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“1994 and the mid ‘90s: Was it a Pop… DEAD ZONE???????”

Now, I’ll be honest. I’m not a child of the depression. I’ve never had to fight in a war, I’ve never seen a friend beheaded before town hall. But I still feel like, as a 1980s-baby, I’ve lived through some sh**, although the reason I’m gonna give you might not like: rock criticism.
First, let’s examine 1997. Let’s take Natalie Nichols’ review of Live – Secret Samadhi for the LA Times. She calls Live “relentlessly poppy” on Samadhi’s predecessor Throwing Copper (this is obviously before Neon Trees), and though she does state that “the York, Pa. quartet takes its sound a step further on ‘Secret Samadhi,’” she fails to EMPHATICALLY qualify the followup against the predecessor. For she persists: “Its third collection offers the familiar crashing guitars, soaring choruses and U2-style drama, as well as the folksy introspection that struck a mainstream nerve with such hits as ‘Selling the Drama’ and ‘I Alone.’” [1] So that “relentlessly poppy” theme is never fully defeated. Let’s be clear about one thing: and this aligns with something I found in John Jackson’s Amazon customer review while sifting through the veritable ocean of raving SS customer reviews, he said it best himself: “Personally, I like the fact that there are no REALLY radio-friendly tunes on this album.” Jackson’s review is a four-star one, amidst one more four-star, and two five-star. So just in summating: EVERY CUSTOMER REVIEW I’VE READ OF SS IS POSITIVE, AND EVERY PROFESSIONAL REVIEW I’VE READ OF IT IS NEGATIVE. In the paragraphs to come, I will try to unpack this issue, as well as the larger one of pop music’s roaming bottom half (or a**, if you prefer), and the masquerading phenomenon of people’s need to literarily meat-tear, as a general aerobic practice when they get up in the morning.
The first thing I’d like to do is present all of the things of which Nichols accuses Live on SS, and then see how they stack up against my good ol’, hardworking “folksy” logic, Nichols sort of being the resident professional critic comparable to those a-hole kids at the end of Super Troopers who keep telling those cops “I want the keg over there… no, on second thought, maybe it would look better over THERE.” I’ll abide that Throwing Copper is “relentlessly poppy,” partly for time constraints, and partly because, I don’t care about Throwing Copper. I’m not writing about Throwing Copper, I’m writing about Secret Samadhi. Anybody who doesn’t know how different are these two albums from each other needs to stop reading this blurb and listen to one, or the other, or both. Secret Samadhi is available for $5.99 on iTunes. Shut up, you talk too much, pay the man. The sheer magnitude of hit singles’ lack on SS is nothing short of astonishing. It’s a 1997 rock album that was tailor-made for the conscious liberal in Donald Trump’s 2017 America. [2] But along with actually using the term “drama” descriptively, along with her citation of “Selling the Drama” (maybe Nichols considers coffee consumption “folksy” too), her claim that SS offers “the familiar crashing guitars” is questionable when you hear the opening of “Lakini’s Juice,” in which Kowalczyk’s guitar actually grafts out something that isn’t even harmonious or chordal, but purely physical, like a whole new pop-oriented noise-rock permutation of alt. Was this too much for people in the late ‘90s… was alternative rock so lucrative that it spawned a crushing market surplus of supply? Sure. I for one sure as heck didn’t own Secret Samadhi back then — my favorite bands were the giddy and perky Everclear and Third Eye Blind, and then a little Marcy Playground. That’s why I said this album was tailor made for Trump’s 2017.
Nichols accuses Live of “overly meticulous crafting.” So why then is there not a single viable hit radio track on SS? Puzzling.
She then says “Kowalczyk is no doubt expressing honest feelings—it’s just hard to tell what he means through all the poetic vagueness.” Now, this just seems like a blatant logical fallacy, right on the surface, though there’s also the possibility that this “honesty” she’s referring to regards a genuine tone in Kowalczyk’s voice, in which case at very least her word choice is sloppy, it’s more like he’s “CHANNELING PALPABLE feelings.” Anyway, she doesn’t provide examples, so it looks like she’s fighting vagary with vagary. The very structure of her following sentence betrays her readymade bias against the subject matter at hand, and her final claim that “less is more” contradicts her prior idea that “poetic vagueness.” In summary, her thesis statement seems to be that the arrangements are overproduced and lavish with the strings and all, and the lyrical ideas are underdeveloped. Yes, for all those craving some more description of that “falling placenta,” I guess. Wasn’t this around the time of The Vagina Monologues?
