[2021 Ed. Note: I noticed in my website’s stats that this entry in the Playground series got a look the other day, and when I went back to re-read it…holy cats, is it tone-deaf and clueless about the R&B of the 90s, particularly the stuff by female artists. Rest assured, I have grown and learned in the decade since I first wrote this. I’ll leave it up, but this is not my proudest moment.]
I had been under the impression that my playlist followed the mainstream pretty closely, but clearly I was mistaken. Even as my memory faithfully recorded me as a tiny part of a massive movement — everyone blissing on the same tunes at the same time — cold, historical facts have proven me wrong. In preparing for this installment, I made the mistake of looking at the Billboard Top 100 Songs of 1993, and felt myself staring into foreign territory. Could this be my 1993? How could my memory be so at odds with reality? Nothing but mediocre soul, “New Jack Swing,” and novelty pop-rap as far as the eye could see. It seems like I heard none of it at the time.
I mean, I was expecting to run across the Twin She-Beasts — Whitney and Mariah — in my little journey, and felt those shrill harpies could be safely ignored. But, oh, there’s Janet. And Mary J. And Vanessa was still around? That minx. And just who the fuck was “Shai”? Shanice? Silk? SWV? And how were they clunking up not only the Top 100, but the Top 40? In the end it doesn’t matter, because they were all faceless and interchangeable, but how did I not at least know them as names — then or now? I thought I was on top of things. Peabo Bryson. Jade. H-Town. Paperboy. Robin S. All names on the ’93 chart, and names I heard for the very first time as I sat down to write this. I was initially stunned, then ashamed. They must have been blasting from passing car stereos, the jukebox at Round Table, the pink Barbie tape player of the little neighbor kids, and over the speakers at Camelot and the Wherehouse, my homes away from home. I somehow missed it all.
Was it only on MTV during the rare times I had it turned off? Or when a, say, Xscape video came on did I completely — and subconsciously — glaze over and tune out? Aaaaand we might as well deal with the elephant in the room. All of those artists are black, and I am white, and most of the artists on the playlist so far are white. But everything I love about music flows directly from the taproot of African-American culture. (No blues = no rock ‘n’ roll. End of story.) What happened here? Why did I tune out? My God! In my youthful ignorance, did I miss something enriching and enlightening? Are my tastes not as catholic and well-rounded as I thought?
I went and sampled the stuff listed above, and it’s pretty much all shit.
My ultimate point is that I can no longer pretend I’m capturing a zeitgeist or speaking for the masses here. My playlist is as personal and idiosyncratic as the memories that inspired it.
We are now reaping the harvest sown back in ’93. Shallow, bland R&B. One-hit-wonder rap. The current state of popular music can be traced to when the flannel wave of grunge finally broke against the shore of corporate MOR pablum, and rolled back, defeated, to become as big a cultural punchline as the hair metal it replaced. Rock ‘n’ roll True Believers of my generation weep for the early 90’s the way old ex-hippies mourn the late sixties. We had a shot to change the game, and we blew it, man. By the turn of the century, all rockers were left with were “nu-metal” and, God help us, Train. The only difference between 2010 and 1993 is that now novelty rap aggressively denies being a novelty, and our bland R&B comes from American Idol, and makes one wish melisma had never been invented. (OK, OK, Idol-bashing is very 2008, but I had to get my shot in. Fuck that show and all it represents.)
So my 1993 drifts fuzzily into 1994. Nothing stands out in my recollection (which is why I attempted jog to my memory by reviewing the old Billboard charts in the first place.) I was settled into my job as a video store clerk. I finished my first semester of junior college. I turned nineteen. Uh… Wayne’s World 2 came out. I was content. But trouble sneaks up on little cat feet, and this short period was like the hang-time before you take the plunge on a roller coaster. There were to be troubles innumerable in ’94. And ’95. And ’96. And ’97. Fasten your seat belts, and on to the music.
To keep with the uncomfortable race theme, I think that African-American music struggled in the 80’s, Prince notwithstanding. It may have been the first decade since recorded music was invented that black music didn’t, on average, blow away its white competition. That super-slick glossy decade processed music like cheese food. White music turned shallowness into a virtue (temporarily), but black music was sapped of its vitality. Stevie Wonder was no longer superstitious in the 80’s, he was just calling to say he loved you. Whitney Houston became the new standard-bearer of R&B, to the genre’s eternal detriment. It became all about cold technical virtuosity at the expense of grit and true soul. “Listen to my song” became “listen to my voice.” (This is also why no one really likes Steve Vai or Joe Satriani as guitarists. No one cares how fast your fingers go, Slick, if you don’t move anyone.)
