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“The Most Dominant 1990s Sector of Culture: No Way is it Music”

Now with this being said, my word association response to “1990s” wouldn’t be a word at all… well it would be a group of words, the “I know you better than you think” line in The Smashing Pumpkins’ song “1979.” But then this is I who used to sit smoking weed in my room in college doing nothing but listening to Muddy Waters’ His Best, 1947 to 1955, much to the freaked-out disposition of a roommate or two. It’s probably not a stretch, then, to say lots of people would say “These pretzels are making me thirsty” or “Shut up Flanders,” or, sadly, the general entity Tonya Harding or Geraldo Rivera.
The debate really gets interesting, anyway, for me at least, when I sit back and recount as somebody having been born in 1983, within the ’90s lounging in my chair and watching hour, upon hour, upon hour of TV, much doubtless to the horror of my mother. I was a huge Seinfeld and Simpsons fan, but the list went on and on, whether it was The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Cheers, Frasier, Friends, Grace under Fire, Step by Step, Dinosaurs, Family Matters (which some will know as the “Urkel” show), Full House, Clarissa Explains it All, The Drew Carey Show, Sports Night [1], Mad about You, Just Shoot Me, Suddenly Susan… eh, sometimes, just to see Brooke Shields.
I soaked it all in. There must have just been something in the air telling me to do this because now I distinctly remember that even by 2000 it was Play-Station One and Grand Theft Auto or Metal Gear Solid, my Beastie Boys Ill Communication blaring in the background from a five-CD changer.
Regarding this new Roseanne TV event, The Washington Post reports that “As everyone — including the president — knows, the ratings for the (Rosanne) premiere were jaw-dropping. A whopping 18 million viewers tuned in, and that number jumped to about 25 million with DVR-delayed viewing.” Now, to a certain extent this probably bespeaks some comedic snark lying within Rosanne Barr and her constituents, and indeed I do remember liking that show’s dry humor (like when Darlene breaks up with her boyfriend [2] and he sarcastically asks “Gee, can we still not have sex?”)
As we all know, however, the real driving force behind this Roseanne craze, a preternatural geographic yowel from the bowels of outer space so powerful that not even the fact that Barr is a Trump supporter would deter people, is the incredible ennui plaguing our current culture, the incredible, unsurpassed awfulness of television in the last… mm… maybe 10 years. It’s not so much the democratic nod to greatness as it is the animalistic thrusting into a void, this relic of the past Roseanne like a shot in the arm for people old, who might be about Barr’s age, or even young, who crowd commercial kitchens rocking out to Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life” and exchanging Seinfeld quotes.
It will be pertinent here to note that, as Wikipedia states, the 1997 season finale of Roseanne only attracted 16 million viewers, as opposed to the 18 million (I’m not counting the DVR-ers of our nation since that’s not a luxury ’90s people had) in the case of the recently resuscitated dead horse. Keep in mind, part of the handicap of the 1997 incarnation of the show was that it was competing with Seinfeld and The Simpsons as well as Friends, which was a show that used The Rembrandts’ catchy mainstream single “I’ll Be There for You” (a video for the song even features footage of Friends actress Jen Aniston).
Anyway, let’s compare this to when Soundgarden came back, as depressing as that obviously is, for multiple reasons. On the heels of their underrated 1996 LP Down on the upside, the band did a tour that had them lambasting ear drums for two nights in Chicago’s great Aragon Ballroom, then to segue on to Michigan’s Palace of Auburn Hills, which holds 24,000+ people. A look ahead to their most recent exploit will find them in the quaint little “Fox Theater” for their Detroit stint which I’m guessing is as little and cozy as it sounds, and the Tuscaloosa Ampitheater which holds a meagre seven grand.
I choose Soundgarden here partly because unlike Alice in Chains for said band’s 2010’s return, the former actually had the same lead singer for their rebirth. So it’s just coincidental that Soundgarden and Roseanne are ROUGHLY at a similar level of popularity, considered holistically across time — Roseanne was the most popular sit com in American until Seinfeld and The Simpsons came in and it’s easy to imagine Soundgarden mustering the same feat without their own big-two firestorm of Pearl Jam and Nirvana. Another, then, slightly unrelated discussion would be as to whether there’s as great an element of competition in music as in television and cinema, and I’d argue that this is possible, but the main issue at hand is that the cultural craze in television, at least apparently given this a posteriori set of matters before us, seems to have eclipsed that in music. Remember that, for all of Nirvana’s apparent popularity, none of the revivals of the band, feature they Courtney Love or Cobain’s daughter Frances Bean or whomever, has really gotten off the ground, at least as of yet.
