I started high school in 1990 and graduated from college in 1999. I think it's fair to say that if you pull together the greatest songs of the 90s, it will be the proverbial soundtrack of my adolescence.
Luckily for me, VH1 has done that work for me. I'm at my parents' house tonight all alone, by a fluke of scheduling. Since they actually receive a TV signal here (as opposed to our house, where we revel in Netflix), I stumbled on this paradise of mindless television and been on the couch for the past two hours knitting my first baby sweater and living the memories.
Since I'm still alone, I thought I'd share some of them with you. I should preface this by telling you that I am not in the slightest bit a music elitist. It plays in the background when I do stuff and there are a few albums that are written on my heart but I have never sat down and listened to an album, or even a song, just for the experience of listening to music. I used to try when I was in junior high because my brothers all did that but would not realize until the third or fourth song of whatever album I was listening to that I had gotten up off the floor during the first song and begun playing with my dolls or, often, reading a book. Needless to say, I do not keep up on the latest bands, even though two of my brothers actually know people who are actually in bands that other people have heard of. Since these two brothers will probably come up in this post a lot, I'll introduce them to you:
David is 8 years older than I am, a genius artist with a brilliant sense of humor. He was a "skater" when he was in high school in the 80s and built a 12 foot half pipe in the back yard for all his gorgeous skater friends to hang out at. Being surrounded by these suburban rebels with their asymmetrical haircuts and the scrawny but somehow muscular chests during my formative years can probably be blamed for many of my romantic mistakes once I came of age. I still resent Matt D. for not following through on his promise to marry me that he made when I was 8 and he was 15. David went to college in Champaigne during those years in the late 80s when bands like Smashing Pumpkins were playing in bars in Champaigne. We're still pretty sure one of our dogs is prominently featured on a vinyl release of a major single from that time. However, it should be telling that I can't remember which one. I still have my turquoise Powell-Peralta t-shirt that he left behind when he went to school.
Daniel is two years younger than I am and followed David's lead a decade later. He and I had many of the same friends since we both hung in the "alternative" crowd but he lived the lifestyle while I watched from the sidelines. Daniel is a true musician and his explorations into musical discovery and expression made me as cool as I am, even though that's not very cool. When we were still in junior high, he spent the entire summer learning Jimi Hendrix's Star Spangled Banner with the amp turned all the way up. It was a long summer. I am his biggest fan and stood in the front row for all of his shows, which included his first album release party at a local VFW hall as a sensitive singer-songwriter, his country band called Barely American and his glam rock years as Glam Dan and the Fancy Lads. You can actually buy one of their albums on I-Tunes. It's the best concept album I've ever encountered. Of course, remember that I have never actually sat down and listened to another concept album in my life.
So, without further adieu, let me attempt to paint the pictures that rise up in my mind as I watched some mindless television. If those C-listers can tells their stories, I should be able to, too. I just won't have M.C. Hammer adding some totally vague and affirming compliment at the end of each African American artist's song. You'll have to imagine that for yourself.
VH1's 100 Greatest Songs of the 90's...
Nirvana - "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (1991, #6 US)
My main memory of this is hearing it at a party (I did not go to many of these and I think this was a pseudo-party hosted by some kid's mom in her basement) and hearing the other say it was amazing and realizing that I had heard it before. David had brought home the first two albums at Thanksgiving the year before and played it for my cousins and I listened from the doorway and marveled at the little naked kid on the cover.
U2 - "One" (1991, #10 US)
I got nothing.
Seriously, I know U2 is the shit but although I could probably sing most of their many hits word-for-word, I have never been a fan. I have never been emotionally moved by one of their songs.
Backstreet Boys - "I Want It That Way" (1999, #6 US)
Again, nothing. The boy bands were simply something to be mocked and endured at basement parties. I remember responding enthusiastically with my friends when some headbanging song came on because it was such a relief from music like this.
Whitney Houston - "I Will Always Love You" (1992, #1 US)
In college, I lived in Suite 3D with a bunch of other girls including Erika and Amanda, who were both bridesmaids in my first wedding and I performed that role in their weddings. Erika was in the Bridal Brigade for my second wedding. We used to sign this at the top of our lungs to each other, relishing the dramatic key change toward the end. At Amanda's wedding, we stood on chairs and sang it to her during the reception.
