Archive for the ‘Confessions of a ’90s Survivor’ Category


No love for tomorrow.

July 12, 2012


Marilyn Manson – The Dope Show
From: Mechanical Animals (1998)

To this day, I don’t really know where Marilyn Manson came from.

I know there’s a backstory and I know there were albums and singles that led up to him showing up on MTV in weird face paint whispering and screaming in worm-infested science labs shot with canted angles, but I don’t know what the story is or what the other albums were or where all the love of “awful, just awful” images came from. All I know is that one day he was there.

And for a white 8th grader living in a modest western suburb of Chicago, it’s hard to overstate what that arrival meant. Because in all the western suburbs, and probably much of Chicago and most of middle-class white America, the general consensus was that someone fell asleep at the switch somewhere when the portal to hell opened up and this little band crawled through.

Now these things roamed Earth freely. And put on concerts. And showed us their pale, disgusting buttocks. And wiped those buttocks with pages of the Bible. And probably tried to summon Hitler as an opening act. And probably slaughtered little girls who sang in their church’s choir for the finale. And you know … probably sparked mass genocides. And it may or may not have been the dude who played Paul on “The Wonder Years” leading the charge. Which made you wonder when that dude died, why he’d gone to hell and why the devil he came back to torment all of us like this. Paul was a pretty sympathetic character on “The Wonder Years.” No one hated him, did they? At least no one could have hated him to the point that society deserved this kind of revenge.

Frankly, I’m surprised I lived through the experience to recount it more than a decade later. Must have been too wrapped up in Oasis to leave myself vulnerable to the Antichrist Superstar’s spell.

I don’t know what it would take to shock society at large in the way that Marilyn Manson did through 1996 and 1997. I’ll cite those years, because that was during the whole Antichrist Superstar cycle, the f*cked-up cover of “Sweet Dreams” and front page news stories about how incensed some mothers could be that this kind of thing could be considered popular. I mean the protests that this band sparked actually managed to cancel performances in that time. The Columbine shooting would take place 2 years later and because those deranged high school kids either wore the band t-shirt or somewhere mentioned an appreciation of the band’s music, he was called to the carpet for that needless act of violence. And he came off as pretty sensible in that Michael Moore movie about Columbine, but given where the majority of people stand on Moore these days, I’m not sure that means a lot.

Maybe I’m older and not so hip to any of the outrage anymore, but I don’t think anything’s pervaded society like that since. I think what happened on Sept. 11, 2001 maxed out most of our “Holy sh*t” stock. People, music, movies, art, wardrobe malfunctions—all that can still shock society, but maybe for a week or month at best. Not years.

I went to a public junior high school and a public high school. Marilyn Manson t-shirts ended up being banned in both. I had a Beatles t-shirt with a picture that caught George Harrison mid-snap and made it look like he was flipping the bird. That was OK. This wasn’t.

I don’t doubt that there are impressionable youths out there right now. I don’t doubt that there were some in my junior high and high school classes. But certainly history, if not trying to keep your cellphone out of a baby’s reach, has taught us that restricting access to something is only going to make the people you’re restricting it from that much more interested in it. You make Marilyn Manson out to be something that dangerous, and you’re going to make a lot of kids want to stay up late to catch the showing of a Marilyn Manson video on “120 Minutes.” You make a concert out to be some place where you might walk out having seen someone killed, and there are enough curious, thrill-seeking 14-year-olds out there who’ll decide, “I’m finding a way in.” But you leave it out there for everyone to see, and yeah, 14-year-olds who don’t know the difference and like to run with the herd will get really excited about a song or maybe the CD. Then when Limp Bizkit gets a little more popular, they’ll move to that. The rest of us will be able to judge that all in all, this is actually pretty sh*tty music.

And all Marilyn Manson wanted to do was get on the pedestal to make his comments about society. From what I gathered from his whispers/screams on Antichrist Superstar-era videos, it was that there were a lot of phonies out there trying to religious you up and a lot of rich people who deserved your scorn. I think that dialog’s still continuing 16 years later in this presidential race, but we’re not cancelling any of those rallies now, are we?

By the time Mechanical Animals rolled around in 1998, its lead single “The Dope Show” was just a rather benign commentary on celebrity. By that point, people watched “Behind the Music” and certainly no one could’ve thought Marilyn Manson was the first person to think, “Yeah, this celebrity business is a bit of bullsh*t when you examine it.”

Of course, it might have been a more cunning commentary coming from someone who hadn’t used his quick rise to celebrity to hook up with a movie star and parade her around red carpets in a slinky. It also might have meant more if the guy considered to be a protégé of Trent Reznor, one of industrial music’s godfathers, didn’t use Manson as a target the very next year in his song “Starf*ckers, Inc.” And maybe it would’ve meant the most if the guy singing about the “lot of pretty, pretty ones who want to get you high” that ultimately “will leave you low and blow your mind” didn’t himself subsequently end up as some wasted fool who couldn’t heed his own warnings.

The interesting thing about “The Dope Show,” though, was it was Manson’s most commercial single and truth be told, not an entirely awful song. Bands such as Suede had already made a 1990s push to revisit the heights of the 1970s glam rock era, so there was nothing that wild or new about what Manson was doing, but he was actually showing a bit of pop sensibility and delivering a single for a major label that had (gasp) a hook. Whether or not that spat in the face of everything he and/or the band had tried to achieve by that point is debatable. I suppose you could make the point that he was being SUCH a non-conformist that he wasn’t even going to conform to his previously stated railings and deliver a pop single that (holy crap, dude) lampooned the pop industry.

I remember the song coming on Q101 when I was hanging out with my girlfriend at the time. She reacted as most people did—spat out an “Ew!” and went to change the station.

“That’s actually not that bad of a song,” I said.

She turned to me with this look on her face that mixed horror with “You’ve gotta be kidding me” in a way I’d never seen before.

“You like Marilyn Manson now?” she asked. I might have been wearing a Beatles T-shirt at the time. Let’s just assume I was for comedic purpose.

“No, no. I’m not saying I like the song, I’m just saying it’s a well-structured little pop song. It’s not like he’s telling you to kill your cats. He’s just saying being famous is stupid. It’s kind of funny. It’s not shocking in any way.”

“I’m not listening to it. I can’t believe you like Marilyn Manson now.”

“I DON’T LIKE IT! I’m just saying it’s interesting! He’s doing what everyone else does now! No one’s gonna care about him anymore! Change the station! I’m just saying change it for the right reason!”

I still can’t figure out why she eventually dumped me …

Anyway, the point I was making was correct. The fact was and is that John Lennon, David Bowie, 10,000 Maniacs, Pixies and even Sara f*cking Bareilles (not to mention an innumerable amount of artists that have ever felt even mildly burned by the industry) have done it before and since with much more panache than Manson. Maybe he saw himself as individual because none of the others produced a video for their single that featured them in a latex body suit that had boobies.

But after those “demons take over the biology lab” videos from his previous album, “The Dope Show” video seemed tame. If you’ve staked your career on the ability to shock people and done it to such a point that you’ve freaked out middle America enough to have multiple concerts cancelled, dyed hair and fake boobies is a step in the wrong direction. We’d seen better. The only remotely interesting thing about that video was that somehow the jerk from “Titanic” had found his way into it. But even then, the only talking point was “Wait, is Marilyn Manson down with the jerk from ‘Titanic’? Is that because they’re old acting buddies? You know, because Marilyn Manson is supposed to be Paul from ‘The Wonder Years’?”

It wasn’t really worth cancelling shows over.

And that was the moment the country decided that maybe Marilyn Manson wasn’t so scary.

Sure, there would still be lost teenagers who would get their hands on guns and kill themselves or innocent people and Manson’s name would end up attached to those news stories, but he wasn’t even the first to have those kinds of charges and allegations leveled at him. Given the chance, don’t you think David Berkowitz’s neighbor’s dog would’ve said, “Hey, hold on, I was just asking for some Purina. I never said THAT …”?

At the end of the day, we had someone who disliked the tenets of Christianity, enjoyed sex and thought the music business was hollow (despite gleefully enjoying the benefits of it). Wow.

