George Lang: Why the '90s never left

By George Lang Modified: June 9, 2011 at 3:21 pm •  Published: June 9, 2011
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photo - **FILE** Vanilla Ice displays his awards he won in the rock and rap catagories at the American Music Awards in this Jan. 28, 1991 file photo. The 36-year-old rap performer, who had a '90s hit with "Ice Ice Baby," called animal control officials Wednesday to report that a wallaroo and a goat found wandering around Port St. Luciem Florida belong to him. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
**FILE** Vanilla Ice displays his awards he won in the rock and rap catagories at the American Music Awards in this Jan. 28, 1991 file photo. The 36-year-old rap performer, who had a '90s hit with "Ice Ice Baby," called animal control officials Wednesday to report that a wallaroo and a goat found wandering around Port St. Luciem Florida belong to him. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

This seemed like it was all happening way too soon. In April, the romantic comedy “Something Borrowed” began to unspool its lazy, Kate Hudson-flavored comedic romance at a special screening, and it was just chock full of zany side characters, wedding preparations, romantic triangles, lawyers partying in the Hamptons, yada, yada, yada.

At any rate, Hudson’s character asks Rachel, played by Ginnifer Goodwin, to go check out a 1990s cover band at the M1-5 Bar in New York’s Tribeca neighborhood for her wedding reception. So she’s listening to this band of guys with gelled hair (except for the requisite clean-shaven guy) performing Third Eye Blind’s “How’s It Going to Be” and “Round Here” by Counting Crows. And as an entertainment writer exposed to more aggressively average movies than most normal people can stand, I’m constantly hit with half-baked notions and irrational concepts, but this idea of a 1990s cover band simply did not compute.

Then, less than two weeks later, it happened again. I’m at the Norman Music Festival and I see a flier at the Brewhouse for a group named My So Called Band. Their photo is modeled ingeniously after the cover design for the Cranberries’ 1994 album, “No Need to Argue,” and on the band’s Facebook page, they pull other iconic poses -- their pastiche of Weezer’s “blue” album is particularly good. My So Called Band features members of The Workweek and Evangelicals, so these are strong musicians doing right by all the good, bad and middling music that spun from compact discs during the years when alternative music was printing money. And yet, I still found it difficult to believe that the 1990s could be nostalgia fodder.

Please do not take this as some kind of jeremiad against an entire decade. I met my wife in 1991, attended college during the grunge revolution and started my career as a writer immediately afterward, so my relationship with the decade is solid. Granted, I don’t carry much fondness for the post-grunge softening that took place in the late-1990s with the likes of the Goo Goo Dolls, the Wallflowers, Shawn Mullins, Eagle-Eye Cherry and Matchbox Twenty, but neither do I go around burning Lilith Fair posters. And I love Blur, Pulp and Pavement and I always will — it gave me a nice warm feeling a few years ago when “Range Life” would calm my infant son as I drove him to day care. I like to think it was the lines where Stephen Malkmus is taking shots at the Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots, but honestly, Sam just doesn’t have the frame of reference.

So it’s not that the 1990s were completely intolerable — any decade bracketed by My Bloody Valentine’s “Loveless” and The Flaming Lips’ “The Soft Bulletin” gets a credit rating in the 800s and a free ride to Harvard in my book. What I cannot understand is how the 1990s, at least in terms of the music, is all that different from what is happening in 2011.

Indulge me a little. Let’s pretend I’m exactly 10 years younger. It’s the summer of ’01, I’ve just interviewed Mark Wahlberg for Tim Burton’s idiotic remake of “Planet of the Apes,” I’m walking around Manhattan and nothing bad has happened yet. I get in a cab to go to La Guardia, and the Ukrainian taxi driver is playing Duran Duran’s “Notorious” — a 15-year-old song constructed almost entirely by synthesizers in producer Nile Rodgers’ laboratory.. It’s the summer of The Strokes in New York, and at that point, “Notorious” just seems like something from another planet.

