Monday, September 29, 2008

i didn't die, i got old (the '90s, part one)

In a recent entry in his "Music: What Happened?" series, Scott Miller of Game Theory/Loud Family renown* leads with the following sentence: "The nineties were better than the eighties."

Scott's argument is typically erudite, and I get what he's trying to say, especially when one considers his heavy engagement with the biz itself during the '80s, when Game Theory was trying to eke out a career.

But oh how I wince when I read and reread that statement. "The nineties were better than the eighties." Oh. my. God.

This is not my experience at all. Not even close. For me, the '80s were vibrant, teeming with ideas and energy and an abundance of spectacularly great albums (including at least one all-time classic from Scott himself). In my ultra-geeky yearly best-of lists, 1985 alone has twenty-five (twenty-five!) albums to which I'd give four and a half or five stars, and some other '80s years (1980, 1984, and 1988 in particular) were in my estimation almost as grand.

But something happened in the '90s. Whether it was to me or to the musical world, I'm not sure. I suspect that the "has the world changed or have I changed?" blame game probably should be scored 50/50. It's my hope that my upcoming blog entries** get me closer to answering that question.

Nevertheless, I know this for sure: what happened in the '90s wasn't good. For me, musically, the '90s don't come close to the '80s in either quality or depth. And this change, which has in many ways persisted for me into the 2000s (as per this earlier entry, we haven't Named That Decade yet), continues to distress me on a number of levels.

Like with most sea changes, there wasn't a convenient marker or milestone that I perceived at the time (though Kurt Cobain's April 1994 suicide was part of the fabric of the decade and saddened me deeply). To put it in baseball terms, it's not a slump when a guy goes 0 for 4 in a single game... but a week later, when it's up to 1 for 32, it's a slump.

And speaking in non-parenthetical terms about Cobain and 1994, it was 1994 when I realized that yeah, it was a slump. At that point, there hadn't been a year since 1988 that overflowed with great music. In fact, in the '90s, I often struggled to come up with 20 albums I actually liked for my year-end lists. (You can't tell by looking at the lists now; retroactive discoveries have upped the quantities.)

Through '94, my tastes were more or less in sync with the music press, college radio, and like-minded friends. My favorite band in the '80s was R.E.M., and just like most fans of "underground" or whatever you want to call it before the early-'90s rise of the "alternative" label, my collection had many beloved entries from folks like Robyn Hitchcock, Julian Cope, Husker Du, the Minutemen, XTC, Elvis Costello, the Clash, Prince, X, Sonic Youth, the Smiths, and most of the usual CMJ / OPtion / Trouser Press suspects.

Perhaps not liking some of the early '90s darlings - My Bloody Valentine and Pavement, to name my most prominent misses of the day - should have tipped me off that something had changed. But at the time I perceived them not as harbingers of a drought but as the occasional whiffs that one encounters in any matter involving subjective taste.

Also, in '88 I at last gained true college radio when I moved to Nashville. WRVU, Vanderbilt's venerable station, entertained me to no end in those days, and my tastes and collection continued expanding thanks to things I heard there for the first time. They even caused me to reevaluate some previously-held dislikes. For instance, hearing "A Forest," "Charlotte Sometimes," and "The Hanging Garden" for the first time courtesy of WRVU completely reversed my opinion of the Cure.

And when friends who liked the same kind of stuff recommended other artists I didn't know, those recommendations usually paid off, be they from Danny Cantrell when I was at Concord College, or, from 1982 on, then-Welch Daily News sports editor Dan Stillwell. That world of like-minded friends expanded greatly when I got a modem in 1993 and discovered BBS message boards. Shortly thereafter, I "found" the proper Internet itself, and suddenly it was a whole new ballgame. It wasn't just me and fewer people than I can count on one hand who knew who Robyn Hitchcock was; I was on mailing lists with dozens and even hundreds of people who were just as knowledgeable, if not more so, then me.

Many of my dearest friends of today are folks I met during my early days on these lists. And these new friends and acquaintances had heard lots of music that I hadn't yet encountered, so my world was awash in recommendations. And since we all had so much in common musically (particularly from the 1977-1990 punk/post-punk/underground/indie world from which we'd just emerged), I fully expected to like the new names I was hearing about.

So I bought albums by newish artists that lots of my friends were way into. Albums by Guided By Voices. By Stereolab. By Elliott Smith. By the High Llamas. By Richard Davies and Eric Matthews, together and separately. By Belle and Sebastian. And I fully expected to love them.

I didn't.

Some of it was the growing popularity of Pet Sounds overorchestration and the baleful influence of soft pop, which began dominating the indiepop world from the mid-'90s on. Soft not only became the new loud, but midtempo became the new rocking. And for a song or two, surrounded by contrasting material, I'd be fine with midtempo con strings e vibraphone. But we're not talking a song or two, we're talking whole albums permeated by a sound that I never came around to enjoying, all played at torporiffic speeds. Sean O'Hagan's Banjo of Doom might as well have been the battle-cry of the Valkyries, because once I heard those string-plucking strains, I knew my enjoyment didn't have long to live.

