Saturday, October 20, 2018

Billboard Top Ten Alternative Songs October 22 1994

In the past I have only done top ten lists of Hot 100 singles, but I thought I'd do the alternative charts, since that's the music that mattered most to me in the 1990s. That and the fact that this music is such a relic of that time. In October of 1994 I was in my first semester of college, happy to be in a place where people actually liked the same music I did. And now, on with the countdown!

10. Veruca Salt, "Seether"


This song was still climbing the charts in October of 1994, before it became a big crossover hit. A simple, classic, hard hitting rocker. This song showed how many alternative bands were grounded in a punk aesthetic but had grown up listening to AC/DC. Veruca Salt got dissed for the hard rock-iness of their sound (which they fully embraced on their second album), but this one still holds up for sure.

9. Toad the Wet Sprocket, "Something's Always Wrong"


Here's a band that was definitely NOT grounded in the punk aesthetic. Like Counting Crows they combined a more heartland/roots rock vibe with the mopiness that dominated the 90s. As a melancholic person that combo suited me fine. There's a catchy folk guitar riff but this song does not have hooks as sharp as the band's bigger hits.

8. Live, "I Alone"


It is not cool to like Live anymore, but I will always have a soft spot for them. They like me came from a small rural town and like me did not give into big city cynicism. Throwing Copper had some great hard-edged songs with emotional heft, and this one fits the bill. Sure there's the usual "loud-quiet-loud" formula but it's executed better than most. Bonus points for a throwback video where the band vamps and makes faces at the camera.

7. Liz Phair, "Supernova"



Yes yes yes. Great alternarock tune with Liz at her absolute sultriest. It was kind of amazing to hear a song this blatantly carnal on the local alt-rock station. Alternative rock tended to be pretty sexless compared to traditional rock music, but Phair was a pathbreaking exception. I had such a massive crush on her, musically and otherwise. When I moved to Chicago in the late 90s I got to see her live and it was absolutely fantastic.

6. Offspring, "Self Esteem"


Well this is a bit of a contrast with its male self-pitying. The Offspring were such an unlikely success, a California punk band that had a massive chart busting album on an independent label (Epitaph) started by members of Bad Religion. In this song you can begin to hear the seeds of the future, when what was known as "alternative" became the same old macho butt rock with more distorted guitars and fewer solos.

5. Dinosaur Jr, "Feel The Pain"


No song takes me back to hanging out in my dorm room my freshman year of high school like this one. In a lot of ways 1994 was the absolute peak of alternative rock. Dinosaur Jr, an indie scene stalwart that had existed well below the surface for years all of sudden were getting significant MTV airplay. This song has some of my favorite J. Mascis guitar pyrotechnics, but what's more amazing is that a song with his broken voice on it got airplay. That was the magic of the year of our Lord 1994.

4. Nirvana, "About A Girl"



It is extremely difficult for me to hear Nirvana's Unplugged in New York without getting super emotional. Before the album got an official release my college debate coach had taped the episode off of TV and we played it on our long college debate road trips. Kurt Cobain's death had shaken me and playing this album on those dark nights crossing the prairie was like sitting shiva. This song came from Nirvana's pre-fame first album, and sounds even better acoustically. It's the first song of the set, and when those acoustic guitars churn it sets off something very deep inside of me. I once even started an aborted novel with that particular moment. The novel didn't go anywhere, and neither has the feeling this song gives me.

3. Stone Temple Pilots, "Interstate Love Song"



In the autumn of 1994 I professed to hate Stone Temple Pilots. In my new life as a college student I wanted everyone to know how deep and sophisticated and BETTER my musical tastes were. Having read too many rock critics I sneered at this band as a bunch of Johnny-come-latelys. And yes, they were not original but in time and with wisdom I could at least acknowledge that they were a decent rock band with a handful of bangin' singles. This is one of them. ("Big Bang Baby" is actually transcendent.)

2. The Cranberries, "Zombie"


With over twenty years of peace it is easy to forget how awful and bloody the Troubles were for Northern Ireland. The Cranberries, who had made their name with beautiful, ethereal singles, got hard and loud on this topical song. The sound is dated but the message is not. As Fela Kuti knew, "zombie" is a good metaphor for a person who commits violence unthinkingly. This is the kind of angry cry against hate we need more of today.

