Sunday, January 13, 2008
Alternative to what...?
A few weeks ago, my friend Ben sent me a copy of Milk It!: Collected Musings on the Alternative Music Explosion of the 90’s by Chicago Sun-Times music critic Jim DeRogatis (DaCapo, 2003). I found the book to be very uneven – as “collected musings” tend to be – but I enjoyed it because it got me thinking about the music that defined my high school and college years.
The book begins with a lengthy section on Nirvana, the band that ignited the commercial explosion of “alternative” music. It ends with Britney Spears, the pop princess whose inevitable meltdown has reached a level of humiliation that even the notoriously harsh DeRogatis never dared to imagine. In between, there are articles on dozens of acts that seem to have hastened the death of rock as well as dozens that offer evidence of its timeless vitality. Any serious fan of music will find statements to agree and disagree with. But even when you think the author is full of shit, you can’t argue with his passion. He clearly lived the music, rather than simply intellectualizing it. Ultimately, it’s how the music makes him feel that determines whether or not he likes it.
As it should be.
I remember the day in April 1994 when MTV News announced that Kurt Cobain had killed himself. From day one, critics and veejays presented it as some kind of “statement” about the frustrations of Generation X. I can’t say whether Nirvana fans felt the same way, because I wasn’t really a Nirvana fan at the time. Unlike the band's most loyal followers, I hadn’t tracked them from their humble Seattle origins to iconic status. I was, if anything, a half-hearted hanger-on. I owned copies of the chart-busting albums “Nevermind” (1991) and “In Utero” (1993)… but I preferred Pearl Jam. This, I suppose, is the big debate for those who grew up with alternative music - Nirvana or Pearl Jam?
In his book, DeRogatis argues that Nirvana drew on the punk mentality while the Pearl Jam sound stemmed from classic rock acts like The Doors and The Who. The implication is that Nirvana is truer to what DeRogatis defines as the essence of rock n roll: youthful rebellion. I don’t disagree… but maybe I just wasn’t that rebellious. As individuals we’re drawn to what we’re drawn to. Our taste in music is an instinct, not a decision. Personally, I was a more captivated by Pearl Jam’s debut album “Ten” (1991), particularly the B-side, and the follow-up “Vs.” (1993).
I later discovered The Doors and The Who for myself… not to mention Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, which became favorites. That said, I suppose it’s clear where my loyalties lie. I’m not coming from the same place that DeRogatis is coming from. I don’t have the same contempt for nostalgia that he has. According to the author, this distinguishes me as more of a Generation Y listener than a Generation X listener, though technically I’m right on the cusp between the two.
Still, I find myself in agreement with many of the author’s critical assessments – Courtney Love: clownish, Smashing Pumpkins: pretentious, The Stone Roses: unimaginative, Bjork: enchanting, A Tribe Called Quest: intriguing, Brian Eno: genius. While I may disagree with his take on the Stone Temple Pilots (“pathetic Pearl Jam wannabes” – which, admittedly, is not as offensive to a Pearl Jam fan as it is to DeRogatis), I can’t imagine anyone arguing with the author’s contempt for boring frat rockers like Hootie and the Blowfish or glorified hate-mongers like N.W.A.
What really strikes me about this book are the bands that DeRogatis neglects to mention – bands that define the 90s for me. Maybe these musicians were not as popular in Chicago (DeRogatis’s home)? Maybe he just wasn’t as interested in them? Whatever the case, it got me thinking about where I would have placed my own focus in such a retrospective…
DeRogatis devotes a chapter to rising female musicians like L7, Liz Phair and Tori Amos. In my corner of the world (Charlottesville, VA), Ani DiFranco was the reigning queen of the post-feminist girl bands. Several of the young women I knew in high school seemed to be forming their personal identities in the wake of DiFranco’s music. I absorbed the music in a desperate effort to understand the opposite sex. Women still remained a mystery to me… but I learned to appreciate DiFranco’s acoustic guitar work and the emotional honesty of her lyrics.
For all her rebelliousness, DiFranco was just a step away from the radio-friendly Alanis Morrisette, whose 1995 debut album (the best-selling debut album by a female artist in the U.S.) proved that legion of fans were ready for something like Sarah McLachlan’s Lilith Fair. Jim DeRogatis talks at length about the over-commercialized Lollapalooza and the under-commercialized Woodstock ‘94, but he says nothing about Lilith... which, as far as I could tell, was a commercial and artistic success.
Of course, the girl bands were never really my thing. I gravitated toward bands like Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails, Mazzy Star, and Led Zeppelin. I was a little behind the curve in discovering Depeche Mode, who had peaked with their 1990 album “Violator” – an ominous soundscape that would have worked perfectly as the soundtrack for a gothic horror film. Nine Inch Nails manipulated electronic sounds to similar, eerie effect – but while Depeche Mode remained mostly ominous, NIN escalated the music to full assault on “The Downward Spiral” (1995). Mazzy Star’s first album (“So Tonight That I Might See” – 1993) had more of a post-traumatic vibe. Led Zeppelin, in my estimation, ran the gamut. That was my window into the world of classic rock.
