“Experiments will be left to a small avant garde, way out on the left, very solemn and romantic, and the bubblegum business in general will regard this avant garde with benevolence, will steal its best ideas and talents, but will otherwise ignore it.”—Nik Cohn, “The Monkees,” Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: The Golden Age Of Rock
“It’s an idealization—a level of despair to aspire toward rather than shared pain requiring collective catharsis. In other words, things could get worse.”— Robert Christgau, review of Bush’s Sixteen Stone
When my journey through the past of popular ’90s alternative rock began two months ago, I had a not-so-simple goal: I wanted to reconnect with my long-lost teenaged self, and in the process rekindle the passion I once had for the music of my youth. Pure, unadulterated myopia aside, I hoped that readers would relate to my experience of looking back and realizing that sizeable swaths of my adolescence didn’t feel like they belonged to me anymore. I wanted to recover that history by playing old, dated albums and trying really hard to hear them as I did back then, no matter how poorly some of my former alt-rock heroes had aged. Because while opinions might change, the past doesn’t. The record is set—I liked what I liked in the ’90s, and I wanted to remember why.
So far, it’s been surprisingly easy to re-introduce Ten, Siamese Dream, and Superunknown to my CD shelves after years of storing them away in boxes in the basement. But now that we’re a little further down the ’90s alt-rock trough, we have to deal with the likes of Throwing Copper, the breakthrough record from the oppressively serious, frustratingly-difficult-to-Google-search messiah-rock outfit Live. I know I bought Throwing Copper, and there’s a good chance you did, too—it sold more than 8 million copies in the U.S. alone. If you did buy it, you probably also sold it off by the end of the ’90s; Throwing Copper is to used CD stores what Mantovani records are to rummage sales. Discarded copies haunt the shelves like balding, middle-aged men in leather-sleeve jackets.
I’m watching the video for “I Alone,” the second of Throwing Copper’s five singles, and it’s not helping me recover whatever affection I once felt for this record. The video begins with an uncomfortably tight shot on thoroughly ridiculous Live frontman Ed Kowalczyk, who is rubbing and distorting his painfully pale face with his hands while pretending to sing the song’s opening line, “It’s easier not to be wise.” I should take Kowalczyk’s words as a warning to turn back, and not watch the remaining three minutes and 49 seconds of “I Alone,” but I don’t listen. Instead, I stick around and see the other members of Live standing in the middle of what’s clearly a soundstage that’s been made to resemble a burned-out, post-apocalyptic wasteland; it looks precisely like the kind of godforsaken place where a record like Throwing Copper could sell 8 million copies.
Now Kowalczyk is shirtless, baring a modestly built torso that positively screams to be covered by several layers of clothing. His spastic mannerisms are reminiscent of a hacky nightclub comedian hoofing it through a lame David Byrne impression. “It’s easier not to be great,” he sings as a long, braided rattail rests over his right shoulder. Suddenly I’m full of rage: Jesus Christ, this is supposed to be a commercial for Throwing Copper, and all I want to do is kick the shit out of my computer screen.
The popularity of Throwing Copper—which was released on April 26, 1994, and hit No. 1 on the Billboard albums chart 52 weeks later—says a lot about the state of alternative rock in 1995. Similar to the exploitation and marginalization of the serious-minded avant garde by the pop-music industry that rock critic Nik Cohn wrote about in the late ’60s, 1995 was a time when the superficial aesthetics of alternative music—down-tuned guitars, downbeat melodies, frowny-faced (but still telegenic) stars—had been fully absorbed by corporate starmakers, who set about flooding the market with highly commercial bubble-grunge bands that took everything that seemed fresh just three years earlier out of context and straight into the meat grinder.
A record like Throwing Copper must make cash-strapped modern-day record executives wish that time travel actually existed, so they could venture back to a glorious period in history when music consumers would gladly buy anything so long as the proper palms were greased to get it on the radio and MTV. Throwing Copper was the follow-up to Live’s 1991 debut, Mental Jewelry, a clumsy attempt at applying U2-style grandiosity to regular-dude college rock. A band like Live was supposed to be a remedy to the proudly contrived and silly music that was dominant on the charts before Nevermind pushed mainstream rock in a different direction. But Mental Jewelry is plenty contrived and silly on its own; song titles that already seem wincingly pretentious (“The Beauty Of Gray,” “Tired Of ‘Me’”) are given a little extra oomph by even more doltish, you’ve-got-to-be-fucking-kidding-me parenthetical asides, like the achingly, stupidly profound “Operation Spirit (The Tyranny Of Tradition).”
