NOT LONG AGO, when I used to teach at a college with a gold-green quad and undergraduates with inheritances to squander, kids in Sufjan Stevens T-shirts would roll up to me, faces bright and quizzical, a question trembling on their lips.
“But, I mean,” they’d say, “what were the ’90s like?”
They weren’t being satirical, I don’t think. (They had been class-bred, the most of them, into a rigid politeness.) They were just curious — earnest children with their noses pressed to the diorama-glass, on a field trip to the Museum of Back Then.
“So, like, what actually were the ’90s?”
For those of us of a certain age — and really, I think, for anybody enjoying another of the periodic vogues of lumberjack flannel — the question carries with it a certain queasy gravity.
There are some good reasons for this. If, for instance, you are not now and cannot be the bygone person you were (goatee’d, choker-clad, summarily ridiculous), neither can you pretend that the sweet and benighted pre-Zuckerbergian soul you were then has vanished, traceless, like a winked-out star. I’m no great believer in “generations.” All generation-talk, I have grown fond of saying, is marketing, and not a thing else — with the slender possible exception of reference to boomers, who, I believe everyone can now agree, are human history’s wholesale fucking Worst. And yet I also know, with a seasick certainty, that who and what you spent your youth falling in love with is, in its way, indelible.
Maybe this is not how you greet the news that a record called Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, by a band called Pavement, came out a windpipe-closing 25 years ago last month. Good for you, child. (And you too, Grandpa Simpson.) Maybe you recall the ’90s through different media: a Nas record, a clubdrug flashback, Enya, “Friends in Low Places,” Friends. Fair. But for me? To tell the somewhat sorry truth of it, there’s possibly nothing else that so condenses the decade for me as much as that goddamn record. It’s not that I love it, exactly. I think of it rather as something like the wallpaper of certain, ultimately super-small, slice of ’90s consciousness: nothing you’d die for, or even much cherish. Just something you’ve lived in long enough to have absorbed, with strange entireness, into your sensorium.
I hear it now, and it rearranges something in my viscera, though what, and why, isn’t easy to say.
Here are two propositions. The first is the most obvious: songs, as everyone knows, are the very greatest of archives. They are the containers, the modes of aesthetic technology, in which many of us store away those passages of bygone time that are most precious to us and also most resistant to preservation in any other form. They carry inside them not only places and persons, dates and names, but entire scenes, atmospheres, drifts of mood and spirit insusceptible to signification in any other register. And so we keep them there, many of us, in these flimsy pop products, as if for safekeeping, like seeds in an underground vault, guarded against deterioration, loss, apocalypse. Again, everybody knows this, or at least everybody who has ever fallen in love with a three- or four-minute jolt of pop intoxication. Only one consequence of this is that among the many things you might hear in songs — old joys restored to the present tense, the cruel passage of time, your own heart’s history — is the flourishing of what we might call counterpossibilities: all the desires and aspirations and inflections of political will, all the reaches of the thinkable, that have since become mute, inaccessible, inoperative. (Or, at least, that seem to have done so, since history, as we are forever finding and forgetting, is significantly weirder than most of our models suggest.)
And so, a second proposition: If we’re being somewhat grotesquely provincial, we might think of the ’90s as marking the blip of planetary time between the fall of the Berlin Wall, in the fall of 1989, and the events of September 11, 2001 — between, that is, the alleged “end of history” and the end of the end of history. Of course, the conventionality of this demarcation masks many other trajectories that might be worth our attention. There’s the bubble-inducing plummeting of interest rates, say. Or the ramping up of a Reagan-Thatcherite gutting of public services, now under the liberalish guise of public-private partnerships (“ending Welfare as we know it,” and so forth) — or, in tandem with this, the harvesting of vaster and vaster swaths of the racialized poor into the maw of incarceration. We might think, that is, of all the attempted technocratic fixes to what writers with names like Piketty and Arrighi have taught us to recognize as the steep post-’73 contraction of global capital. It’s those many patchwork fixes, and their synthesis and operative cogency, that we have long taken to naming (if sometimes a bit lazily) “neoliberalism.” Easy enough, now, to say the ’90s accordingly marked a moment awash in a liberal triumphalism that, for all its fulsomeness, never quite covered over the rot.
