Since 1996, SoCal modern rockers Alien Ant Farm have been busting ass to get some respect, and this summer the love finally came in the form of AAF's bizarre, unlikely cover of Michael Jackson's "Smooth Criminal." The song's infectious grooves, originally released in 1987, hooked a new generation of listeners when layered with AAF's aggressive, pulsing guitars and urgent vocal interpretations. Fueled by a video featuring vintage Jackson elements, including light-up sidewalks, moonwalking, exploding car windows (a la Memorex) and an overabundance of cheeky crotch grabbing, the track exploded and turned the four guys from Riverside into one of the country's hottest bands.
The members of AAF only recently quit their crappy day jobs -- guitarist Terry Corso sold vitamins over the phone and singer/lyricist Dryden Mitchell stuffed envelopes for his parents' dating service -- and hit the road. Currently heading out on their first headlining tour, AAF is thoroughly enjoying their success, but they know the fine line on which they strut.
"Of course it's risky, blowin' up on a cover, but it's also a great way to be exposed," said drummer Mike Cosgrove during a cell-phone call from a noisy corner of LAX. Risky is an understatement. The song, while possessing all the charms needed to rub elbows with Carson Daly and climb Soundscan charts, can't be considered representative of AAF's true sound. The band focuses on their hard-edged rhythms and beautifully eloquent lyrics. Jazz and Latin elements temper modern rock aggression, producing a compound palatable to commercial radio but intelligent enough to garner critical acclaim.
"We didn't ideally set out to release ['Smooth Criminal']," Cosgrove explains. "Programming directors just started playing it. When radio does something for you, you're so fortunate."
The band isn't too concerned with the possibility of becoming one- or two-hit wonders.
"That's possible no matter what you do. You just have to stay consistent. Honestly, we don't want to make our way on a cover -- we're musicians. But we come from a jazz background, and back in [the heyday], people would just play from the same songbook. An artist's interpretation is what's defining."
The success of "Smooth Criminal" has allowed the band extra touring ability, often only spending one day at home between road stretches. None of the Ants are involved -- "no kids, no nothing" -- so traveling is relatively easy. Just about everything was looking good for AAF -- until "the list" was published.
In the wake of the September 11 attacks, Clear Channel Communications (the country's largest owner of radio outlets) compiled a list of more than 150 songs that might be considered inappropriate. The list was sent to each of their 1,200-plus stations, with the recommendation that the songs -- ranging from The Beatles' "Obla Di, Obla Da" to The Clash's "Rock the Casbah" -- not be played. Also shunned was "Smooth Criminal." After very vocal outrage from the industry and radio listeners, Clear Channel has since defined the document, stating that it is "not a corporate mandate and does not ban songs" from company airwaves. The damage, however, had been done.
"We were affected in every way," says Cosgrove, insulted. "Our spins went down, our overall exposure, our sales went down. Even over in London where we scheduled to do "Smooth Criminal" on a TV show, they had to tape it and run it a week after. We were like, 'We're Americans and we're not being overly sensitive.'
"If people think that it's going to make anybody feel bad, which I really doubt that it will, then don't play it. I would never want our song to do that to anybody. But I mean, come on, it's a little conservative. The song was written -- what? -- 12, 15 years ago? There's no relevance."
Despite the blow, AAF has recovered nicely. "Good (For a Woman)," included on the American Pie II soundtrack, is rapidly gaining airplay, as is "Movies," the band's next scheduled single. And album sales are still climbing. So while they still have two more hits to go before probation ends, AAF looks like their gonna make it after all.
-- Kristen Sherwood