Part 1: 1990: “Once upon a time, I could love you”

Part 1: 1990: “Once upon a time, I could love you”

“I don’t want to sound snobby, but I was a snob back then, so why not—it wasn’t punk rock, it wasn’t underground, it wasn’t rebellious to me. I saw it as being very mainstream. Now had I been living in the Midwest and was bored with everything on MTV, and didn’t realize there was all this cool stuff going on, maybe I would have been charged by it too.”

—Robert Roth, singer for the Seattle band Truly, as quoted by Greg Prato in Grunge Is Dead: The Oral History Of Seattle Rock Music

There’s an old line that’s been attributed to everyone from Dennis Hopper to Robin Williams to Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane that goes, “If you remember the ’60s, you weren’t there.” Lately I’ve been thinking about how this quote relates to my current relationship with the mainstream ’90s rock I grew up on. I don’t mean Elliott Smith, Neutral Milk Hotel, Guided By Voices, or Yo La Tengo. That’s stuff I got into during the latter part of the decade, once I was a little older. (And I still listen to those bands now.) I’m talking about groups whose videos were introduced by the quirky, glasses-wearing, fury-provoking VJ Kennedy on MTV’s Alternative Nation: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, Smashing Pumpkins, and many others I lost touch with after high school. 

Well, maybe not Nirvana. I’ll still pull my favorite Nirvana records, In Utero and MTV Unplugged In New York, off the shelf every now and then. (MTV Unplugged In New York still sounds so haunted and moving that I wish it weren’t called MTV Unplugged In New York.) Last month, Nevermind turned 19, which means Nirvana’s most popular album is nearly as old now as Woodstock was when the album was released on September 24, 1991. Anyone who’s in college or younger doesn’t know a world where Nevermind doesn’t exist. Part of me wants to lord my generational ownership of Kurt Cobain’s music—and that of the other grunge-era alt-rock bands that stormed radio and the music charts in Nirvana’s wake—over those kids, much like baby boomers used to cram Woodstock retrospectives down the throats of people my age. 

That way I could say, “You shoulda been there!” whenever “Smells Like Teen Spirit” comes on the radio. And I could track down all the people who chose to see Arcade Fire over the reunited Soundgarden this summer at Lollapalooza, and stridently assert that Superunkown is twice the album The Suburbs or Neon Bible will ever be. I basically want to act like a rapidly aging music fan like myself is supposed to act: Nostalgic for—and fiercely protective of—the music of my youth.

But it would all be ruse. The truth is that I feel little nostalgia for ’90s grunge, and almost no connection to the version of myself that once felt part of the Alternative Nation. I once believed that the rise of so-called alternative music in the early ’90s was the greatest thing to happen in my lifetime—world-changing, no less—but now this notion seems almost too embarrassing to admit in print. Over the years I’ve written these bands out of my personal history: Old concert T-shirts have been worn out or tossed away, CDs have long since been sold off. I remember the ’90s, but it’s like I wasn’t there. Like many people of my generation—including practically every band that was originally associated with the term—“grunge” for me has become something to live down, like cuffed jeans or bad Luke Perry sideburns. 

Somewhere along the way, grunge-era alt-rock got tiresome. Today, it’s all but unbearable. Scanning the latest Billboard rock chart, you’ll find bands like Shinedown, Stone Sour, Three Days Grace, and of course Nickelback, who have adopted the pained, groany vocals and sludgy guitars associated with grunge and merged them seamlessly with a leather-pants and soul-patch sensibility that comes straight from hair metal. Unbeknownst to Kurt, Eddie, and Layne, they created a sonic blueprint that would go on to inspire disreputable bands for the next two decades. You can’t blame those guys for inspiring much of what’s awful and soulless about the state of “modern” rock music as we’ve come to know it, but their music is inextricably linked to it nonetheless. 

It wasn’t always like this. In the beginning, grunge challenged the sexist and materialistic status quo of mainstream rock ’n’ roll, asserting a bold new concept of what rock stars could and should be. For a couple of years at least, grunge not only made the world safe for idealistic rejects and weirdos who were more comfortable hanging out with Gloria Steinem than Tawny Kitaen, it pretty much made socially conscious, politically correct, fame-averse, brooding loner types the only acceptable kind of rock stars. 

