Monday, October 25, 2010

The Alternative 90s: The AV Club's Retrospective: 1991

We kicked off by reaction to Part One earlier this week. Start there for background. Now we'll catch up with Part 2: 1991: What's so civil about war, anyway?.

Hyden devotes the majority of his 1991 column to the intense, public feud between Kurt Cobain and Axl Rose. It's an interesting place to move forward. Our collective memory doesn't recall a time when Hair Bands and Grunge Bands shared the same stage. We forget that Use Your Illusions I and II came out just a few months before Nevermind. For most people, these bands occupy times separated by years conceptually. Yet there was this tumultuous overlap. Hyden rightfully identifies the incongruity between reality and perception, and does some really solid research in providing key details. As Hyden points out, this was no mere battle of egos:

"Rose signified old-guard, cock-rock superstardom, and Cobain was never more deliberate in his desire to dismantle that institution than in his outspoken criticism of Guns N’ Roses."
That said, Hyden gives proper credit to GnR for transcending the other Hair Metal at the time (highlighting the Welcome to the Jungle video). There was a major difference between Guns n Roses and the rest of the Hair acts out there. They weren't singing "She's only seventeen" or about "Cherry Pie."

Hyden's main point is that there is a lot in more in common between these two iconic figures than people think. And he turns the column to the personal and how he interpreted all that was going on.
"In 'One In A Million,' Rose sings, 'It’s been such a long time since I knew right from wrong / It’s all a means to an end, I keep it movin’ along.' By the end of 1991, I chose Kurt Cobain over Axl Rose because I wanted someone who did know the difference between right and wrong."
For Hyden, this is the balancing point in his life as a music fan. And it was for many.

He touches on it briefly, but devotes so much time to the details that he misses what I believe is the interesting part about this moment in history. Nobody remembers that these were the two most popular American rock bands at the same time. And many people liked both. The stories he recants are crucial but don't really address the movement until that last line about knowing the difference. Not to go all Wesley Willis, but I saw Smashing Pumpkins open for Guns N Roses at the Rosemont Horizon in early 1992. Maybe such a bill didn't make any sense, but it happened. Some people booed and threw things during the Pumpkins set. Others appreciated the shredding taking place onstage. The booers would surely become enamored with Smashing Pumpkins two years later, and tell all their friends that they saw them when they were "nobody."

The thing is, both bands kicked ass on stage that night. And I didn't have to choose between them. In the moment it didn't feel like the end of anything. Only years later can we say that Grunge eliminated Hair Metal. I suppose that was Cobain's crusade and he was in tune with that goal. If that was a key objective for Cobain, he surely failed. Not because Axl's still here, but because of what became of Alternative Rock in the years to come (from Collective Soul to Matchbox 20 to Nickelback). In the end he didn't want Axl's throne, or really any more time in the spotlight. If this integrity issue was so important to him, then maybe it's for the best he didn't live past 1994. Then again, we only knew the glory days would be so short after the fact. But that's a topic yet to come.

Other comments:

Hyden says, "The dual release of the Use Your Illusion albums was an act of hubris so brazen in its arrogance and yet strangely admirable in its artistic stubbornness that nobody had been fucking crazy enough to try anything like it before, or attempt to copy it in the nearly two decades since." Perhaps it's not a perfect comparison because it's not like he's a huge star, but Tom Waits released both Blood Money and Alice on May 7, 2002.

I feel like Hyden missed an opportunity here. If this is really a retrospective look at the entire alternative movement, 1991 is the year where everything started to pivot. Obviously any movement takes years of gradual shifting to set up, but 1991 is the year everyone circles, and for good reason. Lollapalooza began that year. And all these are just some of the albums that were released:
Pearl Jam - Ten
Red Hot Chili Peppers - Blood Sugar Sex Magik
Smashing Pumpkins - Gish
Soundgarden - Badmotorfinger
Fishbone - The Reality of My Surroundings
Primus - Sailing the Seas of Cheese
Dinosaur Jr. - Green Mind

So he focused on a key story - a very important one, but I worry that we are losing the thread a bit. Still, another worthwhile read. Looking forward to 1992 which should be out tomorrow.

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