Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The '90s Nostalgia Phenomenon

Alright, loyal readers, this is it. This is the final entry for “Smells Like the ‘90s.” This blog has had a solid four-year run, and I’ve enjoyed every moment of it. But all good things must come to an end (excuse the cliché).

So for my last entry, I decided to explore the reason I started this blog in the first place—nostalgia for the ‘90s. You can’t escape it and you can’t ignore it. Hell, you’re reading this blog right now, so you’re obviously somewhat interested in it. But what’s with all this retro revivalism? Why the hell have I been writing about it for the past four years?

What’s There to be Nostalgic About?
Deep-set nostalgia for a particular period of time is a fascinating phenomenon, but it’s definitely nothing new. Decade-centered nostalgia is usually 20 years removed, so it was only a matter of time before everyone started bringing grunge back (or at least the millennial notion of grunge).

Nineties nostalgia has slowly manifested itself in everything from clothing to food. But since this is a music blog, let’s talk about this retro obsession’s impact on your favorite bands.

With 20th anniversaries popping up for some of the biggest albums of the ‘90s, bands have been milking their fans’ nostalgia by releasing ridiculously expensive box sets, most notably the incredibly overpriced 20th anniversary edition of Nirvana’s In Utero. Do you really need all those unreleased tracks on vinyl? Of course not. But people will fork over the cash because hearing those unreleased tracks feels like Nirvana is releasing new material for the first time in 20 years. It’s like the band never stopped recording.

Along with box sets and reissues, ‘90s bands have also started touring together again, creating festivals designed specifically to make you feel young again. The most notable festival is the Summerland Tour (and yes, I’ve seen it twice).

The festival was created by Everclear’s Art Alexakis and Sugar Ray’s Mark McGrath in 2012, and is currently in its third year touring. The lineup has featured both one-hit wonders and alternative mainstays, including Marcy Playground, Gin Blossoms, Filter, Eve 6 and Spacehog.

"Wow! It's like I'm back in college,
except with a mind-numbing office job
and a receding hairline!"
As if that wasn’t enough nostalgia, Sugar Ray decided to break off and start their own (decidedly inferior) festival in 2013 called Under the Sun. This one features poppier bands like Smash Mouth and Fastball.

Both Summerland and Under the Sun are prime examples of nostalgia marketing. I can tell you from experience that the vast majority of the crowd includes aging Gen X dads reliving their college years, with some younger ‘90s enthusiasts (like myself) mixed in. While it’s a fun blast from the past, you slowly start to realize that it’s just not the same anymore.

Why Do We Get Nostalgic?
Nostalgia for anything provides a source of comfort. It reminds us of a somewhat simpler time when we didn’t have nearly as many responsibilities. For Gen Xers, that means thinking back to their formative high school and college years, before adulthood crushed their carefree spirits.

Okay, that’s a bit of an overstatement. Obviously adulthood isn’t a death sentence, but it’s still a frightening concept for people (like me, for instance) who are currently in that comfortable period between adolescence and the “real world” (and not the MTV version of the “real world”).

Marketers and the like are aware of this, so they try to make their audience feel as wistful as possible.

Internet culture is a huge part of this. Just browse Tumblr for a few minutes and you’ll find a metric ton of ‘90s nostalgia blogs. You can look through eBay and find your old Pokemon cards and unopened bottles of Crystal Pepsi and a rare Woodstock ’94 shirt that’s about three sizes too big, but you wear it anyway (okay, maybe that last one is just me).

Probably the only '90s GIF that matters.
Buzzfeed is also a huge culprit with its numerous articles and quizzes catered to Gen X. Just browse their “Rewind” section and you’ll never get anything done ever. “Remember that obscure cartoon series you loved in the ‘90s? So do we! Find out which character you kind of resemble through a series of unrelated questions! Here are some GIFs!”

I personally don’t have a problem with Buzzfeed, but the sheer number of nostalgic articles on that site is staggering. They know their audience well.

But of course, nostalgia tends to let us view the past through rose-colored glasses. Not everything about the ‘90s was perfect, but we tend to focus on the better aspects because hey, nothing will ever be that awesome again, right?

It’s totally okay to get nostalgic about the past, especially if it’s comforting to you. But don’t get stuck in the past! The future may look daunting, but we’ve all got to move forward at some point. The ‘90s were pretty rad, but there are some great things happening right now.

So go ahead and take those Buzzfeed quizzes and listen to those ‘90s party jams (but please don’t buy those unopened bottles of Crystal Pepsi). Throw a ‘90s-themed party, but don’t stay there forever.

-- Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

'N Sync

Sound Familiar?
“I Want You Back,” “Tearin’ Up My Heart,” “Bye Bye Bye”

Who Are They?
The boy band that provided some healthy competition to the Backstreet Boys (and spawned multi-talented megababe Justin Timberlake).

Chris Kirkpatrick, like many talented young men, missed the cut for the Backstreet Boys in 1995, so he met up with producer Lou Pearlman to form a second boy band. Lou agreed to finance the group, but only if Chris found the rest of the members himself.

Joey Fatone joined the group after getting a call from Chris, but the two ran out of possible bandmates fairly quickly. Lou suggested Mickey Mouse Club heartthrob Justin Timberlake, and Justin suggested his buddy JC Chanez. Once Jason Galasso joined the group, ‘N Sync was complete.

