Sponge’s Wax Ecstatic And The Thrill Of Being The Only One Listening

On July 13, 2016

by Carl Williott 


When You Were Young aims to reclaim the music of our misremembered youths from the scratched mix-CDs underneath our car seats. Each edition will cover music the writer loved as a teenager before moving on to “cooler” music, whatever that means. This edition covers Sponge, and their 1996 album, Wax Ecstatic.

Right off the bat, I have to win you over. Because there’s no getting around the fact that Sponge’s sophomore album, Wax Ecstatic, is inessential. It’s a benevolent poltergeist that has latched onto me, and apparently only me, for two decades.

We all have personally beloved music that’s been deemed insignificant, and the assumption is that, oh, this is the Internet, the collective web memory will provide some vindication, some commiseration. A few times in the span of this modern existence, however, you may realize that you’ve latched onto an outlier that somehow got left behind in a trail of digital dust. Lost, except for occasional nerve impulses in a few actual human brains. It’s these albums and songs that are the last link to that ancient act of listening in complete isolation.
Which is a good segue into how Sponge existed in the ‘90s, operating outside the great authenticity battles of that decade. They were never hated the way Bush was hated, never legitimized the way Stone Temple Pilots were. They never crashed the charts. But they had all the appearances of that cluster of bands. By 1996, grunge’s glories spawned the many-tentacled “alt rock” monster, and in the midst of all that expansion, more was expected of the godfathers. Whether that fostered a sense of pressure or freedom, it led to Pearl Jam’s No Code, STP’s Tiny Music..., Soundgarden’s Down On The Upside, Bush’s Razorblade Suitcase: all released in 1996, and all more varied, experimental and tangential to grunge than the albums that preceded them.

Wax Ecstatic follows that very same trajectory. Sponge’s debut, Rotting Piñata, alternated between ramanah rock and jangle-pop, but two years later these halfway decent STP clones shot off glammy, greasy saloon rock and dirges about drag queens. And unlike those other “evolved” grunge efforts of ‘96, this was unquestionably better than its predecessor.

It had moments of galloping energy, grim truth, surprising beauty, and bracing sadness. The title track is snarky as hell, its central riff an infinity symbol made of hot needles. “Have You Seen Mary?” and “Velveteen” are devastating. The ominous “I Am Anastasia” has an assist from Psychedelic Furs’ Richard Butler! But as a bubbled-off suburban 12-year-old, what really earholed me was how progressive the album was. These Detroit guys with gold teeth, slicked back hair, and names like Vinnie Dombroski and Joey Mazzola managed to make an LP about gender fluidity and beauty standards and capitalism and oppression. It seemed like a big deal that two songs had “Drag Queen” in the title.

Despite (because of?) that, it never resonated on a wide scale. I know the advance buzz was good and I know ultimately the label wasn’t pleased with the LP’s commercial performance, but I don’t know what went wrong. Even its roller derby-themed lead video during culture’s peak roller derby moment (which can’t really be explained to people who weren’t around for it) couldn’t help it infiltrate the zeitgeist. You still hear “Molly” and its built-in nostalgia, you hear “Plowed” at sporting events...but you never hear or talk about anything from Wax Ecstatic.

As far as I know, nobody I know knows this music — maybe my dad, from hearing it pouring out of my room when I was in junior high — so I can’t have a shared experience over the memories and context of it with anyone in my orbit. There's something sad about that, about the cultural evaporation of semi-meaningless art that dropped just before the internet explosion. If you happen to love some of it, maybe you're incredulous about the lack of an online footprint. Maybe you go looking for IRL clues of its legacy. In this particular case, I momentarily convinced myself that the singer for Preoccupations (fka Viet Cong) has a Vinnie Dombroski timbre to his voice — as if the dudes who weren’t even familiar with the VC had somehow been influenced by Sponge. But that’s what you do, you look for proof of life.

The more I thought about this, though, the more I came to savor the lonely 20-year relationship I’d cultivated with this album. It's easy to love a consensus classic and jump into debates about landmark releases. But to obsess about a leftover that never made the canon, that didn't even meet the internet memory hole's low standards? In this era of taste broadcasting and appointment listening, that is a strange thrill. What a vivid illustration of music's unexplainable pull.

It’s a stark reminder that, to paraphrase Aldous Huxley, we're all island universes, doomed to enjoy in solitude. Doomed, but also blessed. Because the internet tells us we are not alone, but the subtext to that is: We are not unique. Now more than ever, when secret finds are merely the precursor materials for hot #content and monocultural nostalgia drives the mainstream, we need irrational attachments to the detritus that time forgot. That stuff is proof you are alive, and you are you.

So here's the part where I'd button everything up with a clever application of a Wax Ecstatic song title or lyric. It's something that is automatic. Maybe I already snuck one in. Maybe, hopefully, I’m the only one who knows, or cares.

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