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


Brilliant article. I finally feel like I've received an education on why I never get laid.
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.

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.
And indie still sucks ass. I was waiting for the admission, but it never came. Insert cumming joke here ________.
And indie still sucks ass. I was waiting for the admission, but it never came. Insert cumming joke here ________.
Just for the record, I only hit enter once, but I'll stand by saying that indie sucks twice... now thrice.
this says absolutely nothing in a ridiculous amount of words -- hot air blowing.
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.
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.
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.
i was lucky to catch this @ Pop Con. great shit, Sean
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Bwerrrrrrrauhurrrrrrrrrr bweearruhurrr
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.
"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.
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.
After reading this , I'd really like a female take on the same subject.

Any real grrls left at the stranger?
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.

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?
Lenora and Kinky Goth Bitch's comments here are invaluable enough to be actual footnotes to this article.

234 has a point, too.
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.
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

classic rock 'n' roll, anyone?
@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.

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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Excellent essay. I think it could be researched more, broadened more and turned into something publishable (on paper). Nice job.