(Fun fact: ‘N Sync got its name from a combination of two things: Justin’s mother commented on how “in sync” everyone sounded, and the name is a play on the last letter of each of the original members’ names—JustiN, ChriS, JoeY, JasoN and JC.)

If you’re wondering who the hell Jason Galasso is, it’s because he left the group before recording even began, citing the ridiculous teen idol lifestyle as a major concern (as in he didn’t want any part of it). Lance Bass took his place.

After constant rehearsing and promotion, ‘N Sync scored a record deal with BMG Ariola Munich and released its self-titled debut in 1997. The boys became a big hit in Germany, and were eventually signed to RCA the following year.

‘N Sync’s first American single was “I Want You Back,” but it was “Tearin’ Up My Heart” that made them pop radio mainstays. Constant touring an appearances on Janet Jackson’s Velvet Rope Tour and Sabrina, the Teenage Witch helped *NSYNC sell more than 10 million copies.

Meanwhile, ‘N Sync entered into a heated legal battle with Lou Pearlman, claiming he and his record company defrauded the group of more than 50 percent of its earnings. Lou and RCA countersued after ‘N Sync threatened to leave the label, but the two parties reached a settlement and the boys eventually signed to Jive.

Where Are They Now?
Officially over (but after their one-off reunion performance, I can retain some hope).

With their legal trouble behind them, ‘N Sync began to work on their second album, No Strings Attached, released in 2000. The first single, “Bye Bye Bye,” became the group’s most popular song (though I guess that’s debatable depending on how much of an ‘N Sync fangirl you were are).

Marionette Justin's cold, dead eyes
(courtesy of my Instagram)
(Fun fact: Like with most teen sensations in the ‘90s, ‘N Sync had a shit ton of merchandise to its name. No Strings Attached in particular spawned an entire line of marionette dolls, which people actually bought. And by people, I mean me. I had a Justin Timberlake marionette doll that is still in my basement. It’s creepy as hell.)

‘N Sync’s third (and final) album, Celebrity, dropped just one year later, but didn’t sell nearly as well as the first two records. By April 2002, the group went on an unofficial hiatus, with Justin embarking on his incredibly successful solo career. It wasn’t until 2007 that Lance admitted ‘N Sync was done for good.

With Justin riding wave after wave of solo success, everyone else decided to go their separate ways.

JC went solo as well, releasing his first album, Schizophrenic, in 2004. After leaving Jive Records, JC decided to work behind the scenes for other artists, writing and producing songs for David Archuleta and, ironically enough, the Backstreet Boys. JC will also play Pontius Pilate in the upcoming North American tour of Jesus Christ Superstar.

Chris appeared on the CMT show Gone Country 2 in 2008 and shocked the hell out of just about everyone by proving he could write some decent country songs. He also makes a nice living by being a voice actor. You may know him as the voice of Chip Skylark on The Fairly Oddparents.

Joey has been busy hosting The Singing Bee and The Price Is Right Live!, along with being the announcer on Family Feud. He’s also played lead roles in Rent, Little Shop of Horrors and The Producers on Broadway.

Lance decided to leave the planet after ‘N Sync went on hiatus (or at least he tried). He was certified by both NASA and the Russian Space Program as an astronaut, but after his financial sponsors backed out, Lance was denied a seat on the mission to the International Space Station. Lance also started his own production company, A Happy Place (later renamed Bacon & Eggs), in 2001. He has since produced a couple of documentaries, and even created a new boy band called Heart2Heart.

‘N Sync reunited for a one-off performance at the 2013 VMAs, but Lance said the group currently doesn’t have any plans for a new album or tour.

But Why ‘N Sync?
Because my inner pre-teen got way too excited for that VMA performance (and ultimately way too disappointed when Lance confirmed that the reunion wasn’t permanent).

What Does Sam Think?
Unpopular (?) opinion: I liked ‘N Sync more than the Backstreet Boys.

There. I said it. I got so much shit for this as a kid (kids in the ‘90s were mean when it came to their favorite boy bands), but I don’t even care.

Now I guess I have to back this up. Okay, so if you take a peak at my Backstreet Boys entry, you’ll notice that I did, in fact, like the Backstreet Boys as a kid. But I do believe that ‘N Sync was my first favorite “band” (even before Creed).

Granted, most of my obsession with this group stemmed from my huge crush on Justin Timberlake (and that’s still true), but after reliving my own childhood by giving No Strings Attached another listen, I realized why I liked these guys so much.

‘N Sync had some strange production, especially on the latter two albums. Lots of weird noises, lots of vocal effects and lots of dance beats. In terms of the number of danceable tracks, I think ‘N Sync had the Backstreet Boys beat. The latter was more into ballads, and while those do make all the young girls swoon, I always preferred the more upbeat tracks. Despite appearances, I was a pretty happy child.

Though I was hypnotized by the sugary sweet catchiness of ‘N Sync’s brand of pop, I still wouldn’t compare them to more advanced pop idols like Michael Jackson or Madonna. Yeah, these boys had nice voices and sick dance moves, but they weren’t particularly revolutionary in terms of popular music. Justin has since become essentially a white version of Michael Jackson, but ‘N Sync was far from groundbreaking.