Apparently this was obvious even to the members of Live, who were in their late teens when they made Mental Jewelry. For Throwing Copper, they tightened up the songwriting and made the songs louder and more anthemic, pumping up the muscularity of the music by adding chunky distortion to the leaden jangle and fumbling funk of their instrumental attack. Along the way, Kowalczyk locked his inner Bono in the same room with his insufferable Eddie Vedder impression, got them drunk, and nine months later gave birth to an artistic persona that was nearly as aggressively self-aggrandizing as it was hopelessly self-pitying.
Live is best remembered today for the song “Lightning Crashes,” a melodramatic ballad about death that made modern rock radio safe for gratuitous mentions of the word “placenta.” The popularity of “Lightning Crashes” in April 1995 coincided with the Oklahoma City bombing, and a remixed version of the song created by one of the city’s local radio stations—which incorporated sound bites from Bill Clinton and Tom Brokaw, as well as fire-engine and ambulance sirens—was played throughout the country as Americans mourned the tragic deaths of 168 people. Two weeks after the bombing, on May 6, Throwing Copper was the nation’s top-selling album. Live would go on to be named 1995’s Artist Of The Year by the readers of Rolling Stone and the Billboard Music Awards. Live’s status was such that when a strikingly beautiful girl named Jen moved to my town and started hanging out with my group of friends, she seemed all the more exotic because she hailed from York, Pennsylvania, which we all knew was Live’s hometown.
That summer, right before the start of my senior year, my friends and I drove down to Milwaukee to see Live at the Marcus Amphitheater. I was 17, and driving four hours roundtrip for a concert was still a big deal. I had sweet-talked my mother into allowing me to see R.E.M. on the Monster tour at Marcus just three months earlier, which succeeded in part because she confused R.E.M. with REO Speedwagon, whose Hi Infidelity was one of two non-Christian music tapes she still owned. (The other being the Dirty Dancing soundtrack.)
We arrived late and missed the opening act, a no-name blip on the pop-culture radar named PJ Harvey. I liked Live enough at the time to purchase the single ugliest tour T-shirt that’s even taken up space in my dresser, a brownish green monstrosity showing off Throwing Copper’s grotesque cover art. But my favorite part of the concert actually had nothing to do with Live at all. It happened when Kowalczyk dismissed the band and announced that he was about to play a song by a group from Dayton, Ohio that he recently discovered. The band was Guided By Voices, and the song was “Dusted,” from 1993’s Vampire On Titus.
Now is a good time to finally address an issue that’s been hovering in the background of this series from the beginning: the distinction between “cool” ’90s rock and “uncool” ’90s rock. I’ve made an effort to focus on some of the era’s biggest names and most commercially successful rock bands because 1) those are the bands I liked at the time; 2) those are the bands that millions of other people liked at the time; and 3) I find it strange that many people, including myself, don’t seem to remember it that way.
When I look back to my music-listening habits in 1995, I tend to overlook all the time I spent listening to Throwing Copper and instead think only about how I obsessed over GBV’s Alien Lanes, which I bought after reading a glowing four-star review in Rolling Stone. That summer, I tried to make heads or tails of a record that boasted 28 absentmindedly recorded songs in just 41 minutes. I was lost until I realized that the whole record was basically like the second side of The Beatles’ Abbey Road, which stitched a series of melodic fragments into an extended suite. Just like that, Alien Lanes made sense, and GBV quickly became one of my favorite bands. In hindsight, Live seems likes a footnote, despite selling millions of records and playing 25,000-seat amphitheaters in its heyday, while Guided By Voices appears a lot bigger and more important today even if it reached only a fraction of Live’s audience in the ’90s.
That has something to do with Alien Lanes possibly being the best rock album of the last 20 years, and Throwing Copper without question not being the best rock album of the last 20 years. But I also think there’s an element of self-flattery in how we remember our pasts. People who care about rock history have collectively decided to focus on “real” ’90s alternative rock—Pavement, Yo La Tengo, Sonic Youth, Fugazi, Built To Spill, insert your favorite aging indie band here—at the expense of bands most commonly identified with the nebulous genre tag at the time. As critics are inclined to do, they’ve written ’90s rock history based on their personal preferences rather than what people were actually listening to. I happen to share many of those preferences, but that’s not the point: Our memories seem distorted by what we’ve retroactively decided is worthwhile.
