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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Column: Smells like the Nineties

Nostalgia for the year 1994

It’s a strange thing to see an era you remember being regurgitated by the nostalgia machine. The last couple of years have been a constant stream of early ‘90s anniversaries: Nevermind! Dazed and Confused! My So-Called Life! It’s not like we didn’t see this coming, of course — culture tends to move in generational 20ish-year cycles, so a resurgence of interest in the ‘90s was inevitable. Sure, the early ‘90s was a rich flourishing of culture after the desert that was the late ‘80s. But this year, we’re at the 20th anniversary of 1994. And listen: 1994 was awful.

You wouldn’t know it from the stuff that’s being written, though. Rolling Stone, for instance, published a feature earlier this week on the premise that 1994 was “mainstream alternative’s greatest year,” a benchmark that raises all sorts of interesting questions, not least of which is how something mainstream can still be termed “alternative” without setting off some sort of cosmic feedback loop that will eventually devour the cosmos.

But still, you know what they mean. 1994 was the year when the seed planted by grunge bloomed into a full flower of commercial viability. The year that saw a sound that started in a few little dive venues in the Pacific Northwest turn into a global industry. “Teenage angst has paid off well,” Kurt Cobain had sneered on In Utero‘s “Serve the Servants” the year before, “and now I’m bored and old.”

It wasn’t just him for whom teenage angst paid off, though — every major label wanted their own Nirvana, and if you had a flannel shirt, a distortion pedal and a sense of ill-defined mid-20s angst, a record deal was yours.

The thing is, though, just like virtually every counterculture movement, grunge was over as a creative force by the time it went mainstream. A few months into 1994, Nirvana was gone forever, obviously. Spiritual forebears the Pixies had officially split the year before. Pearl Jam released Vitalogy, which may well be their strongest record but also marked their departure into introspection.

With b-sides compilation Pisces Iscariot, Billy Corgan started the journey up his own demise that would soon lead to the bloated Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Sonic Youth’s grunge period farted its way into oblivion with the largely underwhelming Experimental Jet Set, TrashandNo Star.

While the originators were losing interest, a legion of inferior second-wave grunge bands invaded the charts. Then there were the bands who purveyed a sort of alternative lite for the masses, and cashed in to the tune of millions of album sales. Most notably, these were Hootie and the Blowfish, who blazed a trail that’d later be followed by the likes of Matchbox Twenty and Shawn Mullins and other white dudes with guitars and possibly dreadlocks and many, many feels.

Nostalgia for the oh-so-zeitgeisty Reality Bites soundtrack, meanwhile, is tempered by the memory of having to endure endless radio play of Lisa Loeb’s “Stay (I Missed You)” and risible white rasta band Big Mountain’s butchery of “Baby, I Love Your Way.”

Elsewhere, 1994 was the year that gave us the first uncomfortable stirrings of post-grunge, the sort of unholy gestalt revenant genre that would eventually produce Nickelback and Creed and consign guitar music into a creative oubliette that it still hasn’t quite managed to climb out of. It was also the year that brought us nü-metal: Korn released their debut album in October, while in Jacksonville, one Fred Durst was assembling the band that would become Limp Bizkit.

And Dookie. Dear god, Dookie. Of all the weird revisionism around 1994 — and believe me, there’s been plenty — this takes the award.

The consensus today seems to be that Green Day was fine until they started trying to be U2. They weren’t. They were never fine. They were always awful. As if the very existence of Fat Wreck Chords wasn’t evidence enough, they were conclusive proof that people from California should never, ever be allowed to form punk bands.

And yet, here’s Dookie atop Rolling Stone‘s best of 1994 list. I mean, clearly, this is ultimately a matter of taste. And if Billie Joe Armstrong singing about wanking is your benchmark for a masterpiece, I don’t really know what to tell you.

In fairness, 1994 wasn’t all doom and gloom. Of course it wasn’t. Any year brings some measure of excellence, and 1994 gave us Illmatic, and Live Through This, and Monster, and Let Love In, and Ready to Die, and Selected Ambient Works Vol II… and on the other side of the Atlantic, a flood of great albums was being released: Manic Street Preachers’ The Holy Bible, Blur’s Parklife, Suede’s Dog Man Star.

There’s been relatively little nostalgia for all that stuff, though. No — it’s the idea of 1994 as some sort of high-water mark for alt-rock, when in fact the wave had long since broken and started rolling back to the shore. If 1991 was the year punk broke, 1994 was the year it went for a little nap, and awoke 10 years later to find its good name had been besmirched by Alien Ant Farm and Good Charlotte. Once was more than enough.

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