Maybe the most shocking thing about Manson is he managed to make a bumbling Jay Kay look like he was intelligent and way ahead of the curve.


I can understand how you’d be so confused. I don’t envy you.

March 23, 2012


Meredith Brooks – Bitch
From: Blurring the Edges

In the spring of 1997, I was in 8th grade at Jackson Middle School. I was in Spanish class. I sat next to a good friend, which was a problem because we constantly made snarky comments about things the teacher said, even though we sat in the front row and she overheard many of them. Subtlety would be a trick we picked up later in life.

The Spanish teacher didn’t have a reputation as a particularly nice teacher, either. If you struggled to correctly tell her—in Spanish—the going rate for green beans at a nonexistent mercado and how much of a price difference there was compared to the apples, you ended up on her list.

I could be a smartass, but I had most vocabulary and basic verb forms down. So for that reason, the teacher only had a certain degree of impatience with me. Others in the class weren’t so lucky.

We had a jock in class who sat near the back of the room and was always talking to girls around him instead of paying attention to the lesson. He seldom did his homework, performed pretty horribly on tests and generally didn’t care about the class, much less the teacher.

One day as the teacher was trying to get us to memorize a new round of vocabulary, she caught this kid carrying on a conversation with a girl at the back of the class.

“ANDRES!” (we were all given Spanish monikers for those 45 minutes each day) she called out. “Would you like to tell us how to tell the doctor that you have a stomach ache?”

Clearly caught off guard, the kid stumbled through a poor reading of Spanish. “Uh. Uh, yo, uh, estás, ummm? Tienen dollar in me, uh …”

The rest of us kept our laughter hushed because he could spot people laughing at him, find them in the hallway after class and kick the sh*t out of them. 

“Yeah, OK, niño. Maybe you want to pay a little more attention?”

The kid looked down at his book and muttered, “stupidf*ckingbitch” quiet enough for no one but those sitting next to him to hear. They all giggled.

I wasn’t close enough to hear him say it. I had the story told to me a couple years later by the girl who sat next to him in class. She thought the story was pretty funny, and I don’t know if it’s because she did a good impression of him saying “stupidf*ckingbitch” or if she liked the fact that he called our teacher a bitch.

Girls derive a surprising amount of pleasure in referring to other girls as “bitch” behind their backs. It’s typically said either in the midst of a contemptuous rundown of girl-in-question’s character or with a villainous smirk.

Guys also like to say it behind girls’ backs. Although guys rarely say it as venomously as girls. Guys use it much more haphazardly (e.g. “Aw, bro, so this girl was working behind the bar and I asked her if she could change the TV, y’know, cos I wanted to see the game and not some stupid sitcom with the sound off. She wouldn’t change it! Bitch!”) and usually say it with a look of bewilderment on their face, shoulders hunched and arms to the side as if waiting for a hug and/or agreement from his fellow dudes.

But saying it to a girl’s face? That’s where sexes differ. Guys who are brazen enough to do it know they face retribution. You get either tears AND the embarrassment of knowing that everyone around you thinks you’re an awful human being or you get murderous rage and the reason why that saying “Hell hath no fury …” has lingered in our vernacular for so long.

Girls who say it to another girl’s face—they’re typically spoiling for the fight.

These are generalizations, of course, but as usual, I believe I’m right. Still, in figuring that my female audience could quickly rebuke or dismiss my line of reasoning, I asked my sister (because she’s a girl—not because of any implied topical connotation) if it’s worse for a girl to be called “bitch” in anger by a girl or guy. She confirmed my hypothesis:

“If we are talking about fighting, it is way worse to be called a bitch by a girl because it is a ‘go-to’ mean word for guys to use against girls. For girls, we have so many choices: bitch, slut, whore. But, the girl chose the one that has nothing to do with sex—now she is implying that I am mean AND ugly.”

And all female dogs cringe.

It’s a strange word, and attributing it to anybody is making a contentious move. But when Meredith Brooks released that word as a single just a few months after the jock muttered it about my former Spanish teacher, she gave women everywhere a reason to throw their hands up, hoot, holler and celebrate the fact that they are multi-faceted personalities with that “bitch” facet perched firmly at the top of the list.

In a way, the popularity of “Bitch” was not surprising. Angry women had already staked their claim in the pop culture landscape of the 1990s (either hilariously or sadly, there are people who still believe “Bitch” is an Alanis Morissette song), so it’s not as if Meredith came out of nowhere with her pointed self-assessment. Moreover, even while some radio stations put an alternate title of “Nothing in Between” on the single, “Bitch” didn’t really send censors into panic mode. Sure, getting the man to try to warn people about what you have to say would always help shift some units (there was a little thrill when you got that first CD or cassette with the parental advisory sticker, no?), but Meredith (unlike Trina) wasn’t proclaiming herself as a bitch who would list the perverse things she would do to you and then the horrific things she would do to your property if/when you broke up. She was simply saying, “Yes I am this. And I’m also a child. And I’m also a mother. And I’m also this and this and that and this and that and that and this.” Someone who can, for instance, oscillate freely between Gretsch and Fender guitars. I don’t seem to remember many people being offended by it. Maybe they were focusing all their efforts on Marilyn Manson? But as far as censors went, if VH1 was OK showing the title, they must have figured: “Why should we worry?” Such was life in the progressive late 1990s.

In another way, the popularity of “Bitch” was surprising, at least from a societal standpoint. You can argue that in a day and age when kids’ favorite artists were blowing their own heads off if not going down in a hail of gunfire, it might have been a little harder to shock teenagers of the 1990s than, maybe, teenagers of the 1970s. But even though “Bitch” didn’t terrify VH1 enough to let MTV take sole care of the video’s rotation, you have to admit that having a top 5 single with THAT title was edgy. Maybe even a little exciting.

When it comes to inappropriate language, “Bitch” has never been on the same level as other curse words, and certainly is less jarring than the dreaded C-word (which actually WAS one of George Carlin’s seven words you can’t say on television). But still, Elton John’s “The Bitch is Back” came before it and got banned and Ludacris’ “Move Bitch” came after it and got banned. So to have something that carried a pop sheen and explained itself within its own chorus probably took Meredith a little further commercially than her peers (at least for this one single), but if she’d called the song “Witch,” and referred to herself as that instead, would the single have made as much of a dent? I don’t think so.

As much as the 1990s now seems like an economic and progressive utopia, the fact that “Bitch” stirred so much teenage giggling tells you a lot about how far we really were. Apparently listening to this song made it OK to say a naughty word—that is, until the DJ (or VJ) moved onto the next selection and the word again became dangerous waters.

Just like Joan Osborne had with “One of Us,” Meredith Brooks employed lyrical provocation and nabbed her 15 minutes of fame. As a result, no one cares about two albums she’d already done in the 1980s or anything that she released subsequently, because the stir’s all about the one “ooooh, can’t believe she went there!” song.

What was surprising about Meredith’s 15 minutes, was just how quickly it came and went. “Bitch” nabbed two Grammys, but within months of that, she’s being bottled off a Rolling Stones support slot, trying to go for visual provocation with her next single (to diminishing returns) and ultimately sees “Bitch” as the comical soundtrack to Mel Gibson trying on pantyhose in “What Women Want.”

(For what it’s worth, “What Would Happen” is unfairly forgotten when networks want to rundown those “All Time Sexiest Videos” countdowns.)

“Bitch” announced itself with a pretense that this would be a strong, individual woman standing up for herself and saying, “This is what I am and I’m proud of it.” If it comes on in a bar today, I’m sure a few women will revel in nostalgic delight and the fact that they get to scream “I’m a bitch” again, but at the end of the day, it’s still just an excuse to say “Bitch” and apologize (without actually apologizing) for ridiculous behavior.

I asked my sister if she liked the song.

“I do. It’s fun and catchy. I like it in the same way that I like ‘The Sign’ by Ace of Base; it is not a quality song, but it’s from the 1990s and reminds of growing up. It was also an excuse to swear in elementary school and that was SO cool. I was clearly a badass in my Keds and scrunchie throwing around the word ‘bitch’ like it was nothing.”

