Let's (Not) Get It On

Or, Fucking to Songs About Fucking and Other Uncomfortable Developments in the Awkward Relationship Between What We’re Going to Have to Just Agree to Call Indie Rock and Sexuality in the 1990s

Let's (Not) Get It On

James Yamasaki

Despite my decades-long love of Mickey Rourke, I had a few problems with the movie The Wrestler. Not least of these was the fact that if you were to mute the sound track, you'd be watching a movie about a man who'd had so much plastic surgery on his face that he was forced to be a minor-league wrestler living in a trailer park. But the film had one scene that really stayed with me. It takes place in a bar, where Rourke's and Marisa Tomei's characters are talking about the music they love most, which, not uncharacteristically, consists of bands like Mötley Crüe, Guns N' Roses, and, cue "Round and Round" on the jukebox (it's a rerecord), Ratt. Rourke talks up the good-time rock 'n' roll merits of these bands and decries the malign influence of "that Cobain fuck" who came along and spoiled everything before both characters agree that "the '90s sucked."

Whether or not the '90s did in fact suck is for history to decide (though as I recall, people began making a pretty convincing case that they did as early as 1989). What landed hardest about this scene, however, was the subtextual relationship between the wrestler, a battered narcissist with no capacity for navigating emotional complexity, and the music that stirs his soul, simple songs by hedonistic bands that defiantly offer no emotional complexity to navigate. As the film unspools, the dying hero (not unmovingly) strives, and fails, to establish meaningful human interactions with his resentful daughter and Tomei's indifferent dancer character. The sacrifices required by the relationships he hungers after are simply more than he's capable of making. In the end, the only interaction he can both nourish and be nourished by is the one between him and a roomful of strangers eager to see him execute one last Ram Jam or mutilate himself with a staple gun.

It certainly feels right for Randy "The Ram" Robinson to relate more to "Girls Girls Girls" than to "Smells Like Teen Spirit," but the question persists: Does the emotionally vacuous music he loves appeal to him because he's incapable of dealing with emotions, or did the music instruct him in the ways of emotional vacuousness—such that he can't understand a woman unless she's a stripper, such that he can summon genuine tears in asking for his daughter's forgiveness but can't be bothered to remember their dinner date less than a week later because he's having sex with a random groupie, such that he is desperate for sympathy but incapable of empathy? I'm not saying these are mortal sins (we've all done worse things to better people), nor am I trying to assert a moral argument about the film or the character, or even about Mötley Crüe. I'm merely suggesting that the music we love offers us certain lessons about life and how to live it (to cite another band The Ram probably isn't massively enamored of) and that it might be worth considering what happens when those lessons rub up against (which is not to say "pamper") life's complexities.

Of course, it would be absurd to suggest that just because a real person likes these bands (or any bands, or any thing) that he's incapable of experiencing meaningful emotions, or that all the people who like this or that strain of music represent some kind of hive mind. Still, for those who are attuned to it, pop music is more than just the background noise of our development. In an indirect but essential way, it teaches us how to live, by offering codes that we're free to decipher as we choose. Sometimes we agree. "The Times They Are a Changin'." Sometimes we differ. "Gotta Serve Somebody." But the "we" in question tend to gather around fixed points, and those points have a way of marking the attitudes and behavior of the gatherers. And by "attitudes and behavior," I obviously mean sex. Specifically as it relates to rock music, even more specifically to the strain of rock music known variously as punk, alternative, and indie rock.

(I'm just going to go ahead and say "indie rock," with a free-floating asterisk to indicate that I recognize and value the several important microfibers of distinction that will be lost in the assumption that, say, Hüsker Dü and Sugar might be part of the same stratosphere... I hereby stipulate that I understand, if anyone still cares, that punk is not the same as alternative is not the same as indie—to say nothing of good-old college rock. But they are all more like one another than they are like Poison. Plus "punk" is too specific and "indie" sounds better than "alternative," which, because of the age I was at the time of its ascendance, I always refused to say aloud anyway, like "Generation X" or "Friends.")

Indie rock never achieved the widespread cultural dominance that was reported or predicted at the time. For every Exile in Guyville there were far more Tuesday Night Music Clubs or Butterflys or whatever. And, asterisks aside, it's far more prominent in today's pop culture than it was in 1994, though the indie rock of today—found at the top of the Billboard charts, in movie trailers, TV shows, and beer ads—bears little relation to '90s indie, in sound, spirit, or psychological profile. In 1994, rock itself still had the distinction of at least seeming like the dominant voice of youth culture, and indie was at least a strong influence on its idea of cool. This was a time when the concept of "selling out" still existed, which it really doesn't today except as a voice from the fringe, a vote for Ralph Nader, a vegan Thanksgiving. Indie then was rock that was un- or possibly just pre-sold-out, and as it advanced toward and retreated from the musical mainstream throughout the '90s, rock music itself was busy lapsing out of relevance. It didn't die. It just mattered to fewer people. Possibly because fewer people were being addressed by the best of it.

