January 2, 2010
Welcome to another edition of Brook Pridemore’s The Nineties-ist. This edition discusses 1999, Britney Spears’ responsibility for the downfall of the music industry, Limp Bizkit and cock rock, and the death of Mark Sandman. For earlier installments, go here.
Okay, so I posited a long time ago (I don’t expect you to remember), that Alanis’ Morrissette’s Jagged Little Pill is the exact moment when the music industry started to fall apart, and that the real tragedy is how good the Morrissette album really is. Turns out, I got the year, album and artist of the downfall wrong, but I got the gender (half) right.
One bitter cold morning in January 1999, I’m over at my friend Rob’s house, imbibing in a wake-and-bake before class. Rob’s got MTV on in the background. All of a sudden, this gay disco (gay disco as a genre, not a slur)-sounding dance tune pops on the screen, amid this Catholic School setting, led by a Barbie Doll-looking girl in pleats and pigtails, moaning about something vaguely sadomasochistic (and yet completely homogenized). I spit out a heroic lung of pot smoke and doubled over, choking. I’d lived through the Spice Girls before, but they were at least sexual creatures: I felt like Humbert Humbert, ogling Britney Spears, and she was only 17 to my 19 at the time.
It’s a really dirty trick to play on a straight nineteen-year-old male, to make him feel like an old pervert for checking out a curvaceous, pretty and perky young woman on television, but Britney Spears’ handlers made it happen. Plus, the questionably sadomasochistic themes in her debut single, juxtaposed against her saving-herself-for-marriage public statement provided plenty of water cooler fodder for at least the next couple of years. Parents had something new (and Disney-sponsored) to deprive their children of, young dudes had a new fetish object, seemingly everyone had a new record to buy (…Baby, One More Time has sold an estimated 25 million copies worldwide), and young women had a new model of physical beauty they could never possibly live up to. This was a far cry from the promise of the Riot Grrl movement only ten years before, or even, for that matter, the batshit crazy Courtney Love, who at least occasionally acted in a good movie, and turned out three albums that she co-wrote and played on.
In the end, Britney Spears is like a Happy Meal from McDonald’s. Let me explain: in his book Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser contends that the McDonald’s Happy Meal is set up as such to overload a child’s system and leave him neurologically confused. The caffeine and sugar in the soda mixes with the fat in the fries and the burger, coagulates with the sweetness of the cheese and ketchup, and a kid’s bouncing off the wall, already looking for that next awful cocktail. Plus, it comes with a free toy.
More on #16: 1999
December 27, 2009
Welcome to another edition of Brook Pridemore’s The Nineties-ist. This edition discusses 1998, the misery that was caused by Van Halen III, Barenaked Ladies rise to prominence, and John Popper’s paradoxical conservativism. For earlier installments, go here.
Last week, I sang praises for Belle and Sebastian’s If You’re Feeling Sinister, for its display of restraint in an era of nihilism and excess. Today, I can think of no greater example of that nihilism and excess than 1998’s Van Halen III, the pretty-much universally unloved post-Sammy Hagar effort by the brothers Van Halen, Michael Anthony and former Extreme singer Gary Cherone.
Is there a less-apt name for the group responsible for the 1991 syrupy ballad, “More Than Words?” Yeah. “Awesome Cool Dudes” is one. “The Kickass” is another. “Shit Hot, Crazy-Good Rock Band” is another (all but the latter are real band names of farily good bands, by the way).
Have I heard Van Halen III? Only once. My roommate at the time, Bryan, was obsessively into VH, and bought III the day it came out. It sounded, even at the time, like the most over-distilled, generic crap typical of what dominated the radio and MTV in the latter half of the 90s. I doubt Bryan even listened to it a second time – certainly not while I was around.
This is yet another example of greedy, overpaid and out of touch rock musicians not knowing when to exit the realm of contemporary hit-makers and start on track toward retirement. The first indicator that you’ve been around too long is when your band is on its’ third lead singer. If you’re in a rock band so dysfunctional that it can’t keep a consistent front man, it’s time to pack it in. Period.
Who did Van Halen III serve? The people in the band and the people making their living off the band. III was nothing more than an extremely expensive excuse for the band to mount ANOTHER summer stadium tour. Nothing more than that. It’s important to note, too, that Van Halen have issued no further studio effort since III, though the band has continued to tour (now with David Lee Roth back in the fold, as well as Eddie Van Halen’s son, Wolfgang, on bass).