Don’t just listen to the economists. Listen to Paul Beatty, whose miraculous novel from 2008 is called Slumberland. (Have you read Slumberland? If you have not, let me assure you that nothing in your life is so important that you can’t, right now, be reading Slumberland.) The narrator is a black Angeleno who finds himself in Berlin in the fateful fall of 1989. On the day itself, he encounters a man who proves to be an East German spy. This man has much to tell him. “No doubt,” the man says,
your president will take credit for the fall of the Wall as signaling the end of Communism, but it’s all part of the master plan. It’s a misdirection maneuver somewhat analogous to your trick plays in American football, a geopolitical Statue of Liberty or fumblerooski, if you will. Soon, my dense Afro-American friend, you’ll be casting invisible digital votes in the name of democracy. Enslaving the vast majority of your workforce with a negligible minimum wage in the name of liberty. Charging mobile-phone users to make and receive calls in the name of free enterprise. Training the very same religious zealots of the desert who’ll…”
The robust revving of the eight-cylinder engine drowned out the rest of his prognostication and my question about what in hell was a mobile phone.
“Come,” he said, patting the passenger seat. “Come see the breach in the Wall through which the four horsemen of the American apocalypse will ride.”
When I say this novel is miraculous, part of what I mean is that it appeared in the just-marginally-pre-crash spring of 2008. Think of it! Think of all that hadn’t happened. Think of all we didn’t quite know, or managed to imagine we didn’t quite know.
Some four years after the imagined interview from Beatty’s novel — precisely my collegiate years, incidentally — five white Californian twentysomething dudes made a record, which would appear in February 1994, under the title Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain.
Here’s what I’ll say about it: it’s fine.
No, it is! I mean, it’s great actually, if you’re the sort who likes that sort of thing: punkish, slack, clever, noisy and meandering, cut with flights of genuine melodic loveliness, in-jokes, jams. A sort of unforesworn guitar-rock grandeur, lurching and woozy, suffuses much of it. If I remember right, Rob Sheffield called it “a concept album about turning 28,” which is evocative while telling you next to nothing, and in that sense an extraordinarily good description of the record. It is, paradigmatically, the thing that will eventually be called “indie rock,” and there you have it. It’s easily my favorite Pavement record, and I like it even unto loving it — sometimes, when caught in the right backward-looking mood — but I wouldn’t pick a fight with you about it, not like I might about Belly, say, or Jawbreaker, or every sound Mary Timony ever made.
“Friend,” I’d say, “Let’s agree: it’s a totally very fine record. Another IPA?”
But why pretend? The nearer truth is that, however I may have resisted Pavement’s demi-deification, however I may have disparaged the record with studied indifference, it has never quite released me. Or some of it has not. Take, for example, the one song that has kept a decade-spanning grip on me, and that still pricks and prods me whenever it spins up on shuffle. It’s not “Silence Kid” or “Cut Your Hair,” those alterna-microhits. The song is called “Unfair.”
Now, listen: you don’t have to persuade me of the foolhardiness of leaning too earnestly into the elliptical, undergraduate-Ashberian lyrical misdirections of Stephen Malkmus, the band’s movie-star handsome singer and chief songwriter. But let’s indulge ourselves, just this once. For “Unfair” is, quite unambiguously, a song about something: it’s a song about California. Or rather (like the song “Two States” from their previous record), “Unfair” is a song about the maldistribution of California’s resources across the north-south axis. “Manmade deltas and concrete rivers,” Malkmus says (though he drawls it Dylanishly into “riv-ahhs”). “The south takes what the north delivers.” And that’s “Unfair”: Chinatown, basically, as two-minute punk rock diatribe.