So there you go. And when I asked her if there was any kind of message or anything that could even be considered empowering in the song, my sister dismissed that as “ridiculous.”

“It is how girls are—crazy. We act ridiculously all the time.”

From her lips to former Spanish teachers’ ears.


You can’t run and you can’t hide.

January 26, 2012


Lou Bega – Mambo No. 5 (A Little Bit Of …)
From: A Little Bit of Mambo

Angela. Pamela. Sandra. Rita. Monica. Erica. Tina. Mary. Jessica.

I’m guessing that if you bear any of those names, Lou Bega’s “Mambo No. 5” resides somewhere in your collection. Maybe you don’t have A Little Bit of Mambo resting with the CDs you still leave out for company to peruse—maybe the MP3 is hidden away somewhere in your iTunes library, perhaps mislabeled as “A Little Bit of Angela” or “Rita’s Song!!!!!!!” or “OMG BEST SONG EVAAAA!!!!”

I don’t know this to be a fact. In my lifetime, I’ve known girls with these names. I have a cousin named Angela. I know more than a few Marys. This is a hypothesis I could easily put to the test, but I’d rather rest in the knowledge that I’m probably right. After all, I’ve been to enough dances, college parties and weddings (this song has been strictly relegated to the wedding circuit now, right?) to see how girls react to it. In each case there’s a big group of them dancing around and inevitably pointing—also very likely shrieking or whooping a little—when one of the girls happens to be namechecked by Lou.

The song came out when I was between sophomore and junior year in high school, so I was good-fortuned enough to find myself in the age bracket that would hear it at high school dances, college parties (seldom played ironically, mind you) and weddings. The f*cking thing won’t go away. I’d say I avoid Wrigleyville bars in Chicago because of the types of people that congregate there, but maybe even moreso because I’m sure many of those bars have “Mambo No. 5” on rotation (in only quasi-ironic fashion).

But despite my contempt for the song, I sometimes have trouble discerning exactly why I have those feelings for it. It was only ever there to serve the purpose of making a few girls too giddy at social outings, right? It was never meant to be appreciated and analyzed like Pet Sounds. I don’t get upset if I turn up at a wedding and “Electric Slide” comes on. Hell, I’ll be out there doing the damn dance with all the 40-something-year old women who are still single and laboring under the misapprehension that doing a slowed-down line dance proves they’ve still got it. It’s a laugh. That’s all there is to it.

But “Mambo No. 5,” no. There’s something sinister in Lou’s track.

I suppose the best way to describe it is as such: Anyone remember “The Single Guy”? It was a sitcom that served a little time in the 1990s on NBC and benefitted greatly from being strategically placed between “Friends” and “Seinfeld.” Now, your average “Friends” viewer differs from your average “Seinfeld” viewer. I’m not going to make blanket statements—I know there are girls that love “Seinfeld” and I know there are guys that love “Friends” (although they won’t admit it—they’ll quantify it by saying, “Hey, I appreciate it. My family watched it every Thursday when I was growing up, so it’s sentimental”), but the majority of people you talk to now that quote “Seinfeld” are men and the majority that quote “Friends” are women.

In the ‘90s there wasn’t that difference. Both men and women dug “Friends” and both men and women dug “Seinfeld.” In their primes, they were two shows that could provide a lot of laughs and had storylines that appealed to both sexes. As long as NBC didn’t put a half hour of single moms on meth feeding their infant children to wolverines in between the two shows, there was a good chance people would leave NBC on for the half hour between “Friends” and “Seinfeld.”

So between 1995 and 1997, NBC decided to fill the slot with “The Single Guy,” starring Jonathan Silverman who was hard to hate, but still pretty damn vanilla. The concept of the show? A single guy living in New York City. Just like Jerry, George, Kramer, Chandler, Joey and Ross.

And you know what? For a while, people ate it up. It usually landed in the top 5 of the Nielsen Ratings, until some genius decided to change up the timeslot, which sent it tumbling down below the top 50. But when consumers are presented with something they respond strongly to (a group of single friends in New York), executives tend to go, “Well let’s give them a similar concept” (a larger group of single friends in New York). When THAT goes well, executives go, “Let’s give them a different idea within that similar concept” (one single dude in New York). Then you have saturation, people in Chicago protesting (again) that their city doesn’t get enough attention and writers putting marriages into the show in a vain attempt to retain viewers.

Similar thing happened in music in the 1990s. Around the mid-1990s, and partially thanks to an unprecedented popularity in ska music, swing music came running back into the mainstream. CDs by the Brian Setzer Orchestra and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy were duking it out for the upper reaches of the Billboard charts. People remembered how fun it was to do that uptempo dancing. “Well!” said the record executives. “You like uptempo dancing?! Because our labels’ Latin American divisions are full of that stuff!” Then you get the Latin Explosion. Well-groomed dudes in zoot suits give way to well groomed Latino dudes with better physiques, tighter-fitting clothing and rhythms that are even mas caliente!

Now, record executives are going, “OK, danceable rhythms and horns, what else we got?”

And then Mr. Bega, a German dude of Italian and Ugandan descent (not Latin, mind), starts calling out girls’ names over a processed beat and a sample of an old Perez Prado track.

See, my problem with “Mambo No. 5 (A Little Bit Of …)” isn’t that it’s a bastardized version of something that was absolutely fine to begin with. No. That’s my complaint about Michael Buble.

My problem with “Mambo No. 5” is that—in addition to being a bastardized version of something absolutely fine to begin with—it’s a shockingly transparent cash-in on the fads of the previous summers. And the American public bought it like a f*cking bunch of Alzheimer’s patients.

Look at the video. A classy (if ill fitting) 1940s-era suit upon Lou, stock footage of old timey raveups and kicklines collide with roughly the same amount of modern T&A you’d find in the Mase and Jermaine Dupri videos of the day. Look at the look on Lou’s face at the 0:44 mark. It’s a quick shot, but he gives you that look of phony confidence that only a man who can’t believe he’s getting away with something this easy can give.

I don’t understand the need to call out “Mambo numba five!” other than further advertising the track within the track itself. Aside from a few shimmies from Lou, there’s a distinct lack of actual mambo dancing, and the most infuriating part of the song (and video) really—whereupon Lou dictates a dance that’s about as far away from mambo as dancing gets and then has the balls to say, “If it looks like this you’re doing it right” while providing no visual example whatsoever (even when he delivers the line in the video, he just nods)—is just more gasoline on my fire of hatred for this song.

So why spend so much time musing on a one-hit wonder that cooks such bile in me? Well, because in my junior year of high school, I was in Youth in Government. I know, I know, I taught myself cool by surrounding myself with the absolute legends. But it was actually a fun group that consisted of some of the most laid back, funny and friendly people with whom you’d want to associate. Every year on the bus ride to Springfield from suburban Chicago, someone would bring along a jukebox from which to blast the popular hits of the day. There was a girl who was one year older than me on that particular trip who I had an unwavering adoration for and who found a lot of delight in “Mambo No. 5.”

“Maybe it’s not such a bad song?” I thought to myself as I watched her laugh and bounce around her seat with a couple of her friends. “Maybe it is kind of fun.”

Unfortunately, at the end of that trip, she started dating a wrestler who took great delight in irritating the living hell out of me. So when I hear “Mambo No. 5”—aside from all the very legitimate reasons to hate that song and think of it as the outlandish phony it is, I also think of this.

And I seethe.

So Angela, Pamela, Sandra, Rita, Monica, Erica, Tina, Mary and Jessica? Please hide the Lou Bega CD next time I’m over. I will, however, be happy to join the line at the next wedding we all attend when “Electric Slide” starts playing.


And this woman was singing my song.

September 29, 2011


Lisa Loeb & Nine Stories – Stay (I Missed You)

From: Tails

I’m probably the wrong person to muse about the potency of “Stay.” The ideal candidate would be some girl who was aged 16 to 22 in 1994 when the song shot an unsigned friend of Ethan Hawke to the top of the Billboard Hot 100. I was 11 when the song was popular. Beyond having a crush on a girl in my 5th grade class, there wasn’t a lot to connect me with the song on any emotional level at the time of its strongest prevalence.

