At some point, it was decided that in order for a song to be great, it has to “stand the test of time.” This has since become a problematic cliché, but initially it must’ve seemed like a bright idea, and not just something that Jethro Tull fans use to dismiss Justin Bieber.
The “test of time” typically rewards iconic artists who produce capital-C Classic work; which is why over the course of decades, certain songs lose their original meanings and become statements about the legacies of their creators. It’s been 40 years since “Imagine” was a hit, and if people still care about that song 400 years from now, it likely will be tied up in the altruistic saintliness that John Lennon (theoretically) still signifies. Similarly, listeners no longer notice the jokey reference to a brand of kiddie underarm deodorant in the title of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”; 20 years later, the song has been drained of its irreverence. “Teen Spirit” now tells us what Nirvana is supposed to represent about ’90s culture (namely shooting heroin and hating yourself). And while it’s been only five years since Amy Winehouse released “Rehab,” people from here on out will no doubt focus on the song’s tragic irony, not Mark Ronson’s brassy production.
These songs belong to everybody, which means they belong to no one. We all recognize their greatness, but they don’t really fit into our daily lives. There’s no room for us; the legend is too expansive. When we hear these songs, we think about the singer, not ourselves. It’s hard to talk about them without sounding like a VH1 retrospective.
There’s another type of song that endures but in a completely different way. These songs do make us think about our own lives. We carry them in our subconscious like our hands harbor germs; we don’t always see them but they infect us all the same, and there’s seemingly millions of them. (Actually, it’s more like 200.) It has nothing to do with liking these songs; they become characters in our memories, which makes them as personal as family photographs. They’re so deeply embedded in our pasts that we don’t notice they’re there — and then somebody points one of them out, and this makes us laugh.
Semisonic’s “Closing Time” is that kind of song.
If you were between the ages of 13 and 24 in 1998 and at all engaged with pop culture, there’s a very good chance you can sing at least the chorus to Semisonic's “Closing Time.” (Here’s a hint: Just say “closing time” in a sing-songy manner.) And if you know the chorus, there might be another stray lyric or two lodged somewhere in your brain as well. (“Gather up your jackets, move it to the exits”; “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here”; “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”) “Closing Time” wasn't an exceptional song in terms of its chart performance (it peaked at no. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100) or impact on culture; there were way bigger hits that year. It was just a catchy, moderately rocking track by a journeyman Midwestern indie band that peaked in popularity as the alternative rock boom was hacking out its final, phlegm-y death rattle. And yet for several months in the spring and summer of ’98, “Closing Time” was everywhere in a way that songs would soon never be again. Just one year later, Napster revolutionized popular music delivery systems, and moderately rocking nice-guy indie bands stopped having hit singles. Today, most people wouldn’t know Semisonic if they personally escorted them out of their favorite bar after last call. But “Closing Time” instantly conjures its era with startling intensity. As a result, “Closing Time” is maybe the most late-’90s thing there is.
And yet “Closing Time” is also weirdly contemporary — in recent years, it’s been popping up regularly in movies and TV shows as a punch line. In 2010’s Due Date, a wheelchair-bound Danny McBride beats up Robert Downey Jr. and Zach Galifianakis, and then sings about meeting “his fucking boys” at Chili’s to the tune of "Closing Time." In this summer’s Friends With Benefits, Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis bond over their sort-of knowledge of the song (Timberlake thinks it’s by Third Eye Blind), and “Closing Time” becomes a running joke that pays off at the film’s climax. In a recent episode of The Office, boss Andy Bernard (Ed Helms) tries to make playing “Closing Time” an end-of-the-day work tradition, to the chagrin and annoyance of his coworkers (save for Stanley, who relishes anything related to leaving work, even if he admits to “not caring for” the track).
“People really did respond to the song,” said Amelie Gillette, a writer for The Office who suggested using “Closing Time” in the episode. (This was before Friends With Benefits came out, and without knowledge of the Due Date scene.) “That song feels super, super collegiate to me. It’s about from the time that Andy would’ve been in college, and it’s something he’d probably have a soft spot for. When I pitched it, people were just immediately onboard, maybe in a way they wouldn’t be with other songs.”
