Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Nineties - "Radical" Doesn't Exactly Describe It

On SomethingAwful's excellent film reviews column, they frequently poll the readers to choose a film from Netflix Instant Watch for the critics to review.  This usually results in punishment such as "Thomas Kinkade's Christmas Cottage".  In one case they picked one of my favorite terrible films, the Vanilla Ice star vehicle "Cool As Ice".  The review was wonderful, but at one point the author claimed something to the effect that the film shows everything that was wrong with the nineties.  Do not confuse your eras, children.  Vanilla Ice was not from the nineties.  He was from 1990-91, when the 80's had still refused to die.

Let's back up a little.  The 80's were an interesting decade.  Americans had reigned in the rampant hedonism of the 70's because they had all woken up very depressed the morning after.  While America grew more fearful and conservative, its pop culture grew more outrageous and silly.  By the end of the decade, "Hair Metal" had taken over pop music to the degree that Bon Jovi was considered Metal, and every actual Metal band tried at least one ballad.  Pop success was synonymous with some L.A. guitarist with teased hair up to the sky drinking and carousing all day.  It had gotten dreadfully stale by about 1990, but what else was there?

Nirvana changed all that.  Well, honestly it wasn't Nirvana that changed it, but the marketing push behind them.  Kurt Cobain was an extremely personal, unconventional songwriter who happened to create a big shiny pop record once.  But while the music was very accessible, the band's look and attitude was something "new".  It had already existed, but now the record industry realized they could sell it.

What happens when people
stop being polite, and start
getting real
A funny thing happened after that.  Record labels started selling "artistic integrity" as a commodity.  It's a common misconception that the nineties brought in a new era of "sincere" rock music.  In reality we all swapped one uniform for another.  Instead of leather, there was flannel.  Long hair was still okay, but teased manes were out.  Instead of endless song titles like "Girl, We're Gonna Party Tonight (L.A. Lovin')", nineties songs all had to have lower-case titles like "sponge", "dirt", or "drain".  The music was just as formulaic, but the formula was different.

Oh, and all Metal was now banned.  The word Metal was synonymous with teased hair, partying, Warrant and Ratt.  When I finally met a kid in high school who listened to actual Metal, I was completely re-educated by his CD collection.

Anyway, Since the Internet hadn't taken hold yet, this was allowed to happen.  This was before everyone got to customize their YouTubes and Tumblrs and Google+'s.  Back then our entire pop culture diet was dictated to us by shadowy men in suits.  We all watched MTV!  We knew it sucked, but what else was there?  The only way we discovered new music was from the radio.  And by the way, those 5 Pearl Jam songs that you still hear constantly on Rock radio?  They were overplayed back then.  The only difference was that there was nowhere to change the channel to.  And as a Spin Doctors fan, even I started to hate "Two Princes".

I <3 Shirley Manson
It was no longer okay to have fun.  At least that was the party line.  The strangest example of this was the band Garbage.  Garbage was founded by Butch Vig, a successful record producer who decided to form a pop group with two other producers.  This was a very 80's idea.  To market themselves better, they hired gloomy-girl Shirley Manson as lead singer/diversion.  Garbage played fun pop music, but had to wrap themselves in grunge clothing with distorted guitars and lyrics about being a "stupid girl" and "only happy when it rains".  By the time of their second record they just ditched the artifice entirely and became unashamed synth-pop.  By then it was okay because legions of Garbage fans were already going to buy the record.

Now we find ourselves in a strange era, pop culture wise.  The Grammy awards and even their hipper cousin the MTV VMA's no longer have much relevance.  The Industry doesn't really dictate what people are into.  Instead, pop culture is dictated by YouTube and 4chan.  Essentially people like what they want, and have the freedom to want anything because it's all there for the taking.  I like to think that the return of the nineties will be improbable.  But the lesson of my teenage decade is an important one:  Sincerity can be marketed, and the herd mentality is a funny thing indeed.

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