Madonna - "Vogue" (1990, #1 US)
Dan K. was bosom buddies with Daniel the summer this song came out and we changed the words to "Don't just stand there, let's get to it, pick your nose, there's nothing to it. Nose." We were all in the summer art and technology class for gifted kids and thought we were very clever, with our opaque projector and our video scanner that printed out pictures of our faces on the 8-bit printer. Dan, of course, came out of the closet 10 years later, a fact I learned when another fabulous friend told me that they had literally made out in the closet in high school.
Sir Mix-A-Lot - "Baby Got Back" (1992, #1 US)
Cliff C. and Brad D. were the two sociopaths of my church youth group. I felt tormented by them but desperately wanted their attention because they were just so fucking funny. And ridiculous. We were on a mission trip to Mississippi and in the kitchen of Canton Bible Baptist, Cliff did KP while wearing a walkman and occasionally shouted out lines from the songs. This is where I first processed the meaning of the line, "My anaconda don't want none unless it's got buns, hon." Actually, I'm not sure if Brad was there at that moment but I have other memories of him singing ridiculous things in that kitchen with the same energy so he's included in the nostalgia.
Also, Cliff used to sing Smells Like Teen Spirit in an astonishingly annoying repetition. I remember my youth director, Malcolm, trying to catch him up by asking him what a libido actually was. He might have been hoping to embarrass him but I can't imagine that tactic actually working since Cliff seemed to have no shame. He also did not know what a libido was beyond the fact that it rhymed with mosquito.
Britney Spears - "...Baby One More Time" (1999, #1 US)
Missed this entirely. I think I was planning my wedding at the time.
TLC - "Waterfalls" (1994, #1 US)
For some reason, I was listening to the local Black music station my first couple of years of college. This struck me as a bad attempt at poignancy and I couldn't figure out what all the fuss was about. It just seemed too obvious. I had NO cultural context to put it within.
R.E.M. - "Losing My Religion" (1991, #4 US)
Dan S. was one of my best friends and Michael Stipe 100% mimicked his physicality in this video. Dan was emo before emo was a thing and there was not one iota of affectation about it. He was just a shy kid who ran cross-country and talked late into the night on mission trips and retreats about important and intelligent stuff. He is possible the only male friend I hung out with in high school that I did not have a crush on. Sorry, Dan.
Sinéad O'Connor - "Nothing Compares 2 U" (1990, #1 US)
I remember mocking this for her weird voice. Then, it was the cool thing to do to mock her for her weirdo stunts. I learned from VH1 that she released an album recently called Theology and I'm actually kind of curious how she thinks about God because in maturity I realized that she must have been kind of interesting. (Although I don't buy her denial that she ever wanted to be a pop star. What? You stood in front of a camera and cried while you sang a Prince song because you were just looking to entertain the local yokels?)
Pearl Jam - "Jeremy" (1991, #79 US)
Uah. So tragic. So narrative. So comprehensible. So true. So true.
Alanis Morissette - "You Oughta Know" (1995)
I was a freshman in college and loved the surge of angry girl rock. This was just sexually explicit enough to titillate my slowly fading Vestal virgin persona. I borrowed the CD from the girl down the hall to put this on a mix tape. Oh yeah. Transitional audio technology. I was right in the middle of it. After my divorce, I listened to this album a lot.
Dr. Dre (featuring Snoop Doggy Dogg) - "Nuthin' but a "G" Thang" (1992, #2 US)
Guys in the youth group sang lines from this a lot but I didn't have a lot of experience with it. Their gangsta love felt vaguely exploitational and pathetic for a bunch of suburban white guys and it made me uncomfortable but one's last name was Guillemette so the G-Thang, G-String joke was pretty funny.
Mariah Carey - "Vision of Love" (1990, #1 US)
Nothing but mockery for this one. A 7-octave range meant nothing if it sounded screechy. I was just beginning to take voice lessons as a locally acclaimed soprano so I should know.
