There was once a time when America’s youth spent their days not doing whippits, nor recording one another’s reactions to salvia, or even liking completely un-moronic Facebook posts about their favorite colors. There was in fact a time when leather-jacketed tweenagers communed in garages to make music.
Or so Clarissa Darling would like to have us believe. Albeit fictional, in 1994, Nickelodeon released a seven-song album — This Is What “Na Na” Means — in tandem with the character’s show, Clarissa Explains It All. Her band, Clarissa and the Straightjackets, really tries at “serious” music, taking unapologetic inspiration from classic alt-rock groups of the day — Veruca Salt, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, The Breeders — and layering it with 13-year-old, popular-girl voices. Meaning that Clarissa thinks she is a great singer but is ostensibly lacking in vocal acumen, and when given any opportunity to perform in front of the school, she’ll hog the mic until her peers’ eye-rolling gives way complete boredom. And because people like her just enough, they’ll totally say, “You were so good!” but then they’ll talk about how she “thinks she so much better than everyone” behind her back.
But Clarissa and the Straightjackets want to be taken seriously. It’s clear from their lyrical treatment of childhood that they’re seeking to push the boundaries of suburban teenagedom. Which, for sheltered, middle-class white kids living in Nowhere, Ohio, apparently means bashing on your stupid brother (in “O-Brother”) and singing of rebellious activities, like taking walks in graveyards.
It’s hard to say whether the Straightjackets are bold or just completely lazy. In “Wishing for Rain,” the verse relies on rudimentary poetry, making it hard to sound cool when you’re rhyming the word “dead” with “red,” “Fred,” and “instead.” And similarly, “too” with “tattoo” and “you” before circling back to “dead,” which Clarissa additionally rhymes with “bread.” But considering that few real bands would actually do this, we have to wonder if this choice is in fact genius? (Probably not.)
The undisputed highlight of the album is “Walkin’ in the Cemetery,” an experiment in what happens when you take the sounds of Nirvana and combine them with the lyrics from “Monster Mash.” The song is a complete rip-off (almost chord-for-chord at the chorus) of Nirvana’s “In Bloom,” a song Kurt Cobain has described as being about ignorant people who don’t understand Nirvana’s message — which, after listening to “Walkin’ in the Cemetery,” arguably includes Clarissa.
A theme throughout the album includes raw “studio footage” with conversations between Clarissa and her bandmates, a mechanism clearly used to fill up time but also to emulate the artistry of Clarissa’s rock idols before her. And while this self-important attempt at voyeurism is really, really annoying, it does make you think that Clarissa would be pretty awesome at Instagram. It also, then, kind of makes you wonder whether Clarissa and the Straightjackets could actually succeed today — with the help, that is, of some good social media strategies.
But, overall, this debut album is an abysmal attempt at pastiche, resulting in a mediocre sound you might call Training-Bra Rock. There are moments that may pique the interest of cult followers of Clarissa, namely in “Na Na,” which references the show’s opening credits as well as the album’s title, This Is What “Na Na” Means. Unfortunately, this piece offers absolutely no explanation (the thing for which Clarissa is supposedly most adept) as to what “Na Na” actually means. The song may pose “deep” questions like, “Can you find Afghanistan?” (I don’t know, can you? Has Afghanistan become a symbol of disorientation? Is this a commentary on terrorism?) And with this song also comes one of the more “experimental” bits on the album, a verse of spoken word:
This is a list of what I like:
Lincoln Logs, Picasso
The ocean when it’s green,
Cross-eyed cats, mud,
Movies where people are insane,
Things I know a lot about
And things I can’t explain
Which, again, kind of negates Clarissa’s entire M.O. — but then again, you can’t blame teenagers for being random. You were. Which is why you’re probably listening to this album now.