The idea behind Whatever Happened To Alternative Nation? is to look back at an era that’s both incredibly important and yet mysteriously absent from my life as a music fan. I’ve gone back and repurchased a lot of the CDs I sold off—which, thanks to the bargain bin at Half-Price Books, has actually been a fairly inexpensive proposition—and reacquainted myself with groups that I once adored before they died off, broke up, or settled into respectable but uninspired careers. My goal is to rediscover what I saw in these bands when I was a teenager, and figure out why the music went from enlightening to deadening so rapidly, from the bucolic early years of Lollapalooza to the apocalyptic assault of Woodstock ’99. Because as easy as it is now to take potshots at the mumbly, histrionic sounds of the ’90s, this is music that meant a great deal to me and many others at the time. Out of respect for my teenaged self, I’m giving it an honest re-examination.

Each installment of Whatever Happened To Alternative Nation? will be tied to a year, starting with 1990—which I’m packaging with this introduction, since it’s really a prologue year—and proceed chronologically up through 1999. However, this isn’t intended to be a definitive history of grunge; I won’t be writing about every single Seattle band, or even most Seattle bands. A lot of it won’t even be about grunge; I also plan on looking at the feel-good bro tunes of Sublime, and the ironic arena-rock posturing of Urge Overkill, among other groups and how they fit in with the overall narrative of ’90s alt-rock’s rise and fall. I promise I’ll completely overlook at least one of your favorite bands; please don’t take it personally. 

As a general rule, I’m interested in discussing ’90s bands that were played regularly on MTV and on the radio, even in a small city like my hometown of Appleton, Wisconsin, because this was the last time (as of now, anyway) that rock music acted as the engine under the hood of American pop culture. Inevitably, this series will reflect what I liked and cared about back then, which fortunately matches up with what millions of other teenaged residents of Alternative Nation liked and cared about. More than an exercise in nostalgia—or, worse, an excuse to pick on bands that haven’t aged all that well—I hope to give those who deserve it their due, and maybe figure out how something that seemed so promising at the time went so wrong.

There were a lot of exciting things happening musically in 1990. Pixies, Sonic Youth, Public Enemy, Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Ice Cube, and Jane’s Addiction released classic albums. Nirvana signed to Geffen/DGC Records after being courted by several major record labels; its screechingly poppy 1989 debut Bleach had been a steady, though still largely unheralded, seller. But it was an eight-song demo recorded with Butch Vig at Smart Studios in Madison, Wisconsin—just a quick 90-minute drive from my town—that was really getting people excited as it was widely circulated among record-industry types. Many of those songs, including future classics like “In Bloom” and “Lithium,” formed the core of Nevermind. 

Elsewhere, a new group made up of musicians from well regarded but star-crossed hard-rock band Mother Love Bone played its first show with an unknown singer from San Diego named Eddie Vedder at a small club in Seattle. Around the same time, the band quickly wrote an album’s worth of material that would soon be released as Pearl Jam’s 1991 debut, Ten. And Alice In Chains set the table for the upcoming Seattle explosion when its debut, Facelift, went platinum.  

As for me, I was rocking to the cutting-edge sounds of Paula Abdul and Milli Vanilli. Oh, and I was into Seattle bands, too: I totally adored that heavy-as-shit, middle-finger-to-the-world anthem “Silent Lucidity” by thinking-man’s prog-metallers Queensryche. 

Being a kid in 1990 wasn’t all that different from being a kid in 2010 save for one massive technological step forward for mankind: the Internet. It didn’t exist back then—or, rather, kids like me did not have access to it. I didn’t even have a computer, nor did a lot of my friends. I was 12-going-on-13 in 1990, and my burgeoning interest in music was nurtured by three institutions: local radio, MTV, and the public library, where I could listen to vinyl records for free (CDs weren’t available there yet) and peruse scotch tape-covered copies of Rolling Stone, which is where I first read about “alternative” bands like U2, R.E.M., and The Replacements. If I wanted to buy a tape, I had to either convince my mother to drive me to the mall—a tall order considering how money-conscious she was as a single parent—or make the one-hour bike ride (one way!) to the only independent record store in town, an oppressively cool place that frankly terrified me, as most things did back then. 