But even the more rocking things left me cold, too. For instance, Guided by Voices was never shy about inheriting the loud, drunk, brash rock tradition. The music press always compared them to Wire, which gave me high hopes for GbV since Wire is one of my all-time favorite artists. However, that turned out to be a facile comparison based on GbV's proclivity to pack a lot of short songs onto an album. This is something that Wire did only once (their 1977 debut, Pink Flag), and GbV didn't really sound like Wire in any meaningful way.

None of that is GbV's fault - rather, it's the fault of lazy journalists - and I promptly adjusted my expectations once I heard the actual music. Unfortunately, I didn't like the actual music. It's tough for me to explain it, but the combination of low-fi with bombast and Bob Pollard's voice never clicked for me. And while something like "Portable Men's Society" was an achievement for evoking Rush, the epitome of "hi-fi" sound, in a low-fi context, well, I never cared for Rush.

Stereolab at least invoked the cool sounds of the Velvet Underground, and when they most veered into Velvetsy rhythms, I did actually enjoy them. But they also were about incorporating lounge and easy listening (albeit the hipper stuff like Escovel) into their sound, and that half of the equation was a turnoff for me, evoking memories of my mom listening to Sergio Mendes and the Brasil '66 on her reel-to-reel.

Even old favorites became unreliable. My most beloved artists of the '80s, R.E.M., Prince, and Robyn Hitchcock, models of consistency in the '80s, turned into hit-or-miss acts as far as their new releases went. I was a huge fan of Husker Du and of Bob Mould's initial post-Huskers solo forays, but his new band Sugar completely bored me. Morrissey's '90s offerings were so dull, aside from the glam-rock trappings of Your Arsenal (1992), that it was easy to forget that he'd ever been any good at all. My interest in hip-hop, which peaked with Digital Underground's wacky P-Funk vibe and musically rich 1990 album Sex Packets, waned as the genre gravitated toward the opposing poles of New Jack Swing and gangsta.

I don't want to make it sound like I didn't like anything in the '90s. Each year of the decade brought a slew of new releases that pleased me greatly, and some of those albums (off the top of my head: Nirvana's Nevermind, Wilco's Summerteeth, R.E.M.'s New Adventures in Hi-Fi, the Loud Family's Interbabe Concern) spoke as directly to my soul as anything I'd heard with a 197* or 198* date.

And yes, since the turn of the millennium, things have picked up for me, but only somewhat. Loud and fast made a comeback around 2000, which was a welcome turn of events after being stuck in Midtempoland for at least a half-decade. However, a lot of the new artists purveying that music were so derivative that the only thing I could think about while listening to them was, "well, I already have Stooges albums."

And I also realize that many of my favorite new artists of the last few years - Interpol, Editors, Goldfrapp, Spoon, the New Pornographers - strongly evoke the '80s music I love, so I can't help but think that I'm still failing to go - or grow - with the times.

Back in the '80s themselves, I used to make fun of the guys I knew whose musical worlds ended in 1977 even though they were only a little older than me. They hadn't liked anything since Skynyrd's plane crash, and they bitched over beers and joints while a 8-track of Paranoid crossbled in the background about how the new music of that day sucked. You couldn't even talk them into giving Van Halen and Cheap Trick a shot, much less something more adventurous like the Clash or Talking Heads.

I never thought I'd become one of those guys. I thought my mind would remain flexible, vital, open to new sounds and new artists.

Instead, substitute "1989" for "1977" and there I am, a coot before my time. Like the title says, I didn't die, I got old.

*There's another musical Scott Miller that I love, and I'm sure you'll be hearing about him in this space too.

**I do envision this as a series about the '90s - more specifically, of my struggle to come to grips with the '90s on a personal as well as musical level - of which this will be by far the longest post. Think of this as the two-hour pilot with lots of explication. I'll be serving up punchier, more concise one-hour episodes afterwards. Everyone exhale, ok? It'll be fine.


Flasshe said...

Nothing to say here except "I agree completely". I especially relate to your "coot before my time" comment. I never thought I would be that guy, and yet even though I've found plenty of good stuff to like in the 90s and 00s, I still find myself pining for the good ol' days of the 80s. I hate myself.

Mike Bennett said...

I'll have to re-read this, but I would agree with you that overall, the '80s were better than the '90s. In particular, the first six or so years of the '80s were amazing. Then things weakened a bit. I think the latter half of the '90s was pretty good.

Anonymous said...

I'm posting anonymously because I know you, Mr. Miles, and I'm sure your friends are the same, but the 80s are not for me. I have tried and tried to listen to 80s music but its just... there. And I've tried because you love it so, but it just irritates me to listen to it in bulk. I still love you, musical curiosities and all!