The Many Lives of the TikTok Hit ‘Teenage Dirtbag’

'Teenage Dirtbag' is all over TikTok right now, but it's far from the first time the song has been popular. We sat down with Wheatus frontman Brendan Brown to talk about it's wild journey.

Brendan Brown of Wheatus performs in Cedar Park, Texas, July, 2021. Gary Miller/Getty Images

If you’ve logged onto TikTok or Instagram recently, you’ve probably seen it: a sped-up voice singing about being “just a teenage dirtbag, baby” over throwback photos of the poster as a teen with a questionable haircut. It’s a fun trend, an easy way to show how cute we all looked as teenagers. It’s also not the first time “Teenage Dirtbag” —  a 2000 single by the Long Island-based band Wheatus — has enjoyed a revival. 

Over its 20something years of existence this bouncy bit of guitar crunch has been the bacon on top of a pop-culture donut (or chocolate in the peanut butter — whatever flavor combination floats your boat) a few times. “We’re the luckiest band on earth,” Wheatus frontman and “Teenage Dirtbag” writer Brendan Brown told Observer. He sat down with us for a full interview about the little teen-angst song that could. 

So to start, congratulations! You had the number one most searched song on Spotify because of this?

Our booking agent, Alex, he texted about it. He’s like, “What the hell is this?” And I was like, “I don’t know, dude. I have no idea.” We were right in the middle of rehearsals, ‘cuz we’re touring this fall. It’s very exciting. The past week or so there’s been a disturbance in the force. My guitar tech — he’s a 60something year old friend of mine who I used to apprentice under, and a couple of days ago when I dropped off a bass for him to set up, he asked, “So is your band having some sort of resurgence?” Turns out he has a daughter who is on TikTok. 

 

Is that how you found out?
Yeah, I kinda did! It didn’t even register at first. I don’t know TikTok. I have no idea how to be worth watching. So he says that, and I blanked on it and continued with my week. I started taking it seriously because it happened so many times. 

This is nowhere near the first time the song has blown up, though.

Correct! We’ll call it a flare up. It’s like shingles.

But you guys are among a couple of different bands who have had songs blow up on TikTok.

We’ve toured with a lot of them: Living Color, Hoobastank, Everclear. 

Everclear hasn’t had their TikTok moment yet, but I can basically hear which parts of the songs would get clipped and become a meme on there. What’s interesting about all of these songs is that they’re all perfect karaoke songs: “The Reason,” “Cult of Personality,” “Teenage Dirtbag.” I hope this doesn’t make you uncomfortable, but Dirtbag is my go-to at karaoke. 

Oh, we love that. There’s no being mad about that. That’s wonderful.

It’s the perfect karaoke length! 

So that’s interesting, because the original “Teenage Dirtbag” is four minutes long. Which made it a weird single because when we were on Columbia Records back in the day, that was kind of unheard of. Singles were not four minutes long. They were 3:20 or 3:10. So we were already kind of breaking this weird, very serious rule. And then the song proceeded to just do its own business.

The song has a fairly wild history in what it’s based on, right?
The only thing that’s “true” about “Teenage Dirtbag” in a sort-of nonfiction sense is the time and place. The town I grew up in was the ground zero, the epicenter of the Satanic Panic. It is directly in existence because of the origin of the Satanic Panic in America. The kid who lived on my block literally tricked his friend into the woods to sacrifice him to the devil because he stole angel dust from him at a party. I got looked at as a dirtbag because I liked the music I liked! Cops, parents, priests, nuns, shop owners, you name it. If you were walking around with an ACDC shirt, you were a dirtbag and it meant you were like Ricky Kasso

Now, the song is what everybody who listens to it needs it to be, right? It’s the listener’s story. It belongs to you. The author is dead here! 

So take me back. When was Teenage Dirtbag first recorded?
Well, I wrote it in ‘95. And I recorded it several times over the course of ‘96, ‘97, ‘98, and ‘99. We signed a record deal in ‘99 and we recorded the final version of it in my mother’s house in late February, early March of 2000. 

