As I may have demonstrated in a subtle and not-at-all-over-the-top fashion recently, I am not a fan of boomer nostalgia. The same goes for things that romanticize the sixties. Look, I wasn’t there—or, um, anywhere—but man, a lot of bad shit when down in the sixties. The way the media often make it look like one big love-in is a little disturbing.
So songs like “Summer of Drugs,” which proclaim a lack of generational romanticism and appreciation are very much up my alley. Like the Replacements’ “Bastards of Young” (in which Paul Westerbeg yells, “We got no wars to name us”), “Summer of Drugs” is about a generation caught between cultural identities. The song was written by Victoria Williams, a singer-songwriter who was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 1993. That same year, a number of artists assembled a compilation to help pay for her medical bills. Sweet Relief, and the Sweet Relief Musicians Fund, was born.
Sweet Relief had a hell of a lineup, and my favorite song from the record is Soul Asylum’s take on “Summer of Drugs.” Dave Pirner’s tired croak is an ideal complement to the song’s emotional exhaustion, and the way he starts the song (and the record) with Williams’s wake-up call of a first line, “Sister got bit by a copperhead snake in the woods behind the house” is just about perfect. (And you can’t beat the follow-up lyric, after the narrator sucks the venom out: “I started out my teenage years with a poison in my mouth.”)
Soul Asylum, only a year out of their triple-platinum record Grave Dancers Union, was at their commercial peak in 1993. Despite the song’s inherent awkwardness, you can hear the confidence in the band on “Summer of Drugs.” It’s the sound of artists who are thrilled to be on top of the world.
Here I go, here I go, here I go again, girls, what’s my weakness?
I think every one of us knows the answer to that question.
Is this the most charming song of the ’90s? It’s quite possible. It’s also, like Missy Elliott’s “Work It,” important because of its gender role reversal. The song straight-up objectifies men, and the video doubles down on that objectification, from the attractive dudes playing frisbee on the beach to the ones hanging out on the corner. This song is about men, plain and simple.
It’s also about how much Salt-n-Pepa like having sex with hot guys. As far as I can tell, this was pretty much uncharted musical territory in 1993, especially for women in hip-hop (which itself was, of course, a rarity). Sure, Madonna was all about sex, but for someone so controversial, she wasn’t very explicit. She didn’t, for example, sing lines like “You’re a shotgun – bang! What’s up with that thang? I wanna know, how does it hang?” Or how about “Brother, wanna thank your mother for a butt like that.” No subtlety here.
Nor does there need to be. I love the directness of this song, and I love the way it (and its video) turns the tables without proclaiming that it’s doing so. Like “Work It,” “Shoop” is what it is, doing its thing as if there’s nothing unnatural about it. And now that I think about it, this wasn’t entirely uncharted territory; Salt-N-Pepa themselves been here before—there was “Push It,” of course, and “Let’s Talk About Sex.” But the former was all innuendo, and the latter had a safe- and consensual-sex angle; “Shoop” was, and still is, in an entirely different league.
Of course, it’s possible that Salt-n-Pepa weren’t rapping about sex at all: the ever-reliable Urban Dictionary notes that “shoop” has a variety of meanings. (Definition 5 is my favorite.)
In another successful attempt to make me feel 1,000 years old, The Breeders’ Last Splash was recently released in a 20th anniversary edition. I don’t remember much about this song or that record coming out, I just remember “Cannonball” being around. That bassline was like the cannonball in the video, rolling, rolling, rolling, crashing into whatever stood in its way. It permeated everything and seemed to be everywhere. (It will also always remind me of Michael Ian Black buying pants.)
“Cannonball” seems to be a few songs at once: the call-to-arms intro, the monstrous bassline, the “coo-coo-cannonball,” and that majestic chorus. It’s all so very nineties, but it doesn’t sound dated; it sounds as fierce as it ever did. Kim Deal seemed to take some musical lessons from the Pixies when she started this band with sister Kelly, because both bands share that timeless fierceness.
Founding Breeders member Tanya Donnelly recently joined the band onstage in Boston, and the audience’s joy and excitement is palpable. No matter how dark the songs could be, the Breeders always seemed to bring out the pogo-ing, sneering rock kids in all of us. We need more Breeders.