More on #15: 1998
December 19, 2009
Welcome to another edition of Brook Pridemore’s The Nineties-ist. This edition discusses 1997, the evils of an ironic Goo Goo Dolls cover, Jan Wenner being solely responsible for the downfall of the music industry, and Mr. Pridemore listing his top five 1997 albums. For earlier installments, go here.
So, my interest in music — which, we established a few weeks ago began in 1993 and immediately escalated to zealotry — has kept me interested in the aural side of popular culture long after many of my early peers (folks who got to play in the cool bands in high school, and such) dropped off the radar and stopped taking in new music. Over the last year or so, I’ve even noticed the kind of ironic nostalgia from people younger than me over songs that I (and most other self-respecting people) never wanted to hear again in the day, and certainly don’t want to be reminded of ten or more years after the fact. Younger bands I play shows with have started doing ironic covers of Goo Goo Dolls songs, the same way that the cool bands I knew growing up did ironic covers of Eddie Money songs. Get it? It’s circular.
And I’m befuddled by this kind of ironic nostalgia in the same way that hipsters ten years my senior must have been befuddled by my ironic nostalgia for the 80s at the time. This kind of detachment is thrice problematic:
1. The ironic cover of a passé pop song idea jumped the shark in 2002. It’s true: Dynamite Hack’s (remember them? Me neither)’s white boy acoustic ballad version of the NWA classic “Boyz in the Hood” was the last nail in the coffin.
2. All nostalgia is at least somewhat poisonous. Jan Wenner and David Geffen are still trying to get you to buy repackaged Doors collections, rather than invest emotionally in current artists. This is not because the Doors are a better band than, say, the Smoking Popes. Rather, this is because it is much easier (read: cost-effective) to sell the same old shit to each subsequent generation than spend energy cultivating new artists. Plus, when you get down to it, Jan Wenner couldn’t give a shit less if you like the stuff you consume, just so long as you pay through the nose for it. Keeping overhead low is priority number one for guys like Wenner. Never forget that.
(Folks, I don’t entirely know why Jan Wenner’s my particular scapegoat here. There are a lot of people responsible for the current industry slump. My only guess is that Wenner’s refusal to allow the Monkees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has something to do with it (further, if the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame really had anything to do with Rock and/or Roll, wouldn’t the “and” be shortened to an “‘n”? Just asking.))
3. Ironic nostalgia gets in the way of a lot of the good stuff that happened. I know I personally didn’t discover any of the truly great, groundbreaking bands that came out in the 1980s (Black Flag, the Minutemen, the Replacements, the list goes on) because I was too busy banging my head to Goldfinger’s version of “99 Luftballons.” Would my life have been so much better, so much sooner, had I eschewed the Goldfinger record for, say Black Flag’s blistering semi-cover of “Louie, Louie,” (an afterthought on their seminal The First Four Years) or the Minutemen’s jammy take on CCR’s “Don’t Look Now” (ditto on the band’s magnum opus Double Nickels on the Dime)?
Yes. Jesus Christ. I would probably also have been spared obsession with Mustard Plug’s punk-ska take on The Verve Pipe’s “The Freshman.” Which, to be fair, was actually pretty funny, and not really nostalgia at all: the two versions were released a year apart-than one band paying cheeky tribute to their friends.
I hope I’ve made my point. And if you’re still with me:
Five Records from 1997 for My Children (and my Children’s Children):
More on #14: 1997
December 12, 2009
Welcome to another edition of Brook Pridemore’s The Nineties-ist. This edition discusses 1996, Mr. Pridemore personally insulting a Monkee, the fuck-ups involving the 1996 Lollapalooza festival, and the torture and slaying of animals at Marilyn Manson concerts. For earlier installments, go here.
In July of 1996, I called Mickey Dolenz a fucking liar. Waiting in line for an autograph of the Monkees’ Greatest Hits CD I’d just purchased, I became incensed over a soundbite I’d heard from Dolenz a few years previous. Dolenz (in my memory) had said something like, “I don’t understand all the hoopla about the Monkees. The Monkees were talentless.” As I approached the Prefab Four’s drummer that evening, I brought up the soundbite (which, admittedly, may have been a product of my imagination) and told him I thought he’d belied the catalog of songs in the band’s repertoire and the Monkees’ cultural staying power through the years.