Following music took real work if you happened to 1) be under 18, 2) live in a small town, 3) get paid a small allowance, 4) not have a driver’s license, and 5) have limited access to media that could tell you about the latest groups. Keeping up with underground music was practically impossible; you couldn’t just log on and dial up a million blogs offering up free music without leaving your bedroom. Underground music was actually underground; you had to venture out and look for it, and only after somebody let you in on the secret that it was actually there. Maybe I could’ve discovered Pixies’ Bossanova had I searched a little harder, but how could I look for something that I didn’t even know existed? For me, what I heard on the radio and saw on MTV was the only music there even was

People have a tendency to romanticize the world as it existed when they were children. Looking back, things always seem simpler. I’m not going to paint you a picture of my childhood that looks like a heavily sanitized episode of Mad Men; the ’90s were a strange time of relative wealth and comfort, with a thick patina of self-defeat and wasted potential. Nevertheless, my memories of 1990 tend to be wrapped in sepia-tinged old-timiness. I spent a lot of time that year watching Paula Abdul sing one of my favorite songs, “Opposites Attract,” in a video that prominently featured a cartoon cat. How adorably red-cheeked and innocent is that? As far as I can tell, the video for “Opposites Attract” was not intended to be entertainment strictly for little kids. There was a very good chance that you’d see the video for “Unskinny Bop” immediately afterward. This gives you an idea of how, shall we say, unsophisticated we were as pop-music listeners back then. The video for “Opposites Attract” might not be “(How Much Is) That Doggie In The Window?” but like that cheerfully insipid, pre-rock ’n’ roll Patti Page hit of the  early ’50s, it signaled that American culture desperately needed someone to wipe that stupid grin off of its face. 

Top 40 offered up a smorgasbord of options for my developing musical palate. I could dig deep into the blues with Alannah Myles’ “Black Velvet.” I could rail against the hypocrisy of our times with Poison’s “Something To Believe In.” I could delve into motivational pop psychology with Wilson Phillips’ “Hold On.” Or I could just dance to the ubiquitous grooves of Madonna’s “Vogue” and MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This.” I loved each and every one of these songs in the ’90, and dozens more: Faith No More’s “Epic,” Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” Damn Yankees’ “High Enough,” Deee-Lite’s “Groove Is In The Heart,” Nelson’s “(Can’t Live Without Your) Love And Affection” and so on. 

Say what you will about that roster of songs today, but there’s no denying that the hit-makers of 1990 haven’t exactly proven enduring. Madonna aside, the major pop stars that had produced single albums spinning off five, six, even seven hit songs just a few years earlier were experiencing fallow periods. Prince was reduced to recording inconsequential background music for Tim Burton’s Batman. Michael Jackson was in hiding as he worked on Dangerous, a dubiously named opus that seemed as plausible as Boy George recording an album called Clean, Sober, And Casually Dressed. George Michael petulantly burned the iconic leather jacket from the cover of 1987’s Faith in the video for his new, unmistakably Faith-sounding single “Freedom.” Bruce Springsteen had moved out to Los Angeles to work with studio musicians, a decision that was successful only from the perspective of making fans desperately appreciative of the E Street Band. 

The music industry has a lifetime warranty with the pop audience ensuring that it will produce immediately catchy and inevitably annoying singles on a consistent basis. Nurturing lasting artists is another story; that’s something that seems to happen only in fits and starts. The music I was listening to in 1990 had its pleasures, but ultimately, it went straight to your ears and slipped past your heart. They were just songs you eventually got sick of, nothing more. I certainly couldn’t relate to them on any kind of personal level. I couldn’t turn to them, like a friend, when I needed to smile or bawl my eyes out. If you tried to hold this music too close, you’d wind up feeling alienated. Pop music at the time was for winners, and I had the sneaking suspicion that socially awkward adolescents from Wisconsin were the opposite of winners. (Which I guess would make me the cartoon cat in this equation.) 

Nevermind probably would not have impacted me in quite the same way had I been aware of the context it came out of; had I been a little older and a fan of college radio, I’m sure it would’ve just been another record that I liked about as much as Bandwagonesque or Green Mind. But Nirvana was not a band I had to discover; it came right into my world, and discovered me. This is something Nirvana still doesn’t get enough credit for: Kurt Cobain turned himself into a radio star at a time when somebody like him becoming a radio star seemed unfathomable. So, yeah, it’s worth noting that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” sounds like Pixies, and that “Come As You Are” is a direct lift from Killing Joke’s “Eighties.” But Pixies and Killing Joke never got played on the radio in places like Appleton. Nirvana did, and this fact alone makes that band more important than any of Cobain’s underground precursors, who only started to matter on a macro level because they were Nirvana reference points.

