What You Need to Know
With “Bittersweet Symphony,” Richard Ashcroft and the Verve gave the ’90s one of its best songs, and the Rolling Stones their biggest hit since 1971’s ode to racism “Brown Sugar.” The reader is probably familiar with the basic facts—that, because of the song’s use of sampled strings from “The Last Time,” the Stones’ management demanded (and got) all royalties from the Verve’s international smash. The reader may not be aware that in 2018, Jagger and Richards returned all rights to Richard Ashcroft. Presumably because the Stones aren’t complete monsters and/or Mick Jagger finally ran out of things to buy.
Third wave of ska, second wave of emo: So many waves! If art isn’t written about by the same sort of people who either carry water for American foreign policy or continue to put Eric Clapton on their magazine covers well into the 1980s, does that art even exist??? Apparently not. So, despite a clear continuity from 2-tone Specials, Selector, et al. to the late-’80s/early-’90s output of Moon Ska Records to the Mighty Mighty Bosstones...it’s a ska revival! And despite the uninterrupted evolution/devolution of “emo,” from mid-’80s cry-daddies like Rites of Spring to mid-’90s heartland sighers such as Promise Ring, it’s a “second” wave of emo. Anyway, 1997 was a banner year for Save Ferris, the Bosstones, and the Get Up Kids. If you want to consider any of those acts historical pivot points akin to Hannibal crossing the Alps, you are free to do so.
Otherwise, as far as 1997 goes, Biggie Smalls was killed, Korn began the reign of nü-metal, and Blink-182 either breathed life into—or sucked the remaining life out of—pop punk, depending on whom you ask. Any way you look at it, 1997 was a lot like staying up so late, on so many drugs, that the hangover kicks in before you pass out. On the plus side, both Radiohead and Missy Elliott put out albums that were so good/important that they make Hannibal and his intrepid pachyderms look like the Knack.
Spice Girls, and more generally, girl power: Baby, Ginger, Sporty, Posh, and Scary Spice. All sharing the same last name, just like the Ramones, the Marx Brothers, and the Brothers Karamazov... We’ve lost track of where on the reassessment/backlash wheel we currently are, so we’re not sure whether to declare Spice Girls as vital in the march for teen girl empowerment or a cynical appropriation of feminist rock, the dream of riot grrrl smooshed into slurry and repackaged as up-with-empire pop. Probably depends on whether or not one thinks that showing interest in a lover’s friendship group might lead to anything other than jealousy, hurt feelings, and drunken scenes in the biscuit aisle of Tesco.
What You Need to Know
The last two years of the ’90s are collectively the third film in the “Nineties Trilogy.” When someone describes their aesthetic as “very ’90s,” they are really talking about either ’91, ’92, or—if they are dressed like a white interdimensional rave Rastafarian, with more pockets than they will ever have enough ketamine to fill—they’re talking about 1998–1999 (and probably 2000 as well, but that’s another Special Issue of CREEM’s problem). It’s not as if anyone who dresses like, say, Unwound has a pronounced “’90s look.” They probably just work at a library with a lax dress code.
For “alternative rock,” 1998 would be the year when “alternative” signifiers
officially stopped meaning anything. Most of the popular “alternative” acts this year (Fastball, Eve 6, Goo Goo Dolls) made semi-sophisticated sentimentalist dross for the older siblings/younger parents of those who would eventually grow up to become the “creative class.” Even if Semisonic’s “Closing Time” wasn’t eventually played in an episode of The Office, the song’s fingerprints would still be all over it. Honestly, the next year, when Smash Mouth and Sugar Ray put an end to the whole sickly charade? It felt like a relief.
Also, Britney Spears’ debut—with album art depicting the then 18-year-old on her knees, with a triangular shadow over her crotch—sold more than 20,000,000 copies. And society, which at that point still used the term “groomer” correctly if at all, thought to itself: “This’ll be fine. She’ll be fine.”
Epochal Vibe Shifts
Okay. Let’s talk about nü-metal. We’re not going to lie to you. Many bands that fall under the nü-metal umbrella do not fill us with joy, and there’s not enough sativa suppositories on earth to change that. But nü-metal was the face of popular rock for a few years. And the difference between some nü standard-bearers—like Deftones or Orgy—and critical favorites like Helmet and Nine Inch Nails (not to mention one the most highly regarded albums of 1998, Refused’s The Shape of Punk to Come) is largely academic to anyone not invested in the minutiae of “extreme” music. If Orgy had dressed like Ian Svenonius and called their album The Shape of Industrial Metal to Come, would we like it more?
