This piece was originally written in 2016, following the release of my first novel, Lonesome When You Go (Mākaro Press, 2016), hence some out of date references to “popular” music.
Ed reckons Nirvana epitomised the peak of teenage angst, and the relevance of music to our collective consciousness has been going steadily downhill ever since.
Ed might be the fictional teenage drummer in my novel Lonesome When You Go, but he’s voicing a widely held opinion. Grunge died around 1996, taking the ‘alt’ of alt-rock with it and leaving us with highly processed, watered-down pop-rock – much like the brightly coloured ‘alcopops’ of the late 90s that distracted us with their pretty bottles but did nothing to validate our true teenage feelings.
The years between the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind and Kurt Cobain’s death have often been described as the height of authentic alternative rock. Earlier this month Sean O’Neal at the AV Club wrote “The faux-graffitied writing had been on the wall for alternative rock’s attenuation into corporate-engineered dross since approximately two weeks after Kurt Cobain’s suicide, right around the time Live’s Throwing Copper was released.”
Cue vivid flashback to the most popular, mainstream, best-grades-and-hair-award-winning girl at my school proudly wearing her orange ‘Live’ t-shirt tucked into her brand new Levis. A completely puzzling image to me at the time in my op-shop altered clothes and wearing-thin Converses. Alternative rock was no longer the alternative, but thank god the 90s gave us what they did.
Rolling Stone has a terrible list of the 100 best albums of the 90s.
It’s probably about 75 albums too long and although the top ten includes six alt-rock bands and only two albums released after 1996, it glaringly omits Radiohead’s The Bends and Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, both from 1995. I was fifteen that year and am forever grateful for such perfect life-timing. If ever there was someone to take on the burden of voicing the complexities of teenage emotions for our entire generation, in the wake of Cobain’s passing, Billy Corgan was it. An unlikely hero by today’s standards, but a genuine one whose music burst straight from his own hurt soul to ours, making us realise we felt things, the names for which we had never known before.
Maybe one would argue that this new generation of teenagers have different emotions. Perhaps they don’t feel deep inexplicable sorrow or pure anger at the structure of society, and Ed Sheeran stating that falling in love is mysterious is just as meaningful to them as Corgan’s lyrics were to us. Or perhaps hearing over and over that Bruno Mars’ girlfriend’s face is amazing just the way it is is somehow empowering. But current teenage mental health is unfortunately not in good shape and Miley’s limited emotional vocabulary that reduces people and feelings to wrecking balls and Taylor Swift telling us just to “shake it off” can’t be helping. Emotions and love are much more deeply complex than that and 90s alt-rock allowed us to own those feelings and sit with them. On shuffle and repeat.
Music has always been hugely important to teenage culture and therefore holds a position of great power and responsibility. It’s not the teenagers’ fault it’s been doing a lazy job of connecting with them these last 20 years.
It’s not just the fault of the lyricists either. The need for rock music to speak an emotional truth to a generation appears to be woefully low on the musical agenda while production value and the dollar are high. Current music software is incredible and anyone with a laptop and a few hundred bucks to spare can set up a home studio. But the slick polished sound is a far cry from an authentic human voice, taking musicians yet another step away from their audiences’ hearts.
Back to the 90s and commercialism was already starting to break down the entire point of alternative rock before it had time to fully draw breath.
Some argue alternative music was doomed the moment it arrived. Like a baby born on the moon, emerging into a toxic context of an industry fundamentally devoted to the corporate dollar. Anger in the face of this brought us some of the best music we will ever hear, but the cage of capitalism was firmly locking in the passion and creative rage of not just Billy Corgan’s “rat”, but the whole spirit of the 1990s. A teen culture that was based on values of op-shopping and resisting the system, we were embracing feelings of hopelessness and frustration and sharing these through distortion pedals and low-slung guitar straps.
There’s much discussion about music in Lonesome When You Go – mostly in the form of sharing loved songs, finding the right album to fit a character’s mood, buying CDs and being completely precious about how other people handle your vinyl. It’s about having pride in your musical taste; being able to hold forth at a party and gain credibility from strangers. In one scene main character Paige says, “Music totally reflects the culture and societal perception of a particular time so even if we can completely dig the sound, since we weren’t alive during its inception, we can never really hold claim to the ideology – you know?” She’s perhaps defending why alt and indie rock can now only be emulated – covered and coveted – but never again will it be as truly authentic, pained, beautifully messy, sorrowful and angry, as it was in those heady days of 1995.
Listen to the Lonesome When You Go playlist here.
Buy Lonesome When You Go from Mākaro Press here.