Hey, folks, does anything suck more than Baby Boomers talking about the 60’s? Did you, like me, watch that Just For Men “Summer Of Life” commercial and wish a lingering death from some kind of impacted anal fissures on the fifty-something douche pretending to play guitar while some blonde thirty-something douchette pretends to be attracted to him through gritted teeth while visions of her Just For Men commercial paycheck dance in her empty little head? Maybe Generation X-ers talking about the 90’s is just a tad more irritating and pointless – but that’s not going to stop me. I’m going to walk you through 300 of the best, worst, and/or most memorable tracks from 1990 through 1999.
Inspired by our Idle Time Decades project, I spent my 2009 spring break painstakingly compiling a 300-song 1990’s iTunes playlist, cued specifically to my own recollections. To quote the Jack Rabbit Slim’s slogan, it’s “The Next Best Thing To A Time Machine” (and if you don’t know what Jack Rabbit Slim’s is, turn in your 90’s card.) Listening to this playlist is akin to spinning the dial on the best Top 40 radio station of that decade. (Ironically, the 90’s marked the death of true Top 40 radio.) The 1990’s saw me going from a scrawny, gawky, 15-year-old high school freshman to a chubbier, only slightly less gawky, 25-year-old college graduate, father, and (soon-to-be-ex) husband. And of course, all of this growth and drama had a soundtrack.
A little extra insight into how my mind works: In 1963, Groucho Marx penned his second autobiography, entitled Memoirs of a Mangy Lover, dedicated exclusively to his dalliances with the opposite sex. Well, that would actually be a perfect title for this particular set of blog entries. You see, lot of these songs are hopelessly intertwined with various young ladies I was involved with, or scheming to become involved with, or (in much rarer cases) attempting to extricate myself from being involved with, so that will certainly be a running theme. If you have no stomach for wading through a bunch of pining and/or raging over decade-plus-old shit that absolutely nothing can be done about anymore, read no further. The fact that most of these braces-wearing, dewy-eyed teenage ingénues I write about are now chardonnay-drinking, SUV-driving soccer moms might add to the poignancy, but be warned: you are entering a realm of shameless nostalgia and romanticism. Those of you who see me as an lumpy, embittered Paul Giamatti-type character (and I know there’s at least a few of you out there) may be shocked at the depth of my romanticism, and that fact that once upon a time I was decent-looking enough to inspire romanticism in others. If you’ve been directed here from my Facebook page, and you knew me in the 90s, you may recognize yourself. I’ll change names where I think it may cause embarrassment (for you or me.)
Apart from romantic entanglements, another big reason these songs resonate for me is MTV. In the early 90’s, MTV was on from the minute I flung my backpack on my bed after a hard day at high school/junior college, to the time I nodded off around 12:30 or so. (With breaks for Cheers reruns and Evening At The Improv on A&E.) I got my news from Kurt and Tabitha, my laughs from Beavis & Butthead, and never missed a Buzz Bin clip. (I wasn’t cool enough to catch on to 120 Minutes until Matt Pinfield took over as host around ’95 or so). So that’s why list is front-loaded from 1990 to about 1996, when MTV started phasing out music videos.
Some songs on the playlist will inspire an entire essay, some a brief sentence or two, and some are included just because I remember them all over the radio and MTV, and will not merit much of a thought at all.
Don’t expect too much critical analysis of the songs (although that will probably happen.) It’s all about my own memories, but isn’t one of the big criticisms of blogs is that they’re nothing but a bunch of narcissistic navel-gazing me-me-me self-obsession? I’d hate to think I didn’t do my part to fuel the fire.
This is going to be quite a lengthy, on-going series. Those of you who have nosed through past entries of the Holy Bee know that I cannot limit myself to “140 characters” (Fuck Twitter!), and that I am all about the epic. Go big or go home.
And don’t get all indignant because I left something crucial out (although I bet I didn’t). This is the 1990s how I remember it. Are we ready? Splendid, let’s begin:
I graduated from the 8th grade in May 1989. My graduating class totaled 8. It was a small school in the middle of nowhere.
(RECENT EDIT: Years after I wrote this entry, I wrote a couple of pieces specifically about 1989, which serve as a perfect prologue to this series. So check out 1989 Part One and Part Two if you want this reading experience to be even longer.)
I received my first kiss about six weeks earlier. There were no issues of “going out” or being a “couple” or any question of any kind of special relationship. 5 or 6 of the graduating class had simply been blowing off softball practice to play an increasingly experimental series of Truth Or Dare games and engage in dangerously explicit conversation. I learned more in April and May of 1989 than the rest of middle school put together. One of my classmates did everything short of hanging out a red lantern to indicate she was down for anything. After a day of whispered planning, we rendezvoused in my friend’s bedroom for the Big Moment.
Like every first kiss, it was awesome. Braced teeth gnawing away, Big Red-flavored tongues flicking, one of my hands placed demurely on her hip, the other holding shut the door.
She had been my friend Dusty’s first kiss, too, either a few days before or a few days after. No drama, no jealousy. We all knew, even joked about it. It was just business, to be gotten out of the way, so we didn’t go to high school as lip virgins.
(Our softball team imploded after playing only 2 games that spring, a victim of hormones. My career as a right-fielder was over. The girl in question was first base. I shit you not.)