Now, I must admit, I’m not too expert in movies. Still, let’s examine The Breakfast Club (1985) and recent “cult film” interloper Clueless (1995), the respective middle stature of each within those decades being a total coincidence, and the music that accompanied them. I’d like to argue that in the case of The Breakfast Club, the soundtrack’s most high-profile offering, Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget about Me)” is the most important part of the movie at large — more so than the plot, any acting, or any fashion honed therein.
It will be easy to compare this against, Clueless, the valley-girl tour-de-for-sure, after the viewing of which it’s impossible not to imagine that frilly boa or the grunge-minded flannel donned by main character Cher, the tomboy jeans and similar flannel in her acquaintance Tai, or the Michael Jordan shaved head of Donald Faison. Just to hand pick a selection from Clueless’ soundtrack that only a “simple mind” would scoff at, the intriguingly British Supergrass and the catchy, radio-pliable “Alright,” you find a piece of music that still lies essentially buried under all the cultural fuzz — the gangsta rap vernacular of “Murray,” boyfriend to Stacey Dash’s black character Dionne, the crazy driving, the ironic disposition of the stoic, poker-faced lawyer father and benefactor of lavish mansion [3] in which said movie by and large takes place.
Anyway, imdb.com (standing for International Movie Database) has the average Clueless rating of quality at 68 out of 100. The budget for the film was $12 million and it turned around $56 million in the box office to The Breakfast Club’s $51, nonetheless certainly leaving questions about whether that was a good profit, particularly given TBC’s $1 million overall expenditure [4] . Let’s look at I Should Coco, the album that spawned Clueless’ most high-profile cut “Alright” by Supergrass [5] (again, there was no single released OFF OF the soundtrack in specific, like with TBC). While certainly faring more auspiciously in Britain in general, and while for some reason there isn’t an overall Metacritic score for the album like they usually feature on Wikipedia, an averaging of all of its critical feedback listed on the page yields a score of 85 out of 100, compared to Clueless’ 68.
So why does nobody know about it here in the States? It’s because in the ’90s there was a definite fashion tag placed next to all valuable artistic tokens, and things weren’t judged purely on creative merit, as is typically the myth. The Simpsons, for example, derived a very unconventional “look” for its cartoon sit com, the yellow and blue people, the tall hair of Marge Simpson which bends against the ceilings of cars, and even Seinfeld, for all its genius and worthy claims to being a “show about nothing,” still chose posh, upscale New York City as its setting, an element I don’t find immaterial. The movie Hype! is very instrumental, also, in illustrating how even amidst all the great music of the grunge movement, the flannel shirts, ripped jeans and long underwear were just as much of a story. If the grunge decade offers us a noteworthy wealth of scrappy pop artists like Alanis Morissette and say maybe The Barenaked Ladies (both of whom happen to interestingly be Canadian), a lot of this could have to do with it simply being a favorable economic time in general on the heels of the first gulf war and Clinton’s Internet deregulation, in addition to the mass-commercial coffee explosion in American companies positioned in Colombia. It’s my opinion that the gutty filmmaking of the late-’90s, like The Big Lebowski and The Royal Tenenbaums (forgive the I’m two years late on the last one there as it came out in ’01) are what really pulled us out of the aesthetic ennui which clearly the ’90s were partially responsible, a malady that boy bands and Britney Spears should certainly get no credit for discouraging.
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[1] Sports Night was an ingenious sans-laugh-track sit com (whoa talk about living on the edge) which aired for a couple seasons on Comedy Central about a show-about-sports, the general entity being “not really about sports at all,” as the famous adage goes. It’s rare that I get through an episode with dry eyes. Perhaps my favorite part too is that it’s shot in New York, all the while bottling that unquestionably infectious and brisk Big Apple way of conversation, particularly between the two head male anchormen.
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[2] And yes this would be the part played by one Johnny Galecki also of The Big Bang Theory, a show I thoroughly loathed.
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[3] In a realm about as un-“punk” as you can get, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of mansions to ’90’s “culture,” obviously with that term being used loosely, particularly when you play in the “first reality show,” MTV’s The Real World, which would house seven strangers under a roof and tape their lives.
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[4] Thank God we ’90s kids have Clerks to fall back on as a sort of storm trooper of frugality, a movie shot in black and white on a $12,000 budget. A friend recommended it to me in 1999, when we’d just finished out freshman year in high school.
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[5] Interestingly, the ’90s film Clueless also siphons ’80s music in a sense, albeit in the emulation form of Counting Crows’ cover of The Psychedelic Furs’ 1984 hit single “The Ghost in You.” All of this actually makes you wonder why Britpop was not a thing of the ’80s, rather than the ’90s, a decade already sodden with cultural crazes in music like grunge and hip-hop. Clueless features another cover too — the World Party’s “All the Young Dudes,” originally ’70s glam rockers Mott the Hoople.

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