Red Hot Chili Peppers - "Under the Bridge" (1991, #2 US)
The cute senior in the theater class I took freshman year recited the lyrics as his dramatic monologue. What was disturbing was that he pantomimed shooting heroin before he began. In a world without internet, I'm now a little disturbed to wonder where he learned how to tie a tourniquet around his arm and tap a vein.
MC Hammer - "U Can't Touch This" (1990, #8 US)
This was just ubiquitous. I don't have a specific memory attached to it except to recall the trend of Z. Cavaricci pants. I suppose this is what grunge was rebelling against. My friend Carrie once went on a field trip with our girls' Bible study group to buy a pair at the Stratford Square mall and counted out over a hundred dollars in cash. For pants!
Destiny's Child - "Say My Name" (1999, #1 US)
Like I said, I was listening to a lot of B96 at this point but now it was because I had a job teaching African-American high school kids and I wanted to be up on the lingo. Also, I really liked it. So, this song is solely associated with being in my '92 stick shift Saturn that I bought off my dad when I graduated from college.
Metallica - "Enter Sandman" (1991, #16 US)
This song literally frightened me. I watched the video tonight and the strobe-light haunted house effect brought it all back. I remember being vaguely uncertain of whether or not this counted as "evil."
Beastie Boys - "Sabotage" (1994)
Again, my knowledge of the Beastie Boys came almost solely from the guys in my youth group. From them, I learned to prefer Paul's Boutique over the other albums. It was good to have a preference. If you have a preference, people think that you know something. Since I didn't actually care enough to explore new music on my own but still wanted to be cool, I needed to project that I knew something about music. This I could do by insisting on Paul's Boutique.
Hanson - "MMMBop" (1997, #1 US)
These guys came from Tulsa, Oklahoma, which is where my aunt, uncle and their five kids live. They used to hear Hanson play at the local water park before they were huge.
Celine Dion - "My Heart Will Go On" (1997, #1 US)
I think that my first real experience with irony occurred listening to Celine Dion's My Heart Will Go On. I loved it with all of my dramatic adolescent self. All of the interior urges that caused my to become a member of Thespian Troupe #233 - building sets and acting in high school plays, as well as a community theater production of Godspell - these urges were massaged by the drama . . .
Wait. That's not right. I'm thinking about It's All Coming Back to Me Now. My Heart Will Go On got mocking because it got played so incessantly because of it's association with Titanic, which I still haven't seen.
So, let's pretend we're talking about It's All Coming Back to Me Now. The video was created by the same guy who did Meatloaf's I Would Do Anything For Love and involved a castle and a hot guy dying in a motorcycle crash. It pushed every romantic button in my newly adult heart. At the same time, I knew it was incredibly cheesy. So, I lived in that tension. I think it was my first guilty pleasure that I mocked with a wink wink nudge nudge so that I could listen to it more. Irony. Or maybe camp. I borrowed the CD from the same girl I borrowed Alanis Morissette from and put the song on the same mix tape.
Beck - "Loser" (1994, #10 US)
Pretty incomprehensible. I have never liked songs that I couldn't understand the words. So, I didn't pay much attention to it.
Salt-N-Pepa with En Vogue - "Whatta Man" (1993, #3 US)
I have come to love Salt-N-Pepa much more in my later life than when they were an active music group. I found them to be catchy in my youth but was too intimidated by my lack of membership in African-Americanism to actually go out and buy an album. They were a little raunchy and that secretly appealed to me plus I could understand all the words and the words made me laugh. Delayed gratification is just as sweet, though.
House of Pain - "Jump Around" (1992, #3 US)
I don't know. Fraternity house basements?
Soundgarden - "Black Hole Sun" (1994)
Ubiquitous. Somewhat overly depressive. I didn't respond much to music that seemed like you needed to have taken drugs to understand what it was communicating.