I was the oldest fan in attendance, who wasn’t a parent ushering in sons and daughters. When Dolenz denied having said such a thing, I said, “You’re a fucking liar,” grabbed my newly-autographed CD, and stomped off, leaving at least a couple of bewildered kids and one washed up pop star in my wake.
I take little pride (besides the anecdote) in having wrecked Mickey Dolenz’s evening, and no satisfaction at all in having ruined the night for anyone seeking autographs. And while my borderline-Trekkie rebuking of Dolenz’ offhandedly delivered callous comment doesn’t really fit into the greater cultural landscape of 1996, it seems important to let the reader know that your narrator’s manic obsession with twelve tones arranged in varying patterns runs deeper than Lake Superior.
Possibly a greater crime committed against seventeen year old rock fans across the country was the 1996 Lollapalooza Festival. The traveling “alternative” rock festival, which had served an unhip suburban kid like me his first exposure to bands like the Coctails and Brainiac only a year before, had lost their founder, Perry Farrell, to other projects. Not surprisingly (though still disappointing), the festival’s new organizers eschewed a lot of its’ grassroots leanings, scuttling past eclectic lineups for the likes of the mainstream Metallica, Soundgarden, the Ramones and Rancid.
More on #13: 1996
December 1, 2009
2009 | Self-Released
I don’t think a single period of pop history was forgotten faster than the late nineties – no, I’m not talking about Pavement, Neutral Milk Hotel, or Radiohead; they have all cemented themselves firmly into indie rock history. I’m talking about pop-rock, post-alternative; the Counting Crows, Third Eye Blinds, and Eagle Eyed Cherries that came, left infectiously innocuous songs ridden with overproduction, and reverted back to the musical hell from whence they came (well, at least most of them). Where did they come from? I mean, they must have heard punk-rock, right? Were the Replacements really enough to fuel an entire eight-year movement of shamelessly clever modern rock? And, as more and more musicians choose to dig deeper into the one-hit-wonder crates, pulling back toward disco, glam, and other once-hated genres, when will the 90s all-stars have a chance to shine? Who will be the Patrick Wolf to Stephan Jenkins’ David Bowie?
The answer, in my opinion, is dwelling somewhere under the surface of Ludlow Lions’ No Stories. The album, from opener “Keyboard Teeth” and onward, moves disjointedly through different genres. They touch on angular Pinback riffs, garage-fuzz, Replacements style hooks, R.E.M. delivery, and the occasional crunched distortion that could be stripped straight out of “Semi-Charmed Life.” And the lyrics move fluidly from intelligent and thought provoking (“Scopes Climbs a Tree,” which, from what I can gather, is actually inspired by the Scopes Monkey Trial) to the banal and innocuous (“I want a new Cold War/ I felt much safer before” is fine, but “If there’s a new Cold War/ I’d be so captivated” seems like the band may not actually understand what the Cold War was) to the completely meaningless (a soaring, layered chorus of “We’re so proud/ We’re so proud/ We’re so proud of…doom”).
More on Ludlow Lions | No Stories
November 21, 2009
Welcome to another edition of Brook Pridemore’s The Nineties-ist. This edition discusses 1993, the birth of a conscious music listener, and falling in and out of love with They Might Be Giants. For earlier installments, go here.
1993 is a defining year for me, Brook Pridemore, as a musician/music obsessor (one can’t really exist without the other). Aside from Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged premiere in November (the defining live document of the 90s) and Prince changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol, 1993 is the year I became conscious. So, while the year may not be the best for music (certainly ‘95 and ‘97 are go-to years for “the classics”), 1993 will always evoke something of a coming of age nostalgia within me. The historical equivalent of the participant’s trophy in softball you’ve got in a box somewhere, maybe, or the barely-meeting-the-weight-requirement large mouth bass you caught when you were a kid, that ended up stuffed and mounted, a constant reminder of simpler times. 1993 is the year I came of age.
It seems innocuous now, but one February morning in ‘93, I was watching Saturday Morning cartoons with my much-younger sister. An episode of Tiny Toon Adventures that featured animated videos to two songs by quirky Brooklyn group They Might Be Giants crossed my periphery. And that was it. I had no idea what these guys looked like (as TMBG were depicted by Tiny Toons characters, you see), but I could tell just by hearing them that they looked more like me (skinny, pale, gawky) than the hip hop crews or cartoon-y hard rock bands my contemporaries were discovering. Gangbangin’ was in, but it’s hard to be a gangbanger in a lake-dominated suburb thirty miles north of the inner city of Detroit. Being a hesher was in, but I still don’t quite dig on metal, and it’s hard to be a hesher without dirt weed.