But even when I hear the song today or rewatch the simplistic video (by the way, is she moving into or out of that apartment? The bed frame gives no indication. If she’s moving out, I understand her annoyance somewhat. If she’s moving in, she needs to take more of a “I may only have a view of other building’s windows, but look at this f*cking space. This kicks ass and I’m gonna rock this city” attitude and stop whining about the ex), there is something unspeakably ‘90s about it.

Visually, Loeb singlehandedly brought the coffeeshop bookworm look to the masses. Audibly, she actually married a (relatively) disproportionate amount of cynicism (Lisa, babe, everyone has the “YOU’RE NOT LISTENING!” arguments) to a catchy melody and put it at the top of the charts (“You said you caught me ‘cause you want me and one day you’ll let me go—you try to give away a keeper or keep me ‘cause you know you’re just so scared to lose”). Anyone up for a Janeane Garofalo stand-up set next?

If I remember the ‘90s in broad brushstrokes, I remember a certain amount of dispassion. What Loeb was unwittingly (I hope) doing in this video, was giving every single or spoken-for girl with access to popular radio or music television ample ammo for entirely unnecessary arguments.

We find a college couple in the dining room of a three-star restaurant. The gentleman surveys the menu while the lady bemoans a roommate who insists on having late night trysts despite the fact that finals are in two weeks and a certain amount of time must be afforded to study.

GIRL: I mean, I suppose it’s easy for Sasha, because her parents are paying her tuition and can afford to send her somewhere else if she fails, which she won’t because she’s totally smart and never even has to study, because she always manages to get a ‘B’ at worst anyway. But that’s not me! I’ve got loans! I’ve got to pay for all these books! And I need to maintain a certain average to keep my scholarship.

DUDE: (quietly deciding whether he should splurge on an 8-oz. steak or keep it thrifty by saving three bucks and going with a pulled pork sandwich) Mmm.

GIRL: I’m up! I’m actually studying! Hello! And I’ve got to listen to her get it on with David or whoever the new interest this week happens to be! Like I want to hear that! I mean don’t you think that’s totally unfair?

DUDE: (still looking at menu) Totally.

GIRL: What’s that supposed to mean?

DUDE: (slowly realizing he might have said “Totally” in a sarcastic tone) What?

GIRL: You think this is a joke?

DUDE: I never said—

GIRL: No, you didn’t have to say. I heard the way you said that. All sarcastic. Like this is not a big deal.

DUDE: No, I understand your frustration, but in the grand scheme of things, how big of a deal is it? There’s the library. There are study halls in your building.

GIRL: It’s my room!

DUDE: Well have you talked to her about it?

GIRL: Oh, right. And what am I supposed to say?

DUDE: How about, ‘Hey I need to study, could you please stop the porn rehearsals til all hours of the night?’

GIRL: Oh, yeah. I’m so sure that would fly.

DUDE: Well, something like that. Why don’t you just study at my place?

GIRL: Gross. And have Chad trying to offer me a beer every 10 minutes? You know, what is his deal anyway? I was talking with Lindsay Carpenter last week, and she was saying that Chad was over at her place last Tuesday for like no reason. Does he like Lindsay? Cos he knows she has a boyfriend right?

DUDE: What does that have to do—

GIRL: You know what, if you can’t see that, then I don’t know. What. I sit here and I explain to you this total crisis I’m having right now, and you just make all these sarcastic comments.

DUDE: I’m offering suggestions.

GIRL: Yeah. Real helpful. All of them. And I’m just not taking them because I’m an idiot, right? I only hear what I want to hear. Is that it?

Within a few more seconds, she’s shouting and he’s trying to quiet her down while simultaneously wondering how the hell he got from picking between a wimpy steak or a pork sandwich to this and she’s left the restaurant in a huff.

The thing about “Stay” is that it’s actually quite a passionate song. For women, I imagine the great thing about “Stay” is that they can find a great deal of comfort in it. It’s a breakup song, but it also carries a certain sense of defiance in that “I know it hurts, but this is for the best because things really weren’t going anywhere with you” sort of way. But it also undermines its whole argument—and gives credence to those using it as consolation after an argument or split with the “I missed you, yeah, I missed you” refrain. Can a pop song cut both ways like that? Of course. Human personalities are complex and certainly the range of emotions one goes through after a breakup/argument/fight range from “Dear God, what have I done?” to “I’m glad I will never see that (insert expletive-enhanced adjective of choice here) again.” The problem is it immediately establishes Lisa (and the countless women who adhere to the song) as unpredictable.

Is she simply a shy coffeehouse girl who got tied up with the wrong guy, thus having to leave (or move into?) a boss apartment following their split? Or is she a coquette using the coffeehouse chic as a front to eat shy coffeehouse boys up and spit them out? Is she a strong, proud woman standing up for fellow sisters (in the introductory Lilith Fair lineup), or an attention hound who’s going to bring cameras along when you and she try out a new restaurant?

Again, multi-faceted personalities are not a bad thing, but a certain level of unpredictability can be damning. I’m sure there were a lot of men who were turned on by the “Stay” video—likely owing to library-related fantasies stemming from Lisa’s signature cat-like eyeglasses, but I never bought into it, even in the following years when “Stay” remained somewhat popular and puberty hit me like a ton of bricks. There was something I couldn’t quite figure out about Lisa. It wasn’t the look—that’s a surface thing, and an attractive one at that. In recent years I’ve had dating experience with similarly studious-looking girls that inevitably lead to me shaking my head over a pint of beer and relaying stories to friends in the vain hope that they can make sense of what the hell had transpired. It’s more that she carries a little too much mystery with her. I have no problem with intelligent women. I have no problem with women who harbor strong feminist views. I’d rather never discuss politics in the context of a relationship, but I don’t have a problem with those who have deep-seated right- or left-wing beliefs, so long as they’re not trying to convert me.

After seeing the 10,000 Maniacs “Unplugged” appearance, I’d developed a bit of a crush on Natalie Merchant. Years later, I relayed this to my college roommate who said, “No, you don’t want a girl like that. You’ll come home one day and there’ll just be a note that says ‘I had to go to Africa to find myself.’” It was an obtuse point, but it made sense. Still, it was a character trait that you could expect, even if you hoped no such thing would occur. With Lisa, you could get a woman who coddles you one day and leaves you flummoxed at a 3-star restaurant the next. You don’t know. It’s there in the lyrics of “Stay.” It’s just a bit too much of a dichotomy. It’s as fiercely independent as it is dependent.

So I still don’t know whether it was heartbreaking or wholly appropriate that more than 10 years after she wrote a song that so many women identified with, she was the star of her own E! network reality series about her continued difficulty in finding a man. Do a Google search on “Number 1 Single” and you’ll find out that no one cares nearly as much about whether real love was found on the show (…was it?) as they do that the show afforded them screencaps of a 37-year-old former charttopper in panties.

But the power of “Stay” goes far beyond the reach of jilted girlfriends who feel like their current or former boyfriends treat(ed) them like puppets. The power of “Stay” is (for lack of a better term) its staying power.

I worked out the song on guitar during my junior year of college. My roommate burst into my room as I was faking my way through it and started singing along at the top of his lungs. Part of it was light-hearted comedy, but there was an underlying sense that he really enjoyed singing the song. I’ve used it as a party trick at different get-togethers when the guitars come out. It always, always, always starts a gusto-packed singalong.

Duplicitous though it may be, “Stay” still manages to get people right to the core, whether “this woman was singing my song” in 1994 and 1995 or they found it in later years after their own I love him/I hate him existential dilemma.

And for what it’s worth, Lisa got married in 2009. I knew I should’ve put this post up in 2008 …


All is good and nothing else is dead.

June 30, 2011


The Wallflowers – One Headlight
From: Bringing Down the Horse

I recently read an interview with Keith Richards that Rolling Stone magazine did in 1988 prior to the release of his debut solo album, Talk is Cheap. In it, the interviewer finagled Keith’s opinions on a wide variety of musicians. Keith mentions he likes Ziggy Marley, and describes one of many of Bob’s offspring thusly: “Ziggy Marley I find very interesting because he’s not just ‘the son of,’ He’s avoided being, I hate to say this, Julian.”