But that’s okay! Like I mentioned in the Backstreet Boys entry, there’s nothing wrong with boy bands. They’re part of everyone’s life (yes, even One Direction). So when you hear “Bye Bye Bye” at a bar this weekend, don’t be ashamed of knowing all the words (and drunkenly screaming them on karaoke).

-- Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Life and Death of Grunge

Get ready for a doozy of an entry, readers. This week, I’m going to tackle an entire genre of music: grunge (the genre part is questionable). So let’s take a close look at the ‘90s phenomenon we all know and (possibly) love.

Where Did Grunge Come From?
Grunge (or the Seattle sound) emerged in--you guessed it--Seattle in the mid-‘80s. The term was first used in 1981 by Green River vocalist Mark Arm in a letter he wrote to Seattle zine Desperate Times. Mark was “criticizing” his first band, Mr. Epp and the Calculations, calling them “Pure grunge! Pure noise! Pure shit!”

But Mark admitted that he had snagged the term from Australia, and didn’t use it as the official name of the genre. It was Sub Pop founder Bruce Pavitt who actually popularized the term by dubbing the bands on his label as “grunge.”

Grunge as a genre was a result of Seattle’s isolated music scene. It evolved from the punk scene, inspired by bands like The Fartz, The U-Men and the Fastbacks. Bands outside the Pacific Northwest (Sonic Youth, Pixies, Dinosaur Jr.) also influenced the grunge scene, along with Black Flag’s change of pace on 1984’s My War.

How Would You Describe Grunge?
This genre definitely has a specific sound. It’s kind of a mix of hardcore punk, heavy metal and the general “alternative” sound.

Grunge is typically characterized by sludgy guitars, fuzz pedals, a ton of distortion and growly, almost incomprehensible vocals. It shares more in common with punk than anything else. The only differences between punk and grunge are tuning and tempo. And like punk, grunge puts on this air of not giving a fuck about melodies while still having discernable melodies.

Most grunge songs address some form of alienation or apathy. There isn’t much rebellion behind tunes like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Black Hole Sun.” But of course there’s some humor behind all that lethargy. Soundgarden’s “Big Dumb Sex” satirizes hair metal (fairly accurately, too).

Jon Wiederhorn of Guitar World once wrote, “So what exactly is grunge? Picture a supergroup made up of Creedence Clearwater Revival, Black Sabbath and The Stooges, and you’re pretty close.” And you know what? That’s a pretty accurate statement.

So Who’s Grunge Again?
Some of the first bands labeled as grunge were Green River, Soundgarden, Melvins, Malfunkshun and Skin Yard. Notice that Nirvana is nowhere in that lineup because they came after the establishment of the genre.

At first, the term “grunge” only applied to bands from the Seattle area, including Alice In Chains, Mudhoney, Screaming Trees, Pearl Jam and yes, Nirvana. As the Seattle sound began to creep out of the Pacific Northwest, similar-sounding bands (not necessarily copycats) fell under the same label, including Babes in Toyland and Stone Temple Pilots.

People like to argue over which bands are really grunge and which bands are “posers.” (Do people still use the term “poser,” or is that just a middle school thing?) Though I believe it’s just plain silly to be so concerned over a certain band’s genre, it’s my understanding that only bands that came out during a specific time frame (and a specific area, to a certain extent) can be classified as grunge.

As a serious ‘90s scholar (can I put that on my résumé?), I would put the official grunge reign between 1984 and 1994. It all started with Green River and Soundgarden, and officially ended with Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994.

Anything after 1994 is post-grunge, a more radio-friendly version of its gnarly predecessor. Post-grunge bands include Bush, Collective Soul, Foo Fighters and Creed (all of which I enjoy, so sue me).

Is Grunge Dead?
Yes. Yes, it is.

Grunge as a music genre has been dead since 1994 and I will fight anyone who disagrees with me. Though I don’t really like to make it seem as if Kurt Cobain was the only guy in the scene who mattered, his death definitely marked the end of an era. Sure, other Seattle bands went on to release more albums (Pearl Jam has had a pretty lucrative career), but grunge was done for.

So what happened?

Well, the alternative music scene of the ‘90s was exploding with a variety of bands hitting it big. As grunge’s popularity began to wane, it was usurped by post-grunge, Britpop and pop-punk. Everything suddenly became more radio-friendly and much less angsty. Britpop bands brought back keyboards, post-grunge bands asserted some masculinity and pop-punk bands picked up where The Ramones left off. Nobody was jamming to songs like “I Hate Myself and I Want to Die” anymore.

Blur frontman Damon Albarn commented on grunge’s decline in a 1993 interview, saying, “If punk was about getting rid of hippies, then I’m getting rid of grunge.” And a year later, it was all over.

Another contributing factor to this genre’s demise is its quick and ruthless commoditization. By the time Nirvana found its way into the mainstream, Kurt’s hobo-chic style was already being sold to Generation X. When the dress code becomes more important than the music, you’ve got a problem on your hands.

MTV also had a hand in destroying the scene. The rise of music videos meant the rise of exposure, and ultimately the rise of an entire culture based on television. MTV sold a product, and that product was alternative culture. (If you’re interested in a more in-depth analysis of MTV in the ‘90s, take a peek at this entry.)

