September 8, 2001
I guess when you're around 15 years old, you have to go through a phase of angst. How long that phase lasts probably depends on your circumstances, and probably lasts longer if you're a boy. It shows through in the music you find yourself listening to, and sometimes it becomes a vicious cycle. If you were a rock radio listener in the 90s and early 2000s, then there was a lot of red meat to feed that angst. Whether it was the quasi-macho aggression of nu metal bands like Korn and Limp Bizkit, or the bleakness of countless post-grunge bands that evolved in the wake of Nirvana and Pearl Jam, you could certainly get your fill of music that made you feel good about how shitty you perceived your life.
Some of this music has aged relatively well, but a lot of it hasn't. I guess your mileage varies depending on when that angsty phase of your life hit you, and how long it took you to mellow out. Which is to say that Staind's "It's Been Awhile", a song that logged two whole months as my favorite song and still rates a listen whenever I hear it, is nonetheless a product of the time it came from, for better or worse.
Aaron Lewis, the lead singer of Staind, grew up in Vermont, moving to Springfield, Massachusetts with his father after his parents divorced when he was 13. In 1993, he met guitarist Mike Mushok at a party, and eventually brought in drummer Jon Wysocki and bassist Johnny April to form the band in 1995. The band toured extensively in the Northeast and released an album in 1996 called Tormented.
In October 1997, Staind scored a spot opening for Limp Bizkit at a concert in Hartford, Connecticut. However, when Fred Durst saw the album cover for Tormented, he reportedly believed the band were Satanists, and tried to get them thrown off the gig. That feels like a ridiculous sentence to write, but Wikipedia has the sources to back up the claim, so what do I know. In any event, Durst was persuaded to let the band play their set, and it wound up altering the course of the band's career. Durst was impressed with what he heard and got the band signed to Flip Records the following year.
(Limp Bizkit, incidentally, was on my very first top 40 in 2001 with "Rollin' (Air Raid Vehicle)", which peaked at #15 and wound up being band's biggest hit on my chart.)
Staind's next album Dysfunction was released in 1999 and the band gained some traction with mainstream audiences. The album saw a couple singles do pretty well on alternative and mainstream rock radio. "Mudshovel" peaked at #14 on the Billboard Modern Rock chart, and the follow-up "Home" went to #17.
That year, Staind and Limp Bizkit were booked on the Family Values Tour. During a tour stop in Biloxi, Mississippi, Lewis performed an early acoustic version of the song "Outside", with Durst behind him apparently providing emotional support. I say that because Durst really doesn't do more than back up the chorus and try to get the crowd going. It looks all the stranger because Lewis is clearly pouring his heart out debuting the song in front of such a large crowd. And Lewis's emotion in performing really makes you stop in your tracks. I saw the video of the performance constantly on MTV2 in the spring of 2001, and that was enough to get the song to #22 on my top 40. The "duet" was a huge hit on alternative radio, reaching #2 on the Modern Rock chart and getting to #56 on the Hot 100.
"Outside" would find its way onto Staind's third album, 2001's Break the Cycle, and Lewis's live version of the song gave the band the momentum it needed to have a big hit with whatever they released as the first single. "It's Been Awhile" was written a few years prior to the recording of the album. The lyrics show Lewis lamenting a lot of bad choices in his life, though he doesn't really specify what those are. He says that "it's been awhile since I could hold my head up high" and "it's been awhile since I could say I love myself". The lyrics are vague enough that anyone who was feeling the least bit depressed or angry with themselves in 2001, like me for example, could find something to relate to. About the closest we get to something concrete is at the end when he sings "I cannot blame this on my father/he did the best he could for me." In the context of the song, it feels tacked on and awkward. Maybe he's trying to reassure himself he's not making excuses for his mistakes. But when I listen to that lyric today, I can't help but cringe inside slightly.
Even the video for the song, which was directed by Durst, doesn't give much away about what's going on. Lewis is looking at old photographs and smoking cigarettes while laying on a couch, until one of the cigarettes burns down the apartment. The video is actually shot rather nicely, belying the post-grunge sound the band had honed by this point.
The band had certainly tapped into the zeitgeist of what listeners of alternative radio were feeling in the early aughts. Break the Cycle spent three weeks at #1 on the album chart, and "It's Been Awhile" managed to spend a record 16 weeks atop the Modern Rock chart in 2001. That success probably meant a pop crossover was inevitable, but even then, it still seems wild in retrospect that the song was so popular with top 40 listeners, at a time when Usher and Jennifer Lopez and Destiny's Child were dominating the airwaves. The song went on to peak at #5 on the Hot 100 late in the year. Through all this, I even remember New York's pop station, Z100, spinning the band's version of "Outside" and it making their year-end countdown in 2001, even though I don't think it was officially released to top 40 radio. (On my chart, Staind's "Outside" peaked at #23.)