Immediately my mind turned to 1996, Bringing Down the Horse, and the Wallflowers, or as you might remember them, Bob Dylan’s son and some other dudes.

OK, I feel a little guilty for writing that. I have a very dear friend who rates the Wallflowers highly and citing someone as the “son of” immediately belittles their own contribution to the musical landscape, suggesting that the only reason they made any dent whatsoever is because of the weight behind their surname.

But if I were to ask you how many Wallflowers songs you could name, how many could you give me? Now if I pared that down further to “How many Wallflowers songs can you name NOT on Bringing Down the Horse, but on one of their four other studio albums?” how many could you give me?

I’m guessing the answer is slim to none. And that’s not me trying to pick a fight, Ben, I know you can probably name ‘em all.

But in the months that covered 1996 and 1997, the fact of the matter is that every biographical clip I saw on the band contained the fact that Jakob is Bob’s son, as if it was the biggest slice of “here’s something you might not know” cool information that year. Even the cover story that Rolling Stone did on Jakob in 1997 carried a picture of the young boy with his father.

Now, sure. The counterargument is, “Hey, the Wallflowers put out an album in 1992—Jakob was Bob’s son then and no one cared a bit.” Fair point. If the boys didn’t have some solid tunes to stand on, would the Dylan name mean anything at all? Probably not. Maybe it would give you some better club gigs than the average Joes trying to get bar gigs any night of the week, but you’ve got to have a cracking tune to top three different Billboard charts for a combined total of 15 weeks, don’t you?

I say this. You’ve got to have a cracking tune to top the charts for two to three weeks. Anything extra is driven by extracurricular interest in the band, and let’s face it, Jakob being Bob’s son and carrying his own set of gravelly, talk/sing pipes added an interesting element for sustained interest.

Interscope Records, for their part, put up a lot of cash for Bringing Down the Horse to reach the heights that it did, too. Heartbreaker Mike Campbell and Counting Crow Adam Duritz both feature on “6th Avenue Heartache” (which, for my money was always the Wallflowers’ best tune), Michael Penn drops in on “Angel on My Bike” and the solo on “One Headlight” is played by none other than Jon Brion.

I’ve talked before about the “this is all up for grabs” aspect of the top of the charts in the 1990s, and so for “One Headlight” to be popular, you must remember it was sharing equal air time on MTV in that stretch with the likes of Hanson, the Spice Girls, Savage Garden and U2. Maybe it was the working man’s rock preference to the other popular music of the era, and certainly a lot of people bought into it (I remember buying my copy of Bringing Down the Horse at a shopping mall during our 8th grade trip to Washington D.C. – who needs souvenirs from the National Treasury?), but there always seemed to be a reticence by the general public to buy into the Wallflowers full stop. After all, we all had bought into Hootie two years prior, and look how that ended up. But even with as much as “One Headlight” incessantly played on radio, MTV and VH1, I was always surprised at how few people really seemed to be actual fans of the song, much less the band.

For example:

Classmate when I made my purchase at the D.C. shopping mall: “Oh is that the one with the song about the engine turning, but the engine doesn’t turn? I like that song.”

Friend at a fast food place when ‘One Headlight’ comes on over the sound system: “Oh, I like this one. This is the “Me ‘n’ Cinderella” song, right?”

A two-word title, a chart-topper on 3 different charts for 15 total weeks and you don’t know it’s called “One Headlight” … Really?

I also think “One Headlight” shirked complete audience buy-in because of the ambiguity in its lyrics. Undoubtedly a trait that had been passed on from father to son, there are a few things you can surmise from “One Headlight,” but a lot you can’t. Someone’s dead, is it a lover or the mother? The town the singer resides in apparently sucks, but he only thinks of leaving without actually doing it, and the chorus well, how does that fit in? There are plenty of people who’ll argue it shouldn’t matter, and the message is what you make of it, maaaaan, but for single geeks trying to deduce whether or not this was an appropriate inclusion on the mixtape for the girl they fancied, well… this was a dilemma.

Eventually the inescapability of the song wore everybody down, and the follow up singles, “Three Marlenas” and “The Difference” hung around for about two weeks apiece before bowing out. And once the Bringing Down the Horse wave ended, so too did the Wallflowers’ reign on mainstream America. Sure, they put out three albums in the ensuing years, and Jakob’s doing solo work now, but most people stopped paying attention. And I have a little theory about why.

Between 1988 and 1993, Bob Dylan released an album each year (with the exception of 1991), and in addition to both Traveling Wilburys records. After 1993, he went quiet for four years until 1997, when he put out “Time Out of Mind” and got himself a Grammy and all sorts of critical acclaim that he’s been riding ever since. In the gap between 1993 and 1997, “The Beatles Anthology” came out and stirred a nation’s collective hardcore reminiscence for the past. If you don’t think Oasis’ popularity stateside was helped by the timing of the Anthology, you’re delusional. So for Dylan to come back in fine form in 1997, well, all the sudden people remembered what a genius he’d been all along too. Sure Jakob was fine and all, but hey, Dad’s still making good music, so we’ll talk later, kid. And when did Time Out of Mind crop up? Right when Bringing Down the Horse receded.

A couple years ago I was at a friend’s house in Madison and we had some satellite music station on that was playing a solo cut by Jakob Dylan. When it came on, my friend identified the voice, but he was caught between trying to finish his sentence and minding a nacho platter he had in the oven. “Didn’t he used to be …” he started, trying to tie “in the Wallflowers” to the fact that he knew it was “Bob Dylan’s son.”

What came out was: “Didn’t he used to be Bob Dylan’s son?”

I just laughed.


There is no need to say you love me.

October 28, 2010


Spice Girls – Say You’ll Be There
From: Spice

I distinctly remember my introduction to the Spice Girls. I was an 8th grader who was chasing after a particular girl in my class. Utilizing a tactic that I still (sometimes stupidly) employ to this day, I decided the most direct route to get my “in” with said girl would be to charm her best friend, who could then put in a good word for me. The plan was going along swimmingly. I had befriended the best friend, found ways to make the crush in question laugh, and it was all building up to a nice conclusion when best friend dropped an unexpected bomb: another girl in my class had developed an interest in me.

This was an intriguing twist, because I’d always thought highly of the girl who now seemed to like me, but never in the sense of, “Oh, I’d like to be with her.” But here’s the classic shy-boy conundrum. Do you pursue your original target, who may or may not feel the same way you do? Or, do you shift interest to a sure-fire alternative that you know will agree to being a girlfriend? At only 14 years old and a dating novice by all measures (oh, who am I kidding, I’d probably do the same now), I chose the latter.

For whatever reason, the ubiquitous best friend that was supposed to snare me the original girl stayed in the picture for the new girl. This meant “group” dates and so forth, and it was during those original 7- or 8-person outings that the ubiquitous best friend started talking about this “amazing” new group called the Spice Girls.

She’d snagged an advance single of “Wannabe” before Spice was unleashed on the American masses, but because we were all still below driving age and our get-togethers didn’t consist of sitting in someone’s front room playing all of our latest CD acquisitions, no one else in the group managed to hear it. Then, one fateful Friday night at my parents house, the group was all over, MTV was on in the background, and the ubiquitous best friend shrilly announced the news to all of us:


I watched that video intently. I know these five British upstarts had basically offered a new religion to one of my friends, so being the courteous fellow that I was, I decided to pay attention and really try to get an informed opinion by the video’s end. I didn’t.

Here’s the thing about the “Wannabe” video: it’s completely amorphous for a group that staked so much on each girl’s individual identity. It’s five girls crashing a high-society party, dancing a bit on a staircase and then being quickly identified in a mundane roll-call that does nothing to clue you in to who’s who. That’s because the only question on your mind when the roll-call rap ends is: “Slam your body down and zig-a-zig ah?”