It was not until a few years later that I came to appreciate England’s contribution to the early 90s music scene – the dream-pop “shoegazer” bands. DeRogatis focuses on My Bloody Valentine and Ride; I preferred Slowdive (1991 – 1995), Lush (1992 – 1996), Portishead (1994 – 1997), and Massive Attack (who peaked with the album “Mezzanine” in 1998). My Bloody Valentine’s Bilinda Butcher offers an anecdote that helps explain the ethereal sound of these bands (usually soft vocals drenched in guitar feedback): “Often when we do vocals, it’s seven-thirty in the morning; I’ve usually just fallen asleep and have to be woken up to sing. I’m usually trying to remember what I’ve been dreaming about when I’m singing.” Like most people, I tended to be nocturnal when I was in college – so this music was a natural soundtrack for that particular place and time (1997 - 2000).
By 1997, as DeRogatis points out, all ears were focused on electronic music – predicted to be "the next big thing." Electronic music found its strongest current in England; its earliest success stories were extensions of the experimental art rock of musicians like Kraftwerk and Brian Eno. To DeRogatis, electronic music is little more than a footnote in 90s alternative music – he was fascinated by Aphex Twin and The Orb, but lost interest in the whole scene when bands like The Chemical Brothers and Prodigy rose to prominence. He never drank the kool-aid. But I did.
I vividly remember the experience of listening to a few breakthrough electronic albums for the first time: Orbital’s “brown album” (1993), Underworld’s debut “dubnobasswithmyheadman” (1993), Moby’s “Everything is Wrong” (1995), and DJ Shadow’s “Endroducing” (1996). The music on these albums was as much a part of my life as the people and places I saw everyday – the beats and rhythms were burned into my brain. By the time I actually went to England and discovered trance DJs like Paul Oakenfold, Ferry Corstein and Paul van Dyk, electronic music was running out of juice. Since then, I have found new popular music to be, for the most part, anti-climactic.
Milk It! ends with an essay entitled “What’s Up with Generation Y?”, written just two weeks after 9/11. In it, the author provides his own definition of Generation Y: “seventy million people born between 1980 and 1996” who, prior to 9/11, existed in “a period of unprecedented prosperity and a cocoon of creature comforts the likes of which we’ve never seen before.” He predicts that this generation will respond in one of three ways to 9/11: (1) They will realize that “their current opiates… (Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, Total Request Live, Limp Biskit, Survivor, Sony Playstation, etc.) were nothing but placebos,” and subsequently rebel against “the mega-corporations that are trying to spread consumerism to every corner of the globe, killing Western culture and turning us all into the equivalent of those cannibalistic zombies traipsing through the shopping mall in Dawn of the Dead”; (2) They will embrace the “ubiquitous television commentators’ jingoism, applaud the bloodlust of the hawks,” and continue to spend, spend, spend because it’s the patriotic thing to do; (3) They will slowly return to business as usual, without giving much serious thought to the first two alternatives.
I haven’t bought much music or attended many concerts since 9/11, but I’ve never really thought of 9/11 and my taste in music in terms of cause-and-effect. The truth is that I also haven’t bought a lot of fiction since 9/11. I haven’t gone to the movies much since 9/11. This is not because I decided to stop spending… but because, in 2001, I ceased to be a student with disposable income. Since 2001, I have not been in the target demographic for the music industry. They are now pursuing the younger members of Generation Y.
If I had to assess how the youth generation has responded to 9/11, I’d probably lean toward the third possibility that DeRogatis presents. Sure, the music industry has fallen on hard times in the last few years – but I think that has more to do with changes in technology as with a change in mindset. Although the youth of America is inheriting a massive national debt for a war that was deviously sold to us as a response to 9/11, it's still “business as usual.” While the national debt approaches the $500,000,000,000 mark with no end in sight, we remain reasonably calm. The potential rage – for the ruination of the economic welfare of our future, for the repetition of some of our country’s most embarrassing historical blunders, for the government’s shameless trampling of our nation’s founding principles – has been kept in check.
Or am I wrong? Am I simply missing the signs of a major awakening of social and political consciousness? I wonder what’s going on in high school and college classrooms these days… and if there is a significant “alternative” music scene brewing right now while the industry struggles to get back to business as usual…
DeRogatis characterizes great music as restless and rebellious in nature. I often make the same argument for great horror films. They question authority, break taboos, and offer alternatives to the status quo. They are agents of change.
Right now, we could use some great music.