But by late ’93, it was about to be good again, or at least good on a widespread, noticeable level. (Public Enemy and A Tribe Called Quest were already doing good work, but were always a little off the mainstream radar.) An “early clue to the new direction” (to quote the Hard Day’s Night movie), for me, was Cypress Hill. This may surprise anyone who remembers me using “novelty rap” as an invective earlier in this very essay. Cypress Hill, I think, falls into that category, and their ridiculous — and ridiculously infectious — odes to guns and weed (not always in that order), delivered in B-Real’s ultra-nasal whine, were totally foreign to anything in my experience, but I loved the song (and the Black Sunday album) anyway. Seriously, though, no one can love pot that much, can they? For that kind of single-minded obsession over a consumable, one usually has to enter the world of cartoon cereal mascots (Trix Rabbit, etc.)
From one nasal whine to another, Smashing Pumpkins and their sometimes grating/sometimes brilliant adenoidal mastermind Billy Corgan were building momentum on the back of their summer release Siamese Dream. “Disarm” was the third single from the album, but it was the first to catch my ear — an overblown piece of bombast featuring tolling church bells, swooping cellos and thunderous timpanis. It was pretty great. The Chicago music scene that spawned Smashing Pumpkins was now being touted as the “new Seattle” (along with Portland, and — for about three weeks in early ’95 — Sacramento), but Smashing Pumpkins were never really of a piece with their peers. Unabashedly careerist and unashamed of their prog-rock influences, Smashing Pumpkins steered a course that did not always garner them a lot of love from the prickly, noise-loving indie-Chicago underground. But classifying them as an “alternative” band in the first place was merely a savvy marketing move, even though there was nothing really alternative about them. There was a lot of that faux-alt labeling going on at that time (see Ugly Kid Joe.)
Like the Pumpkins, fellow Chicago scenesters Urge Overkill also grabbed for the gold ring of mainstream success by embracing their inner Frampton and leaping aboard a major label. Smashing Pumpkins always aspired to an arena-friendly sound, but UO got there gradually. They first made us suffer through a Steve Albini-produced debut EP and album with the thin, flat noisepunk clatter that some misguided souls thought was more “authentic.” Rightly discarding that notion as rubbish, they decided they wanted to be Real Rock Stars, and doggedly continued to sweeten and beef up their sound until they finally struck pay dirt with the 1993 album Saturation— which had hooks galore and positively wallowed in big, crunchy Cheap Trick-style riffs.
Smashing Pumpkins went for grandiosity straight-faced. Urge Overkill did it with an ironic wink. Both ultimately collapsed under their own weight.
#110. “Never Said” — Liz Phair
Urge Overkill’s first album concluded with “Goodbye To Guyville,” which acknowledged more than a little gender lopsidedness in the Chicago music community. Liz Phair, also a member of the local scene, borrowed the term for her acclaimed debut Exile In Guyville. Blunt, confessional lyrics were combined with spare, rollicking arrangements and resulted in a critical home run. I mean, music writers could not stop praising her. And for a brief moment, she really seemed to deserve it. She did not have a great voice, but she was a savvy enough writer to understand its limitations and craft the songs accordingly (Chuck Berry did this too.) And she seemed so guileless and open it was impossible not to fall under her spell.
But all good things come to an end, and Liz came embarrassingly a-cropper by trying remake herself as a pop diva in the 2000s. Her nauseating new style, coupled with the fact that she’s always come off when she’s not performing as mildly mentally-challenged, is enough to force us to go back and look at this album and ask “was it really that good?” And the answer is…yes, it’s great. Some artists have enough creative fuel for a long haul, and others burn it up in one white-hot burst and have nothing left to offer. (Dark rumors have also surfaced that producer-guitarist Brad Wood is the secret genius behind Exile. One look at his other credits is enough to scotch that theory.)
#111. “Hey Jealousy” — Gin Blossoms
Gin Blossoms were one of those bands that were always just “around” — hoeing the same rootsy row as later-period Soul Asylum, but lacking a dreamy, poster-friendly front-man. Gin Blossoms were vaguely liked, rarely criticized, but nobody’s favorite. (ED. NOTE: Although, I suppose, they were somebody’s favorite — see Better Than Ezra, in Part 20.) Though I can’t really say Gin Blossoms were an incredibly special band, this song kind of was, but I didn’t really zero in on it until later. It was a song about 1) losing a girl, and 2) alcoholic excess. I was about to take a schooling in both of those things, and both of those things are the basic building blocks of thousands of songs, most of them self-pitying and maudlin. But here they’re presented with matter-of-fact resignation, a musical shrug, which deepens the underlying sadness without miring the song in schmaltz. If you’re interested enough to be reading this, you probably know the words, but re-familiarize yourself with them. It’s short (two verses), but pretty damn solid, and include what I’ve taken as my personal motto: “If you don’t expect too much from me, you might not be let down.”