Before I go on, I feel it's relevant to point out that this song was at #1 on my chart when the September 11 terrorist attacks occurred. I was in lower Manhattan at school that day. While the attacks were certainly a national trauma, any New Yorker will probably tell you that they affected us a little bit differently than the rest of the country. I remember many radio stations stopped playing music to either simulcast news stations or have the DJs act as news reporters. The next day, the DJs on Z100 basically did a group therapy session with listeners as everyone was still processing what just happened. I think I even tried to call in to relate my experience of the day.
In terms of music, my charts probably didn't reflect much of a wider cultural shift after the attacks. While a song like "Bodies" by Drowning Pool was clearly in bad taste right after the attacks, I never even liked the song enough to chart it. And ultra-patriotic, if not xenophobic, country songs that saw bigger than normal success in the months that followed never had me in their audience. If anything, the songs that stood out to me were ballads like "Only Time" by Enya and "Superman (It's Not Easy)" by Five For Fighting. (On my chart, "Only Time" peaked at #8, and "Superman (It's Not Easy)" peaked at #6.) I guess a song like "It's Been Awhile" struck the right mood for me in the weeks after 9/11, which is why it stayed at #1 for as long as it did. Although in retrospect, Aaron Lewis wouldn't have been the first person I turned to for solace after what happened. More on that later.
Other singles from Break the Cycle found success on my chart and nationally. The follow-up "Fade" got to #4 on my top 40, and the songs "For You" and "Epiphany" also made my chart in 2002. Lewis even got another solo hit around this time as well, when he appeared on labelmate Cold's track "Bleed", which got to #22 on the forty. (Cold was another MTV2 favorite of mine in 2001, but their biggest hit on my chart was 2003's "Stupid Girl", which peaked at #9.)
Staind would never have a song do as well on my chart as "It's Been Awhile" again, but the band would remain a commercial force in the years to come. The 2003 album 14 Shades of Grey debuted at #1 on the album chart, and spun off three top 10 alternative singles: "Price to Play", "So Far Away", and "How About You", with the ballad "So Far Away" becoming the band's second Modern Rock #1. The songs all hit my chart as well, with "Price to Play" reaching #8, and "So Far Away" getting to #6.
The band kept up their success as the decade wore on, but I was slowly turning away from their sound. Their next album, 2005's Chapter V, was another #1 album for the band, and the song "Right Here" spent 22 weeks on my top 40, but never got higher than #22. That proved to be their last hit on my top 40. Their 2008 single "Believe", off the unfortunately named album The Illusion of Progress, became their third and final #1 song on the alternative chart, but it fell completely outside my radar. The band took a hiatus after releasing their self-titled 2011 album, and Lewis went on to pursue a solo career as a country music artist.
You can guess where this is going to go. I haven't listened to any of Lewis's post-Staind stuff, mostly because I don't usually go out of my way to listen to country music. Still, it doesn't seem all that surprising to learn that Lewis became a vocal Donald Trump supporter, wearing a MAGA hat during performances, and expressing opposition to COVID-19 vaccines. It gets wackier from here. In 2022, Lewis went on a rant at a concert in Portsmouth, Ohio where he indicated his support for Vladimir Putin in Russia's war with Ukraine while going off against George Soros and World Economic Forum chairman Klaus Schwab. I have no idea who Schwab is or why fans at a concert ought to be angry with him, but that just tells you I stay as fucking far away from right-wing media as possible.
Of course, Lewis's politics have shown up in his music; his 2021 song "Am I the Only One" debuted at #1 on the country chart and hit #14 on the Hot 100. The lyrics sound like an average Tucker Carlson fan's out-of-touch complaints with society, railing against the removal of Confederate monuments and feeling butthurt that Bruce Springsteen and his music aren't actually conservative. If he had released the song this year, we'd probably be talking about him in the same context as Jason Aldean and Oliver Anthony Music, who have both logged time at #1 on the Hot 100 with MAGA-fueled culture war anthems.
Perhaps the most disappointing thing about all this is that when Lewis decided to get back together with his Staind bandmates in 2023, rock radio didn't find any of Lewis's statements disqualifying enough to not play the band's new music. Their song "Lowest in Me" reached #1 on the Mainstream Rock chart in August and even scraped the bottom of the Alternative Airplay chart. I'm assuming there's no political message to it, which is why it hasn't had wider success, but I have no interest whatsoever to listen to it and find out either way. We won't be seeing Staind in this column again.
THE NUMBER TWOS
Alicia Keys' brilliant, aching debut single, "Fallin'", peaked at #2 behind "It's Been Awhile".
Craig David's suave pop hit "Fill Me In" peaked at #4 behind "It's Been Awhile". All they seem to do is be checking up on you, baby.
And U2's touching requiem to INXS' Michael Hutchence, "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of", peaked at #9. Don't say that later will be better.