Eminem - "My Name Is" (1999, #26 US)
Again, I didn't come to love Eminem until much later in life. At first, I rejected him because he was so totally offensive. Later, when I calmed down a little (you know, in general, with my personality) I realized that he was really clever and that I liked his use of assonance. My boyfriend on the island watched 8 Mile constantly, which again seemed odd for a white guy who was a professional sea kayak guide from my home town. Still, I watch a movie about a goblin king surrounded by Muppets who falls in love with a young girl (who looks suspiciously like an idealized version of me) and sends her on a quest because he is so conflicted about his love. So, who am I to judge? Has anyone else noticed that my relationship with music revolved a lot around my racial identity?
Counting Crows - "Mr. Jones" (1993)
Again, ubiquitous. Not very interesting.
Ricky Martin - "Livin' la Vida Loca" (1999, #1 US)
Loved this. It felt sexy just as I was getting sexy. It made me want to move my hips.
Vanilla Ice - "Ice Ice Baby" (1990, #1 US)
Some kid named Jason used to breakdance while singing this in the cafeteria in the 6th grade. I always felt bad for him because I think he thought he was secretly cool all along and the rest of the kids were finally recognizing his true self when the truth was that we were laughing at him. I think I projected a lot of my own fears in this scenario.
*NSYNC - "Tearin' Up My Heart" (1998)
I got nothing.
Radiohead - "Creep" (1993)
Ubiquitous. Nondescript. Again, it felt drug-induced and I never really jived with the Gen X loser sentiments. However, now I fully claim my Gen X status. I might have been on the tail end but I definitely relate more with the generation older than me than the one younger than me that has always had email and CDs.
BLACKstreet - "No Diggity" (1996, #1 US)
LOVED this. At one point, I think someone calculated that B96 played this 5 times every hour. I could understand the words and they sounded extremely sexual even though I couldn't quite map what was being said to my very limited understanding of what sexual acts were options. The rhythm was intoxicating. Again, this is absolutely associated with driving in my car. When iTunes made finding songs easy, I put this on the first CD I made from purchased digital music.
Spice Girls - "Wannabe" (1997, #1 US)
This song went on the same college mix tape as You Oughta Know and It's All Coming Back to Me Now. (Susan, did I get all of those from you?) It perfectly expressed the joyful silliness I felt after I found some friends in college to celebrate being a woman out on her own. My whole being felt this exuberant at times.
Third Eye Blind - "Semi-Charmed Life" (1997, #4 US)
Again, fraternity basements come to mind. Only a third of our campus went Greek but since it was a technically "dry" campus, the only real accessible parties were at the fraternities. Also, my close friend Emily join Sigma Kappa and took me along with her. They used to dress me in borrowed baby t-shirts since I still had yet to figure out how to communicate my personality through fashion in a way that could be understood by other people given the current style context.
Oasis - "Wonderwall" (1995, #8 US)
Another in the same camp as the other druggy, whiny, incomprehensible and dark grunge songs. I was firmly in the grunge demographic in high school and college. XL t-shirts that were tucked into the front of my baggy boy jeans with a flannel shirt were de riguer for me. I also had a great pair of railroad overalls purchased at the Big R in Danville, IL to give them authenticity. I have never felt comfortable with posers.
One of my best memories was hanging out with a guy named Paul, who was one of the first openly gay men I knew. Looking back, he was clearly in the natal stages of his fabulousness but it gave him style cred in my 19 year old mind. I was wearing a pair of grass-green corduroy short-alls with a white midriff baring tank top. Over it all was my favorite oversized flannel from the Gap, which was mostly white with the plaid being different shades of the same green as the short-alls. The shorts were only just longer than the tails of the flannel. Paul told me that he loved my outfit and then talked about it for awhile. I felt a blanket of justification wash over me. Like the break-dancing Jason in the cafeteria before me, I secretly believed that I had recently found my style groove and Paul validated that. Ah, grunge.
C+C Music Factory - "Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)" (1991, #1 US)
This is where I came into the program. I'm just going to pick and choose from here on out.
L.L. Cool J - "Mama Said Knock You Out" (1990, #17 US)
My youth director Malcolm used to sing this ridiculously. Mama said knock you down and so forth. He was interacting witht the aforementioned Cliff and Brad.