The important indie bands of the day had about them an air of conscience (though not one of them would have made such a claim for themselves), offering proof that rock could thrive without the hoary clichés of Wrestler rock, which was still regnant at the turn of the decade that sucked. As a result of that air of conscience, the indie music of that period, while rich in variety and blah blah blah, had a collective tendency to abandon, in sound, lyric, and image, the traditional rock 'n' roll mandate of sexual primacy, and that abandonment became more pronounced (or perhaps just seemed more significant) as the strain's cultural influence grew. And because the music we cherish teaches us how to live, it's reasonable to assume that the decreased sexual energy of this music may even have affected the sexual attitudes and behavior, even the desires, of its audience during that period.

And by "its audience," I obviously mean me.

Generalizations about rock moments become easier to make, and of course more general, the further back you go, but no matter how you look at it, there's no mistaking the fact that sex and rock 'n' roll are linked so inextricably that the very term "rock and roll" actually means "sex." I also realize that this line of inquiry is both well- and oft-traveled and fraught with peril to every imaginable kind of cultural sensitivity. So at the risk of even further disclaiming, when I say "sexual primacy," I'm not talking about the racialist argument about the music's "primitivism," or the musicological Bermuda Triangle of linking the beat with irresistible urges in the body, or any of the other problematic tropes of gender, race, and class that have traditionally suffused this subject. I'm instead interested in the way that the Doors' status as "missionaries of apocalyptic sex," who seemed to be saying that "love was sex and sex was death and therein lay salvation," was what made them interesting to Joan Didion. Or how Harry Nilsson's recording of Badfinger's "Without You" could be transformed in Lavinia Greenlaw's young consciousness as "not so much a song as a continuum, a booming tunnel of desire through which we flew like static."

Because by the time these sources made it to my eyes and ears, they read respectively as an embarrassingly brazen sexual self-­advertisement enacted by one handsome man and the three jazz dorks who played music so he could dance around and sing bad poetry, and as a saccharine dose of quasi-sexual mawkishness—so far from what I recognized as acceptable or pleasing evocations of desire as to constitute actual parody. The distinction here isn't about vicissitudes of musical taste or vagaries of gender. Like everyone with a radio, I have also felt myself flying through that same tunnel of desire—no matter that I was propelled by different songs. This sensation transcends generation and genre, and is one of the great thrills of being alive.

But time changes some things irrevocably. The gulf between my perception of the Doors now and the one that pulled Didion into the torpor of their recording studio in 1968 has everything to do with time—not because the Doors were valid 40 years ago and are not valid now. It's because my understanding of Jim Morrison is necessarily filtered through the gestures of the pop stars who followed. Plenty of whom have embraced the naked torso of his legacy. But some, whether by way of aesthetic preference or simple discomfort, left the erotic politicking to the erotic politicians, and kept their shirts on. So to speak. Time, as Vladimir Nabokov reminds us (in Ada), "is a fluid medium for the culture of metaphors."

And speaking of metaphors, if popular music is a city, everyone who lives in any of its many neighborhoods has an equal right to claim it belongs to them (and they to it). Though I had visited this city all my life, I never felt like I truly belonged there until the brief commercial heyday of alternative rock in the early '90s, hastened by the success of Nirvana. (I realize that admitting this here is akin to outing yourself at the RNC, so I'll keep it brief, but you know how people in the music business and certain quadrants of the press used to talk about how the mainstream success of underground-oriented bands formed a bridge between the subculture and the mass culture? Well, that bridge was built for me, and I crossed it, and I apologize, though I am not sorry.)

Newly immersed in this city of indie rock—I am kind of sorry for that phrase—I took immense pleasure in seeking out the experiences that would allow me to claim it as my own. Like many people who discover something anew, I assumed not only that it had been placed there for me, but that now was the most important time a person could be discovering it. I don't know why it was that these sounds were the ones that drew me in. It's not as though I had never liked the Doors. I had. I had liked a lot of music. But I had never felt like it was made for me specifically, that it belonged to me and I to it, that we were contemporaneous, consanguineous, until the early '90s, with its explicit and implicit backward reach to the late-'70s and mid-'80s. Can it have been a coincidence that this was the moment I first noticed that the bands making the music I loved tended to be fully dressed?