1. REM, "What's the Frequency Kenneth?"



I have commented before how REM's Monster is the 90s alternative rock album you'll always find multiple used copies of at record stores. It was a rocking, feedback-laden follow up to their two folky smashes, Out of Time and Automatic for the People. A lot of people bought on the strength of hits like this, then tossed it aside. I am a Monster apologist. A couple of songs near the end are weak, but there are some amazing tunes all over that album, and a drone-y, psychedelic sound that's pretty unique. This song is certainly on the weird side, with the title being a reference to a man attacking Dan Rather in the street and most of the lyrics being mumbled by Stipe in ways we hadn't heard since Fables of the Reconstruction. On this song in particular it was nice to hear Peter Buck cut loose on the guitar after years of mandolin-ing.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Old Dad's Records (The Failure Episode)


Episode 33 of Old Dad's Records is out now. My theme this time is failure. I start with "Tusk" by Fleetwood Mac, since the titular album did not make the expected sales marks after the success of Rumours. Thankfully there's been a critical reevaluation since. After that I dig into The Faces' A Nod Is As Good As A Wink... an album I tried and failed to write a book about for the 33 1/3 series. I end with a rave for Kurt Vile's newest album, which I am grooving to as I write this.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Newt Gingrich And The Need For A Democratic Narrative

Advocating for a moon base was Newt at his Newtiest

There's a recent profile of Newt Gingrich in the Atlantic that's been making the rounds, and it has been giving me uncomfortable flashbacks to the 1990s. He led the Republican stampede into Congress in 1994, the first use of a partisan government shutdown, and the impeachment crusade against Bill Clinton. Beyond that (as was even evident in the 1990s), he was responsible for a new kind of Congressional politics. Ever since the Republicans have been practicing a kind of right wing Bolshevism, treating power as the only moral concern. Trump has merely dropped the last pretenses of decorum and civility. He is a creature who arose from the muck of this fetid swamp, not an alien to the Republican party.

Gingrich is a fatuous blowhard who likes to talk like what a dumb person thinks a smart person sounds like. Even so, he proved himself to be an effective tactician. Back in 1994 one thing he perfected was the use of political narratives. His GOPAC campaign was all about attacking Democrats as immoral, corrupt, and wasteful with coordinated messages. He also generated the so-called "Contract With America," which gave every GOP candidate, no matter how uninspired, a narrative and platform to run with. Republicans, already whipped into a frenzy with their dislike of first-term president Bill Clinton, came out in droves to the polls and took both houses of Congress for Republicans for the first time in 40 years.

Flash forward to 2018.

Democrats are also running against an unpopular first term president whom their base despises. It's fertile soil for a landslide, but that's hardly a guarantee. The issue is not just an unfavorable Senate map and gerrymandering in House. The Democrats have elected not to generate a national narrative. They have taken a "let a thousand flowers bloom" approach, perhaps hoping not to alienate voters in red areas with a progressive national message. The issue is, I have no clue how the Democrats will govern if they win Congress. Do you?

That is a huge problem. How can you claim to be an alternative to the status quo when you aren't telling people what that alternative even is? Democrats need to take a page from Newt Gingrich and establish a broader narrative. They need to paint conservatives as antithetical to the will of the people, and to make them have to come out and play defense against that narrative. Right now all the talk is about Trump, and that's not good enough.

There's three weeks left until the election, and Mitch McConnell provided the perfect ammunition today. He essentially said that his biggest regret as a politician was that he has failed to cut back on Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare, and that cuts in those programs would be necessary to cut the deficit. The narrative here is pretty simple: Democrats want a country where people's basic needs are taken care of, and Republicans want to take away your health care and retirement so that they can give even more money to rich people through tax cuts. Please Democrats. Say it. Again and again and again and again. Say it until you are blue in the face. Say it until even our wretched excuse for a fourth estate forces Republicans to have to answer to it. The stakes are too high for politics as usual, and those politics have been a massive failure for Democrats anyway.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Pulp, "Common People"



Nothing was conventional about Pulp. Their lead singer, Jarvis Cocker, was a beanpole in giant nerd glasses whose lyrics discussed sexuality in extremely real and uncomfortable ways. The band's sound, with plenty of synths and the guitars relegated to moods and textures on most tracks, was completely out of step with the go-hard rock riffing of 1990s grunge and Britpop. They were one of those bands that if you liked them, you felt like you were in a club (at least in America.) Whenever I met a fellow Pulp fan back in the 90s I always felt an immediate bond with them.