Now, I could see the appeal for girls. The whole point of the song is friends are more important than lovers, and any real man should be able to realize that and include others in the fun of being in a romance. Hell, it was “group date” night at my house … who could miss that point? But for boys? “Wannabe” was just the butt of zig-a-zig jokes and an annoying blip that would now sound itself with high frequency on MTV and VH1.

But for as popular as “girl power” became in 1997, the machine that ran the Spice Girls quickly realized they weren’t going to sustain world domination if they appealed to only one sex. And so, “Say You’ll Be There” was selected as the follow-up single, and the video was essentially “something for the boys.”

The video does a much better job at individualizing each girl, although it also makes her character all the more convoluted. Melanie C is not only Sporty Spice, she is also Katrina Highkick. Geri is not only Sexy Spice, she is Trixie Firecracker. In addition to being Baby Spice, Emma is also Kung Fu Candy. Although you might better know Victoria as Posh Spice, did you also know she moonlights as Midnight Miss Suki? Ah yes, and good old Melanie B — talented enough to be both Scary Spice and Blazin’ Bad Zula.

Of course, 14 and 15 year-old boys didn’t see that. They saw five attractive women wearing leather bustiers, little black dresses, vinyl body suits and leopard print bustiers out in a desert. They saw cleavage. They started seeing this on magazine shelves. And this.

Soon, guys were having legitimate lunchroom conversations about their favorite Spice Girl. I remember having a heated debate one afternoon with a friend who staunchly defended his love for Baby Spice while I doggedly worked to make him admit Posh was the most attractive of the bunch. Alas, it was to no avail and our friendship vaporized soon thereafter.

And that’s all you need to dominate the male market, sadly. Once you’ve got two lifelong friends annihilating their friendship over two girls in a group with one album that NEITHER OF US OWNS, you might as well throw a rally in Neuremberg, ‘cos now we are all one nation under Spice. Of course we knew “Wannabe,” “Say You’ll Be There,” and “2 Become 1” (which, by the way — total video let down. A song completely about sexual intercourse, and you wrap up these five attractive women in heavy overcoats and send them out into a New York City winter night? F*ck you, video director). But we knew the songs because they soundtracked eye candy. Girls, have you ever put a Spice Girls CD on in the car or on a bus with men present? The guys are completely disinterested. Because with audio only, it just doesn’t work.

Ah, but with visuals, you can make anything work. Who cares if they can’t act worth a damn? You’re telling me girls can go see a feature movie with them and guys can come along to just watch these five girls and let their mind wander into weird little personal caves for two hours? Ladies and gentlemen, I think we might have a flick that can gross $75 million worldwide! And what the hell, let’s put Mark McKinney and Elvis Costello in it too!

Still, the inherent problem of going the “attack-on-all-fronts” route on the pop culture landscape is that you’re exposing yourself to an incredibly short shelf life. It’s totally unfair to call the Spice Girls a one-hit wonder, but completely justified to call them a flash in a pan sensation. By 1998, the party was pretty much over (which was too bad, because the follow up album, Spice World, actually contained a great song in “Stop” and probably their sexiest ever vocals in “Too Much,” but no one was paying much attention by that point), and each went their own weird way. Mel C (a/k/a Sporty, a/k/a Katrina Highkick) made a deservedly-maligned attempt to become a punk rocker (at least in looks), Melanie B (a/k/a Scary, a/k/a Blazin’ Bad Zula) tricked Eddie Murphy into getting her pregnant, Geri (a/k/a Sexy, a/k/a Trixie Firecracker) made a bunch of songs for gay clubs, and somehow secured herself the distinction of being a U.N. ambassador, and Victoria (a/k/a Posh, a/k/a Midnight Miss Suki) became world famous for shopping and being somebody’s wife.

Nevertheless, if you still don’t believe the power of the “Say You’ll Be There” video, know this. It was this video that David Beckham saw and said “That’s the girl for me. I’m going to get that girl.”

The sad thing is, I said the exact same thing. He just had the means to get to her more expediently. Of course, it wouldn’t have worked between us anyway. I have a feeling she’d get sick of me asking “You spent HOW MUCH?!” really quickly.

Like the Spice Girls, my relationships with the girl who showed an interest in me and the ubiquitous best friend also faded away as quickly as the Spice Girls phenomenon. So it goes.

But here’s the cruelest twist. I wasn’t lying when I said I never spoke again to that friend who’d argued with me over the “Baby or Posh — who’s hotter?” debate. That wasn’t the sole reason we ended our friendship, but it certainly was a contributing factor. Anyway, in March of 2005, I found myself in Arizona for two weeks to take in some Spring Training games and explore the southwest that I love so dearly. One afternoon in Tempe, I found myself in an amazing local record store and gazing at an album that had a ’60’s styled cover, down to the Mod looking girl adorning it. The album was attributed simply to “Emma” and called “Free Me.” I decided to listen to it at one of the listening stations and found myself quickly wowed by the Burt Bacharach-meets-Verve Records bossa nova-style production. I decided to buy it and then saw the record store’s description of the album on the shelf, which said simply, “She’s not Baby Spice anymore!”

“Oh sh*t,” I thought to myself. I bought the album, but I’ve had to justify it to a lot of people (especially girlfriends) since.

And yes, musically, “Free Me” is a fantastic album. But looking at the title track’s video, I wonder if I’m still susceptible to the tricks that the “Say You’ll Be There” video pulled on me 13 years ago … Jason, if you’re reading this, I apologize.

But that doesn’t mean I’ve got anything else to say to you.


I think you were blind to the fact that the hand you hold was the hand that holds you down.

March 31, 2010


Everclear – Everything To Everyone
From: So Much For the Afterglow

I never researched Everclear enough to figure out whether they were much different from that late-1990s batch of alt-rockers who wanted to sing some ballads about love and messed up relationships with a bit of guitar overdrive (you know, your Lifehouses or Eve 6s or all those other bands that high school girls got a little too obsessed with because of one song). I know Everclear had a few hits in their repertoire, but after “Father of Mine,” I really stopped caring.

And it wasn’t entirely because “Father of Mine” seemed like a sleazy cash-in attempt on a crappy childhood over a more-than-similar-to-“Everything to Everyone” backing track… it was because “Father of Mine” seemed to trigger Art Alexakis into thinking “songs about crappy family situations… GOLD!” Wasn’t the first single off their next album “Wonderful?” Thoroughly depressing stuff over a poppy beat…

Now, crappy fathers aren’t anything particularly unique in rock and roll — Joseph Jackson, Freddie Lennon, Thomas Gallagher, the dad in that Twisted Sister video, the dad in that Cyndi Lauper video… there are lots of songs that could and have been written. And maybe when divorce rates were skyrocketing in the 1990s, songs about broken homes and bad dads eased a considerable amount of teenage souls. Maybe I’m just cynical about it because I’m fortunate to still have two married parents, with both of whom I have a good relationship. So what would I know?

What’s bothersome about it is that of all the cliched songwriting routes to take — and Everclear touched a few of them in their singles — to focus on the “crummy upbringing” one seems the most self-serving. And if it’s really the label asking for that, well then, at what point does a songwriter go, “But I’ve got a poppy one about breaking up with a girl that has a better chorus”?

Look at “I Will Buy You a New Life.” How many songs have been written about having no cash but still wanting to provide a garden, car, house and life for the girl of your desire? Tons. And despite a pretty deplorable set of lyrics that mention “a welfare Christmas” (let it go, dude, you’re on a major label) and describe a “new car” as “perfect, shiny and new” (only two adjectives to describe a new car? You couldn’t have gone for “blue” or “cool” or “true” to avoid obvious redundancy?), you probably still remember the chorus and thought the sentiment was fair enough.

And then there’s “Everything to Everyone” which is really what launched Everclear into the mainstream stratosphere and announced So Much For the Afterglow to America. Perfect 1990s pop song — critical of posers, strong if simple little bassline and an open invitation to “come on, dance with me” which apparently rectifies the problem of trying to please everyone, stumbling and falling (and doing it again). Oh and it had a cool spinning room video that ends with all the song’s perceived targets joining the Everclear boys for a soul-cleansing pogo.