And then it gets picked up for the soundtrack for the movie Loser?
That was actually the first positive thing that happened with it. Before we knew it, we were in Los Angeles filming a video with Mena Suvari and Jason Biggs and Amy Heckerling [director of Loser and Clueless] was on the set. Three months prior I’d been fixing printers in Times Square. 

So the single does pretty well after that?
No! [laughs] So it came out in the summer of 2000 and Columbia Records serviced it to radio. There was a bit of a botched rollout. It went to pop radio way too fast and needed more time on rock radio. We toured with Eve 6, Harvey Danger, and by the time Thanksgiving rolls around we’re performing for two people in Lawrence, Kansas, and we’re all sick and have pneumonia.

The single had come and gone and nothing was happening. Columbia Records wasn’t calling us back. So it was effectively over. 

We’re trying to sleep through the holiday to get better, and our A&R guy calls us. He hasn’t called us back in weeks. He’s like, “Hey. You have to go to Australia.” And I’m like “No, I have to get rid of this chest cough before it becomes pneumonia and I land in the hospital.” He was like “No, no, you don’t understand. You need to go to Australia because you’re gonna have a number one single there.” I was like “Bullshit, man.” He was right! The single hit in Australia and it was the number one song over Christmas weekend for them, which is their summer. So it was a summer song. 

Oh, so you had the Australian song of the summer? 

Yeah, it was crazy. We went to Australia and we were on TV — like, real TV. Australian national television. 

You were basically Harry Styles on GMA. Who we’ll get to.

It always comes back to Harry Styles. After Australia, we exploded in the United Kingdom. We were on Top Of The Pops, BBC Radio One was playing it all time. We did all the festivals that following summer. We were on this yo-yo: you’re broke you’re not doing this. Nope. Wait, you’re doing this. Get up, get up, get, get on a plane, go. We made the record in my mom’s basement and we’re not media savvy kids. Mostly by accident, we got to three years of being a major-label band with no management. You ever have somebody come to you and you get the vibe they want something from you, but they’re also telling you that you’re a piece of shit?

Yeah. 

Right. So that was our experience of being signed to a major label. It was this weird alienating version of success. So after we deliver our second record, we walk from the label and we walk with our second masters. The label didn’t like us and we were this weird pain in the ass band that didn’t party and wouldn’t wear the shirts they wanted. So we spent 2004, 2005, all the way to 2009, trying to figure out how to be sustainable as a band. It got really dark right around the financial crisis. Several times we were liquidating all of the stuff that we had to make music with in order to pay the bills. I got really good at being a power seller on eBay. But every once in a while this fucking song would get a little blip on the radar and we’d get hope again. Chris Carrabba from Dashboard Confessional would cover it in his sets. When we put out our third album Gerard Way messaged us on Myspace to say he loved it. 

But in 2009, the darkest point of our lives, a blip of hope comes through: HBO has optioned the song for Generation Kill. That money saved our lives. 

 

I still get a little bit of a lump in the throat when I think about American soldiers who were only exposed to this song because they were overseas in a war. Which was real. I had soldiers emailing us and messaging us asking why they’d never heard the song before, and [they’d] heard it from English soldiers. It’s so bizarre — we only felt like “real” musicians overseas, and these guys felt like different murderous versions of themselves overseas as well. 

So then 2012 another big bump for the song happens, this time with One Direction. 

Yes! This is where Harry Styles comes in. So it’s 2012. I was standing in a venue in midtown Manhattan watching my friend MC Lars play a show with I Fight Dragons. It’s between sets, and I open my phone — this is the earlier days of Twitter — and Wheatus and Teenage Dirtbag are trending like crazy. My immediate thought was: What did we do wrong? And I see this band, One Direction, playing the song at Madison Square Garden, which was blocks from where I was. So I start to engage with the fans to try to understand it, not unlike what’s happening now with TikTok. They’re throwing around a bunch of terms I don’t know. Chicken nuggets. Carrots. Stuff like that. 

 

So One Direction doesn’t record the song?

That would’ve made us millionaires. But no, they didn’t. They put it in their movie, the Morgan Spurlock documentary.

Wait. Morgan Spurlock directed the One Direction concert movie? 