Fast forward to the present and 15-year-old songs don’t sound that old. I don’t get a wistful, days-gone-by feeling from listening to Weezer’s “Pinkerton” or Jay-Z’s “Reasonable Doubt,” because half of the guitar-based indie music today still sounds like “El Scorcho” and Sean Carter is still king of the known universe. Back then, Dave Grohl and Foo Fighters were recording “Everlong” and “My Hero” and preparing to become the biggest rock band not named U2. This year, Foo Fighters’ “Wasting Light,” featuring Krist Novoselic playing bass on one track and effectively getting Grohl as close to a Nirvana reunion as possible without resurrection or zombification, went to No. 1 in nine countries.

The current playlist for KATT-FM features new tracks from Limp Bizkit, Godsmack, Alice In Chains and Foo Fighters, along with songs from Shinedown and Three Days Grace that fit in perfectly with all those late Clinton Administration bands. Give a kid from 1999 a mix CD with these songs and he would not know the difference. I’m not even busting on the KATT — what I’m busting on is the commercial hard rock that has not changed in style or substance since Fred Durst first turned his ball cap around. As for the pop charts, the AutoTune’d vocals that started cropping up on Cher singles and Daft Punk albums in the late-1990s are the gold standard on today’s hit radio -- a baker’s dozen years later, and only some of the names have changed.

Nostalgia? Seriously? How can I miss the ‘90s if they never went away?

It’s not that too little time has passed. George Lucas’ “American Graffiti,” the nostalgia piece by which all nostalgia should be judged, came out in 1973, and it was looking back to a night in Modesto, Calif. only 11 years before. The difference is the massive stylistic gulf between the periods: when Sha Na Na played Woodstock in 1969, their kitschy doo-wop antics had only been out-of-date for a decade, but in that patchouli-scented context, Bowser could have dressed as a Martian and he wouldn’t have looked that much more out of his element.

Also, consider how the “Living in Oblivion” collection of 1980s new wave hits raced into stores in 1993 -- the decade’s body was not even cold yet. With all that in mind, the 1990s nostalgia of today is not technically premature, but not enough time has passed for the sounds and styles of the period to become really, truly strange.

What were the 1990s? For the purposes of this discussion, the 1990s did not start on Jan. 1, 1990 and end on Dec. 31, 1999. Pop culture reads decades a little differently, and they are generally bookended by major events. So if the 1960s began with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and ended with the Altamont riot or the official breakup of the Beatles, then the 1970s lasted until either the 1979 “Disco Demolition Night” at Chicago’s Comiskey Park or the Aug. 1, 1981 launch of MTV. Using that line of reasoning, the 1990s did not start until Sept. 24, 1991, the day when Nirvana released “Nevermind” and the Red Hot Chili Pepper put out “Blood Sugar Sex Magik,” even though Pearl Jam’s “Ten” had been in stores for three weeks at that point. Before that, at least musically, it was still the 1980s: the summer of 1991 was the summer of Color Me Badd, Extreme’s “More Than Words,” “Unbelievable” by EMF and Queensryche’s “Silent Lucidity,” all holdovers in substance and style from the ‘80s.

But the 1990s was not a homogeneous decade of alternative rock. Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic” turns 20 in 2012, and its cultural impact is at least as substantial as “Nevermind,” and for many, many members of Gen X, 2Pac’s “All Eyez on Me” and the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Ready to Die” have just as much staying power. Furthermore, the end of the 1990s scarcely resembles the beginning. Teen-pop came rushing back into the charts in 1997 with the advent of Hanson and the Spice Girls, and by decade’s end, the zeitgeist was divided evenly by Britney Spears and ‘N Sync’s teen-pop, Blink-182’s brat-punk, and the party’s over hangover supplied by Limp Bizkit and Korn’s “nu-metal.”

When did the 1990s strike the set, musically speaking? There’s a decent argument to be made that either The White Stripes’ “De Stijl” ended the decade on June 20, 2000 or The Strokes’ “Is This It” nailed the coffin shut on Oct. 9, 2001, but neither of those albums were “1990s killers.” They really did not change the discussion for most people, because at the end of the 1990s, file sharing meant that everyone could have exactly the kind of music they wanted for free and the idea of a zeitgeist-defining communal experience in popular culture was starting to go away because everyone could create their own, insular zeitgeist. In 2011, Lady Gaga is the closest the current scene gets to a phenomenon, but pop-cultural events are much smaller now because we’re broken into “micro-scenes” with smaller superstars catering to smaller throngs.

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