Broaching the concept of increased sonic horsepower but then changing the subject to lyrical “vagueness,” as she denotes, is just one of the brittle logical fallacies she offers in what seems like an obstinately negative review in spite of itself: in her discourse on the lyrics themselves she writes: “Songwriter Edward Kowalczyk is no doubt expressing honest feelings—it’s just hard to tell what he means through all the poetic vagueness.”
So in trying to wade through the mire of journalistic platitude, is it even possible to tell what is expected of rock bands in 1997? Nothing short of saving little kids from a burning building, or the musical equivalent, of that, it would seem. Apropos, we have the New York Times’ ’94 Hootie-handling “If Colin Powell sang and played guitar”… I mean, what the fu** is that? That is just blatant racism. They basically accuse Hootie’s Darius Rucker of not being black enough. Like a black man’s identity is not affirmed if he’s not busting caps and driving cars with spinning rims, or something.
I’ll say, though: a lot of the anti-Hootie sentiment was anti-Southern. I will admit that my opinion changed, of them, if only slightly, after I learned they hailed from South Carolina. But I wanted then wasn’t some like white-hating angst (I mean if this guy is happy, why is it a problem), but maybe something I considered more representative of the south (after all Hootie sounds fine in Chicago, or anywhere for that matter), like maybe I thought they were infringing on the rest of the nation. As a Midwesterner, maybe I find it important to continue to persecute the south as the one region of the country which is actually and always will be inferior to us. But it’s certainly not “soft rock,” by today’s standards of Beach House [3], Fleet Foxes and Carly Rae Jepsen. [4]
Now, the proviso of Hootie being called “soft” because there was nothing softer in rock at the time seems pretty obvious. But I mean, there WAS Elton John in the ‘70s, there WAS Heart in the ‘80s, there WAS Roxette in the… NINETIES.
What’s weird is that they accuse Hootie of being soft, and yet in ’94 there was also a bevy of gushy girl-pop blanketing the charts, from Mariah Carey to Toni Braxton to Ace of Base (sadly I think I own all of those). Granted, it does seem prescient that the critic ignores all of these entities, seeing as today when we think of ’94 we certainly don’t think of Ace of Base, unless our discussion is framed through the lens of Saturday Night Live, perhaps, but the critic is obviously ignoring the element of the situation Hootie is not STRIVING not to be soft: they accomplish plenty with their reflective, rockabilly brand of mainstream rock, to the point of selling to millions and developing a weed-smoking cult following amongst their concertgoers.
So it seems not so much that there wasn’t pop in ’94, as that people just EXPECTED more from rock: people expected, after Nirvana and Pearl Jam, and the political pro-choice and AIDS-combatting exploits of them, R.E.M. and 10,000 Maniacs and stuff, for rock to constantly want to precipitate political change… although sometimes personal change has to come first. What music could reconcile the fear-mongering paradigmatics of preventive wars? We stopped even caring about music, evidenced by this one site I just saw sucking up to Cheap Trick.
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[1] Also, there are two entirely auxiliary things that pi** me off about this quote. One: I can tell she’s avoiding using “Lightning Crashes,” which would have been an infinitely astuter illustrator of this “folksiness” she just mentioned, just to be a cu**. It’s not only every bit as religious as the songs she does mention (“Old mother cries / Her placenta falls to the floor / The angel opens her eyes), and possessive every bit the cheesy melodrama you’d think these misanthropic critics would be like licking their chops over, but its painstaking pace renders it seemingly even “folksier,” which brings me back to the other thing I hate about it: the habit of New York and LA people to call everything “folksy,” including this one dude I heard from Long Island even dub the band Black Mountain just that. Part of my problem with it is that it the very habit seems self-defeating on even their own part: I mean we in the Midwest obviously don’t want to be redneck (we make fun of the South whenever we can, in other words), and we certainly try to emulate the coasts, wear Lakers jerseys, etc., but lemme tell you, we don’t ever, ever, ever use the word “folksy,” because even that term’s employment sounds folksy. That’s basically why. I guess they’re just not exposed to what we are (I once heard that “slow Southern style” song in a Michigan bar, for instance).
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[2] Could it ironically be that people had LESS patience for true muscle, grit and substance in the waning segments of the pre-internet era? Well, how else would you explain the popularity of Jamiroquai? Don’t forget the ska and swing revivals. The rock criticism crisis and collapse following Napster, circa Smash Mouth – “All Star,” during which the singer said he was sick of “heroin rock,” is certainly a catastrophe which then became overshadowed by 9/11, and a lot of people have probably been reeling ever since, for multiple reasons.
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[3] If you want the very definition of “relentlessly poppy,” I’ll give it to you burnt and crispy right there.
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[4] I’m mentioning this girl with the flimsy notion that anybody still remembers who the he** she is.

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