Naturally, after swearing eternal loyalty, within about twelve weeks of entering high school in the “big city” (Yuba City, pop. 27,000 in ’89) that fall, I lost track of everyone I had graduated 8th grade with. Armed with a bit of experience and a cocky swagger (entirely unjustified from someone who could quote Monty Python And The Holy Grail verbatim), the real adventure, and the new decade, had begun.
It is entirely appropriate that the first four songs actually were released in 1989, but they saturated the radio in January 1990. It was in the fall of ’89 that I ran the gauntlet of the First Girlfriend and the inevitable First Breakup. (Ever read those human interest stories about the people that married their first girlfriend? Good for them, I guess, but I don’t give them credit for truly living life.)
High school dances are for the fall. By springtime, whatever magic and hope a new school year promised was buried under ennui and disappointment. Aside from my junior prom, I never attended a spring high school dance.
At my very first high school dance in September, good ol’ Dusty was still my wingman, and we were bold enough to engage two girls from my geography class in conversation. There was Nikki, short and cherubic, with blond ringlets and twinkling blue eyes, and Brenda, tall and willowy, with smoky dark eyes and brown hair.
The music was very loud. I spent the ensuing weekend thinking I had a nice chat with Vicky and Linda.
I was pretty captivated by Brenda. I thought she looked like Winona Ryder, whom I’d just discovered in Heathers, which I watched almost nightly for the next year. We started dating, beginning with a trip to the old Yuba City bowling alley (now a slightly seedy fitness center) followed by a visit to Metcalf’s Donuts ‘N’ Chicken (now a teriyaki restaurant – another theme of this blog: the changing face of Yuba City.)
The first time I visited her house, I saw that she had taped a PrintShop sign to her bedroom mirror which said “I Love Matt.” The fact that someone thought about me when I wasn’t in their presence was kind of dizzying. Empowering.
We went to see double features (Halloween 5 with The Phantom of the Opera, Millennium with Worth Winning), often double-dating with Nikki and her new boyfriend, who was actually a pretty good guy (I was close friends with him sophomore year), but became the butt of our endless Honors Student jokes when he wondered aloud what a deciduous tree was. We saw Back To The Future II (where she let me put my hand up the back of her shirt), The Little Mermaid (where she let me put my hand up the front of her shirt, then felt guilty for sullying a Disney movie that way.)
All that was yanked away when she ended the relationship after eight weeks, for reasons I never fully understood. I wrote the timespan of our relationship on the back of the wallet-sized picture she had given me, which I kept tucked in the arms of a stuffed Opus doll for quite some time. “October 2 – November 26, 1989.” I burned the picture sometime later, but remembered the dates (I ended up a history major.)
The realization that I may have made the wrong choice at that dance didn’t occur to me until much, much later. Nikki was quick-witted (a Python fan!) and good-hearted, and I’ve reflected more than once that she bore a bit of a resemblance (physically & personality-wise) to the girl I ended up marrying at the end of the decade. Brenda was evidently a bundle of neuroses and a sucking black hole of low self-esteem, who ended up on the nauseating radical plastic-surgery-makeover reality show The Swan many years later. Again, I shit you not. I saw none of that at the time. [Update: Brenda has been in touch with me since this was first posted, and quite rightly reprimanded me for passing judgment in this case. So apologies to her and remember, Gentle Reader, the only truly messed-up person in these scenarios is the Holy Bee himself. And Brenda, WTF are you doing in Corpus Christi, Texas of all places?]
Eight weeks pass for me now like the blink of an eye. Drive to work, work, drive home. Drive to work, work, drive home. Repeat for eight weeks. But those eight weeks in the fall of 1989 felt like a lifetime, and cast a pretty tall shadow over my psyche. December passed in a haze. (That picture of me at the top of this entry? The lopsided Han Solo grin concealed a shattered adolescent heart.)
During that era, every weekday morning for me began with a shower, so I could then blow-dry my unruly hair into submission and freeze-dry it with a blast of hairspray. Drying off in my bedroom, my TV was tuned to the local cable access channel so I could monitor the time and temperature. (I was a bike-rider, so time and temperature were vital info.) The channel used our local Top 40 radio station (Cool 104 FM) as a soundtrack. In the thirty minutes it took me to get ready each morning, I was guaranteed to hear three of the four songs listed above in January 1990, as I got ready for yet another Brenda-less day. When the mist of hairspray cleared, I would grab my jacket, rewind the Heathers or Life of Brian tape that I had fallen asleep to the night before (I found the “Always Look On The Bright Side of Life” song very soothing), and head out the door, determined to win her back or make her sorry she left.
Will Howell recently said that “Black Velvet” was the worst crime perpetrated on popular music in the last 30 years.
Released in late ’89, but did not gather momentum until the alternative rock boom of late ’91 – early ’92, when I heard it for the first time.
The only thing I knew about Sinead O’Connor in 1990 was that her shaved head was a regular presence on MTV, and a frequent butt of jokes on SNL. I watched her tear up a picture of the Pope on that very same show a few years later, and remembered thinking “Her career is over.” That was a reasonably accurate assessment, at least as far as chart success was concerened. It wasn’t until her role as a swearing, chain-smoking Virgin Mary in Neil Jordan’s The Butcher Boy that I began thinking of her as fairly awesome.
Hip-hop officially became safe and commercialized when my mom acquired a cassette of The Digital Underground’s Sex Packets for her car.
What are they trying to say here?
(Seriously, at the time I didn’t know a double entendre from a double espresso, and even I got the message on this one.)