The Verve Pipe was just one of many post-grunge bands that materialized in the early ’90s. Debuting in 1992, they were still nearly a year out from when the genre would become more of a focused style of music all its own, as well as the decline of the original grunge movement. While the band did get some measure of fame by cultivating a following in local Michigan college towns, a lot of their early work was overlooked by the masses. Things would change in 1996, though, with the release of the group’s album Villains and the shockingly dark song on it that would rocket them to popularity. Let’s explore The Verve Pipe’s biggest hit and what made it such a memorable track.

The Verve Pipe’s biggest hit tackles some dark themes

After all these years, it’s hard to argue that “The Freshman” isn’t still The Verve Pipe’s biggest hit. Not only did it debut as No. 5 on the Hot 100 chart in ’96, it’s currently the No. 1 song on their Spotify profile. While plenty of bands in the post-grunge era could still bring it to some dark places, the general softening of the music of this time is what helped “The Freshman” stand out and reach such heights.

Despite the fond memories many ’90s kids have of the song, few realize (at least according to BuzzFeed) just how dark the lyrics actually are. It’s a lot like a retro version of Outkast’s “Hey Ya!” in that way. Take a look at the song in close critique, though, and you’ll come to find it’s kind of a nightmare.

“The Freshman” is about a pair of friends in high school and their relationships with one woman. The first (the singer) sings about how he got his girlfriend pregnant, only to convince her to get an abortion to avoid marrying her. The second (the singer’s friend) seemed to date and then break up with the girlfriend next, before leaving for a vacation, only to return and find out she had overdosed and died. While all of this is dark enough on its own, the constant refrain of the boys refusing to take responsibility for their part in all of this, blaming the woman for falling in love with them, and the reminder that, “We were only freshmen,” really reinforces just how scummy and immature the two are.

The song was based on (sort of) true events

The band’s frontman, Brian Vander Ark, was the song’s writer and has talked about the real life inspirations for the song. American Songwriter sat down with him to discuss that, plus clear up some misconceptions and misinformation about the song.

According to Ark, the song is somewhat inspired by his life, though the real story isn’t nearly as tragic. He says that the woman in the song was based on a girl he actually knew as a teen, whom he and a friend of his both dated at different times. “[We] went back and forth with her — I dated her for a while and then we broke up and he dated her and then I dated her again.”

At some point during all of this, the girl reportedly got pregnant and had an abortion. After that, though, things take a pretty major divergence with the lady in the song committing suicide. Ark emphasized that her real life counterpart was just fine now and that no one involved in all of this had died.

Beyond this one story, though, he credited his time in the army for helping him gain life experience that led to his creativity in music. As for other aspects of the song, he cited the movie The Graduate and the song “I Touch Myself” by The Divinyls — the former representing the overinflated egos and self-confidence of young people and the latter for the men in the song blaming the woman for seducing them and bringing all the misfortune on herself.

The band has slowed down, but they’re not done yet

The ’90s might be long gone, but the band is still around and doing things. After the release of Underneath in 2001, the band took a 13-year hiatus from making music before announcing both a new album, Overboard, and a tour to follow. The group then released Parachute in 2017 to great reception, plus a compilation album titled Villains – Live & Acoustic at the same time.

While the group hasn’t released anything else since, it’s a safe bet they’re not broken up as of yet. Long periods of hiatus between releases have become their signature in the later years, so be on the lookout for some new tracks in, say, three or four more years.

How to get help: In the U.S., contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration helpline at 1-800-662-4357.

How to get help: In the U.S., call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Or text HOME to 741-741 to speak with a trained crisis counselor at the free Crisis Text Line.

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