☯✞ Follow for more Soft Grunge ✞☯
Nowadays, grunge is kind of a punch line. Even I tend to joke about feeling “grunge” on a daily basis. And with the rise of Internet culture and the burgeoning market of ‘90s nostalgia, we’ve strayed so far from the original meaning behind the term. There’s even this weird subculture lurking on Tumblr that labels itself as “soft grunge.” (Spoiler: it has nothing in common with ‘90s grunge and it’s kind of hilarious.)

Grunge was a fad that ended at an appropriate time, as most fads tend to do. You don’t have to like it, but you have to admit it had a huge impact on popular culture. So don’t cry because it ended, dear readers. Smile because it happened. And maybe cry a little because Kurt Cobain died 20 years ago this month.

-- Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Lead Singer Syndrome

Welcome to another special ‘90s entry! This week, we’re going to discuss what many music fans refer to as “lead singer syndrome” (this is not something I made up, I promise). This is a disease that has affected plenty of frontmen (and women) over the years, and it’s not strictly a ‘90s phenomenon. However, there are a number of ‘90s bands that struggled with a temperamental lead singer, and many of them called it quits because of that one person’s sour attitude.

So let’s take a look at three notoriously asshole-ish lead singers (that I also happen to like a lot) and find out just where they went wrong.

Scott Weiland (Stone Temple Pilots)
Status: Fired

Why Is He an Asshole?
His highly publicized substance abuse problems led to multiple arrests, which constantly derailed STP’s attempts to tour and even release new material. Over the years, he became more and more withdrawn from his bandmates and began showing up to his own shows late or not at all (I know from experience because Scott was late to an STP show I attended a few years ago).

After STP went on hiatus in the early 2000s, Scott joined the supergroup Velvet Revolver. Much to no one’s surprise, his bad habits followed him, and Velvet Revolver eventually dumped him. He reunited with both bands later on, but that didn’t last long. Scott got a little cocky about the Velvet Revolver one-off reunion, claiming he was back with the band for good (a claim Slash immediately shot down).

STP went on another hiatus, during which Scott began a solo tour. The tour was branded the “Purple at the Core Tour,” and basically consisted of Scott performing STP songs with another band. The rest of the original STP lineup accused Scott of and essentially touring under the STP brand without permission. They warned him to cease and desist, but Scott refused, so they fired him and replaced him with Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington.

In Scott’s Defense
I made my opinion on Scott Weiland clear in my Stone Temple Pilots entry, but I’d like to go into more detail here.

Like I stated above, I happen to like the three singers discussed in this entry. Out of all three, I like Scott the most (see my embarrassingly intense crush on him in middle school). He’s an incredible songwriter and his voice is heavenly. Though I honestly believe he was a better frontman in Velvet Revolver, his work with Stone Temple Pilots is still impressive.

Unfortunately, his skills as a musician are overshadowed by his rampant drug use in the ‘90s and his increasingly anti-social behavior. For those who don’t know, Scott was diagnosed with bipolar disorder a while back, which explains a lot. Now, of course that shouldn’t be an excuse for some of the bad moves he’s made career-wise—he’s still done some asshole-ish things to his bandmates, both in STP and Velvet Revolver. And I don’t think his admittance of his mental illness was a move to elicit pity from anyone.

His autobiography, Not Dead & Not For Sale, goes into detail about some of his deeper issues (if you’re curious about his life, please give it a read), but ultimately, drugs did him in. Like Kurt Cobain, Scott found solace in heroin, and it obviously fucked a lot of things up for him. I don’t think he’s completely blameless in terms of relationships with his former bandmates, but he’s still a human being who makes mistakes and maybe doesn’t know exactly how to deal with them.

Verdict: 60% asshole (40% misunderstood)

Status: Solo

Why Is She an Asshole?
Her boisterous attitude and tendency to speak before she thinks have gotten her into many scuffles with other musicians (she once punched Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna in the face for supposedly no particular reason).

But perhaps her most prominent claim to infamy was her tumultuous relationship with Kurt Cobain. Because of Kurt’s absurdly exaggerated legacy, Courtney has continuously been viewed as his ultimate downfall. She’s been called everything from a “Yoko Ono” to a murderer.

In Courtney’s Defense
Courtney Love isn’t exactly the easiest person to like, but she has a lot of qualities I really admire.

She challenges mainstream expectations of how a woman should look and act. It seems to me that people who find Courtney’s obnoxious behavior more off-putting than similar behavior from her male counterparts are perhaps caught off guard by her unwillingness to adapt to traditional feminine roles. Or people just find her annoying, regardless of her gender. I can’t assume everyone who hates Courtney is a misogynist.

She also gets far too much shit for her history of substance abuse. Scott Weiland followed almost the exact same path, yet he gets off easy compared to Courtney. But alas, rock ‘n’ roll is a boys club and girls will almost always get the short end of the stick.

But the one thing I really admire about Courtney is her ability to move past the tragedy of Kurt’s passing. No matter what you think of her, you have to admit that being in her shoes at that point in 1994 must have been incredibly difficult. But she prevailed. That takes a hell of a lot of strength.

