In the 1990s ska was a thriving counter-culture movement in Utah, was the dominant sound of Utah County local music, and produced such bands as Swim Herschel Swim, Stretch Armstrong, and My Man Friday. There is a recently released documentary about the 90s Utah County ska scene called "The Up Beat" which is really worth taking a look at.
There are a lot of theories as to why ska became so popular among young Mormons, and I think they boil down to two things: message and tone. The message was one of unity, respect, anti-materialism, and self-confidence. The tone was upbeat, optimistic, and really just pure fun. Young Mormons could latch onto this attitude as perfectly compatible with their religion, while also providing a way to rebel against a culture that increasingly stressed individual wealth and conformity. Perhaps the single best introduction is from the legendary Bay Area ska band, The Uptones. Here they demonstrate not only the classic 2 Tone ska style, but the imminently imitable style of ska dancing, skanking:
It is silly, it is fun, it takes no coordination (in fact, coordination may actually be a hindrance), and it requires that you suspend all thoughts of self-doubt, self-consciousness, pride, ego, or cares about what people think about you. You are basically required to just trust that you can be yourself and no one will judge you.
Ska originated in Jamaica in the 1950s, migrated to England and incorporated faster beats and a punk-rock attitude in the 1970s (the 2 Tone sound), and then migrated to America in the 1980s where, in the 1990s, it fused even more with punk rock to create the Third Wave sound. Throughout its several iterations, however, the basic theme is a walking bass line with rhythms on the upbeat. And it total speaks to me.
One of the first themes that ska music is known for is racial unity. When it was growing up in England it was a time of racial discord. Most ska bands were, and still are, multi-racial and place an enormous amount of emphasis on unity in general, and racial unity in particular. The Specials:
Along with the idea of racial unity, there was this idea that inequalities of all types were tearing us apart. The haves and the have-nots have slowly separated over the years and this has bred discord that ska music has always sought to counter. The Slackers:
There is definitely a defiant undertone to most of ska. We live in a society where corporatism is more important than democracy and where our culture is based on a me-first attitude that has divided us instead of uniting us. The Toasters captured this attitude in a nostalgic song about listening to corporate-free pirate radio as a child. It is a song longing for a simpler life where corporations and materialism do not dictate our thoughts and appetites:
So what's the suggestion ska music makes? To respect one another and try to see things from other people's perspectives. What we no longer seem to be able to do is admit that different opinions are not necessary inferior to our own, they are just different. We don't have to tear others down to justify our stances. Mustard Plug:
The other suggestion is to be completely comfortable in your own skin. To stand up for what you believe and not be swayed by the opinions of others. This next song is from a band called the Suicide Machines (I know, it sounds awful, but this is a band whose lyrics ironically are full of optimism) who were probably more on the punk end of the punk-ska spectrum, but they use some of the old ska beats and I love what this song told me as an insecure kid (and weren't we all?):
In a world that is increasingly divisive and individualistic (in the sense of my needs are more important than yours), ska encouraged me to stress unity, tolerance, and respect. Where we are told by corporations to conform and turn over our free will and critical thinking, ska encouraged me to have self-confidence and be an individual. Where the world is increasingly materialistic and fatalistic, ska helped me to value things other than simply what I could buy and consume.
I don't have any inherent trust in the government, but I have acquired a hefty distrust of corporate America. So when I see, for instance, the health insurance industry dropping coverage, raising premiums at break-neck speed, denying coverage because of supposed pre-existing conditions, hassling its customers, and creating a completely broken system, I have no problem completely dismantling their way of doing things. I know they don't care about me, so why should I care about their profits?
This is where the ska attitude that comes out in me: lets lift up those that are beaten down by the system, lets worry more about creating a country where people have equal access to things like education, a good job, and health care than about what material things I can buy with slightly lower taxes. Let's pull together by actually pulling together, as opposed to relying on greed to pull us all up by accident.
Let me leave you with the ska take on a love song by the Southern California partially-Mormon ska band, the Aquabats (a couple of whom are creators of the awesome kids show Yo Gabba Gabba!). Remember, ska is first and foremost about optimism and having fun: