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Essays

Fine, I admit it: I love 311’s ‘Amber’

The song is the musical equivalent of mai tai at a Sandals swim-up bar, and I love it

311 amber

Some people say that there’s no such thing as guilty pleasures. Those people are lying liars from bullshit town. It’s a nice aspirational thought to say that everyone should embrace joy, but we all know that some things are so lame that they should not be enjoyed by anyone. This is a deeply personal struggle for me, a person who loves the 311 song ‘Amber.’

Why is this song a guilty pleasure? Let me count the ways. 

First, the lyrics. My first encounter with the lyrical stylings of alt-nu-metal stalwarts 311 occurred when their 1995 music video for ‘Down’ became ubiquitous on MTV. In that video, vocalist Doug Martinez – who looks and raps like a dollar store Ad-Rock – rhymes what could be the most cringeworthy lyric of the nineties: “did you ever make out in a dark hallway/display a kiss that made your day?” This unforgivably dopey and horny lyric makes Anthony Kiedis sound like ‘ol Bill Shakespeare.

311 writes bad lyrics, exhibit B: the chorus of ‘Amber’ is built around the insufferably dippy line “amber is the color of your energy.” I went to high school with a frizzy-haired bullshit artist who wore paisley shirts and loved to tell girls about the colors of their auras. He was, of course, a screamingly uncool virgin. Would you believe me if I told you that guy went on to become 311 frontman Nick Hexum? No? Well that’s good, because he didn’t (he probably went on to become a reiki practitioner and/or yoga instructor). But he had a lot in common with Nick Hexum, at least in terms of pretending to see girls’ auras.

311’s questionable taste extends from its lyrics to its stylistic crossovers. At the turn of the millennium, I loved Deftones just as much as the next guy, but most nu-metal bands have aged about as well as waterlogged cadavers (we are still haunted by the occasional new Korn dubstep crossover album or the retrospective documentary about the horrors of Woodstock 99). 311 takes its nu-metal one step further by sprinkling its rap-rock with a liberal dose of watered down white-boy dub reggae. The island breeze of ‘Amber’ is the perfect example of the band’s dub-lite tendencies; its upstroke guitar and high-pitched snare evoke mai tais at a Sandals swim-up bar. 

But guess what? ‘Amber’ is too carefree to care about all of my judgemental snobbery. The 2001 hit was an intentional departure from the heavy sound the band was known for. Judging by Spotify streams, the song is the band’s most popular by leaps and bounds. It’s as languid as the ocean tide lapping lazily at the sand, and its tranquility disarms all of my arguments against it. Frontman Nick Hexum’s vibe is so thoroughly and convincingly chill; the guy sounds like he has never worried a day in his life. His energy is like when Axl Rose sang “I don’t worry about nothing, no, because worrying’s a waste of my time” but replace the sneering IDGAF vibes with chill island vibes. For an anxiety-prone listener like me, ‘Amber’ is like soothing aural Xanax.

In graphic design, a design should look like what it is: a logo for the word ‘Frantic,’ for example, could use shattered or torn typography. ‘Amber’ is like that: its sound matches its theme. The guitar has a warm tone thanks to an envelope filter pedal (yes, I read an interview where Hexum describes the tools used to create the song). Hexum’s sunny disposition brightens the whole affair – but it’s a soothing glow, not a harsh glare. To write a song called ‘Amber’ that perfectly captures that warm hue is no easy feat.

The song is an undeniable earworm. I played it in my house and my wife started singing along immediately. The chorus lilted through my head before bed. I can hear it in my mind vividly now as I write. Many have tried to write a song this infectious; few have prevailed.

It’s a testament to the power of ‘Amber’ that it cuts through my preconceptions and snobbery. I want to be defied and surprised and challenged by art. And while Nick Hexum probably didn’t intend for his laid-back love song to engage me intellectually, it did anyway.

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