Last month, Billy Corgan was soundly mocked after he took to Twitter and ripped Pavement for reuniting for a cash-in tour without making any new music, and declared that indie rock’s premier slacker icons represented “the death of the alternative dream.” It sounded like the sort of absurdly delusional statement that you’d expect from a faded egomaniac like Corgan. But if people had taken a minute to think about the content of what Corgan said before rushing to make fun of him, they might’ve noticed that he was actually sort of right, albeit not in the way that he intended.
For mainstream rock fans like myself, the popular alternative music of the early ’90s really did seem like a legitimate insurgence from the underground. But when Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus indifferently mocked Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots in the lyrics to “Range Life,” one of the breakout songs from 1994’s Crooked Rain Crooked Rain, it was an early sign that this was no longer true—or, worse, had never been true in the first place. Unwittingly or not, “Range Life” taught me that the alternative rock bands I liked were overblown frauds; it was like the day you showed up at school and noticed that nobody cuffed their jeans anymore. You couldn’t un-ring the bell.
The difference between “uncool” ’90s alternative and “cool” ’90s indie boils down to demographics: grunge and post-grunge bands were geared mainly toward angsty, immature teenagers, while indie groups were targeted at cynical, over-educated college kids and post-graduate twentysomethings. Bands like Pavement and Guided By Voices seemed older, just like coffee-drinking and watching Northern Exposure seemed older. If there was one thing I wanted to be when I was in high school, it was older. And in order to be older, you had to set aside music that expressed the tortured range of erratic emotions felt by 14-year-old misfits in favor of music that informed the calm, cool detachment affected by 21-year-old know-it-alls.
Alien Lanes ended up being just as important to me in many ways as Nevermind, only I couldn’t share the experience with anyone I knew. My friends just weren’t into this kind of music yet, and they definitely didn’t understand why I was so excited to hear Ed Kowalczyk play an unplugged version of a song that’s barely known even by GBV standards.
On that late August night in Milwaukee, two paths briefly intersected at the heart of my experience with ’90s music, and then passed each other as they headed in increasingly divergent directions. I wound up staying on the road with GBV and indie rock; fading in to the distance was Live and the rapidly disintegrating husk that was once known as alternative rock. It now seems strange that GBV and Live could’ve ever existed on the same stage. Live went on to tour with Nickelback, serve as a primary inspiration for popular American Idol alumnus Chris Daughtry, and break up in 2009. In 2010, Kowalczyk released a solo record called Alive while the other band members formed a new group called The Gracious Few with two guys from Candlebox. Even when they’re apart, the members of Live have still found it very easy not to be great.
I was on my way to being done with mainstream alternative music in 1995, but mainstream alternative music wasn’t done with me. What else explains this copy of Bush’s Sixteen Stone, an album I actively avoided owning until just a few weeks ago, sitting on my living room stereo?
I didn’t need Stephen Malkmus to tap me on the shoulder and point out that Bush really sucked as Sixteen Stone came to dominate alt-rock radio in 1995. Bush epitomized the rankest form of grunge-rock shuck-and-jive, cynically regurgitating the sonic and visual hallmarks of infinitely superior bands as hollow, shamefully shameless shtick. Released on Dec. 6, 1994, Sixteen Stone seemed like blatant profiteering in the wake of Nirvana’s end, when demand for a dumber, more pop-friendly follow-up to In Utero was sky-high and supply was non-existent. Even better, Bush’s lead singer and guitarist, Gavin Rossdale, was a grade-A piece of pretty-boy rock-star man-meat; he looked like Jared Leto’s Jordan Catalano period crossed with Jared Leto’s yet-to-be-seen 30 Seconds To Mars period. After several years of rock stars who didn’t look or act like rock stars, Rossdale was a swift return to the mercilessly hunky status quo.
Sixteen Stone had all the trappings of a pre-fab alt-rock confection, but Bush wasn’t exactly conceived as a can’t-miss proposition. Birthed during the glory days of grunge in 1992, Bush stumbled around its native Great Britain in search for a record deal as the Brits went crazy over the latest wave of American bands. Rossdale had previously crapped out as music-business careerist, failing to garner any attention during two unsuccessful stints under the tutelage of English labels. (In a 1997 interview, he admitted that labels in his native country saw him as “damaged goods.”) Bush didn’t fit in with the emerging Britpop scene, but Rossdale found favor on the other side of the pond, where Bush was finally able to land a U.S. record deal.
