The oppressive heat and humidity of a summer day in Atlantic City, New Jersey only serves to underscore to America’s most piteous place; a microcosm of greed-gone-bankrupt, a lesser Las Vegas to the East, a town full of casinos, empty Trump towers, used syringes on the beach, and boardwalk townies. Today, its latest oddity is the inaugural Chili Knockout and Spicy Food Festival, an opportunity to eat incredibly spicy food on a sweltering day. And maybe hear “Teenage Dirtbag” a few times.
When I arrive, the festival’s titular chili is nowhere to be found. Appropriately, discarded sample cups and plastic spoons litter the ground, stained a faint orange by the memory of tomatoes and spices, and the promise of future indigestion. There are also scheduled performances, and I am here to speak to Wheatus, the 2000 one-hit-wonder behind “Teenage Dirtbag,” about their continued endurance against all odds. But at the moment, a belly-dancing woman is tossing a flaming sword around a skeletal elk mount. When I walk away, the audience reduces by a third.
Across the street at a beer garden, Wheatus soundchecks—they’re headlining the festival’s afterparty, no more noble than the Viva Comet Awards in Germany or being featured on Rock Band 4. When they’re done, I meet them under an umbrella at a picnic table. There are six of them. (Six! Who knew?) I ask if they entered the chili knockout competition. They didn’t, but they are very into hot sauce. It’s on their rider, in case you’re curious what’s on Wheatus’ rider in 2022.
For some bands who’ve gone platinum multiple times over, the inaugural Chili Knockout and Spicy Food Festival might seem like a depressing place to perform. (It’s no Empire City Casino in Yonkers, N.Y., but it is up there.) Wheatus are unfazed—this kind of show has become second nature in the decades following their pop culture ubiquity. In 2019, the band played journeyman indie wrestler “Spyder” Nate Webb’s walkout song live to a packed house on Long Island. It wasn’t their first time on the wrestling circuit, either. In 2018, frontman Brendan B. Brown gave Maxwell Jacob Friedman a DDT as “Teenage Dirtbag” played in the background. Backing vocalist Joey Slater eagerly brings up another weird gig example, “the skeleton thing”—a 2011 attempt to break the Guinness World Record for the largest gathering of skeletons at Swansea University in Wales.
“It’s this entire university event of hundreds of kids all dressed like skeletons,” bass player Matthew Milligan chimes in. “And we performed in skeleton costumes. I think we broke the record that year.” He thinks for a moment. “Yeah, we heard about it.”“They had a real Guinness World Records person there to do, like, accounts and verify it,” Slater adds.
This pales in significance to the one that drummer Leo Freire has in mind: “I'd like to add the African monsoon that we played in the middle of South Africa.” A bunch of Welsh students attempting to cause a national skeleton costume shortage seems a bit pedestrian by comparison. “In South Africa, we played on a mountain jungle cheese farm during a monsoon,” Brown says.
I don’t know what those words mean, in that order, but I don’t want to interrupt. “We had to shut ‘Teenage Dirtbag’ down halfway through, or right in the middle of the girl part. They shut us down. The safety officer came up. They couldn't have held out.”
What could be a better testament to the enduring popularity of “Teenage Dirtbag?” Suddenly, any feeling that it must be depressing to be Wheatus in 2022 escaped my mind. Until security intervened, the band and their South African fanbase had made peace with being washed away by a monsoon.
But it’s not monsoon season in Atlantic City (frankly, that would make the dystopian backdrop interesting—why has no one considered The Day After Tomorrow-ing this place to the ground?) It is, however, a liminal space caught between natural economic decline and various half-assed revitalization attempts, largely from Trumpian scammers. What’s left is faded, cracked, and dull. The boardwalk is a Truman Show scene of families, bachelorette parties, and casino-goers who try to pretend the city isn’t as depressing as it actually is. And if you think about it, Wheatus is a great example of liminality.
The band formed in 1995, debuted on a major record label in 2000, saw success from their first single “Teenage Dirtbag” across the globe, and then froze. Not progressing, but not disappearing either. For the last two decades, they’ve been standing at the threshold of the door that “Teenage Dirtbag” opened. But does it lead anywhere?
Since 2020, Wheatus have been re-leasing newly recorded versions of their self-titled debut album. The original masters, recorded on now-defunct technology, had largely been lost by their label at the time. Brown felt the need to own a complete master of the first LP, even if it meant meticulously replicating parts of it from scratch. The band had to draw from the memories of old band members, looking at pictures from shows and recording sessions, and listening to what incomplete bits of the original masters Brown still had, in order to recreate the album as closely as possible. Mistakes and all.
“If a mistake was important,” Brown explains. “Meaning we wanted to ‘re-mistake’ it, we had to figure out how it happened. Which was a challenge of memory and equipment, because a lot of the equipment doesn't work or it doesn't exist anymore. That telephone sound in ‘Teenage Dirtbag,’ we couldn't find that anywhere. My brother and I remembered that it was a sample on somebody's keyboard that we have no more access to. It may have even been homemade. We got into a rabbit hole.” Keyboardist and newest member of the band Brandon Ticer figured out the sound did actually come from a phone.