Sure, she’s made mistakes, and yes, her public image is one of the worst in rock history, but she’s a strong woman (and she probably doesn’t give a shit what you think of her).

Verdict: 75% asshole (25% badass bitch)

Billy Corgan (Smashing Pumpkins)
Status: Only original member left in the band

Why Is He an Asshole?
A notorious perfectionist, Billy insisted on playing all the guitar and bass parts on both Gish and Siamese Dream, which caused early internal drama with the Pumpkins.

The original Smashing Pumpkins lineup began to disintegrate by the late ‘90s, and the band eventually broke up in 2000. Billy reunited with drummer Jimmy Chamberlin to form the band Zwan, but that didn’t last long due to the rift forming between the two.

In 2004, Billy basically ruined any chance of getting the original Smashing Pumpkins lineup back together by badmouthing everyone. He blamed James Iha for the breakup and called D’arcy Wretzky a “mean-spirited drug addict.” And on top of that, he slammed his Zwan bandmates, calling them “filthy, opportunistic and selfish.” (And he did this on LiveJournal, for Christ's sake. LiveJournal.)

Though Jimmy did reunite with Billy for the album Zeitgeist in 2007, he quit two years later. Billy decided to continue releasing music under the Smashing Pumpkins name.

In Billy’s Defense
Like Scott and Courtney, Billy Corgan has his own personal issues that played some part in his behavior. He is apparently obsessive-compulsive, which explains the need for the first two Smashing Pumpkins albums to be perfect (and they are perfect). But that’s still not an excuse to be an asshole about it.

His tendency to badmouth his former bandmates (along with Courtney Love, whom he was involved with for quite some time) is definitely problematic, and unfortunately, I can’t really defend him on that.

My only defense for Billy is his musical skills. The man is a creative genius. Just listen to the perfection that is Siamese Dream. His more recent stuff is okay at best, but he knows exactly what he wants and he makes damn sure everyone hears it.

Verdict: 85% asshole (but 100% musical genius) 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Sonic Youth

Sound Familiar?
“Kool Thing,” “Dirty Boots,” “Bull in the Heather”

Who Are They?
The band that redefined what a guitar can do (and one of the most important bands in alternative history).

The story behind Sonic Youth is a long one, as this band has more albums than Lady Gaga’s had hairdos (is that an accurate form of measurement?). Since the entries on this blog have been running a bit long lately, I’ll try to keep this history short and sweet so we can get to the fun part (where you read my fangirly account of this band).

Thurston Moore had a few bands before forming Sonic Youth with his soon-to-be ex-wife Kim Gordon in 1981. The name came from combining the names of MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith and reggae artist Big Youth. After seeing guitar virtuoso Lee Ranaldo perform with an impressive guitar ensemble, Thurston and Kim snagged him for their band. Each member took turns playing the drums until they met Richard Edson, and by December 1981, Sonic Youth had released its first EP.

After some shuffling of drummers, the band went on its first tour with fellow noisy New Yorkers Swans, and released its first studio album, Confusion is Sex, in 1983. Sonic Youth and the rest of the noise rock scene was well received in Europe, but largely ignored in the US. When the press here in the states finally began to take notice, Sonic Youth (along with Big Black and Butthole Surfers) was lumped under the so-called “pigfucker” label, coined by Village Voice critic/curmudgeon Robert Christgau.

(Fun fact: Thurston and company didn’t appreciate the “pigfucker” label thrust upon them, which led to a little feud between the band and Christgau, culminating in the song “Kill Yr Idols” being renamed “I Killed Christgau With My Big Fucking Dick.” Both parties have since sorted out their differences.)

But thanks to hate from the critics and a destructive London debut show, Sonic Youth returned to New York in 1984 with a cult following and a gig practically every week.

After another drummer switch to Steve Shelley, Sonic Youth signed to SST Records and released two slightly more accessible albums, 1986’s EVOL and 1987’s Sister.

The band didn’t achieve universal acclaim until 1988’s masterpiece, Daydream Nation. The album’s lead single, “Teen Age Riot,” found its way on to modern and college rock radio rotations, catapulting Sonic Youth into the mainstream.

Based on Daydream Nation’s success, it really didn’t come as a surprise that the band made the decision to sign to a major label in 1990. Sonic Youth’s first release on Geffen Records was 1990’s Goo, followed by 1992’s Dirty. Both albums were noticeably more accessible than the independent label releases, and with singles like “Kool Thing” and “100%” (plus the band’s highest charting album of the decade, 1994’s Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star), Thurston and company quickly became alternative icons.

After a few more studio albums and an appearance at Lollapalooza and on The Simpsons, Sonic Youth released a series of highly experimental albums on its own label, SYR.

(Fun fact: The experimental album SYR4, subtitled Goodbye, 20th Century, features works by avant-garde classical composers such as John Cage, Yoko Ono, Steve Reich and more.)

Where Are They Now?
Disbanded, but their legacy lives on.

After most of their instruments were stolen in 1999, Sonic Youth was forced to start from scratch on what would later become NYC Ghosts & Flowers. The following two albums, 2002’s Murray Street and 2004’s Sonic Nurse, marked a return to form for the band, and received mass critical acclaim.

