Sects, Drugs and Rock & Roll
by Greg Rawlings
As a total music nut and a champion of all that is singular and interesting in music (as opposed to that which is popular), I have decided to take a jaunty stroll through the minefield of pop music, and pluck a few flowers from the tangled garden at the end of the path. The single most lamentable and noticeable aspect of the pop/rock world in the ’90s was the utter divisiveness of the scene. From grunge to techno to pop and hip-hop, from ’60s echoes to ’70s blasts and even to ’80s neo-new wave, the decade has been characterized by: a) complete inability of anything—much less anything new—to really take fire and control events; and, b) for advocates of one scene to spend enormous amounts of time and print dissing everybody else.
The ’90s began on a dark note with the death of the Replacements (the ’Mats, to the faithful), the greatest American rock band since the Velvet Underground. Oddly enough, a musical stew made up of a recipe stolen from the ’Mats then came as close as any one movement to taking over pop culture, grunge. Druggy, garage rock, characterized by ragged guitars and a basic musical concept of slow/low then fast/loud, this music had one great thing going for it—a figurehead—however, this music also had one huge built-in liability—the figure head was a stone junkie with not much time left for this world. The shotgun blast that killed Kurt Cobain killed grunge; which was destined to die ugly soon enough, in that nearly every other major player in the scene was also a junkie. Not since the late 1940s, early 1950s jazz scene had so many leaders of a cultural movement been heroin addicts. The sight of an obviously stoned Cobain singing “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam” on the Nirvana unplugged special, is maybe the most poignant of the decade. As someone who lived on Denver’s Capital Hill during the heyday of the local smack scene, the sight of spent syringes in the gutter became a morning ritual and for a while you couldn’t see one without thinking of Cobain, dead in Seattle, his wife jetting around the world with his ashes in a vase. From the death of a band to the death of a scene, from Paul Westerberg breaking up the Replacements to fight his own substance abuse battles, to Cobain losing his; this for me remains the memento mori of a dark time.
Percolating to the surface with the death of grunge was a rebirth of hip-hop, which had been the saving grace of American pop music in the mid-to-late ’80s. But this time, it was a cold, death-centered variety of what had originally been a gusher of street poetry tied to relentless beats. No more Grandmaster Flash or Run-DMC, no more eloquent rages by Chuck D. of Public Enemy; instead was a gutter-wail of nasty, violent, misogynist trash; perhaps the most negative music in American history.
Those of us who had applauded the savvy of Public Enemy, or the loose-limbed thrills of De La Soul, felt stranded outside the crack-wired, bloodthirsty world that had taken its place. Oddly enough, it was this form of black music that attracted hordes of suburban, white, mainly male teenagers, most of whom were raging bigots; they joyously embraced the images of violence against others—lately, those of us in Denver have seen where this world-view leads—to a place you’d wish no one ever to go—to guns and hate and slaughter. Hopefully, the rise of bands like the Roots and the Fugees can return hip-hop to a higher plain; their re-infusion of reggae into the scene is a welcome relief from the death-rap drivel they compete against.
But how could the music of the ’90s not be a music of death? That seems the real question. How could it not mirror the filthy, greed-addled world of modern America? A nation that stood by while genocide became a daily reality around the globe, while we congregated in Starbucks discussing our SUVs on our cell phones.
The natural response to this aura of darkness was pop: old fashioned girl diva, boy dancing troupe pop; a throwback to the Osmonds and the Jackson 5, to Diana Ross and her countless imitators. So Madonna comes back hotter than ever, Maria Carey sells in the tens of millions, even, God forbid, Celine Dion shrieks her way into the mainstream. The Backstreet Boys appear on teenaged girls’ walls the world over, as do ’N Sync and other pretty boy groups. To me, this is a form of divine punishment for our sins. After Celine Dion, the deluge.
Hey, it could be worse, techno actually could become the music of the present as opposed to a threat hovering over the future. I remember seeing my daughter flee the living room, sighing, “gee, Daddy, that is scary,” after seeing the first Prodigy video. As always, she was right. If I hear another thudding beat from a Fatboy Slim song, I may start picketing the KTCL studios. You’ve seen those Death to Swing tee-shirts, well, I want something a tad more pungent re techno. As for swing; wasn’t here long, was it? Which is something of a shame, in that the melding of swing and ska created some interesting radio moments.
So much for the dark side, there actually was a lot of good, sometimes even great, music created this decade. Pavement continues on its dada way—how many other rock bands have had the New Yorker do a major piece on their lyrics? The line about other bands trying to write concept albums while Pavement has yet to write a concept song seems truly on the mark. “Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain” and “Brighten the Corners” are the coolest records of the ’90s; gnomic, astute, incredibly colorful; and to see them live is a revelation. Cracker gets better every record, which, considering the awesome power of their early works, is pretty amazing an achievement. Matthew Sweet, whose darkly romantic lyrics are cloaked in layers of punked out guitars, is on one of the great rolls in rock history. His “Girlfriend” may be the finest rock album of the ’90s; the level of sustained beauty on the album reminds me of the gorgeous Big Star record, “Radio City,” Alex Chilton’s pop-rock gem from the early 1970s.
The big news, though, and not just from the Lilith Fair perspective, has been the series of dazzling records by women artists. Lucinda Williams has never made less than a great record, but her last two, “Sweet Old World” and “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,” glimmer like jewels; neither is anything short of a masterpiece. Shawn Colvin has survived the overproduction of her early records with stark tales of women in extremis, sung in a shimmering voice backed by musicians who really get what she’s trying to say. “Sunny Came Home” is one of the most memorable songs of our time. Emmylou Harris’s avant-country “Wrecking Ball,” perfectly produced by Daniel Lanois, is perhaps the best record of her amazing career. She’s still my “Blue Kentucky Girl,” but with a touch of New Orleans thrown in for good measure. And for anyone searching for a new release to sing along to on a lonely Sunday morning, check out Beth Orton’s bell-like “Central Reservation.” In the long run, she may equal Williams or Harris. Lastly, the main competition for album of the decade, up against “Girlfriend,” has to be Liz Phair’s “Exile on Guyville,” which is among the best records ever made by a female artist. I can’t even name the best song on the record, without getting exxed out by my editor, but I’ve never seen a woman or girl hear the song who didn’t want to scream out, Amen! It is the “Help” of our decade. A song so brilliant and true that it should be played to every girl before her first real date. It’s track 10 on the disk, if that’s any help.
Well, so much for the ’90s. Sects, drugs and rock and roll; a chaos of sounds and scenes . . . and I didn’t even get to Beck or the Beasties, Oasis or Blur, the death of jazz, the revival of modernist classical . . . trip hop, Dylan and soy bomb boy, Long Beach ska, jock rock strip CDs, tejano, Sara and Paula and the power of the WB . . . but you get the picture. And if Denver ever gets a decent radio station, you’ll get the sounds. See you next millennium.