About those six members. Wheatus has featured 31 members across 27 years, like goddamn Menudo. Brown is the only original Wheatian, but the lineup I’m speaking to has been together since 2017. Some hadn’t even heard of the band until shortly before they joined. “I was off in hippie land,” says Ticer. “And Wheatus completely went past me. I wasn’t listening to the radio. I was at Phish concerts.”
Wheatus has put out six full-length albums since debuting in 2000, and yet, they’re totally aware that much of the population thinks they no longer exist. And they’re not sick of talking about “Teenage Dirtbag,” the song that completely eclipsed their career, which is sick.
“To some degree, it's still our manager and our attorney, you know. It's our weaponry,” Brown says of the song. “It guides what we're able to do financially and we're very lucky to have something like that. It's been very good to us. And the other thing that feels good about it is it's actually our song. It's not a cover. It wasn't recommended by a producer. It's not the label's idea, right? It's ours. It's our authentic cornerstone. And that feels fine. It feels sustainable.”
No resentment? Don’t they wish people cared about the band as much as they do the song?
“Sometimes, yeah,” Brown pauses, then replies. “We've been independent, like 100% independent, since 2005. So, we're coming up on 20 years of having no label, no manager. I think if we were a bigger band, if we had more name recognition, we'd probably have to get a manager.”
He did just say “Teenage Dirtbag” was their manager, so I assume he means get a human manager. I keep my mouth shut.
“What happened to us is really peculiar. We came out of nowhere and knew nobody in the industry. And we were able to get a major label to agree to let us self-produce our first record, 100 percent. And it recouped. And they dropped us. So we cost nothing, did it ourselves, made money—and got dropped,” he says.
We were able to get a major label to agree to let us self-produce our first record, 100 percent. And it recouped. And they dropped us. So we cost nothing, did it ourselves, made money—and got dropped.
The guy is way more optimistic than you might think—and he gives off the impression that having a massive hit and being able to do fuck all for the rest of your career isn’t a death knell. Plus, the song has been covered dozens of times, so they’re never totally out of the conversation.
“I think the only cover that you felt like, ‘Oh my god, the ground just moved on this song,’ was the One Direction cover,” says Brown, referencing the boy band that produced Harry Styles. “Everything else has contributed to a sort of an incremental awareness. Mostly it's visible in the fact that in the United States, streaming is really high on the song, but radio play isn't.”
I wonder if he catches himself sounding like a human manager as well. “I'm very happy with the way that it’s sort of seeping into the consciousness, as opposed to being serviced and delivered to people,” he adds. “Whatever it means to whoever it is.”
I’m running out of time with the band, but I do have one burning question I manage to ask before they’re ushered away: “If you were to write ‘Teenage Dirtbag’ today, who would be the Iron Maiden?”
“It’s a good question,” Milligan says, giving it some thought.
“Wow,” Brown muses. “Fugazi?” “It wouldn’t fit the rhyme or the syllable count,” Milligan points out.
“One Direction would fit,” backing vocalist Gabrielle Sterbenz offers. It’s met with a chorus of “ooh, yeah,” in response, just like in the song’s bridge.
Before Wheatus takes the stage, I walk along the boardwalk. Atlantic City is a weird, glamorous shithole, and nothing about Atlantic City has changed since Wheatus recorded their debut album—for the first time.
Back by the stage and surprise! Wheatus has an opener: MC Lars, a producer best known for convincing the pop-punk Warped Tour crowd that what he makes is rap music. He’s alone, with a Legend of Zelda NES cartridge attached to a gold chain around his neck like Flava Flav’s clock.
“Thank you for attending the weirdest set of my life!” he shouts from the stage. Not including the bartenders, sound staff, people at the merch stand, and the people manning the dispensary promo tent next to the merch stand, I can count the crowd on two hands with fingers to spare.
While Wheatus set up before their set begins at 8:45 p.m., a few more attendees trickled in, but you could still count them all on your allotted fingers and toes. I wonder if they’ll play the entirety of their hour-and-15 minute set.
Wheatus starts their set with a song I don’t know. No one seems to be singing along, but they do seem to be enjoying themselves, drunk off chili and vibes. In between songs, Brown turns to Milligan and asks him what they should play next. Usually, Wheatus lets the crowd decide the setlist by shouting titles. His bassist is playing the role of the audience tonight, shouting song names at the rest of the band.
About a third of the way through the set, audience members migrate to the cornhole pit next to the stage to play a few rounds. The band is unbothered. They’re laughing with each other, giving a full performance despite the lack of onlookers. When Wheatus start their penultimate song, whatever it is, I stand and walk to the front of the stage where a few people have gathered, aware of what’s about to happen. The game of cornhole rages on, uninterested in the concert a few feet away. I’m almost insulted on the band’s behalf (the day has been a journey!) but then it hits me: They’re just being teenage dirtbags, baby.
What better way to pay homage to the band that gave teenage dirtbags around the world an anthem than by completely ignoring them while they play ten feet away? It’s poetic, in the way that only a poorly attended spicy food festival’s poorly attended afterparty in Atlantic City could be. Sure, it’s more of a haiku than a sonnet, but poetry is poetry.
The crowd comes alive for the last song, cheering on the familiar intro. It’s the moment we’ve been waiting for. Gym class is in half an hour and we have our keds and our tube socks and even if people in the crowd didn’t give a damn about Wheatus before this moment, they do now. And they will—for the next four minutes.