(Fun fact: Sonic Youth was heavily influenced by William Gibson, author of the groundbreaking cyberpunk novel, 1984’s Neuromancer. Several of the band’s songs reference his novels, including “Pattern Recognition” on Sonic Nurse, which is named after the Gibson novel.)

Six years after getting their gear stolen, Thurston and the gang got most of their equipment back in 2005 and used it to record Rather Ripped the following year.

Sonic Youth ditched Geffen after fulfilling its contract and signed to Matador Records to release The Eternal in 2009. Little did we know, this would be the final album from the band.

On October 14, 2011, Kim and Thurston announced they were separating after 27 years of marriage. In an interview later that year, Lee confirmed that Sonic Youth was done for a while.

Two years later, Lee admitted that Sonic Youth would probably never get back together, citing the progressively uncomfortable dynamic between Kim and Thurston after the two finally divorced.

But Why Sonic Youth?
Because this band is incredibly important, even if they’ll never get back together.

What Does Sam Think?
I put off listening to Sonic Youth for the longest time. It was one of those bands that everyone kept talking about, but I never really understood the significance. When I went through my intense Nirvana phase, I kept hearing about Sonic Youth, as Kurt Cobain cited them as a major influence. Like with Bikini Kill and PJ Harvey, I didn’t give this band a chance until I got to college. And I’m kind of glad I waited because I don’t think I would have appreciated Sonic Youth in high school.

To me, Sonic Youth basically picked up where The Velvet Underground left off. This band’s experimentation is staggering. From the odd guitar tunings to the avant-garde reinterpretations of classical pieces, Thurston and the gang definitely weren’t afraid to step outside the box.

Even if you don’t enjoy post-punk or noise rock, you have to appreciate the impact this band left on the alternative scene. Without them, we probably wouldn’t have Nirvana.

The underground scene will always remain underappreciated. Even though Sonic Youth made it into the mainstream, they had already established themselves as underground heroes. Most people (including myself) get into Sonic Youth through Daydream Nation or the first few major label releases and discover the earlier albums much later. There’s nothing wrong with that. The most exciting part of discovering a band with a long history is going back in time to hear that band’s progression.

Though I’m incredibly biased when it comes to hyping my favorite ‘90s bands to non-listeners, I honestly believe Sonic Youth is required listening. If you consider yourself a music fan at all, you’ll give this band a chance (I recommend starting with Daydream Nation). You may not like it, but you have to realize how important Sonic Youth was to the popularization of alternative music. Of course Nirvana is up there, too, but Sonic Youth did most of the legwork for them.

I wish Thurston and Kim could get along so the band could possibly reunite, but divorce is tough on everyone. For now, we have an impressive discography to appreciate and a ton of individual projects from each member.

Sonic Youth is dead, long live Sonic Youth.

-- Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

What's So Bad About a One-Hit Wonder?

Since last week’s MTV entry went over so well, I thought I’d do another larger entry focusing on one aspect of ‘90s music. This week, I’m going to plunge headfirst into the magic behind your favorite (okay, mostly my favorite) one-hit wonders!

What Is a One-Hit Wonder?
This may seem like a question with an obvious answer, but sometimes one-hit wonders get a little complicated. What exactly counts as a one-hit wonder? The default answer is an artist with only one major hit song. But some artists categorized as one-hit wonders actually have more than one hit.

“This is blasphemy!” you shout to no one in particular. Well, it’s really not blasphemy—it’s just convenient to lump artists with a similar history into one big category. Plenty of ‘90s artists are one-hit wonders on a technicality.

So let’s broaden the definition a bit:

One-hit wonder (n.) 1) an artist with only one Top 40 hit song; 2) an artist with one hit song that overshadows the rest of their work

Basically, some of the artists I’m going to mention technically have more than one successful song, but only one of those hits really defines them (i.e. Toadies had three hits, but most people only remember “Possum Kingdom,” so they’re a one-hit wonder).

Now that we’ve got that sorted out, let’s talk about some specific one-hit wonders!

The “Novelty” Hits
I’m using the term “novelty” here quite loosely, as the word implies a certain level of comedy. I tend to categorize songs that don’t seem 100% serious as novelty songs, and plenty of one-hit wonders fit quite comfortably into this category.

So the “novelty” hits of the ‘90s include Aqua’s “Barbie Girl,” Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back,” Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” and Rednex’s “Cotton Eye Joe.” These are typically the one-hit wonders most people remember because most of them were beyond annoying. Oh, and that also includes Los Del Rio’s “The Macarena.” But we don’t talk about that. I am actually having war flashbacks to learning this dance in elementary school. Sweet Jesus, I fucking hate “The Macarena.”

Anyway, the appeal of these novelty songs lies in both their infectious hooks and silly subject matter. These are the tunes that get stuck in your head no matter how much you hate them. Do you remember the first time you heard “Barbie Girl?” Have you been able to get it out of your head since? (My guess is no, since the mere mention of it has resulted in you humming the chorus. COME ON BARBIE LET’S GO PARTY.)

VH1, in all their infinite wisdom, ranked the Top 40 Greatest One-Hit Wonders of the ‘90s a few years ago and placed “Baby Got Back” at number one. Though VH1 lists tend to piss me off (see their incredibly disappointing Top 100 Greatest Songs of the 2000s list), I actually think they got this one right. Based on popularity and cultural relevance, I can agree that “Baby Got Back” is the best one-hit wonder of the decade. (I’m just really glad “The Macarena” wasn’t number one.)