#112. “Low” — Cracker
Cracker’s follow-up to their jolly debut is a prime example of the problems of the album format in the CD era. Eighty minutes of space! The average number of tracks on an album was bloating up toward fifteen or sixteen, which is at least a cool half-dozen too many. Which leads to an issue we’ve all lamented. Say it with me: “a few good songs, and a bunch of filler!”
It got to the point where I considered an album “good” if it had four (!) songs I liked on it. And these damn things were list-priced at $15.99! By 1996 or so, I remember saying that the primary form of recorded music should be the humble EP. An artist could showcase four or five really good songs for five or six bucks a throw. When mp3 files and iTunes and all that came along, people of a certain age wailed and gnashed their teeth over “the death of the album.” Admittedly, I was wailing and gnashing along with the rest, for awhile. But it dawned on me that I don’t miss shelling out almost twenty bucks for four songs. I do miss the tactile sensation of opening a new CD and nosing through its little booklet. And box sets! (pictured above, kids) Box sets were like a little chunk of heaven that fell to earth. But I’m willing to lose that in a trade-off that will save me hundreds annually.
Anyway, there were three good songs on Cracker’s Kerosene Hat, and they were “Low,” “Movie Star,” and “Get Off This.” (Tracks 1, 2, and 3, not coincidentally) and I’ll be damned if I can think of another song title or recollect another note of music on that album without cheating and checking my iTunes.
#113. “Since I Don’t Have You” — Guns N’ Roses
The long anticipated implosion of Guns N’ Roses finally occurred in late 1993 with the release of “The Spaghetti Incident?”, which was the type of album that is the traditional signal flare of artistic bankruptcy: the covers album. Punk covers, no less, a nod to the Gunners’ totally nonexistent (except for Duff McKagan) “punk roots.” It had the scent of desperation wafting off it, but truth be told, it wasn’t a bad listen. The New York Dolls’ “Human Being” came off particularly well. There were only two non-punk/proto-metal songs on the album: One was a “hidden track” written by Charles Manson in his pre-horrifying-slaughter, hippie-dippie aspiring songwriter days. The song wasn’t full-on dreadful, but Donovan needn’t fear any competition from Manson-as-minstrel, and if we needed any more reasons why Dennis Wilson gave him a wide berth, here’s another. Sadly, Guns N’ Roses put the song on the album solely to manufacture a controversy because they sensed interest and attention moving away from them. The other song that didn’t fit the theme was “Since I Don’t Have You,” a 1958 doo-wop chestnut from The Skyliners. It was Guns N’ Roses’ last video to air on MTV.
By the spring of ’94, GN’R’s presence on MTV was reduced to replacement rhythm guitarist Gilby Clarke’s participation in the annual Rock and Jock Softball Challenge, half-assedly shagging grounders hit by David Justice and visibly reading “I don’t understand our videos, either” off a cue card during his intro.
#114. “Linger” — The Cranberries
Another blandly inoffensive coffeehouse folk-rock band elevated to superstar status based on very little substance. In this case, a cute front-woman and the undeniable fact that Americans find everything Irish to be super-duper cool. “Linger” gives some insight to my girlfriend at the time, Emily. She would often parody “Linger” by singing the line from the chorus “do you have to let it linger?” followed by a gutbuster of her own invention: “like a booger on my finger.” Some (mainly the Holy Bee himself) have said in retrospect that Em lacked a sense of humor. Well, let the naysayers be silenced. She had one. It was just, uh, rudimentary. Like a vestigial tail.
Yes, by February of ’94, the cracks in my two-year relationship with Em were starting to show. The First Run Video triumvirate was torn asunder when Skot was let go on Groundhog’s Day (too many cash register irregularities.) So no more would I hear him clear the store of a lingering customer at closing time with a cheery clap of the hands and a call of “Wrap it up, sir!” Peyman and I soldiered on. And on an innocent movie-date night around Valentine’s Day, I stared into the yawning, empty abyss that was the soul of my generation, as embodied by a little flick called Reality Bites. The abyss stared back. Stay tuned.