It’s hard to convey today how revelatory it was hearing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” come out of your parents’ car stereo for the first time, but this was a bona-fide, according-to-Hoyle, head-slapping pop-culture surprise of the highest order. By the time I started 7th grade, I had already absorbed enough bad TV and cut-rate pop music to get a sense that culture unfolded in a predictable series of fads and trends; nothing ever came along to upset the applecart. But Nirvana clearly was not part of that. It didn’t matter that the band was on a major label; that was just underground-rock semantics and I didn’t speak that language yet. These guys were not supposed to be here, on MTV, sandwiched between Jane Child and Lisa Stanfield videos at 1 p.m. on a Tuesday. Nirvana finding you was like being sucked into a whole new reality tucked inside the simpler, grayer world you’d always known. All of a sudden it was just there. If something this incredible could exist in the world right under your nose until it streaked in seemingly out of nowhere and smacked you repeatedly across the face, what in the hell else was out there? 

I, for one, really wanted to find out. I was in the eighth grade when Nevermind came out, and I remember laughing the first time I saw the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video. I got it—they were bagging on the cheesy, kid-friendly under-arm deodorant ads MTV used to play ad nauseum. (This is another thing Nirvana doesn’t get enough credit for: It could actually be a pretty funny band.) But I also didn’t know what to make of the song. Here was this blonde guy who wore his hair in his face, so you couldn’t even see him; what was the point of making a video? He was mumbling something about how it was fun to lose and to pretend, and then he just went, like, nuts, screaming that he was here now and needed to be entertained. It was a far cry from Bret Michaels equating pumping gasoline with sex in "Unskinny Bop," which was a metaphor even a junior high school student like myself could grasp. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was just … different. Nirvana seemed like a one-hit wonder, only you couldn’t get the song out of your head. There was something odd about these guys—that’s the main reason I laughed at them initially—but Nirvana’s strangeness soon went from being a liability to the best thing about them in my book. When Poison sang about getting laid, it just made me feel sad, because I was convinced that no girl would ever, ever even look at me. I had braces, oversized glasses, a mullet that was unimpressive even by mullet standards, and acne dotting my face like Walgreens stores on a city landscape. I was the living embodiment of a weird song with a soft verse and a loud chorus, and here was a band that not only transcended its deficiencies, but made these deficiencies into strengths. To this day, Nirvana songs that are often described as depressing just seem fun to me. It’s the sound of losers shouting down their shame. It was the kind of escapism kids like me craved. 

I always hate that moment in documentaries about social movements where somebody insists that whatever incredibly exciting and revolutionary phenomenon they were a part of could never happen again, because the world has inevitably changed for the worse, and today’s kids are just too jaded or clueless to do what they did. What they’re really saying is that it will never happen for them again, because they’ve reached the age where they’re too jaded and clueless. When you’re young, whatever you’re doing feels revolutionary because the world is opening up for you in ways that will never be more exciting than they are right now, in this moment, forever and ever. 

That said, I honestly wonder if the rise of grunge and alternative rock in the early ’90s will be the last time that a musical movement has that kind of impact on youth culture. With the Internet, we know about every promising band seemingly from the time it records its first demos. By the time the album comes out, the backlash has already kicked in. Now the challenge is to not be informed; surprising people has gone the way of putting current events on newsprint. It’s almost like we don’t want to be surprised anymore, because that means we’re somehow out-of-the-loop, or not savvy enough to be there first, which seems to be of the utmost importance when it comes to music these days. 

This is one instance where I’m glad I was just an ignorant kid stuck in a nowhere town where nothing cool seemed to happen. Because it made what happened next seem all the more exciting.


What Happened Next: 1991 is remembered as the year of Nevermind, but at the time Guns N’ Roses’ wildly ambitious Use Your Illusion albums were supposed to set the world on fire. I’ll straddle the murky line between glam metal and alt-rock by delving into the epic feud between Kurt Cobain and Axl Rose, and explore how two men who perfectly personified their respective eras actually shared more common ground than either would’ve admitted.