Of course, there have always been shirted artists. And not just the Association or whatever. The "unlikely" rock star has been with us as long as the "born" kind. For every Elvis Presley a Buddy Holly. For every Bob Dylan a Leonard Cohen. For every Jim Morrison a Van Morrison. Okay, maybe not every one. Still, it's not like it was ever a question of Mick Jagger or nothing. But rock's defining gesture—in primary and secondary source material alike—was always a sexual leer, a sexual urge, a sexual seduction, a sexual plaint, a sexual attack. Sexual primacy. The hormonal explosiveness that attended the birth of rock 'n' roll plainly went through many changes and refinements as the decades wore on and the form became institutionalized and classed up. By the time it trickled down to me, the idea that there might be something other than sex for rock stars to be peddling—other than, not necessarily more than, and frequently in addition to—felt completely new and alien to my conception of rock music expressly as an outlet for raging hedonism. This was no school, or movement, really. More like a group of musical artists who happened to have had in common the impulse to subvert, to question, to confront, and/or to ignore—rather than simply to embody—the relationship of rock and sex.

The mask worn by the iconic and subiconic makers of this music, from Johnny Rotten to Ari Up to Michael Stipe to Bob Mould to Morrissey to Kurt Cobain to Calvin Johnson to Liz Phair to Kathleen Hanna to Polly Jean Harvey to Stephen Malkmus, advertised disdain for the clichés of rock virility, offering in their place a short but potent list of abstractions and deconstructions—antisexuality, homosexuality, pansexuality, nonsexuality, in-quotes sexuality, etcexuality. But these alternate models also became masks: for embarrassment about, veiled and unveiled hostility toward, meretricious reliance on, and general discomfort with sex of any kind.

Nirvana's quest to derail the hair-spray element of heavy music ("Hard rock as the term was understood before metal moved in," from Robert Christgau's Consumer Guide review of Nevermind) remains well-documented but worth remembering, because they were a total inversion of what a band was supposed to do with its fame, and set the stage for the idea that indie music was in the on-deck circle, which wasn't really true. It was in the hole. They wore dresses. They kissed each other on TV. They made sex sound like putrescence. They gave interviews in which they used the word "feminist" in a positive way and sang about rape as if it were bad. They were, in short, unheard of. The first time I heard Nevermind, I was stoned on the floor of an NYU dorm room on Halloween with a girl and—I'm not bragging here—it just seemed so appropriate not to make out. That was just the beginning of my '90s. Of course, you could do it to Nirvana (well, Nevermind anyway—hard to imagine getting sexually aroused by In Utero), and I'm sure many, many people did. But it also seemed like a violation of something. Nirvana reignited a culture of refusal that extended to everything you might choose to extend it to.

Sonic Youth had totally gone pop, kind of, and without getting into that whole discussion, there was no shortage of sex confusion and confrontation for the casual listener on an album like Dirty: Kim Gordon's growl voice on "Swimsuit Issue" and "Drunken Butterfly" extends the creepy sexual-harassment/seduction-burlesque of "Kissability" from Daydream Nation, while lines like "I believe Anita Hill" and "I've been around the world a million times and all you men are slime" make no secret of where Thurston Moore's sympathies lie. Most disturbingly, Lee Ranaldo's "Wish Fulfillment" gets inside the mind and mouth of a stalker in an eerily convincing impersonation. Desire is a subject here, but also a scold.

There was Pavement, the definitive '90s band, a notoriously arch and intellectual group whose classic rock gestures were always at least 80 percent critique. When they talked about girls, they were figurative, always an abstraction of an idea of Girl distilled from other songs they were thinking of—Summer Babe, Loretta's Scars, the queen of the castle/Pasadena/California thrill. They elevated diffidence to the vaunted place normally reserved for longing in pop songs, not knowing what to feel instead of Sweet Emotion. Confessional moments, such as they were, consisted of lines like "there is no castration fear" and the far more revealing "I trust you will tell me if I am making a fool of myself." One of their most conventionally "soulful" vocals concerned the absence of room to grow in a leather terrarium. Sex was utterly beside the point.

Neutral Milk Hotel: Album one, side one, song one: "Song Against Sex":

So why should I lay here naked
When it's just too far away
From anything we could call loving
Any love worth living for
So I'll sleep out in the gutter
You can sleep here on the floor.