The idea that Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville is a song-by-song response to the Stones’ Exile on Main Street has been repeated ad nauseum, but the description doesn’t really hold. Both albums have 18 tracks, and there are definitely parallels, but I’ll be damned if I can find a direct correlation between, say, “Never Said” and “Tumbling Dice,” both the fifth songs of their respective albums.
Instead, Exile in Guyville a response to the world that Exile on Main Street inhabited, perpetuated, and certainly had a hand in creating; the concept of being stuck in a world, a Guyville, with guy mentalities. What makes Guyville so fascinating is that it’s not just a criticism of Guyville (though it certainly is that, and an effective one), but also a depiction of what it’s like to live there as a woman, and as different women. Phair has also said in interviews that these songs aren’t based on things she did, so it’s interesting to consider Guyville as a series of short stories about characters who are stuck in a lousy town with no option of moving.
I love Guyville as a whole, but “Fuck and Run” is the one I always come back to. There’s something so visceral about it, which partly comes from the arrangement (the song features only a guitar, drums and vocals), but also Phair’s raw description of the one-night stand, the latest of many. It’s a surprising song in many ways. There’s plenty of bitterness directed at the guy, but some at herself as well. And the admission that she wants “a boyfriend” and “letters and sodas” seems unlikely at first, but then it makes sense: At least in the old days, she seems to be saying, guys at least pretended to give a shit.
Phair put out a couple of good records after this one, and it’s too bad that those records (especially the criminally underappreciated Whitechocolatespaceegg) don’t get more attention. But Exile in Guyvile deserves all the attention it’s gotten over the years, and it stands as an important document for both feminism and indie rock.
New York magazine recently had a series of pieces about 1993, features that explained why that year is responsible for most things you love. As Nitsuh Bebe pointed out, it was an especially great year for “alternative” music debuts: Bjork, Beck, Radiohead, PJ Harvey. It was a pretty good year for hip-hop too: The Chronic, Buhloone Mindstate, Doggystyle, Midnight Marauders, and, of course, Enter the 36 Chambers.
I heard Wu-Tang Clan for the first time a couple of months ago. Look, I know! I know. But it’s been really fun getting to know them, and I’ve been glad to realize that 36 Chambers totally lives up to the hype. It’s not only hugely influential, especially for the East Coast hip-hop that followed, but the songs are lively, funny, and full of surprises.
My favorite song from 36 Chambers is “Shame On A Nigga,” on which Raekwon, Ol Dirty Bastard, and Method Man inform you of the ways in which they could kick your ass. Like many of the tracks on 36 Chambers, this is essentially a rap battle, complete with dueling pop culture references (Voltron, The Warriors). My favorite verse is from ODB (live and uncut!), invoking LL Cool J’s “Blaaaaw! How you like me now!” for maximum effect.
I read the other day about a Stax compilation that RZA put together, and it suddenly all made sense. Like the songs of Otis Redding, Booker T. and the MGs, and Rufus Thomas, RZA’s beats and samples are both tightly wound and laid-back. ODB’s raspy delivery, heavy but nimble, is a perfect complement.
Siamese Dream by Smashing Pumpkins came out 20 years ago. You are an old person!
I remember where I was when I first heard “Today”: on the school bus (Bus 2! Holla!). Given that I was en route to junior high for another day of adolescent angst, I’m sure the song came as a breath of fresh air, a welcome reprieve from the usual dread. I remember thinking, “This is what Smashing Pumpkins sound like??” It sounded too catchy and pretty to be a hip “alternative” band (even considering the song’s pitch-black bridge). Siamese Dream and the Lemonheads record It’s A Shame About Ray became my gateway drugs to “indie” rock (though both records were on major labels). Before “Today,” I was into the Beatles and Billy Joel, and I was generally scared of anything the cool kids were into.
Though its stylistic choices sound like pure nineties, Siamese Dream holds up just fine today. Its navel-gazing was certainly a nineties trend, but it’s also just what Billy Corgan does, which makes the record’s solipsism more of a songwriting style than a reflection of a bygone era. (Compare this to, say, Bush or Candlebox, who could only exist in the Clinton era. At least I hope so.)
“Today” remains one of my favorite songs, mainly because of that glorious release of a chorus, awash in triumphant distortion. It’s easily the best thing Corgan ever did, which, considering the greatness of the next couple of records, is saying something.