Nobody obsesses over social class like the Brits, and so its not surprising that maybe the best pop song ever about class comes this literate band hailing from Sheffield. On "Common People" Cocker took a slight break from his romance and sex obsessions to deliver a staggering anthem about what it's like to be a common person confronted by a rich hipster poseur. Because Pulp are not a riff-rocking band, the anthemic chorus is almost orchestral, the guitars and synths climbing to a fever pitch as Cocker hits the high notes as he sings "You'll never live like common people."

While the song is a tell off to a rich girl who "came from Greece with a thirst for knowledge," there is a strain of sadness, rather than defiance to it. The line "you'll never watch your life slide out of view" is on my mind as I am in middle age. Working class people very early on in their lives are aware of limits, of their ideal life having to give way to reality, a moment where the life they see their life "slide out of view." Another painfully real line is Cocker saying this rich girl will never know what it's like "to live your life with no meaning or control." The wealthy are usually unaware of the security and options their wealth gives them. As Cocker sneers, "If you call your dad he can stop it all." That's not an option for common people.

It's easy to see why this was a hit in the UK, and why it went nowhere in the US, a nation constantly denying the existence of its social class hierarchy. This song has been on my mind a lot recently. The Kavanaugh hearings were a pretty clear example of how this nation's ruling class exists above the rules that the rest of us must follow. The people who went to Georgetown Prep will never live like common people. I only wish Americans could see this as clearly as folks across the pond can.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Fascism 2.0

I am trying and failing to get the old time religion today

Back in the year 2000 in my first year as a doctoral student I wrote a historiographical paper for one of my grad classes about the historiography of fascism, especially the discussions of its definition. After all, fascism was something so universally condemned in those days that you could not throw the epithet around without justifying yourself. Grad student me tended to think of the word as really having more of a historical than contemporary meaning. Back then I saw fascism as a moment in time after the crises brought on by World War I and the Great Depression, and less as a relevant political movement. Of course there were fascists still around, but they were on the fringiest of fringes.

Obviously, things have changed. At the same time, we lack a proper vocabulary to describe the phenomenon that includes Donald Trump, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Italy's Five Star Movement, the National Front, and Alternative for Germany. The American media uses the insipid phrase "populism," which is a political style rather than an ideology. All of these movements are made up of extreme nationalists using populist rhetoric as their vehicle. They are running campaigns for national regeneration predicated on mass action but enforced by state brutality. That sounds remarkably like, well, fascism.

I am beginning to think of this new wave as "Fascism 2.0." Why that terminology? Because fascism is a reactive phenomenon that emerges in times of crisis. What we are seeing now is less an attempt to be part of a longer fascist lineage, and more a reimagining of fascism for a new crisis in a new era. Fascism 1.0 featured paramilitaries and their leaders in uniform, an obvious influence from the Great War that birthed the movement its leaders had participated in. The nations currently getting hit by a fascist wave are not nearly so militarized, so that kind of thing doesn't make sense. People looking for fascism are looking for brownshirts, instead they should be looking at internet trolls, who are the modern day squadristi. They go around looking to do verbal violence to their opponents, to doxx and shame them instead of making them drink castor oil. The intention is the same, though: the clean the public sphere of the enemy.