Even when Bikini Kill released a song with the unambiguous title "I Like Fucking" (flip side: "I Hate Danger"), on which they declare a belief "in the radical possibilities of pleasure, babe" and that there is "anything beyond troll guy reality," the lines sound like encouragement from the singer to a female friend, as if to say, "It's possible to feel this way, despite everything." It's desire as a statement of purpose, not as seduction. (Another key line: "Just 'cause my world, sweet sister, is so fucking goddamn full of rape, does that mean my body must always be a source of pain?") Not exactly "Touch Me." Not hardly "Rape Me," either.

Again, other than Nirvana, this was not the music on the radio. So we abandoned the radio. It wasn't playing our music. When we did turn on the radio, the rock stations were obviously unlistenable (stuff like Stone Temple Pilots and Pearl Jam sounded unbearably macho in this context, which says a lot), so we'd flip around to hear what the rest of the world was hearing, the squares. A song like "Doin' It" by LL Cool J (and LeShaun) was genuinely shocking. How could something like this be on the radio? Was this pornography? Was it sexist? Was it real? Did we like it? Were we allowed to like it? What had happened?! I wish I were exaggerating.

The gap between the music I had chosen to teach me how to live—which I of course thought of as the vanguard, music that was too good, too important to be too popular—and the music that was teaching everyone else had stretched further than I knew how to reckon. I remained staunch, however, as indie rock abandoned its biological impulses, to say nothing of the bass register, and I wrestled with mine. I just thought it was the way things were supposed to be now.

The idea, I thought, was not to deny your sexual urges—that would be folly—but to keep them to yourself, to mute them, to deplore the fact that any expression of them was bound to be either vulgar or predictable or, worst of all, male. Male (the adjective, not the noun, although maybe the noun also) was definitely something you didn't want to be in the early '90s, if you could help it. But let's say hypothetically these deplorable urges every so often managed to link up to someone else's; when it came time to enact the traditional hormonal imperatives of youth, making out on the sofa for example, finding the appropriate contemporary soundtrack was often high comedy. In 1989, my high-school friend Jonathan Scott, a black teenager from Baltimore, preparing for a weekend at home, let me hear his "fuck tape," a 90-minute mix of songs recorded on the fly from late-'80s D.C. radio (beginnings and ends cut off) including Keith Sweat, Guy, LeVert, Bobby Brown, and Troop, with half a Prince song at the end of one side. He had made this tape just in case he managed to score with a girl and they needed something to listen to. Something current. I may have blushed when he said "fuck tape." I'm sure I was embarrassed. I could never have made such a tape. Every tape I ever made went out of its way to scream, "This is not a fuck tape." The music I liked the most in my most-hormonal years would not have qualified.

Songs About Fucking is an amazing album that I heard in an extraordinarily high percentage of the houses and apartments I visited between 1990 and 1996. But who could concentrate on losing themselves in a passionate embrace while Big Black was shearing skulls? Do you really want "Bad Penny" to come on during an intimate moment? Or how about Sebadoh, a band I worshipped, whose unstintingly detailed relationship dissections (the same relationship, dissected from every conceivable angle) and masturbation confessions trade off with spastic-screaming noise songs? It would be like using tears for lubricant. Who then? Slint? Smog? Tortoise? Palace? Silver Jews? Beat Happening? Daniel Johnston? I would be lying if I said I didn't take them on test drives. Of course there were important exceptions. But even with a conspicuously virile, happily sex-drenched band, like Afghan Whigs, there was a wall of explicitly misogynist persona to scale—as if, in the throes of sexual congress you might stop and say, "It's important to keep in mind that what Greg Dulli is doing here is a kind of impersonation of the male aggressor in an attempt to reveal the dark corners of male-female..." Sadly, I wouldn't have put it past myself.

The self-conscious nature of the music, its very refusal to be mindless even when it had no particular ax to grind vis-à-vis sexuality, rendered it inadequate to the task of providing a sound you could lose yourself in. Loosely framed by the end of the cold war and President Clinton's impeachment for lying about sex, the times were self-conscious, too. The obvious was always suspect. The natural answer—getting it on to "Let's Get It On," for example—would have been suspect for being too obvious. Not to say you couldn't love Marvin Gaye, of course. You could even love sex. But obviousness, that was not going to fly. Even when the obvious answer was obviously the right one.

The hater line against indie, which was amply aired long before The Wrestler, is that it took all the fun out of rock. It's not like there's a counter to it; that was pretty much the defiant pro-indie argument then, too—it took their kind of fun out of it. Alternative rock, wrote Eric Weisbard in 1995, "is antigenerationally dystopian, subculturally presuming fragmentation: It's built on a neurotic discomfort over massified and commodified culture, takes as its archetype bohemia far more than youth, and never expects that its popular appeal, such as it is, will have much social impact." And, indeed, in the end, it didn't have much.

