Fish to fry 

Dianetics and other lessons on ska

You think it's cool to like all different kinds of music, but then you get into ska. Probably for the purposes of this argument you should imagine that it's 1996, although third-wave ska is happening even now, at our own Wilma Theatre. Reel Big Fish will play there Sunday night, and dozens of 35-year-olds and college dudes who know how to juggle are bound to have a great time—much to their music friends' disdain.

Third-wave ska is the second least cool music you can be into, behind klezmer and ahead of only contemporary country. To the uninitiated, it sounds like racially problematic circus music, appropriating the sounds of Jamaica with the nuanced dignity of Weird Al. To the devotee, however, ska is a totalizing form: a music, a worldview, a way of life.

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  • Reel Big Fish

That's why so many of the songs are about learning who your real friends are. Start playing The Toasters in your car, and you'll find out who is just along for the ride. Ska is what would happen to punk rock if punks actually were rejected by society. It is insular, silly about stuff that should be serious, and serious about what is undeniably silly. It is the Scientology of music: a baffling cult that people keep signing up for and having a great time.

Third-wave ska is how I eventually got into hardcore, two-tone, dancehall, Latin rap and rocksteady. It is world music as consumed from the suburbs, and so it is simultaneously eclectic and judgmental. Even more than punk, ska taught me to distinguish between the authentic and the fake.

It was a genre-wide obsession. Reel Big Fish's big MTV hit was "Sell Out," a title that seemed ironic even at the time. For we purists, RBF joined the Mighty Mighty Bosstones in the music industry's evil plan to bring ska to a national audience. After years of defending the music we loved, we couldn't believe those bastards were trying to make everyone like it.

All that seems funny now. The fundamental lesson of ska was how to dance to offbeats, but only slightly less important was the lesson that in music, nothing counts but personal taste. You shouldn't listen to music to be cool, not because it won't work but because being cool is boring. It is better to be dumb and in the moment, even when the moment lasts for a decade and a half.

Reel Big Fish plays the Wilma Sun., Jan. 12, with openers Suburban Legends, The Mighty Mongo and The Maxies. Doors at 6:30 PM, show at 7:30. $22/$20 advance at Rockin Rudy's or ticketweb.com.

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