Sixteen Stone was produced by Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, two British music-industry pros who had overseen glossy pop hits like Elvis Costello’s “Everyday I Write The Book.” For Sixteen Stone, Langer and Winstanley showed a deft touch at replicating the blown-out sound of Steve Albini’s production work on In Utero, all the while taking pains to preserve the simple but brutally effective hooks on the album’s catchiest songs. It wasn’t great art, but Sixteen Stone was decent product, overseen by clever craftsmen who understood what the contemporary pop audience wanted and knew how to deliver a convincing-enough facsimile of it. Still, Bush’s label, Trauma Records, considered not releasing Sixteen Stone; not on artistic grounds, but because it didn’t think the low-budget, no-buzz project had any commercial potential. Trauma ended up being rewarded for its near-incompetence to the tune of 6 million-plus albums sold.
Listening to Sixteen Stone, there’s a part of me that wants to find something to defend. Co-opting cutting-edge sounds for pop purposes isn’t an automatic artistic disqualifier in my book; The Monkees might have been a rip-off of the Hard Day’s Night Beatles, but they also made a lot of timeless pop-rock records. Larceny in pop music can be forgiven with a good beat and a memorable melody. But Sixteen Stone just sounds junky and witless outside of its well-known singles. Of course, that still leaves nearly half the record, which anyone who paid attention to alt-rock radio in the mid-’90s will recognize—songs like the caterwauling “Everything Zen,” the somewhat less caterwauling “Little Things,” and the caterwauling-est “Machinehead.” There’s also the awful ballad “Glycerine,” a song I’ve always hated and occasionally slow-danced to.
My favorite song on Sixteen Stone is “Little Things,” which, not coincidentally, is the album’s baldest Nirvana rip-off. It kicks off with a stock “Smells Like Teen Spirit”/”Rape Me”/”More Than A Feeling” guitar riff before settling into a distinctively rumbling Krist Novoselic bassline. Then the chorus explodes a la “In Bloom,” with maybe a dash of “Lithium,” and I’m totally rocking out to my memories of a band I love a hell of a lot more than Bush. In another time, Gavin Rossdale might have been praised as a passable mash-up artist. Instead, he used this patchwork sonic canvas to paint a story that’s possibly about werewolves, starving frontiersmen, and/or a guy sucking his own dick. I’m just spit-ballin’ here; see if you can make better sense of the following lyrics:
I touch your mouth
My willy is food
Addicted to love
I’m addicted to fools
I kill you once
I kill you again
We’re starving and crude
Welcome my friends to
The little things that kill
Rossdale made the highly questionable decision to print the lyrics of Sixteen Stone in the album’s liner notes, which is sort of like Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer—the doofuses behind Date Movie, Epic Movie, Vampires Suck and other crimes against cinematic comedy—handing out leather-bound copies of their screenplays to dissatisfied customers as they exit the theater. The lyrics sheet to Sixteen Stone reads like it was written an hour before an English midterm by an especially dim Kurt Cobain acolyte. Rossdale’s lyrics demand an orgy of red-pen marks, not preservation inside a multi-platinum record.
Picking on dopey lyrics is a loser’s game when it comes to discussing the big pop-rock albums of 1995, since even the most patently pukey songwriting ended up being praised for its “confessional” qualities. Such was the case with Alanis Morissette’s staggeringly popular Jagged Little Pill, which spawned six hit singles—”You Oughta Know,” “Ironic,” “You Learn,” “Hand In My Pocket,” “Head Over Feet,” and “All I Really Want”—and went on to sell an amazing 33 million copies worldwide. In terms of sales, Jagged Little Pill belongs in the same company as Led Zeppelin IV and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Even more than Sixteen Stone, Jagged Little Pill demonstrated that mainstream pop had assimilated the sound and feel of alt-rock and could now turn out artists that fit the mold without all that troublesome baggage of BS punk-rock credibility. Jagged Little Pill made edgy gestures—lead single “You Oughta Know” thrust an aggressive finger in the chest of the tired Carly Simon-style singer-songwriter template just enough to make it feel alive again—while turning out a steady stream of ear-pleasing pop tunes that toed the line with trends that were now firmly in place. Listeners were so wrapped up in the “controversy” over who exactly Alanis was supposed to be blowing in a movie theater in “You Oughta Know” that they never stopped to ask, “You know, who really gives a shit?”