It's curious to reflect, 15 to 20 years hence, how little influence that period has on contemporary sounds or attitudes, even as the current wave of indie rock has begun reaching a broader audience. You look at that broader audience, at mega indie-rock-oriented events like Sasquatch! or the Capitol Hill Block Party, and you see demonstrable sexual confidence, even peacockishness, both in terms of the dress-extra-in-a-DeBarge-video fashion reality—all those louche sideways baseball caps!—and general presence. Not much neurotic discomfort on view, unless you count the nerve damage caused by skinny jeans. Compared to the way similar gatherings would have looked 15 to 20 years ago (not that they could have even existed; an indie-rock festival filling the Gorge for three days in 1994 would have been a laughable prospect)—all uncomfortable-verging-on-apologetic slouches, body-deemphasizing garments, chewed cuticles, and autistic gazes—the current cultural idea of indie seems not to have even descended from the old one. And who can blame it?

When I originally started thinking about this topic, I was trying to get around to discussing the idea that through some alchemical reaction with its culture, pop music somehow has a way of magically finding you when you need it. It wasn't long before I realized that it actually works the other way around. It would be ludicrous to suggest that these few bands I mentioned were the only bands around, or that there was no music in the '90s indie scene that wasn't defined—not to say thwarted—by muted or awkward sexuality. I mean, obviously. But if that's what you were looking for, if, say, you were prone to being unbelievably uptight, to being scared of wanting what you wanted, to missing the point about absolutely everything, the '90s were a smorgasbord. In that respect, they didn't suck at all. recommended


Comments (36) RSS

Oldest First Unregistered On Registered On Add a comment
Brilliant article. I finally feel like I've received an education on why I never get laid.
Posted by lurking ex-Seattle-ite on June 24, 2009 at 2:11 PM · Report this
thelyamhound 2
I experienced indie rock's sexlessness about like I experienced its anti-psychedelia, which is to say, not at all. I wasn't doing drugs when I started listening to alternative music (which started, for me, with R.E.M. and the Smiths), nor was I having sex (though not for lack of effort to that end); a few years later, in college, I was, and the music that followed me through those years (and/or the music to which those artists had lead me) became the soundtrack for my drug experimentation and sporadic sexual encounters.

That said, I'm inclined to be ambivalent about all experience, and those years were fraught for me, as they were for you, with self-doubt and second-guessing. Perhaps the music didn't strike me as being particularly sexless because it sounded, more or less, like the sex I was having (or at least like the way I felt when I was trying to have it).

My favorite sex music is Loveless by My Bloody Valentine. Is that weird (aside from the title)? My wife doesn't seem to think so, but she's hardly less odd than I am.

Oh, and I don't think it's as impossible as all that to get it on to Big Black. I just think that the kind of sex you have to Big Black requires all kinds of prior agreements and safe words.
Posted by thelyamhound on June 24, 2009 at 2:38 PM · Report this

Thank God I was dropping LSD and having sex to the Swans and Lydia Lunch before the 90s came and distorted the pure pleasure of fucking. But it did take awhile to rediscover the child-like simplicity of romance and tenderness without sarcastic irony. Not that indie rock helped there, either.
Posted by SetMeOnFire on June 24, 2009 at 5:03 PM · Report this
And indie still sucks ass. I was waiting for the admission, but it never came. Insert cumming joke here ________.
Posted by jenc01 on June 24, 2009 at 5:38 PM · Report this
And indie still sucks ass. I was waiting for the admission, but it never came. Insert cumming joke here ________.
Posted by jenc01 on June 24, 2009 at 5:38 PM · Report this
Just for the record, I only hit enter once, but I'll stand by saying that indie sucks twice... now thrice.
Posted by jenc01 on June 24, 2009 at 5:39 PM · Report this
this says absolutely nothing in a ridiculous amount of words -- hot air blowing.
Posted by chimichanga on June 24, 2009 at 7:02 PM · Report this
I remember when I first heard Exile in Guyville, thinking, "Oh, I get it, sexless songs about fucking." Thanks for reminding me why I never bothered to listen to it again.
Posted by dmitrir on June 24, 2009 at 7:05 PM · Report this
I remember when I first heard Exile in Guyville, thinking, "Oh, I get it, sexless songs about fucking." Thanks for reminding me why I never bothered listening to it again.
Posted by dmitrir on June 24, 2009 at 7:09 PM · Report this
Thanks for posting this. I was pissed I missed seeing you present it at the EMP.

