Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Alternative 90s: The AV Club's Retrospective: 1993

Here we continue to react to the Steven Hyden's take on the Alternative 90s. Click over yonder to review Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Hyden ventures away from Seattle in his review of 1993, focusing on the acts that made it big from his closest metropolis as a teenager and my hometown: Chicago.

My expectations for this segment were far too lofty. But that's understandable. Of all my musical passions in life, this "moment" was the most inextricable from my own existence. I graduated high school and found the profound liberation that is college life. Those events were inextricably linked with the development of my passion as a music fan. Plus, it certainly didn't hurt that 18-and-over shows were suddenly events available to me. It was the first real awakening of my life; the music couldn't have mattered more. And the Smashing Pumpkins' Siamese Dream was the album that it all centered around. It was the first record I truly connected with. I even believed with great certainty that Billy Corgan and I had nearly everything in common. Perish the thought...

But I had very little to do with the other two albums Hyden covers. Liz Phair was undoubtedly important, giving an indie voice to women that hadn't existed. If mainstream trends are founded on grassroots movements that comprise the initial foundation, then Phair opened the door for Tori Amos, Fiona Apple, and every Lilith Fair. Hyden's take on the album is awfully cogent:

"I found Guyville titillating and unnerving, which is essentially how I felt at the time about every girl I had ever met. In my world, women had all of the power, which created a not-quite-healthy mix of worship and resentment of femininity that’s common to a lot of boys that age."
That's my soul up there, man. Or at least it definitely was in 1993.

He then gets into Urge Overkill, a band that held my interest for all of twelve minutes or so. The rock world didn't stick around a whole lot longer. This is all backdrop to tackle the concept of "selling out" - tremendously important in 1993. And Hyden provides great context here, quoting the gleefully dickish Steve Albini. Albini raised the torch of the true underground.
"To Albini, indie-ness was both a science and an evangelical religion; he could be persuasively pragmatic about how bands were better off personally and creatively treating music as a pastime rather than a job, and then land patently insulting roundhouse blows against anyone dumb, silly, or unlucky enough to disagree with his fiercely held views."
It never struck me that there were so many levels to the notion of selling out to the mainstream and being true underground. Without a doubt, I would have been declared a poseur by many. I must admit that in my life, I used people's taste in music to judge them. But this was never more true than in 1993. Let's put it into context. Despite the success of Nirvana and Pearl Jam, most people were still into some pretty terrible music and pop culture in general. Zubaz pants were only one year past their peak, for instance. Most of my high school class was into the Grateful Dead or classic rock. To be with the kids that gravitated toward something new was to refute the status quo.

It took me years and years to stop judging people based on their personal tastes. Today it is totally irrelevant to me, but perhaps at the time taste was a clearer indicator of character than anything. There was, for those brief couple of years, a difference between people who liked Pegboy and those who liked The Beatles. There was something reliable about each group. So while Albini may have been tilting at windmills, he at least did so with a worthy point.

Meanwhile, at the very same time, something was starting in alternative music that would never be stopped. That something was perfectly embodied by the Spin Doctors. A crappy band with a crappy name and crappy songs packaged to appeal to the Alternative generation. Perhaps Hyden is leaving them alone for now to lump them in with Candlebox and Collective Soul when we get to 1994. But the hijacking of the movement had already begun. I mention this now because it is central to the issue. If someone said they were a fan of "alternative music", yet hit the town wearing a Spin Doctors t-shirt, you could immediately tell that they weren't part of any scene.

Back to the band at hand - Smashing Pumpkins. As I said, at 18 this album was one of the most important things I'd ever owned. I went to two of their warm-up gigs at Metro, assuming the next time they came through Chicago it would be at the Aragon, then the UIC Pavilion, then Soldier Field. In a way, those were the last shows I saw as an impressionable youth. Just a couple months later, the band was taking the world by storm, and I had to play up the fact that I had the EPs, not just the albums. I was still trying to show how cool I was by talking up a band everybody already knew.

We all know what Billy Corgan became. And I was one of the last people to acknowledge it. Hyden sums up what happened to the band thusly:
"Like Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog’s masterpiece of megalomania, Aguirre, The Wrath Of God, Corgan kept the band together to satisfy his maniacal pursuit of endless power and riches. In Aguirre, Kinski ends up adrift on a lonely stretch of the Amazon with a raft full of corpses and wild monkeys; Corgan had better transportation, riding the stainless steel perfection of Siamese Dream’s impeccably conceived guitar-rock hymns straight to the promised land."
The point here is that he was selling out from day one. Whether Corgan was always a nutty egomaniacal asshole could probably be easily determined. But I don't care to make that determination. For me, 1993 will always be the year that I broke out and it wouldn't have happened without this music. By the next year, the alternative scene ship had wrecked. At the very least, I had to start choosing friends on a more substantive basis. All part of growing up.

But let's make sure we end on a high note. 18-year-old me is somewhere in this mosh pit. See if you can find me. I'm the one going crazy...

Part 5 was posted today, which means I'm behind (as usual). Feel free to dig into that one here.

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