The fact that “Everything to Everyone” was popular amongst so many of my friends at Willowbrook High School wasn’t at all surprising. It’s a song that any indifferent teenager can probably relate to — if not seeing their own problems in the lyrics, then most certainly picking out a friend or ex-friend the song perfectly describes. Although can I say, at 27 years of age, that I envy the people who know all the right people and play all the right games? They have it dead easy right now.

And honestly, Mr. Alexakis could have mulled on that theme for five more hit singles before 1999 turned into 2000 and bought whatever woman he was talking a damn fine new life. So why instead muse about f*cked up childhoods?

And for what it’s worth, isn’t it interesting that in all three of the Afterglow hit singles, Alexakis is attacking someone? Dad, or the one who tries to be everything to everyone or the people who try to tell you money is the root of all that kills. When exactly did he become so enlightened and the authoritative voice on who must be judged? ‘Cos frankly, I’d have enjoyed an Everclear single where he meditated on his own issues over another recycled “Everything to Everyone” sounding backing track.

I hear “Everything to Everyone” these days and I’m likely to do a bit of head-nodding, and think it’s a decent enough song. But part of me still remembers a conversation I had with a co-worker at the bookstore where I had my first job. We were discussing “Father of Mine” and theorized if Alexakis was just making things up to try to move records. As if his dad was sitting at home listening to the song going, “What the… I’M RIGHT HERE!” I know it wasn’t that way — look, I saw the “Behind the Music.” But once “Wonderful” came out, I also thought it wouldn’t be surprising if that hypothetical situation really was the case.


I need to hear some sounds that recognize the pain in me.

February 24, 2010


The Verve – Bitter Sweet Symphony
From: Urban Hymns

This is probably the hardest “Confessions” post I’ve had to write yet in that I’m a huge Verve fan, the proud owner of each of Richard Ashcroft’s solo albums and I rate Urban Hymns as one of the five greatest albums of all time. Trying to put what I consider to be one of the finest songs of the decade in the same category as I did with songs by the Backstreet Boys and Barenaked Ladies seems to tread a bit too close to sacrilege, but hey, my whole appreciation of the Verve started the first time I heard “Bitter Sweet Symphony.”

As a rabid Anglophile in 1997, it didn’t take much to tip me headlong into the Verve’s back catalogue, and the fact that the band was Oasis-approved only made my investigation of earlier albums such as A Northern Soul that much more enjoyable.

But not everyone was as obsessive as I was in the latter half of the ’90s. For a lot of people, “Bitter Sweet Symphony” was simply a great slice of fist-in-the-air bravado that seemed nicely tailored to temporarily serve as a personal creed, whether you were working out, stuck in traffic or watching the end of a melodramatic teen movie.

And don’t tell me the song’s testosterone-laced video didn’t give you a bit of inspiration as you trudged down your own neighborhood sidewalks or high school hallways. Ramming your shoulders into those of a passerby, hopping on the hood of a car and/or completely ignoring a woman giving you a face-to-face verbal undressing didn’t make you any less of an as*hole in 1997, but at the very least it put things into context. Didn’t matter where you were headed, the point was to not let anyone get in your way or intimidate you (and yes, Chumbawamba will also address this topic at a later point in this series).

To describe exactly why or how the sampled strings combined with Pete Salisbury’s militant drumming stirred up triumphant emotions in people is beyond me. The simple answer, I suppose, is that’s the power of a good song. Some tunes makes you want to nod your head, others make you want to sing along. Songs like “Bitter Sweet Symphony” are enough to make you want to take over the world for the few minutes it’s on. And if you think that’s hyperbole, I might ask you why Nike incorporated it for seemingly that very reason.

You also had to give the band credit for building a monster out of such an obscure sample. While Puff Daddy was establishing himself as alpha male by rhyming over 1980s hits and identifying samples had become the dominant theme in hip-hop culture, the Verve decided to transpose the formula on rock and roll. Instead of taking the Noel Gallagher-like easy road of lifting an identifiable riff for your own purposes however, the Verve raided the vinyl shops and  uncovered an album of early 1960s Rolling Stones hits symphonically arranged under the moniker of the Andrew Loog Oldham orchestra.

Apparently this is how said orchestra hears “The Last Time.” I’m still not completely sure I follow.

But while Marc Bolan’s estate never phoned up Noel Gallagher to inquire about “Cigarettes & Alcohol,” Mick and Keef got a bit pissy that six notes from an orchestrational interpretation of their hit had been pinched for one of the biggest songs of 1997. As a result, Richard Ashcroft shared co-writing credits with Jagger and Richards and all the royalties from the Verve’s biggest song had to go to the Stones’ former publishing company, ABKCO. Oldham also sued the Verve in 1999 to try to get a cut of the profits the song continued to turn in.

Pushing the injustice a little further still, Mick and Keef really had no standing whatsoever to get so protective in the first place.

But of course all that lawyer business was only interesting to the people that were wound up enough by the song in the first place to wrap themselves up in the Verve’s musical output. Urban Hymns shifted a lot of copies, and I’m sure 75 percent of the people in the world that own A Northern Soul or A Storm in Heaven only made the purchase because they believed Urban Hymns was so powerful.

For a major sect of society, though, “Bitter Sweet Symphony” was enough. The single would do, or the video… or the edited version that continually popped up on radio throughout 1997 and 1998. As all popular songs in the 1990s did, its time came and went and relegated a band capable of producing one of the greatest albums of all time to “one-hit wonder” status.

Of course, the song’s sheer musical force also gave it a better degree of staying power than, say, “I Want it That Way” or “Tha Crossroads.” The Verve coasted through a decent-enough reunion run in 2008 that produced an album of entirely new material but still was  powered by the public’s lasting reverence for “Bitter Sweet Symphony.” The song is now a touchstone for any 1990s montage sequences and even found itself at the center of the most heated debate about 2005’s Live8 benefit.

2000s survivors love it. 1990s survivors that remember the video and what that song first meant detest it.

Did Richard Ashcroft sell out? Did Coldplay just unapologetically jump on the coattails of a song far better than anything in their own catalogue? F*ck all the lawsuits surrounding the song — this still seems like its gravest injustice.

But it’s a bitter sweet symphony. That’s life.


Even though the devil’s all up in my face.

January 29, 2010


Bone Thugs-N-Harmony – Tha Crossroads
From: E. 1999 Eternal

I’m not so ignorant that I’m going to dismiss all hip hop music right out of hand, but I think there are a lot of songs I liked, or at least tolerated in my teenage years that I probably wouldn’t even give a second thought to if they were released today. It goes with the territory when you’re a teenager and has already been explained time and again in this series — a large part of social acceptance when you’re a teenager is what pop culture nuggets you’re aware of. You don’t have to like them, but you know them well enough to fake it.

When I go back and listen to “Tha Crossroads,” it strikes me as a really f*cking weird single. I honestly have no idea what else Bone Thugs-N-Harmony ever did besides this and backing up Mariah Carey in one of those first “Hey, look I have cleavage” videos she made. I wouldn’t be surprised if anyone didn’t remember the guys in that video, though. They’d have good reason not to.

But with gangsta rapper casualties happening with surprising (or maybe unsurprising) frequency in the 1990s — especially considering the genre had also been born that decade — elegies became the new chart-toppers. Puff missed Biggie. Tupac missed himself.

And Bone Thugs-N-Harmony missed Eazy-E. Well, they missed Eazy and a lot of other people (including Uncle Charles, y’all). Eazy gets name dropped in the song and makes a couple of cameos in the video. It makes sense — he founded Ruthless Records, signed this group and this was the first Ruthless release following his death. But “Tha Crossroads” is really more of a bit of hip-hop/gospel meditation on death in general. And it’s not a really uplifting one at that.

If I’d had the need or desire to actually check out the lyrics to this song during the height of it’s popularity, I might have found it a bit less bleak (“Now follow me roll, stroll whether it’s hell or it’s heaven”), but to be honest the song scared the sh*t out of me when I was 13 — particularly because of that overproduced video with a somewhat Samuel L. Jackson Shaft-looking Death sulking around the ‘hood and taking souls at will. I think most people remember the bit when Death shows up on the front porch and offs the old man — when the eyes gloss over in black. It’s not like it gave me nightmares, but somehow in my early-teenage mind I figured that’s what death was going to be like. Some ominous looking dude showing up on my doorstep and touching my forehead. And freaking out whoever might be playing cards with me.