Fascism 2.0 has adapted to our modern world. It knows to avoid flagrant fascist symbolism and to cling to respectability. It knows that once you deny something, i.e., "I was NOT flashing a white power symbol," the media will automatically report the controversy and give up on finding the truth. Fascism 2.0 is kicking Jean Marie Le Pen out of the party, but still espousing all of the old ideas. Fascism 2.0 uses the fringe nasties like neo-Nazis and Klansmen to pretend that it does not hold the same essential beliefs, that those hated groups are the "real fascists," not the Stephen Millers of the world (who so clearly are.) It knows not to reach for absolute dictatorship, but to leave just enough wiggle room to say "see, people here have freedoms." Orban in Hungary and Putin in Russia have perfected this sham, especially Orban. Countries where the system is rigged can avoid the fascist label by still having elections (which are manipulated) and opposition media (which is marginalized.) Old institutions are maintained, but subtly turned into tools for the regime. Just look at what's happened to the court systems of Poland and the United States. We think of fascists as totalitarians, but in our modern world where people are so atomized and cut off from each other that disconnection and apathy is a thousand times more powerful tool than propaganda posters. As Putin has learned, you can allow your opponents to speak, just make sure no one is able to hear them.

Make no mistake, Fascism 2.0 has the same worldview as the old version. It is based on redemptive nationalism, misogyny, anti-intellectualism, racism, xenophobia, contempt for international peace, and naked power over the rule of law. What scares me is that is able to work its way into power much more seamlessly than before.

I greatly fear that the future holds even worse things. Fascism 1.0 was an inherently self-destructive phenomenon. Its leaders lusted for the wars that would enlarge those borders, and it was war that brought those regimes down. The current crop of fascists is not so eager for a new conflagration (yet.) They also have in-built advantages the old fascists didn't have. The left is incredibly weak. Labor unions have been losing power and socialist parties are often the ones bleeding out their members into the National Front and Alternative For Germany. As Macron has demonstrated, the liberal center is ineffectual and compromised. Today's fascists have far less opposition than the old ones did, and their ability to grab power without resorting to totalitarian means makes opposing them even harder.

The global climate crisis will only increase their appeal. As David Astin Walsh wrote about on Twitter this morning, fascists are obsessed with scarcity and borders. They will use ever-growing refugee crises and battles over resources to make fascism even more appealing.

With each day I get more and more hopeless for the future. Fascism 2.0 is much bigger and more powerful than I initially thought. What's worse is that so many people don't even see it, and corporate media, refusing to break their bothsidesism, will never name the problem. Because there aren't brownshirts in the streets and Hitler salutes that doesn't mean that fascism isn't winning.

I hope I'm overreacting, but right now it looks like what little democracy we ever had is going to end not with a bang but with a whimper.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

"Our Girls"

Janelle Monae with the message we need

There's a speech by Elizabeth Cady Stanton called "Our Girls" that I use to teach 19th century feminism, in all its flaws. It makes a good contrast with Frances Willard's linking of women's rights to temperance and "home protection," and often surprises my students because they did not think there were women in the Gilded Age who thought as radically as Stanton did. The opening lines are certainly evocative:

"They are the music, the flowers, the sunshine of our social life. How beautiful they make our homes, churches, schools and festive scenes: how glad and gay they make our streets with their scarlet plumes, bright shawls and tartan plaids. Who can see a bevy of girls tripping home from school without pausing to watch their graceful motions, pretty faces, feet and legs, to listen to their merry words and peals of laughter. See how they romp and play with hoops and balls, with sleds and skates, wash their brothers’ faces in the snow, and beat them in a race on yonder pond. These boys and girls are one to-day in school, at play, at home, never dreaming that one sex was foreordained to clutch the stars, the other but to kiss the dust."

I think about these lines all the time when I watch my six year old daughters playing with their friends in their joyous, carefree way. It often fills me with profound sadness, because I know what society is about to put them through.

The glimpses are already there. Based on their behavior, the boys I see their age have not been taught a lot about being nice to each other or caring about other people's feelings. I know that in a few years my daughters' male peers will be judging them by their looks, and that they will be dealing with the Kavanaughs, Squis, and Judges of the world. My wife and I know that as their parents there is only so much that we can do, and that they are going to have to navigate the minefields of female adolescence mostly by themselves. Things were bad enough already, but with the election of Trump and the confirmation of Kavanaugh the abusers, predators, and misogynists can rest easy that their people are at the helm. I am sure that they feel emboldened.

