How I Survived the 90s (or, "Garbage, Liz Phair and Me.")
By Wil Forbis
March 1st 2019
Musically speaking, I was born in the wrong decade. I was born in the 1970s, which meant that I came of age during the 80s. The 80s were, to me, a glorious decade of music. I first fell in love with the music of robo-nerds Devo and similar synth-pop groups like The Human League and the Thompson Twins. Then, after I picked up a guitar, I became enamored with the hard rock and heavy metal of groups like AC/DC, Guns-n-Roses and Metallica. Such music, mired in aggressive, pounding rhythms and lyrics describing the bevy of loose women out there "on the streets", was almost scientifically designed to appeal to sweaty, delusional, hormonal, horny teenagers and I was a textbook example. Metal also functioned as a Tony Robbins style cheerleader for its audience, delivering the sermon that you too could rise to great heights, if only you practiced guitar six hours a day, which I promptly did.
However, coming-of-age in the 80s meant that when I was ready to fulfill my dreams of rock ‘n’ roll stardom the world crashed into the 90s. And the 90s tossed everything about the previous decade into the trash heap. Whereas the 80s had a love affair with glitz and glam as well as a certain earnestness, the 90s adopted a much more subdued aesthetic and a jaded attitude. This was epitomized in the grunge music genre whose chief exponent was the band Nirvana. Grunge threw out metal’s obsession with musical virtuosity, as well as synth-pop’s love of sparkle and sheen, and replaced it with middling musicianship (because trying was for losers) and omnipresent irony. (If I sound bitter it's because I am.)
I have to be careful to get the right balance of what I’m trying to say here. As you probably guessed, grunge and the 90s aesthetic in general was not my thing. But this is not to say that I hated it. A lot of grunge was essentially slowed down metal (I was a big fan of grunge godfathers, The Melvins with their "Black Sabbath at 33 1/3 RPM sound) and it still had enough hair on its chest to keep my attention. And I was not so enamored of hard rock that I didn't realize that much of it was ridiculous, in particular its fashion. Any outfit that combines leopard-skin leotards with leather bondage gear can't be a good thing.
Anyway, I was acutely aware that I was out of my element in the 90s. Grunge and its fellow travellers of punk and indie-rock seemed to offer a certain brotherhood of sorts but only if you went along with its sneering disdain for anything with a taint of corporate influence as well as the usual bete noirs of capitalism, the mainstream, “inauthenticity”, etc., etc. I found this “us versus them” view stifling and simplistic; I've always been something of a political orphan, at odds with both the stern bowtie sermons of the right and the shrill sloganeering of the left.
So what did a man out of time, feeling friction with both the sounds and politics of independent music, do? Well, I did play in several bands, all of them musically distant from grunge and related genres. And while I had some great times in those groups, they, to no surprise, never really took off. As a result, by 1995 or so I was aware that I would probably have to start exploring some kind of career path. I signed up at the local community college and started taking a variety of classes.
At the time, I was living with a couple of roommates (a couple in the sense that there were two of them and they were romantically intertwined) and started to play with the Macintosh computer they had in the living room. I began messing around with HTML and image files, trying to feel out this newfangled thing they called the internet. While performing this digital exploration I often had music playing, and there were two albums - also borrowed from my roommates - that I listened to obsessively, so much so that whenever I hear them I am transported back to this period of time.
The first of these was the debut record from the band Garbage. Fronted by Scottish singer Shirley Manson, the group enjoyed pre-established street cred because member Buth Vig had produced the definitive grunge album, Nirvana's breakout "Nevermind." This probably predisposed me to dislike the music, but I warmed to it for various reasons. For one, while the music had guitars, it wasn't really guitar rock and this gave it a novelty to my ears. And while Manson's lyrics certainly captured a lot of the sneering disdain that marked the music of her 90s indie-cohorts, she also expressed a certain contrarianism (and I've always been a sucker for contrarianism.) In what was the decade of the riot grrl movement and sisterhood solidarity, she penned a tune entitled "Stupid Girl" which mocked a fellow female. While there was nothing homophobic about the song "Queer," it still felt dangerously vague. In general, Manson and the band gave off the vibe that they didn't care what the pc-hipsters of the day thought.
Beyond all the contextual elements of the album, it was just plain catchy. All lot of albums have a couple quality songs mixed in with mediocrities but the Garbage album contained no filler; every song appealed to my ear. And the tunes worked together to form a complete whole.
The second album - well, compact disc – that caught my ear at that point was Liz Phair's 1993 debut "Exile in Guyville." As I look back, this seems a curious choice. There was nothing really contrarian about the album, instead it was considered a major component of the then current zeitgeist, not far removed from "Nevermind" in its importance. Phair became something of a feminist icon for the album, which she alleged, was a track-by-track response to the cock-rock swagger of the Rolling Stone's album "Exile on Main Street." (A few people have questioned this and I have to say the connection is not obvious.)
For me, it wasn’t so much that I thought the album was a pop gem as that I found it intriguing. While many people, including critics, seemed to hear a clear message in the music - a message decrying misogyny, the mainstream rock scene and so on - I wasn't sure what it meant. Many of the lyrics seemed more like a collage of unrelated statements---like dialogue from a coffeehouse conversation---than poetically crafted lyrics. This vagueness, bordering on incoherence, drew me in.
Musically the album had more intricate and interesting guitar work than much of what came out of the 90s. Instead of being dependent on power chords and walls of sonic sludge, Phair’s guitar parts nimbly offered interesting counter melodies to whatever her voice was doing. It's an effort that holds up to this day.
So, it was with both albums ringing in my ears that I toiled away in the mid-nineties and learned the ins and outs of web development and design. Eventually I got a web job that led to another and then another. Did I then ascend into a life of comfortable job security and put my guitars away? Hardly – but that’s a story for another article.
Wil Forbis is a well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy, he is making the world safe for democracy. Email - firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.