Silly, right? Then again, how do I know that’s how it won’t go down? Crap.

Anyway, since there weren’t many other mainstream Eazy-E tributes to be heard and the video was flash enough to get a lot of attention, MTV put the song into heavy rotation in 1995 and 1996. The song actually made it to the top of the Billboard charts and somehow got a lot of white suburban teenagers to start discussing the crossroads and who they might hope to see there.

I’m not going to dispute the fact that death sells and in that everybody’s lost someone in their life, it’s a pretty easy topic to make applicable to any listener. But the cynic in me also winces every time an elegy goes to #1. I’m not impugning the motives of the group for writing the song, but I cast a wary eye to the A&R man who listened to this and thought, “Jackpot.” If someone — particularly a fellow artist — dies, isn’t it a better tribute to revisit that person’s catalog? I kind of enjoyed seeing Michael Jackson’s records resurface last year. But when that cheap cash-in attempt was made by pushing Jermaine’s version of “Smile” as a single? Well, just look at the iTunes reviews. I don’t think I’m alone in my cynicism.

Maybe that’s not the point of “Tha Crossroads” — maybe the point was to make everyone reflect a little bit on their own mortality and the lives of family and friends lost, but it has ALWAYS sounded weird coming up on the radio in between other hip hop or popular songs encouraging promiscuity and, if need be, murder. How do you dance to this? Certainly it’s got a nice slow groove to it (lifted from the Isley Brothers, if anyone’s taking notes), but I can’t imagine a slow jam with a pretty girl to this would be as romantic as a slow jam to the Isley Brothers. Are we supposed to mimic the moves of the group in the video? Again… it just seems off.

Nevertheless, I knew the song well when I was 13 and when I unearthed the sucker for this series, I was surprised by how many of the words I remembered (if I ever really knew exactly what they were saying). It’s a weird song to be a #1 and it’s still a weird video, but hey, how many 1990s hits can you say that about? Probably every one I’ve featured thus far. Out of place as it may sound on any mix or radio station outside of a funeral home, I’ll probably still be singing along should it come on.

But if a Samuel L. Jackson Shaft-looking dude shows up at my door and raises his fingers to my forehead, I’m gonna be pissed.


Yes, I know, it’s too late.

January 6, 2010

So as you may have noticed, during the month of December, all monthly series were suspended for the best tracks of the year countdown and Christmas mix madness, but one of my friends I happened to grab a drink with during my Holiday break gave me a bit of guff for not doing a “Confessions of a ’90s Survivor” during November. Since the Christmas mix went up right after Thanksgiving, I remembered he was right and decided to make that up as quickly as possible.

The “Confessions of a ’90s Survivor” is one of this blog’s most consistently popular sections, so the good news is to all you readers that there will be two this month.

And since I got reprimanded to make things right from November, here’s my answer.


Backstreet Boys – I Want it That Way
From: Millennium

Pop music, and the way it constantly moves in cycles, always fascinates me. Certainly there was no real inkling throughout the 1990s that any boy band would have the opportunity to reach the same kind of popularity that the New Kids on the Block had in the late 1980s and the very early part of the 1990s. Nevermind the age-defined audience that you’re only going to be able to tap into for a precious few years, the fact of the matter is that the grunge movement of the early 1990s seemed tailor-made to blow out the pop fluff that had gotten a little too comfortable in the mainstream.

The advent of gangsta rap, Britpop, industrial and goth seemed like strong reinforcements to keep boy bands at bay, but alas, you look through the charts and there was always a Take That, Soul For Real or Westlife hovering and ready to pounce. Because there are always going to be 15-year-old girls, this is the cross music aficionados have to bear.

I distinctly remember “Rolling Stone”s first review of the Spice Girls’ debut. It was before “Wannabe” went radioactive and when it was reasonable to believe that five British girls singing about friendship and sex — well, sex if you’re decent enough to also respect a girl’s need to hang with her friends — probably wasn’t going to generate more American interest in London than Bush, Oasis, the Prodigy and Elastica combined, much less a major motion picture. In fact the review made a point of comparing the Spice Girls to little more than a female New Kids on the Block. Ouch.

But for whatever reason, manufactured pop found it’s way back out of the containment zone in 1996 and 1997 and not only did we have to worry about five (admittedly attractive) limey women, but a whole rash of bottled-blonde teenage boys out of Florida.

Could any of us take the Backstreet Boys seriously? Well as a high school male at the time of their rabid popularity, no, certainly not. At least not if I wanted to live another 10 years to blog about how stupid it all was. But it’s not like they were that great of a group, anyway. The way Max Martin was writing pop hits in the late 1990s, I could have been an international superstar — gawky frame draped in oversized T-shirts and all. That doesn’t mean I would’ve been a particularly good showman. I like to dance, but I’d say I’m average at best. I like to sing, but I would never say I’m particularly good at it. And neither were any of these five chuckleheads. I’m supposed to be impressed because you can spin a folding chair around and sit down backwards on it? F*ck off.

But before old Papa Lou got himself in trouble for ponzi schemes and kiddy-fiddling, he damn well knew how to capitalize on the hormonal freak-out ability of teenage girls. The Backstreet Boys’ and NSYNC’s first albums were simply dangerous forewarnings of what was to come. Britney Spears got all popular in 1998 to get everyone crazy for the boys’ return in 1999.

And “I Want it That Way” represented the horrible realization that popular music might never again be about being able to play a guitar. It would just be about peroxide, a rudimentary ability to dance, shady, overweight, middle-aged balding managers and a Swedish songwriter in the frightening habit of being able to finance castles with 3-minute songs.

You look back at the song’s video now, and it’s easy to laugh. Private jet! Hangar full of girls! Stupid dancing in white outfits in an airport check-in area! Of course it’s funny. Now we have the hindsight of “House of Carters” and the blonde one’s abnormal desire to be black at 30-odd years of age. What about the little red headed one… he found Jesus, right? The purported “bad boy” of the group looks like those self-absorbed dudes in my college philosophy classes that wanted to tell you why they appreciated Kierkegaard on a much greater level than you. And the other two… well who cared about the pony tail one and as for the tall one, wasn’t he about 40 when this video was filmed? Hilarious.

Ah, but now think back to 1999 and how often this video was on MTV and VH1 and how frighteningly often it was on both simultaneously. Guys like myself decried it at every opportunity and made mental notes of all the stupid little features (e.g., the “bad boy” holding up two fingers and a thumb when he asks if he’s your “one” desire), but frankly, the amount of airplay this crap got seemed to be some kind of sign of the apocalypse. When NSYNC followed with that one-two punch of “Bye, Bye, Bye” and “It’s Gonna Be Me,” well… mankind looked decidedly screwed.

And what kind of message did it send to high school boys anyway? If all the girls we were after were interested in stupidly-dressed dudes with $300 haircuts you could probably fake for the cost of a bottle of gel, we could probably get creative. But access to private jets and dance routines in airport terminals? I guess in that economy anything was possible, but if we couldn’t do that, maybe the best we could do was tolerate the girls we liked obsessing over one of them and putting their CDs on in our cars. Sometimes accepting defeat is what you have to do to win a girl’s heart.

I distinctly remember walking out of Willowbrook High School one day in the fall of 1999. A school bus was sitting outside with members of the cross country team awaiting to depart to some meet in some other Chicago suburb. As I walked to my car I saw a senior lower a window toward the rear of the bus and negotiate his upper torso through the small opening. Provoked by I don’t know what, he started making a raise the roof motion with his hands and screaming at the top of his lungs:


Was he mocking the song? Entirely possible. Was he doing it to get the attention of a female teammate? Entirely possible.

A big part of me is glad bands like the White Stripes and Strokes came along shortly thereafter to put this kind of music back into its corner.

Another part of me wonders how many more years the Jonas Brothers have. And I don’t care that two of ’em play guitar.