I know too many people to count who have been sexually abused and assaulted (not all of them women, by the way.) I am sure that I know many more who have not shared their stories with me. I know that in some cases the resulting pain and trauma lasts a lifetime. I also know that not a single person who perpetuated these assaults on the people in my life ever had to face justice. I have also seen up close and in painful ways how institutions and authority figures makes excuses for abusers. Kavanaugh's confirmation sends a clear message to the already disbelieved and disrespected victims: your pain, your experience, and your life simply don't matter.

That's the message Trump's America sends to so many people on a daily basis. The children murdered in school shootings, the black men and women shot down by the police, the immigrant families broken apart and jailed, and the women who are sexually assaulted have essentially been told that their sufferings are justified.

I can't help but to make it personal, and to think about what my girls are growing up into. Those who want them conditioned to "kiss the dust" are behaving with impunity. They have control over the courts now, so their vile fantasies about what kind of lives our girls can and cannot have will soon be a reality. I owe it them to fight to my last breath.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Bring Back Trash Cinema!


We are living in dark times. In these days of woe we need escapist entertainment to distract us. We need cheap thrills. We need dumb fun. We need trash cinema.

Back in the olden times trash cinema could be found in the drive in theaters across America. From killer robots to killer shrews to killer motorcycle gangs there were cheap thrills aplenty. The drive-ins hit their decline, but in the 1970s the grindhouses stepped into the breech. Exploitation cinema hit a high point worldwide, from Italian horror to Australian road flicks to American blaxploitation. A lot of film-makers raised on this stuff turned it into art cinema in the 1990s, with Quentin Tarantino being the most notable. In the 1980s the home video market undercut the grindhouses but opened up many more opportunities for trash cinema. A suburban dad might not go to the city to see an exploitation movie in a grimy cinema, but he would totally rent American Ninja.

I saw so many B-action movies as a kid because my father loved martial arts (he earned a black belt) and would watch anything with Chuck Norris in it. In the early days of cable in the 80s stations like WGN and TBS would show any old Charles Bronson or Lee Marvin flick, and I would watch it. Burt Reynolds became the biggest box office draw of the late 70s and early 80s via what's essentially a higher budget drive-in feature, Smokey and the Bandit.

While the 80s were a golden age of trash cinema, in the 90s it went into decline. Mom and pop video stores were replaced by Blockbusters. Those mom and pop places needed those B movies to have product on the shelves, a reputable megacorp like Blockbuster would just put up an entire wall of copies of Armageddon. The world of streaming that replaced the local Blockbuster store should have resulted in a trash cinema renaissance, but it hasn't.

On the big screen studios put out fewer and more expensive movies, with the cheap thrills of the past left aside. On the small screen there is an obsession with "prestige" television. Amazon and Netflix are swimming in cash, and so can bankroll attempts at recognition rather than a shotgun blast of B movie pleasure.

Of course, a lot of this "prestige" television has grown stale and formulaic and self-serious to a self-parodying level. I'm honestly bored and tired of it. America wants, nay craves trashy cheap thrills, not yet another group of stiff-lipped royals or criminal suburban dads. If you want to know what you're missing, watch Electric Boogaloo on Netflix. It is an amazing documentary about Cannon Films, the ultra-productive schlock producers of the 1980s led by the undaunted Golan and Globus. It's made by the same people responsible for Not Quite Hollywood, a similarly engaging look at Australian genre cinema in the 70s and 80s.

So please Netflix, hire a modern-day Roger Corman to run a spin-off studio that makes dumb, fun, inventive genre movies. Bring back the backwoods moonshiners running from the revenuers, the Pam Grier-type righteous woman hero, giant mutated animals, ninja throwing stars, and over the hill action stars shooting up the screen

Here's some great clips to tide us over until we get our trash cinema back:

Ninja golf course massacre in Ninja III: The Domination



Don't mess with a pissed off trucker! White Line Fever is a secret blue collar masterpiece



Before he was the Bandit, Burt Reynolds was Gator. Both films also featured themes by underrated country singer Jerry Reed, who also starred.

1970s trash cinema, when Joe Don Baker could be an action hero.


The one and only Pam Grier


Death Wish 3 is grotesque, what a friend called "a Trump speech given sentient life." Trash cinema should occasionally make you feel icky for watching it.