The punkishness, it turns out, is what matters most. Because if I continue to adore this song, it is not least because it marks the moment in the whole decade-plus career of this band where the impress of punk rock is, I think, the least mitigated and diffused. About punk rock, I always thought Greg Tate got it most right, in a review he wrote about DC hardcore pioneers Bad Brains, back in 1982. “But listening to the Sex Pistols,” he wrote, “is like listening to a threat against your child, your wife, your whole way of life. You either take it very seriously or you don’t take it at all.” Indie-rockers, we might not unjustly say, tried hard to hedge exactly these bets: to borrow some of the propulsive window-breaking exhilaration of punk rock while, if not dismissing the threat that lay within it, ironizing it, carving out room for the recognition that their own white-kid anger, whatever its acuities, might also be, in some real ways, unjustifiable.
There is irony enough in “Unfair,” sure. “Wave your credit card in the air,” the singer says, “swing your nunchuks like you just don’t care!” Nunchuks: ha-ha. And yet and yet and yet. What’s captivating to me even now about “Unfair” is that, for those few suspended moments, exactly these polarities are reversed, and it’s ironic disavowal that is undermined — or, I don’t know, swamped — by a quality of venomous and un-self-canceling anger you will struggle to find elsewhere in the Pavement archive. And, yes, maybe it’s just the second guitar making those slashing pentatonic dives down to the root. Maybe it’s just the lunatic release of Malkmus’s voice, in full vengeful caterwaul. Or maybe it’s the sound of that so often mannered, polished voice encountering, at last and if only here, a sort of in-the-world shittiness it doesn’t much feel like passing over in stoner drollery. What you get at any rate is something in a different, differently violent, key.
So when the song ascends into its sweet, swift delirium of anger and invective — when Malkmus starts shouting about how he’s “lost in the foothills on my bike / Trek Enduro — say goodnight / to the last psychedelic band / from SacTo Northern Cal” — what the fuck do we think is transpiring? What is this song, anyway? Why bring together ’60s psychedelia and ’70s punk as a bulwark against the ascent of some still-embryonic ’90s yuppiedom? Why this exercise in manic, jubilant polemicism from a now hypercanonical band whose politics not one person, ever, has mistaken for particularly interesting? Why, oh why, the Trek Enduro?
I’ll tell you what I hear, or what I want to hear, in “Unfair.” I hear those greatest of punk rock virtues: negation and refusal. I hear a refusal of that easy-to-hand triumphalism with which the ’90s were positively glutted. I hear too, in that harkening-back to bygone countercultures and defunct forms — that last psychedelic band — a sharp reminder that liberal progress, so-called, is always someone else’s catastrophe, someone else’s extirpation, happening typically far off, somewhere else. (Like, say, Sacramento.) And then, in that concluding feral yowl, wherein the singer warpingly elongates the phrase I’m not your neighbor, I hear the point-blank rebuke of any imagining of politics that would disavow conflict, pretend away antagonism, or imagine even for a moment that these might be overcome with goodwill, consensus-directed optimism, technocratic hacks. “The south takes”: that’s the blank unyielding fact the song chooses to stand on, and that it refuses to see mystified.
That’s what I hear. And I want to hear all this because what I also hear in “Unfair” is an altogether comprehensive evocation of the 22-year-old I was when it first found me. He comes back, that ordinary and not evil-hearted and plungingly stupid young man, all in a glow. He is a person who, riding the waves of ’90s boom and bust, and keenly mistrustful though indeed he was of pallid Clintonite optimism, could nevertheless have said remarkably little about the real antagonism of the political, or about the real scale of the toll of resource extraction under the guise of liberal enfranchisement, or about any of the four horsemen of the American apocalypse riding through the new-fallen Wall. He did not yet know that an ironizing ambivalence about the empire of liberalism was in fact internal to liberalism’s governing operations, and not its critical outside. (His bleak liberalism, you could say, was scarcely bleak enough.) He could have done better, this person, and he did not. Despite a great deal of help — from friends, lovers, teachers, books, the death-shattered world, and even from the inconsequential fluff of the motherfucking indie-rock songs to which he devoted yawning chasms of concentrated energy and imagination — his unlearning of the horizoning presumptions of basically liberal ethos would take a long, long while. Today, I’m not sure there’s much of anything else to hear.
Peter Coviello is professor of English at the University of Illinois-Chicago, where he specializes in American literature and queer studies. He is the author, most recently, of Long Players: A Love Story in Eighteen Songs.
Banner image by Greg Neate.