I asked Gillette why “Closing Time” is “funnier” than other late-period alterna-hits that Andy Bernard might’ve also enjoyed. Why not Fastball’s “The Way” or Goo Goo Dolls’ “Slide” or Eve 6’s “Inside Out”? Gillette singled out the sing-along qualities of “Closing Time” (“It’s super chant-worthy”) but otherwise couldn’t quite put her finger on what makes it different. “Closing Time” fits better in this context because it just does. (If you mentally substitute any one of those songs for “Closing Time” in any of the above scenes, they don't work nearly as well.)
There’s an important distinction between how “Closing Time” is used in films and TV shows, and how dozens of ’80s songs have been utilized in movies like The Wedding Singer, in which the humor is primarily based in pointing and laughing at the big hair and silly clothes of yesteryear. For Gillette, the joke of the Office scene isn’t the ’90s-ness of “Closing Time”; rather, “it’s having a boss that really wants you to be involved in things, which is way worse than a boss who is just railing you every minute.” Liking “Closing Time” is a pinpoint detail that makes a fictional depiction of an overbearing thirtysomething middle-manager seem more authentic; it’s funny because it rings true. And according to Dan Wilson, the lead singer of Semisonic and writer of “Closing Time,” the Andy Bernard scenario really does happen in real life.
“My insurance agent realized recently that I was the Dan Wilson who wrote ‘Closing Time,’ and he listens to it every night at five o’clock when his day is done,” Wilson said, laughing, when I phoned him at his home in L.A. “He puts it on his boom box in his cubicle, and goes home. That’s so funny and great. It’s beautiful.”
For the record, Wilson doesn’t mind people making fun of “Closing Time.” (Except for Due Date, but only because of the scene’s violence. He wasn’t asked for approval of that one. “I would’ve said no to that,” he said, “though I’m not bummed about it.”) It probably helps that his career didn’t end with that song: After Semisonic released its last album (to date anyway) in 2001, Wilson became a successful songwriter and producer for other artists, including the Dixie Chicks (he won a Song Of The Year Grammy for “Not Ready to Make Nice”), Josh Groban, Weezer, and Adele. (He co-wrote and co-produced Adele’s recent no. 1 hit “Someone Like You”; more on that in a moment.)
I asked Wilson why “Closing Time” has taken on an unintended comic dimension in the years since it fell off the pop charts. He’d clearly already given this question a lot of thought. “The way that ‘Closing Time’ is used in these various settings is partly as a shorthand for that interesting feeling when you realize someone very different from you shares your cultural background. The guy in the wheelchair in Due Date that comes out and beats up the main characters, part of the humor of that scene is that this really weird guy knows this song that we know, too, and he’s been infiltrated by the same song we’ve been infiltrated by."
“In Friends With Benefits, there’s a bunch of different levels — it’s the cuteness of using ‘Closing Time’ where it’s the ringtone for the girlfriend, and it’s Justin Timberlake singing the song, which is an exotic person actually knowing the same pop stuff we know. It’s that connectiveness — part of the joke is that ‘Closing Time’ is a song that everybody knows. And not everybody likes it; the funny part of The Office is that the super-dorky boss is the only one who likes it. I wasn’t hurt by that; I thought it was funny.”
Wilson has had a lot of experience lately with his songs being re-appropriated in other media. Earlier this month, Adele’s tear-jerking piano ballad “Someone Like You” was the subject of a Saturday Night Live sketch about the song’s power to reduce listeners to blubbering fits of all-out weeping. The only way the sketch works is if there’s common knowledge that “Someone Like You” generally elicits this kind of reaction — which speaks to the song’s incredible impact in a relatively short period of time. It’s like the flip side to the reaction expected for “Closing Time,” but it’s rooted in the same idea: Referencing these songs in pop culture exposes parts of people’s lives that they didn’t realize were universal.
The lesson of “Closing Time” is that we aren’t all that different from the fictional people hearing it on-screen — or the real people hearing it around us. “Closing Time” runs exactly four minutes and 34 seconds, but it encapsulates an infinite amount of experiences that are all roughly the same. It's the sound of being bored in the backseat of a friend’s car while on lunch break in high school; it looks like the too-tight pair of jean shorts that inexplicably became a wardrobe staple for a whole summer between sophomore and junior year in college; it smells like the first crappy apartment you ever had. Sometimes it takes a pop song by a band we've forgotten to show us how remarkably unremarkable our personal relationships with pop culture can be; then a movie or TV show comes along many years later and underlines it. Semisonic may never have another hit, but “Closing Time” will never leave our heads. And this is a statement on our legacies. Which is pretty funny if you think about it.
Steven Hyden is music editor of the A.V. Club.