"You look at that broader audience, at mega indie-rock-oriented events like Sasquatch! or the Capitol Hill Block Party, and you see demonstrable sexual confidence, even peacockishness, both in terms of the dress-extra-in-a-DeBarge-video fashion reality—all those louche sideways baseball caps!—and general presence. Not much neurotic discomfort on view, unless you count the nerve damage caused by skinny jeans. Compared to the way similar gatherings would have looked 15 to 20 years ago (not that they could have even existed; an indie-rock festival filling the Gorge for three days in 1994 would have been a laughable prospect)—all uncomfortable-verging-on-apologetic slouches, body-deemphasizing garments, chewed cuticles, and autistic gazes."

2 words: Cocaine use.

In the 90's everyone was stoned on the strongest pot on the planet in this state in between discovering new beers from Dechutes and whiskey when the OK Hotel finally got their license for hard liquor. Nothing like whiskey dick and paranoia to put the brakes on any amorous intentions.

As for the music festival, it was called Lollapalooza and it looked pretty much EXACTLY like that. On the other hand it had fewer and better bands. Yes, less can be more concert promoters.

"When we did turn on the radio, the rock stations were obviously unlistenable (stuff like Stone Temple Pilots and Pearl Jam sounded unbearably macho in this context..."

I have to defend Ed's bunch on this one. The Oedipal myth is a staple of psychology and the reversal of being hit on by your own mother was a pretty good twist. I would have labeled Vedder as most likely to cry over something that mattered (Ticketmaster) than macho any day.

That said: Best piece in this paper in ages. You and Charles are in rare form at the moment.
Posted by Ray Shackleford on June 24, 2009 at 8:05 PM · Report this
lar 11
i was lucky to catch this @ Pop Con. great shit, Sean
Posted by lar on June 24, 2009 at 9:13 PM · Report this
Matt from Denver 12
I think 90s indie music was more about anti-traditional male macho attitudes than being sexless. (Which is why a character like The Wrestler would hate it.)

In 1994, 5 friends and I drove from Denver to Chapel Hill, NC, to spend 3 nights at Merge Records' 5th Anniversary gala, where they had 15 bands (including Archers of Loaf, Superchunk, Squirrel Nut Zippers [not yet a big band in the underground], Coral, Pipe, etc) play. We were all single, and one of us was a girl, but no one tried to get laid. It wasn't that we were sexless per se, it was that we weren't macho and didn't measure our self worth by the number of chicks we screwed.

Indie rock was music by and for people like us. The zeitgeist of the time briefly gave it wide appeal, but the fact that today's "indie" rock has the sound but little of this attitude, shows that it was meant for a more select audience.
Posted by Matt from Denver on June 24, 2009 at 11:45 PM · Report this
Estey 13
Lar's right, this dominated the Pop Con. Great job, Sean!

The fear we had of the desired sex in "alternative rock" in the early 90s helped teach many of us some manners, raised our consciousness so the scene could be safe to approach someone and not repeat mainstream/mean punk rock game-playing. (As an 80s punk, I was just lousy with how to treat young ladies.) My wife was looking for a truce with a boy, for someone to play with (our courtship was reading "Love & Rockets" on the floor of my apartment and slamming in the pit at fairly safe all ages punk shows). She'd admit it herself that if I had acted at all predatory our deep, sweet, traditional but very emotional romance would never have happened. I chalk it up somewhat to her shaved head and toughness, the sexism-baiting songs and zines of the period, "dead men don't rape" graffiti in Belltown, and a swarm of sweet new adolescent energy growing in a scene that was often mortifying beforehand.
Posted by Estey on June 25, 2009 at 4:46 AM · Report this
14 Comment Pulled (Spam) Comment Policy
We reached the apex of post-alternative music/lifestyle during the summer of 2008, and are now trending back toward what could be considered a "90s" construct. While it is important to realize that all trends (and yes, music is dictated by trends) are cyclical, it more important to ask who pulls the strings in regard to the ebb and flow of these trends.

If the "uncool" becomes "cool" around twenty years after its initial debut, then you see where I'm coming from. 2009 marks the end of this decade, as well as the dissolution of our preoccupation with wealth, power, sex, etc. It is not unrealistic, then, to also mark the the end of this decade as the point where we trend toward the decade that preceded it twenty years ago. Our fascination with the 1980s is now coming to an abrupt end (this can be witnessed in the wider-embracing of 80s trends by those in our society who possess the least influence on trends in general - the "late comers").