They Might Be Giants seemed like they spoke to me, personally. In the last dying days before the Internet diluted the mystery a band could wrap itself in, I went on a quest to find all of their albums to date, and learn all the lyrics. The things I had picked for my career focus to date (funny car designer, video game programmer, etc.) went out the window. I was going to be a singer like They Might Be Giants. Christmas 1993, when I got my first guitar, TMBG’s guitarist, John Flansburgh, served as my first role model. Never known for his flash, Flansburgh held the band’s quirky, percolated rhythms together with his simple, creative strumming. “Birdhouse in Your Soul” is buoyed by Flansburgh’s tic-tac bassline across it’s chorus. You may never have noticed that bouncy little line in there, but it’s an essential element to what gives the song it’s danceable backbone.
More on #10: 1993
September 12, 2009
One Saturday night about six months ago, I was standing outside Academy Records in Williamsburg. It was one of those rare Saturday nights in New York, one where everyone you know decides to go out of town and, just as you get all set to go party, you find yourself in the middle of the perfect stay-at-home-and-catch-up-on-Grisham night. Not one to sit at home on a Saturday night, I found myself hanging around N. 6th Street, trying vainly to stir up a ruckus.
While smoking a cigarette on the street, I happened to overhear a snippet of conversation that set my teeth on edge. Two girls in their early twenties, obviously from money and most likely on vacation from some exclusive private college, walked past Academy. One girl said to the other, “So…do they still make records? And do people still buy…music?” The surprise and disdain in her voice were such that she might as well have been saying, “Remember when people thought the Earth was flat?”
My heart sank at the tone in her voice, because she’d illuminated the problem without even knowing there was one. The mainstream music industry, comically flawed since its inception, has been a creative wasteland for years. While I would posit that the old model for promoting and distributing mainstream music has been showing stress fractures since the fake “vinyl shortage” of the early 70s – in which albums by fringe bands like the Modern Lovers were shelved, the excuse being there wasn’t enough vinyl to meet production demands – it is my astute opinion that the old standard of modern pop music breathed its death rattle in 2003. Sometime after the White Stripes’ Elephant and before Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief (and, in fairness, the industry’s corpse may have kept flopping until Good News For People Who Love Bad News came out in April ’04) the rock-music-as-big-moneymaker model jumped the shark. The last wave of new, compelling rock music (aka the garage rock movement of ’01 – ’03) had failed to ignite: The Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and their ilk had all somehow managed to follow up stunning debuts with tepid sophomore efforts. The lifers – bands with no real hits but respectable catalog sales and devoted followers – began jumping ship from their respective labels (either by necessity or design), many realizing the benefits of working with a small organization, many more marginalized by the continued consolidation of the big label infrastructure.
More on #1: A Prologue
August 27, 2009
Belle and Sebastian
If You’re Feeling Sinister
1996 | Matador
Can a record like If You’re Feeling Sinister, Scottish-college-project-turned-twee-wunderkinds Belle and Sebastian’s 1997 breakthrough album, ever exist again? Spring 1998, this album (reportedly made by a band that consisted of eight people but sounding like it was made by about three) fell into my lap at my college’s radio station. Interest peaked at first by the band’s name, sparking memories of the British cartoon series that was broadcast occasionally on Canadian television in my childhood home, I was immediately hooked on the band’s sound – and I was not alone.
If You’re Feeling Sinister was an enigma: bandleader Stuart Murdoch and the rest of his crew refused all interviews and rarely played concerts, sticking to their native Glasgow when they deigned to play live at all. Yet the band’s first fully-conceptualized album (their debut, 1995’s Tigermilk, is a rushed, occasionally brilliant mess that Murdoch has described as a “product of botched capitalism”) made its way onto the Matador label and, slowly but surely, into the hands of college radio jocks and other discerning audiophiles like me, based on word of mouth alone. Kind of nice, when you think about it, but also kind of depressing: less than fifteen years after Sinister’s release, the current promotional norm of internet blasts and the slow and steady decline of college radio suggest that, were Belle and Sebastian to pop onto the scene in 2009, they would quite possibly be swept under the rug before anyone got around to digging on the record.
More on Belle and Sebastian | If You’re Feeling Sinister