This song takes place in high school, where the clique system is firmly in place and students are desperately trying to fit in. The singer is one of the fortunate ones, as he is "popular."
The verses are all in spoken-word form, and come Penny's Guide To Teen-Age Charm And Popularity, an etiquette book for teenage girls that was published in 1964. Frontman Matthew Caws bought it at a Salvation Army.
"I was listening to a lot of Sonic Youth and I was playing around with those chords at the beginning of the song trying to cop a little bit of their chord style, which I’m sure I didn’t do successfully," he told the magazine Motif. "So I was playing around with a 4-track and I had this little hook and I thought I would write a chorus from the standpoint of somebody who really believed everything in this book and someone who approached life like that in a very competitive way."
The video was shot at Bayonne High School in New Jersey, which is also where Mariah Carey's "Someday" and Pearl Jam's "Jeremy
" were shot.
In the video, all the kids are either cheerleaders or football players - the popular kids. At the end of the clip, there is a lot of snogging and two football players are shown smiling at each other in the shower. This created some controversy as the principal of the school objected to the sexual themes. Many thought the shower scene was supposed to portray the football players as gay, but the band claims they were meant to be bragging about their conquests.
"Popular" was written by bass player Daniel Lorca and lead singer Matthew Caws. It was produced by Ric Ocasek of The Cars.
Caws said: "Because we'd already recorded most of these songs the year before with a different drummer, and because Ric Ocasek, who was producing, tended to like first takes, this album went quickly. It took all of three weeks at Electric Lady shortly before the Christmas of 1995, including the mix. Bruce Calder engineered. He used very little compression, which is relatively unusual, but we're not arguing with the results! We met Ric by chance: I gave him a demo cassette outside the Knitting Factory and he called back. We were shocked. One of the nicest people ever. Very exciting times for us."
Bertrand - Paris, France, for all of the above
When the band started performing this song, they left the verses empty and would have members of the audience (typically their friends) read passages from Penny's Guide To Teen-Age Charm And Popularity during those sections. When they recorded the song, the initial idea was for Caws and his friend Catherine Talese to trade lines back and forth, but when Bryce Goggin, who mixed the demo, heard the track, he faded out Talese after about 20 seconds and used Caws for the rest of the verses, convincing him that was the way to go.
This song made the playlists of many Modern Rock and Alternative radio stations, but unlike the football stars and cheerleaders in they lyric, Nada Surf never became popular. Their second album, The Proximity Effect, was released in Europe in 1998 but was held back in America because their label, Elektra, didn't dig it. Elektra ended up dropping the band who released it independently in 2000. This is the point where most '90s bands with a modest hit out of the gate break up, but Nada Surf stayed together, consistently touring and recording. Their dedication paid off as they made a mark on the indie rock scene, which proved far more sustainable than chasing hits.
This is far more gimmicky than what's typical of the band, but Matthew Caws credits it for drawing listeners who wouldn't have heard the band, boosting their fanbase substantially.
In America, if you wanted the song, you had to buy the album, as it was not sold as a single. This kept it off the Hot 100 per Billboard rules at the time, but it make #51 on the Airplay chart and #11 on the Alternative chart.
This is the most popular song with the word popular in the title. No song with that word has ever made the Hot 100.