I know I’m probably about a year behind the times, but I’ve only recently started listening to Google’s streaming “radio” stations instead of my own uploaded library. Music is a funny thing. You’re really into it for a certain phase of your life (typically pre-teen to college age), and then you get busy with other things and you stop paying attention to it. Subsequently, that era of music tends to become the standard by which all other music encountered is measured. In a sense, your musical tastes freeze even while artists and styles continue to wax, wane, and evolve. One day, you find yourself yelling down the hallway at your teenager to turn the volume down on whatever annoying bits of sound are passing for audio art nowadays. It happens to the best of us. Don’t laugh, your time is coming.
The era of music that I look back on with the most fondness is the 90’s. There was about a five-year period of time when frustrated GenX rock artists were eschewing all of the musical conventions and formulas that were successfully applied to the pop and glam bands of the 80’s. They focused simply on writing and performing great music with poetic lyrics and cared about little else. This was the era of grunge and alternative rock led by reluctant artists accidentally becoming the voices of a generation. I was fortunate to be the exact right age to be able to appreciate this genre as it was unfolding.
The best of that era came during the beginning of the decade. The first time I heard Ten by Pearl Jam, I didn’t know what to make of it. It was dark and different and beautiful. My collection was soon augmented with offerings from Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots, and of course Nirvana. As the genre matured and became more mainstream in the second half of the decade, some good music was still being released but the “edge” was mostly gone.
Now, when I punch up the 90’s alternative playlist on my mobile phone (I never predicted I’d type that sentence back in 1994), I find myself wondering: whatever happened to these bands? At one time, these personalities loomed so large on MTV and the airwaves. In 1995, I probably couldn’t have counted the number of times MTV anchor Kurt Loder uttered the name “Scott Weiland” in the course of a day. But most of them have now been absent from the spotlight for ten years or more. So, to Google I go!
In catching up, I’m learning some interesting things. For example, in the early days of grunge there were quite a few collaborations and crossovers between these bands. I knew about Temple of the Dog, which featured members from both Soundgarden and Pearl Jam, but I had forgotten about other bands such as Audioslave (Soundgarden/Rage Against the Machine). This was a tight community. They all knew each other, and they all shared a love for honest, bold, untainted music. There was no competition among them, only collaboration and cooperation.
Something else that was evident at the time, but has since been further documented, was the discomfort most of these bands felt with their roles once they became popular. Paradoxically, they drew inspiration from a broken, unaccepting society that was now fully accepting of them and their music. They wailed against unjust institutions while signing lucrative deals with big record labels. The irony was not lost on Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain or Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, both of whom appeared increasingly uncomfortable with the spotlight outside of the music stage. British magazine Melody Maker did a feature on Vedder in 1994 called “I’m Not Your F*** Messiah” in which he bemoaned the burden of expectations placed on musicians by an entire generation of fans. Of course, Cobain’s inner turmoil is well known, and contributed to his suicide in 1994.
Grunge’s heyday was bright and short-lived. It wouldn’t be long before more polished grunge-influenced pop bands like Creed and The Goo Goo Dolls dominated the musical charts. These types of successes simultaneously validated the genre and ensured that the gritty niche bands would never fully return.
In a conversation with Jessica Cook a few days ago, she referred to podcasting as “the last true art form”. She was speaking in hyperbole, but I do think she has a good point. The honesty and authenticity makes it a very unique medium that stands out among today’s clickbait culture and ad-dominated airwaves. I think of our little community of gaming podcasters and I wonder if this is what it felt like for those bands in Seattle back in 1990. Just a bunch of gamers having a blast creating content, showing up on each other’s shows, kicking around questions like “what if we could make a living doing this?” without being delusional enough to believe that it will ever happen. But what if it did? What if a major network came knocking at my door? What if the money started to pour in? What if Beyond Bossfights became “The voice of the gamer generation?” I honestly don’t think I would be able to handle that kind of responsibility, either, to say nothing of the strain it might put on my current friendships.
No, I think I’ll just stay here as long as possible. Frozen in time. In the early 90’s.