Actually, relistening to Candyass, it occurs to us that “Stitches” could easily—with some tasteful editing—be a track from The Faint. And we love the Faint like it’s a job. So, fine. Nü-metal made many folks happy. It had jams. Orgy were cool. Deftones and Incubus as well. We dig System of a Down and that one Disturbed song about being either for or against sickness. We concede the therapeutic value of Korn’s sharing of childhood trauma. Anyway, Family Values Tour was a nü-metal/hip-hop tour. If there’s any justice in this world, the fest paid Mobb Deep enough to buy a lifetime of six-inch unicorn-pelt Timberlands. Conversely, the fantastic (if eccentrically mixed) debut album by Queens of the Stone Age dropped this year. So it’s not like kids looking for an asshole-dad proxy didn’t have options. Also, Limp Bizkit still fucking suck. That’s not classicism. That’s having-ears-ism.
What You Need to Know
After 10 years of teen spirit (120 months of Flea-tastic funk!), the tail-end cat anus of the 20th century draws to a close. Sike. In 1990, Perry Farrell sang, “You know, for us, these are the days.” Of all the self-consciously profound lyrics Farrell would ever sing (of which there were plenty, dude explicitly said he wanted to be as deep as the ocean), this line—from “Classic Girl,” the final track on Ritual de lo Habitual—was the most broadly accurate. Both in what it basically said (“We’re young and makin’ memories!”), what it intentionally implied (“Don’t worry about other people’s oppressive nostalgia”), and what it probably didn’t mean to say: that “these days” belong to no one, and the next “these days” are always waiting in the wings.
The Nineteen-Nineties, baby. You had to be there. And you are. Because nostalgia is just a mean way of saying “tradition,” and the supposed spiritual schisms supposedly underpinning supposedly radically different eras or generations—are exactly as real as astrology and the “free” market. So the ’90s keep on rolling. And your days are these days, with all the extraneous pockets that entails. And, as a link in the eternal wallet chain, when you die the first sound you’ll hear is “Say Hello 2 Heaven” on repeat, trumpeting from golden multi-disc players emblazoned with God’s own motto: “Mean People Suck.” (Or, if you’re naughty, or it turns out that skateboarding is a crime after all, it’s Dishwalla all the way down.)
With Woodstock ’99, it occurs to some—not for the first time—that maybe Nirvana becoming popular had some unintended consequences. On 1990’s The Myth of Rock, Consolidated denounced the entire rock ’n’ roll project as a psy-op designed to maintain the status quo. Woodstock ’99—an orgy of idiocy, sexual violence, and nostalgia profiteering—would provide a smoking gun for anyone who thought Elvis was a bad idea in the first place. (Twenty years later, with Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99, Netflix perfected a more refined cynicism by scolding nü-metal while throwing in as many upskirt/topless shots of passed-out chicks as possible.)
Other than that, there were portents of doom that failed to occur (Y2K), and portents of stuff that would happen, i.e., Le Tigre predicting electroclash, White Stripes predicting the Garage Rock Revival Revival, the debuts by the Rapture and a band called Challenge of the Future—featuring one Nick Zinner on guitar—predicting all other aughts-rock, and the success of TLC's "No Scrubs" ensuring that Kandi Burruss would have an eventual star turn on Real Housewives of Atlanta. The new millennium couldn’t arrive fast enough. After heroin chic, low-rise jeans, and all our heroes dying, how bad could it be?
With Creed, grunge achieves its final form: Air Supply for Jesus freaks. The Jay-Z/UGK track “Big Pimpin’,” with its use of Hossam Ramzy performing “Khosara Khosara” (composed by Baligh Hamdi, made famous by Abdel Halim Hafez), solidifies Timbaland’s stature as a one-man British Museum.
The (relative) popularity, within the spheres that still enjoyed popular guitar music, of The Donnas’ Get Skintight and Buckcherry’s “Lit Up” hint that the reactionary guitar forces of both the overculture and whatever remains of the counterculture are actively seeking a third path forward. These confluences will eventually settle on the compromise candidate of the Strokes.
Smash Mouth’s “All-Star” and Sugar Ray’s “Every Morning” are considered by many to be examples of some sort of watering down of punk or alternative culture. Actually, they are the echoing decay of the joy that peaked with the new-wave rom-com soundtracks of 1995, and thus both songs should be treasured in all their gel-tipped reverie. With issue #25 and #30, respectively, the zines Rollerderby and Ben Is Dead call it quits, taking with them the ’90s dream of a New Strange Americana and leaving behind the memory of a cultural savvy that Pitchfork will attempt to emulate with nerd smarm, hammy sentiment, and cringe-inducing boho jive, and a vacuum that VICE will all too happily fill with ironic racism and unironic cocaine addiction.