So, the question is, are we now poised for a revival of so many aspects that shaped the 1990s? The answer becomes apparent as we look at politics and culture. With a liberal democrat in highest office and marijuana again gaining widespread popularity, the answer is superficially "yes" (drugs and politics are good indicators of societal direction). Whether we will now develop the same fascination with the 1990s that we are presently letting go of in regard to the 1980s remains to be seen. Next decade should be interesting nonetheless.
Posted by presently out on June 25, 2009 at 8:39 AM · Report this
Oh Sean. I want to like your writing, but damn it man, get to the point! This reads like some final theses for the David Foster Wallace course at the School for Excessive Tangency. (Your signature touch is parenthesis instead of footnotes.)
Editor's revision: Indie rock encouraged us to not act like macho idiots 'cuz most girls actually don't like that.
Did I leave anything out?
Posted by editor's note on June 25, 2009 at 12:24 PM · Report this
James Gannon 17
Though "indie rock"'s asexual overtones have steadily been assimilated into mainstream culture over the past decade+, I think it's interesting to note the aspects of 80s-90s rave culture that have made significant inroads to indie rock during the same time period. This is a culture that demystifies sexual primacy and in fact emphasizes universal agency of each individual's sexuality and emotional expressive freedom in a collective spirit (everyone's on ex). As evidence I'd cite electro acts like Justice, Simian Mobile Disco and The Presets acceptance into indie scenes and guitar wielding bands like The Black Kids and Klaxons integration of electro themes.
Posted by James Gannon on June 25, 2009 at 12:49 PM · Report this
Bwerrrrrrrauhurrrrrrrrrr bweearruhurrr
Posted by Eddie Vedder on June 25, 2009 at 2:18 PM · Report this
blah, blah, blah, I'm tired of these 90s, when Seattle was great, articles. Just about as much as I'm tired of the same old music being played on Seattle radio stations, the same old 'you're trendy because you try not to be trendy' Seattle attitude, and the same old nothing is relevent outside the pacific NW experience I have every single time I have to come home to visit my family. I've been reading the Stranger online since I left ten years ago to keep up on with Seattle's current events (and Dan Savage) but it's articles like these that remind me how much I don't miss Seattle. It's like visiting Haight and Ashbury, let it go already.
Posted by elsewhere on June 25, 2009 at 3:00 PM · Report this
"It wasn't that we were sexless per se, it was that we weren't macho and didn't measure our self worth by the number of chicks we screwed.

Bullshit. You weren't looking to get screwed because of feminist or anti-macho messages in the music you were listening to. You weren't looking to get screwed because you were playing it safe like many younsters in the nineties. You listened to safe, boring music while being bombarded with the media's "safe sex" and messages during the most impressionable time of your lives.
Posted by Checkers on June 25, 2009 at 5:25 PM · Report this
Yeeeaahh... ya know what? Reading this, I'm glad I spent the early 90s listening / dancing / moping / fucking to Depeche Mode and the Sisters of Mercy and dropping acid to Pink Floyd. I had loads of freaky (but safe) sex with freaky (but interesting) people, and I have absolutely no regrets about it. I always found grunge / indie music to be navel-gazing wankery. In closing - Nirvana sucked.
Posted by Kinky Goth Bitch on June 26, 2009 at 11:30 PM · Report this
Rev.Smith 22
After reading this , I'd really like a female take on the same subject.

Any real grrls left at the stranger?
Posted by Rev.Smith on June 27, 2009 at 1:59 AM · Report this
I was a teenage girl in the early 90s, and when you're that age, it's impossible not to connect music to sex. But I think that the difference with the 90s versus prior decades is that my girlfriends and I felt really outspoken about what we wanted and what we expected from sex. It helped that maybe because of the overall culture at the time, the guys understood this and were at least superficially cool with that. And we had a soundtrack to back this up. To us, PJ Harvey, Lush, Elastica, Kim Gordon, Kim Deal, and L7 were incredibly sexy. I unfortunately didn't even know about Riot Grrl at the time.

I think things are reverting back to pre-90s mentality with faux sex-positivism being touted by people who aren't comfortable with their sexuality outside of the way it's viewed by others. If I had grown up with Suicide Girls and burlesque, I think I would have been missing the point.

What the 90s told guys is it's up to you to change your attitudes about women - we're not here to educate you. If you want to know the definition of feminism, look it up in a book. So maybe guys did feel that the culture of this decade left their sexuality deflated, because for the first time, they had to take some accountability, and I'm sure for a lot of guys that was a boner kill. But for the girls I knew, it was awesome.