“Baby Got Back” was the second best-selling song of 1992 (right behind Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You”). That’s right—a song celebrating the female posterior was second only to one of the greatest love songs of all time. And in a way, “Baby Got Back” is also a love song…to an ass.

So yes, I can get behind “Baby Got Back” (pun completely intended). But not every one-hit wonder is as genuinely fun as Sir Mix-a-Lot’s masterpiece. “Cotton Eye Joe” by Rednex is perhaps the worst song of the ‘90s. There are few songs as annoying and pointless as this one. In fact, I’m pretty sure “Cotton Eye Joe” is on repeat in hell.

In case you were unaware, “Cotton Eye Joe” was written before the Civil War, though its exact origins are unclear. It started as an American folk song and ended up as a bizarre dance hit by a Swedish techno band. Amazing.

The Alternative and Pop Hits
Not all one-hit wonders are hilariously bad like “Cotton Eye Joe” and “Barbie Girl.” There are plenty of decent (and beyond decent) one-hit wonders out there. These include “Tubthumping” by Chumbawamba, “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” by The Proclaimers, “You Get What You Give” by New Radicals and “Bitch” by Meredith Brooks.

These hits are also catchy as hell, but tend to find their way on to “Greatest Songs of the ‘90s” lists rather than “Worst Songs of the ‘90s” lists. Of course, their musical merit is based purely on subjective opinion, but let’s be honest—if you don’t like “Tubthumping,” you’re wrong. And if you don’t sing it when you’re drunk off your ass in a karaoke bar, I don’t want to know you.

Since I’ve already gone into the mass appeal of “Tubthumping” (see my Chumbawamba entry), let’s look at “You Get What You Give.”

“You Get What You Give” by New Radicals is a fairly straight-forward pop rock song with one of the best opening lines of any song: “Wake up, kids, we’ve got the dreamer’s disease.” It also features some petty celebrity-dissing, though singer Gregg Alexander claimed that section was a “test” to see if the media would focus on the dissing or the real issues addressed in the song. (Spoiler: they just focused on the dissing.)

Meredith Brooks’ “Bitch” is not nearly as pretentious. Though frequently misattributed to Alanis Morissette, “Bitch” is a solid tune for a one-hit wonder. Meredith has a lot of talent and it’s a shame so many people think she’s just an Alanis rip-off. She even got booed off the stage during a 1998 tour with The Rolling Stones (the booing ultimately became glass bottles being thrown on stage).

Meredith is currently writing and producing songs for other artists, along with recording children’s albums.

New Radicals broke up in 1999, but Gregg Alexander has gone on to write and produce songs for Enrique Iglesias, Geri Haliwell (a.k.a. Ginger Spice) and Rod Stewart.

One-Hit Wonders Who Should Have Had More Hits
Having one huge hit is great for some artists—you can live off the royalties from a song like “Unbelievable” by EMF (which was re-recorded for an embarrassing Kraft Cheese commercial). But some artists have the talent for an entire career’s worth of hits. They just don’t have the audience.

While there are tons of ‘90s one-hit wonders that could have been so much bigger, I’ll focus on three that really strike me: Toadies, Marcy Playground and Imani Coppola.

If you want the full backstory on Toadies and Marcy Playground, take a look at their artist profiles on this blog. To keep it short and sweet, those two bands are the most wonderful kind of bizarre.

Toadies have this weird, sludgy post-grunge sound with a Texas-sized ego. While “Possum Kingdom” is a great tune, the rest of the band’s catalogue is even better (and so much stranger).

Marcy Playground sounds like an art school kid’s band in the suburbs. “Sex and Candy” may have been one of the creepiest mainstream songs of the ‘90s, but it’s got nothing on some of the other songs on the band’s debut album.

Imani Coppola is a bit different. Known for the song “Legend of a Cowgirl,” Imani was always destined for bigger. She scored a spot on the 1998 Lilith Fair and teamed up with another one-hit wonder, Baha Men, for a song called “You All Dat.” By age 22, she was dropped from her major label and decided to start an independent career and ultimately joined a band called LittleJackie. The band’s most recent album, Made4TV, was released in 2011.

So is being a one-hit wonder a bad thing? Not at all! Like I said before, some artists make plenty of money off just one hit song. But others end up falling short of their potential, mostly because they’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time. My advice to you is if you like a song that’s becoming a one-hit wonder, listen to the rest of the artist’s catalogue. You may be pleasantly surprised.

Unless that band is Baha Men.

-- Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The MTV Generation

Well, hello there, loyal readers! In case you haven’t already noticed, I’ve decided to do something a little different this week. In lieu of the usual artist spotlight, this week’s entry will be about a little something called MTV—more specifically, about how MTV shaped the music industry in the ‘90s.

We will delve deep into a time when MTV actually played music (and why it makes sense that they don’t anymore), with emphasis on the most successful directors, VJs, music series and original programming. So let’s get to it!

A Brief History
Some of you may already be familiar with MTV’s beginnings. Since we’re only looking at one decade of programming, I’ll brief you on the embarrassing early years of MTV in the ‘80s.