Like Gavin Rossdale, Alanis Morissette spent years before her big break finding the right look and sound that would make her a star. In the early ’90s, when Morissette was still in high school, she recorded two dance-pop albums, 1991’s Alanis and 1992’s Now Is The Time, for the Canadian division of MCA Records. The first record was a success in her home country, going platinum thanks to the hit “Too Hot” and Morissette’s tour dates with Vanilla Ice at the height of his short-lived success. But Now Is The Time was considered a commercial failure, and she was not offered a new record contract. The setback proved to be a turning point for Morissette, who graduated high school and moved from her hometown of Ottawa to the more metropolitan Toronto. Soon, she began venturing to Nashville and Los Angeles in search of collaborators. Eventually, she hooked up with record producer-songwriter Glen Ballard, whom she met through their mutual publishing company ties.
Who is Glen Ballard? Here’s a more pertinent question: Who the fuck are you? According to his official online bio, records with Ballard’s name on them have sold more than 150 million copies. He’s written songs for Barbra Streisand, Aerosmith, Shakira, Sheena Easton, and Chaka Khan. He co-wrote “Man In The Mirror” for Michael Jackson. He oversaw Wilson Phillips’ 10-million selling 1990 debut. He composed the song score for Robert Zemeckis’ The Polar Express. He’s as punk-rock as Burl Ives, but no matter—Glen Ballard is a fucking music fucking professional through and through.
In the aftermath of Pill’s incredible success, Morissette and Ballard both spoke of having an instant creative connection, writing their first song together within minutes of meeting each other. “It was as simple as me picking up my guitar and hitting a couple of chords, and she would go, ‘I like that,’ and she would hit a melody and I would hit it back to her,” Ballard recalled in an interview. Morissette and Ballard worked quickly throughout the sessions for the record, spending no more than a day writing each track.
“You Oughta Know” ended up being Morissette’s signature song, but it was “Ironic”—a song that very much sounds like it was written in a day—that really pushed Pill into the stratosphere. A lot of people loved the accessible quirkiness of “Ironic,” but what made the song a defining hit of its time is that people seemed to love hating it even more. Alanis haters relished pointing out how many of the examples of irony in the lyrics to “Ironic” were, in fact, not really ironic. On this point I’m going to defend Morissette, if only because these are the same awful people that circle typos in newspapers and mail the clippings anonymously to editors with smug putdowns such as, “Maybe you should consider hiring copy editors,” or some equally non-clever bullshit. I’m right next to you flipping the bird at those a-holes, Alanis.
Neither Bush nor Alanis Morissette could ever match the success of their monstrously successful albums from 1995. Bush cinched its status as the world’s most popular Nirvana tribute band by hiring Steve Albini to record the follow-up to Sixteen Stone, 1996’s Razorblade Suitcase. Just like Nirvana with its Albini record In Utero, Bush saw its commercial viability shrink with Suitcase. After 2001’s Golden State, which actively emulated the sound of Sixteen Stone, Bush disbanded. Rossdale spent the ’00s fronting a new band, Institute, and trying to get a solo career off the ground, all the while hinting to reporters that his new music would likely be better received if it were released as Bush. Inevitably, he re-formed the band in 2010 with two new members, and an album is expected in 2011.
After reaching the absolute pinnacle of pop success, Morissette conducted the rest of her career like an artist playing with house money, putting out albums with mind-numbing titles like 1998’s Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, 2002’s Under Rug Swept, and 2008’s Flavors Of Entanglement. These days, she’s self-aware enough to acknowledge that Jagged Little Pill will always be her greatest calling card, releasing an acoustic version of the album on its 10th anniversary in 2005 and joking about “You Oughta Know” on an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. She seems to have accepted being a living, breathing signifier of a bygone era.
Whenever Alanis Morissette makes a cameo appearance in contemporary pop culture, she’s a reminder of the 1995 that some of us would just as soon forget, just as Bush will surely be when its next record comes out. They remain preserved just as we left them, impervious to any and all efforts to disavow their impact on ’90s rock. They get older, but their music will forever remain tied to the same age.
What Happened Next? A story about two very different heroin addicts—Bradley Nowell of Sublime and Layne Staley of Alice In Chains—who died in ways both literal and figurative in 1996, and how the bands they spearheaded decided to carry on anyway.
Whatever Happened To Alternative Nation? will take a break over the holidays and return for the final four installments starting on Jan. 11.