Posted by lenora on June 27, 2009 at 10:58 AM · Report this
Ever think that the biggest threat to culture was the word culture and the love we feel for ourselves when that word rolls of our tounge?
Posted by 234 on June 27, 2009 at 9:45 PM · Report this
Estey 25
Lenora and Kinky Goth Bitch's comments here are invaluable enough to be actual footnotes to this article.

234 has a point, too.
Posted by Estey on June 28, 2009 at 8:55 AM · Report this
Speaking as a woman who grew up smack dab in the era of indie rock, if some young men actually got schooled on some real sensitivity by the supposedly libido-deflating indie rock, that's great, but honestly people, don't kid yourselves, those floppy-haired, shoe/navel-gazing, faux-sensitive boys got laid right, left, up and down, and still do. The more "sensitive and confused" you were, the more ass you got, until the gal wised up and realized it was all pretense.
Posted by caffeinenation on June 28, 2009 at 9:26 AM · Report this
i totally agree, but I dare you to *not* scream out the lyrics to James' 'Laid' at the top of your lungs the next time you're in the car by yourself.
'this bed is on fIRE..' when the songs were overtly sexual, even, the dominant modalities were starting to be challenged...awesome...xx
Posted by splashy on June 28, 2009 at 10:37 AM · Report this

classic rock 'n' roll, anyone?
Posted by humblepie on June 28, 2009 at 11:41 PM · Report this
rtm 29
@15 - "2009 marks the end of this decade, as well as the dissolution of our preoccupation with wealth, power, sex, etc."

your capacity for self delusion is astonishing. as a species, we will always be preoccupied with wealth, power, sex.

Posted by rtm on June 29, 2009 at 11:50 AM · Report this
alithea 30
i wish i had something to contribute, but the early to mid nineties for me were spent being weirded out and confused why people flocked to my hometown to see some awkward dude who wasnt even all that nice warble on his guitar or turntables. thats what happens when you grow up in olympia.

for what its worth, this was easily my favorite part of the pop conference. even more than john rodderick on the groupie panel.
Posted by alithea on June 29, 2009 at 4:26 PM · Report this
very interesting article! Drawing associations about how music can consciously or subconsciously influence our way of thinking, acting, loving and sexing... thats not everyday music journalism at all!! Even the point about how music finds us, or we find it- is really important, and quite magical- something I've always noticed all my life. Many of my biggest moments were in the discovery of new music- from Hendrix, Buckely, Pj Harvey, and many many more. Thanks for the excellent writing.
Posted by gordon raphael on June 30, 2009 at 1:43 AM · Report this
There are many thoughtful observations in this article, but I wish they had been more clearly presented. The overwritten style obscures many potential insights. It's disappointing that whoever was the editor for this piece was so indulgent of the author. This might have been a brilliant (near-Svenonius) essay if someone had challenged the author to be more disciplined in how he structured his prose, more discriminating in his use of rhythm and momentum, and less enamored of his self-deprecating persona. Why MUST all writing about music and culture be so personal? Wouldn't a little professional distance help the reader to engage the subject more seriously? I'm glad the author quoted Eric Weisbard. Certainly an entire article with such dense theoretical jargon would be exhausting, but you have to admire the precision at its heart. Nice work.
Posted by pekka on June 30, 2009 at 2:31 PM · Report this
Anthropomorhpise Me 33
KISS - Keep It Simple Stupid

I could not finish this article.
Posted by Anthropomorhpise Me on June 30, 2009 at 3:40 PM · Report this
I gave up on radio and listened to Bowie and Roxy Music.

I got laid, but didn't have to go under the whole macho schtick.

But oh well, whatever, nevermind.
Posted by POH on July 2, 2009 at 8:58 AM · Report this
thelyamhound 35
Kinky Goth Bitch @21 - You hit, here, on something that I think Nelson managed to skirt by eschewing "alternative" in favor of "indie." Because if he'd used "alternative," he'd have to include Depeche Mode, Sisters of Mercy, Siouxsie Sioux, My Life With the Thrill Kill Cult, etc. in his analysis . . . and those acts wouldn't have supported the thesis, since they all embraced sexuality (even where they rejected traditional notions of gender).

I still think the thesis was challengeable on other bases, for reasons I noted above, but reasonable people could still disagree. Losing most of the goth, synth-pop, and industrial contingency from the alternative movement, however, looks in hindsight like stacking the deck.

That said, this was still the most fun I've had reading a music article in The Stranger in some time.
Posted by thelyamhound on July 2, 2009 at 3:21 PM · Report this
Excellent essay. I think it could be researched more, broadened more and turned into something publishable (on paper). Nice job.
Posted by HL123 on July 3, 2009 at 7:09 AM · Report this

Add a comment