Yes. I was really impressed by that. It was such a strange time. It had been over a decade of being like, Well, we’re not really gonna be able to do this next year. And it just didn’t go away, but, but more and more, it stacked up and being a band started becoming sustainable again. 

Were there other incidents with the song between then and TikTok now?

Yeah! Pro wrestling, Phoebe Bridgers covering it. She had a Youtube cover that I loved.

The song is pretty ubiquitous in the indie pro wrestling scene.
Spyder Nate Webb, he’s a wonderful pro wrestler who makes his entrance to “Teenage Dirtbag,” and it’s not a clip of the song. He plays the whole song. He’s the only one who gets to play a whole song. He reached out to me and asked me if I wanted to be part of a match, and that was another moment of realization where I was like, “Oh my god! We should have been touring together.” I couldn’t see him from where I was, in a van, trying to make a band survive.

He was maybe not in a van, but in a Toyota Corolla, trying to do the same thing. 

Yeah. Yes! He’s in the same hustle. I’ve talked to him about some of those journeys he takes to make those matches, man. There’s a word beyond love for how indie wrestlers approach their craft. They’re so fucking talented and they risk life and limb every time. 

So he asks me to do a spot on this show, Joey Janela’s Lost in New York. This woman, she’s since passed away, Ashley Massaro, she trained me to wrestle on this show, and I had to beat up this guy MJF, who went on to have a feud with CM Punk, whose entrance song is “Cult of Personality” by Living Colour, who we talked about earlier! Sometimes it feels like the drunk 14 year old who’s running the reality sim we’re on is messing with me. 

 

When you toured with Living Color, did you talk about going viral?

We mostly talked about guitar tone. They are living legends, man. They toured with The Rolling Stones.

So you then had to rerecord the song, right? 

Yes, because we wanted to own the song and because our masters are missing. Probably destroyed. They were on a transitional digital tape media [DAT] that came and went within four years, and nobody backed it up properly. Our new version came out in April of 2020. We had big plans for that. Covid, obviously, really messed that up. 

So now we’re here in 2022. I found out about this because a woman I follow on instagram who was on The Bachelor posted a few videos of her doing the “Teenage Dirtbag” trend and I gasped because it’s like, “Hey! That’s my friend!”

Yeah, it’s nuts. There’s so many videos. Joe Jonas did one, Cheech and Chong, Paris Hilton. I sat and debated all day what to do about it and I’ve decided that I’m just gonna go on TikTok and find people who are doing interesting versions of the song and do duets with them. There’s this woman, Jax, who did a version of Teenage Dirtbag from Noelle’s perspective. I love all of it. I love what people are doing with it, this little song that keeps doing something with my life. 

Have you seen this cover by this Australian artist, Peach?
Oh yeah. She’s amazing! I love it. I love that she’s making it her own. 

There’s a really universal element to the song — everyone longs for things.

My father did say this to me one time, that everybody needs to go through this feeling, you know? Those feelings of loneliness and isolation. This is going to sound a little bit like self myth, but in order to throw yourself completely into becoming a professional musician you have to accept that you’re going to live in the van and sell everything and try and survive and not engage in a career that would be stable and have a retirement and good healthcare and not take care of ourselves on that level, but pursue this other thing. You kind of let go of the notion of finding a significant other and settling down. You are making that decision to forego all of the family stability,connection, relationship stuff. But that doesn’t mean you don’t want those things or long for those things. There also might not be a payoff.

Would you say there’s a payoff with Teenage Dirtbag?

Yeah! Hell yeah. There’s plenty of bands that have sacrificed everything and they didn’t get a TikTok thing or One Direction playing their song. We’re the luckiest band on earth, you know? It’s a little hard to let go of the feelings of scarcity and emergency and crisis. It’s just the way that this has gone. But if I had to tell you about how I feel about my life? I feel like I’m probably the luckiest late ‘90s, early 2000s musician in the world, because we own our own publishing. And that wasn’t easy, but it’s ours. I’m so lucky, man.  The Many Lives of the TikTok Hit ‘Teenage Dirtbag’