The concept of a music-based television channel started with Sight On Sound, a specialized channel available on the interactive QUBE service based out of Columbus, Ohio. That channel only played live band footage, but it was an inspiration nonetheless.

Music videos weren’t a new concept by the ‘80s, either. Back in the ‘70s and even in the late ‘60s, very cheap (and very cheesy) videos were used as promotional material for bands. Even The Beatles had music videos (and boy, were they weird).

MTV premiered on August 1, 1981 with perhaps the most presumptuous (and coolest) broadcast intro in history—a proverbial “lift-off” featuring footage from the first Space Shuttle launch of the Columbia. The words, “Ladies and gentlemen, rock ‘n’ roll” ushered in a new medium of music consumption.

The very first music video ever played on MTV was The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” (an appropriate choice). The network’s effect on record sales was almost immediate—artists such as Men at Work, Bow Wow Wow and The Human League got exponentially more attention, and MTV’s attention on non-US bands sparked the Second British Invasion.

Most of the early programming consisted of your run-of-the-mill promotional videos with some live footage thrown in for good measure. To break up the 24-hour music video format, MTV hired VJs (or video jockeys) to introduce new videos, relay music news and just generally promote the network. The original five MTV VJs were Nina Blackwood, Mark Goodman, Alan Hunter, J.J. Jackson and Martha Quinn.

MTV started broadcasting special events in the mid to late ‘80s, including the Video Music Awards (started in 1984) and Spring Break (started in 1986). Other original programming soon followed, and by the early ‘90s, MTV had become an entity much larger than anyone could have predicted.

The Alternative Explosion
Punk really didn’t break until 1991, but MTV was ahead of the curve in 1986. The network began airing an original show called 120 Minutes, which catered to alternative and “underground” bands of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, such as The Jesus and Mary Chain, New Order and Butthole Surfers.

In 1991, a little ditty called “Smells Like Teen Spirit” premiered on 120 Minutes, but soon became so popular that it was moved to regular daytime rotation. Once Nirvana proved successful, MTV added bands like Soundgarden, Alice In Chains and Nine Inch Nails to their regular rotation. Soon, alternative rock and grunge had become as mainstream as Madonna.

I think we all like to point to Nirvana as the instigator of all this mainstream business, but let’s be honest—MTV was really the mastermind behind it. Nirvana’s success was directly affected by the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Sure, the song was getting airplay on radio stations, but the band’s image was a huge contributing factor.

And that’s what MTV sells—not necessarily music, but an image. It was more about the music in the ‘80s, but by the ‘90s, everything kind of shifted to the artist as a product. Grunge (which I typically characterize as a fad rather than a music genre) was everywhere in the early ‘90s, and MTV helped cultivate it, package it and sell it to its viewers.

Now, this doesn’t make MTV the enemy (though I’m sure some would disagree with me). There’s nothing wrong with being mainstream, despite what your unfriendly neighborhood music elitist might tell you. MTV just embraced “alternative” culture because, well, it looked cool. In fact, the term “alternative” is kind of ironic considering just how popular the “alternative” style was in the ‘90s. (Side note: There’s a wonderful article by Thomas Frank called “Alternative to What?” that addresses this issue perfectly. Unfortunately, I don’t have a link for it here, so you’ll have to go hunting for it.)

The Music Video as an Art Form
Yes, the primary purpose of any music video is to promote a band, but that doesn’t mean a video can’t be cinematic masterpiece. By the early ‘90s, MTV was playing a plethora of new and interesting music, which required new and interesting videos to promote it.

Enter the music video director. After pressure from the Music Video Production Association, MTV began listing the names of directors at the bottom of videos, beginning in 1992. As a result, MTV’s audience became acutely aware of who exactly was making these short spectacles.

The ‘90s spawned some incredible music video directors, including Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, Anton Corbijn, Samuel Bayer and Mark Romanek, to name a few. Soon, music videos became more like short films than promotional snippets of live footage.

I appreciate music videos more than I think I should. I think it’s because I enjoy film in general, and after all, music videos (well, most of them) are basically just short films. Though I could go on and on about videos of the alternative variety, I have to give props to the rap and hip-hop videos of the ‘90s. Some of the best ones were directed by Hype Williams, including Biggie and P. Diddy’s “Mo Money Mo Problems” and Missy Elliott’s “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly).” Even if you don’t like hip-hop, you have to admit those are incredible videos (especially Missy Elliott).

Why Doesn’t MTV Play Music Anymore?
I’m sure everyone’s uttered this question aloud before. Even those of us who didn’t grow up with classic MTV seem to ponder this.

So what exactly happened to MTV after the ‘90s?

Well, once everyone started pirating music, the record companies lost a shit ton of money, which left almost nothing to spend on music videos. The only videos MTV can actually play are from mainstream artists you probably don’t like (i.e. Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus) because they have the money to pay for the videos. And even those videos are awful because they’re usually made up of 90% product placement (again, because of the whole no money thing).

Sure, we all miss watching music videos on MTV, but can’t you do the same thing with YouTube or Vimeo? You may miss the sometimes brilliant “alternative” programming of the ‘90s, but isn’t that just your nostalgia clouding your judgment?

But if you don’t believe me, give this video a gander. It explains everything (in a delightfully sardonic way).

-- Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.