?” I think it would be awful to have that feeling. Those songs are like my little friends. When people want to hear something, it’s cooler to have them get it. But it is a hard song to play on acoustic guitar in the era where we all play acoustic shows, every other day doing some sort of promo thing. That’s one I dread them asking me to play.
Which one of your songs do you like to play acoustically?
Jeez, I don’t know, almost anything besides that one. [Laughs]
Is it weird to know that it’s the 20th anniversary? Does it feel like 20 years?
It doesn’t really. I guess in a way my mind knows, yes, it’s certainly been a long time. It was my idea to play the whole album live because I knew the 20th was coming up. Once we were in rehearsals, I was kind of like, what was I thinking? I had to get the lyrics back in my head. But we’ve really been enjoying playing it.People really relate to it emotionally, and kind of see themselves in it. There are people who got together to that record, and people that broke up to the record. It’s fun to watch them go back through it and sing all the words.
Would you talk about the concept for the video for “Girlfriend”?
I needed to make a video. I wanted to get something that I liked into it, so I didn’t have to hate looking at myself in it. At the time I’d been collecting a lot of anime and reading manga, and it was really still quite foreign. It’s hard to imagine, because it’s so mainstream now. It set my video apart.
Why did you use the picture of Tuesday Weld on the album cover?
Record companies just want you to put a picture of yourself on the album cover. But there was something about her attitude that I liked. It’s funny because she was only 13 or 14 years old in that photo. I had collected memorabilia of actresses from the ’50s and ’60s, like Kim Novak, Carol Baker, and Jean Seberg. It was hard to get Tuesday Weld to approve it, because she was a recluse and eccentric, but we finally got her approval. However, at the time, the album was called Nothing Lasts and the label got the idea that they should get a hold of Tuesday Weld and tell her that’s what it was called. Which of course just made her feel like, “What do you mean ‘nothing lasts’ with my photo?” So I changed the title to Girlfriend at the eleventh hour, so we didn’t have to mess with the Tuesday Weld photo. It was a better title for it because it was so much more positive, you know?
How did you feel about “Girlfriend” being in Britney Spears’ movie Crossroads?
[Laughs] I’m not sure if I saw the movie. I know it was supposed to be terrible. But I was always happy to have anything licensed in anything that I could. There was a time when no one would have their music in anything commercial, but now it’s like classic Bowie is in car commercials. That’s one of the only ways people can make money in the era where it’s not as easy to sell records.
Were you thinking about the 20th anniversary of Girlfriend when you wrote “Oldendaze” for your new album?
I don’t think I was. I didn’t think of Modern Art as about looking back that much. I guess as you get older that’s a factor. When I listen to Girlfriend now, it’s funny to think I was 25 or 26 or 27 when I wrote those songs. Because I’m singing how I’m so old. I’ve always thought of things in terms of looking back and time. That’s an obsession in a lot of my music.
“Girlfriend” is on Guitar Hero, but it’s not you, right?
It’s not me, but it sounds so much like me that I wasn’t sure it wasn’t me when I finally heard it at a party. I was with this big group of people and was like, “That’s me!” And they’re like, “No, it’s not.” And I was like, “But it is!” [Laughs] It was kind of embarrassing. They really just licensed the songs inexpensively from the publishing company, so we really never made money from it, though I guess it was great promo.
Do you think it introduced your songs to a new generation?
I definitely met a few people who have learned about it that way. I autographed a few of those guitars, those plastic controllers. In fact, I autographed one just the other day for some fella.
Christina Kelly is a freelance writer in Montclair, New Jersey, and a former editor of Sassy, YM, and ELLEgirl. She blogs at christinamkelly.blogspot.com.
Matthew Sweet plays Girlfriend tour dates:
October 26 -Alexandria, VA @ Birchmere
October 27 – Annapolis, MD @ Rams Head Tavern
October 28 – Wilmington, DE @ World Café Live
October 29 – Easton, MD @Avalon Theater
October 31 – New York, NY @ City Winery
November 1 – New York, NY @ City Winery
November 2 – New York, NY @ City Winery