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.