The Presidents of the United States of America - "Peaches" (1995)
Totally catchy. I had forgotten about this song. It felt just right for my alternative suburban, grungy soul. Playful and ironic without actually saying anything that I understood. But I could sing along.
Digital Underground - "The Humpty Dance" (1990, #11 US)
I have to tell you that this plays in a steady rotation on my iPod currently. It makes me laugh all the time. It's a song about being ugly but still having sex all the time. What could be better? I only have a vague memory of it from this time period.
Deee-Lite - "Groove Is In The Heart" (1990, #4 US)
I have never danced more ridiculously than I danced to this song and the B52s Love Shack. I have never felt more myself than while dancing this way. High school dances were actually quite fun for me because I was surroudned by a group of people who just danced in a big group and didn't have to talk. You could just run around and chase each other and laugh just like you were kids again. A few drank but you didn't have to in order to get a rush of endorphins and sexualized dancing was out of vogue at the time. You just stood in one place and bounced while moving your arms as the spirit moved you. I still dance like that.
Will Smith - "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It" (1998, #1 US)
Similarly, this is totally danceable and I never felt the racial awkwardness with Will Smith that I did with the other Black artists.
Lenny Kravitz - "Are You Gonna Go My Way" (1993)
I owned every Lenny Kravitz album and went to see him in conert 3 or 4 times. This should tell you a lot since I rarely bought albums and didn't go to a concert until my freshman year in college. He was odd and sounded like the soul music that I liked on the oldies radio stations but he still rocked. I realize that my brother Daniel hasn't actually made an appearance but I've realized that is because he introduced me to older rock and roll classic like Led Zepplin and David Bowie. Lots of David Bowie. He also gave me Lenny Kravitz (and then stole my conert t-shirt that cost $25 bucks!)
Paula Cole - "I Don't Want to Wait" (1997, #11 US)
I preferred Where Have All the Cowboys Gone. The bleak portrayal of rural life for a woman combined with the conflicting longing for a strong man expressed the strange feminism I feel that I live with still.
Prince & The New Power Generation - "Gett Off" (1991, #27 US)
Too sexy for me. I love love loved this with all of my suppressed Christian loins.
Lisa Loeb - "Stay (I Missed You)" (1994, #1 US)
Janstee and I drove everywhere with this cassette single in her car's tape deck. I think her car was named Skippy and she used to hit curbs all the time when she turned. She was the first friend in high school that I felt totally at ease with. I felt like she genuinely enjoyed having me around even though she was much cooler than I was. We gossiped and girl talked and liked the same boys. And learned every word to this song. I recently bought a copy of the soundtrack to Singles at a garage sale just for this song.
The only song I can think of that is missing for me in Nine Inch Nails' Closer. It is the sexiest song I can think of besides anything made by Prince. The pulsing rhythm felt like everything I imagined sex to be. I remember gettign into a huge argument with Mike B. in my youth group because he and Brad thought it was evil and shouldn't be listened to. They thought it was written from the point of view of Satan and existed to encourage teenagers to have sex. I could see the Satan point but felt like it was a Satan who looked a little more like David Bowie in the earlier described Labyrinth: fallen but regretful and longing for the goodness he could no longer have. One of the lyrics is quite literally, "You get me closer to God." If sex was everything they taught me it would be in youth group, Nine Inch Nails expressed the transcendence perfectly to my imagination. I think Dave P. would be drunk at high school dances and grind with me, probably because he ultimately turned out to be gay. It was safe and experiemental. I remember being frustrated with the youth group argument because the guys wouldn't even consider my perspective. That was the quintessential gender dynamic in that group so should be recorded in this reminiscene.
So, that's it. More than you ever wanted to know about my adolesence and how it related to sex, race and music.
I realize that a lot of formative music for me was created in the 80s: Violent Femmes, Depeche Mode, They Might Be Giants. These came from my brother David's group and my friends who were following in his path. We would buy the albums on cassette and copy them onto tapes for each other. One alubm usually fit on a side of a 90 minute tape. It was great. David also bought me a Lemonheads album for Christmas one year and I listened to it so much that it is written on my heart.
What memories do these songs bring up for you?
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