Remember a couple of years ago when I was so obsessed with Belle & Sebastian, and I was posting about them every other week? I guess that was around 2015, and it was one of my favorite albums of that year. Kind of a random and unexpected choice of fresh obsession. As it happens, Belle & Sebastian have released about a dozen albums, the first of which came out in 1996, so I was, of course, very much late to the party. In 1996 the pieces were already fully in place, the aesthetic recognizably formed, but perhaps the market wasn’t quite ready for shoegazer pop reminiscent of something you would hear in an inoffensive mid-1960’s romantic comedy. Now that particular aesthetic is its own cottage industry, because apparently society is finally ready to go full-twee.
Ten years ago, I’d never heard of the band Pulp. This despite their heyday being the early 90’s, and their peculiarly British tone of deadpan and melodramatic being right in my personal wheelhouse. Well, live and learn and discover cool new things decades after everyone else has. Anyhow, in my defense, this brand of stylized pop never exactly swept the United States, no matter how much Union Jack prints may have trended. Irony and intelligence are not much valued here, unfortunately. Americans like naked sex appeal coupled with phony wholesomeness. America was never going to elevate Jarvis Cocker – a walking undergraduate thesis on male sexual neuroses in stovepipe trousers – to rock superstardom. Their loss, of course.
Everyone knows Tom Jones’ hit She’s a Lady. This is not that song, because that song sucks. This is Pulp, juicily riffing on another overripe dancefloor hit, Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive. Gaynor’s song has improbably shorn off disco’s smell of sweat and stale cocaine to become an evergreen anthem of empowerment. So of course the one thing it needed was to reimagined as the hormonal ramblings of a neurotic English twit. Jarvis Cocker was a leading voice of 1994’s Cool Britannia pack, and he managed to make his perverse and neurotic persona look very charming and attractive, probably because he looked so good in stovepipe trousers. It’s magical how you can practically hear the flop sweat and shaking hands, but you still want to follow him back to his bedsit. Hey, not everyone can make pop poetry out of bad sex and morning-after regret. What’s Brit-speak for “Oh, you irresistible proto-fuckboy”?
I’ve always liked Social Distortion for being a degree or two smarter than the average three-chord punk rock band. Let’s face it, it’s in the nature of punk rock music to either be mindless or to appear so underneath the three-chord simplicity. Its primary function is to be fast and loud. Any cleverness or social consciousness comes behind the aggression. Social D has made a run of clever and relevant songs, without sacrificing the basic formula. And one thing that fuels the basic formula, besides angst towards the world at large, is songs about unattainable hot women. It’s an adolescent view of the world, defined by what you don’t have and what you want. Obviously, that includes matters of lust. I, personally, have a low cutoff point for enjoying other people’s hormonal aggression. But sometimes you gotta enjoy a good ode to a good knockout, because somewhere deep down, your inner teenage misfit still relates to it.
This couldn’t be a bigger 90’s-bomb if it was wearing flannel and a black plastic choker, at least going from the production values of the video. Dean and Gene Ween were idols to the weirdos among 90’s kids. But there’s a reason why their career has unexpectedly outlived the decade, and why we don’t mentally file them away as 90’s music like we do with so many bands who were much more popular in those years. It’s because their imaginations roved way beyond anything as mundane as popular trends or commercial viability. They proved, once and for all, that weirdness is so much more timeless and eternal than being on-point. They made a nautical-themed concept album, because prog rock and sea shanties were two things that needed to be brought back for the summer of 1997.
This really takes me back…all the way back to around 2005, when I first started listening to Flaming Lips. The song was more than 10 years old by that point, but in 1993 I was ten years old, so. So I don’t remember jack about the 90’s. Apparently 1993 was the year that Flaming Lips accidentally piggybacked on the grunge aesthetic long enough to launch their psychedelic fweakiness somewhere nearer to the overall mainstream than they had been before. It would be another decade before they finally became the kind of popular band whose songs can be heard in movie theatre lobbies. Makes you think about the eons of time that constitute pop cultural evolution, how sometimes it takes decades to create the things you love, and more decades for you to find them, and then more decades, infinite decades, for you to enjoy them.
Every time I do a series about some important issues (like sex) there’s always a Lords of Acid song, and it never ever says anything. None of their songs say anything! Except to espouse an orgiastic lifestyle of kinky sex and psychotropic drugs. If you want music that transports you to a sweaty underworld of dancing in bunkers and snorting ecstasy until your eyes bleed, Praga Khan is your man. It’s hard to have deep thoughts when your synapses are firing in tune with the strobe lights, but if you can gather your wits about you, you could argue that there’s something subversive and liberating in this kind of unapologetic hedonism. Hedonism has been espoused by various libertines as a path to personal liberation on-and-off for centuries. Sometimes it’s been in framed in idealistic, utopian language, as it was in the 1960’s, and sometimes it’s just a nihilistic pursuit of gratification. The rise and fall of hedonistic subcultures doesn’t appear to have always reflected the social progress of the broader culture, though the hedonists have liked to think of themselves as trailblazers. Sometimes too much self-indulgent hedonism, or the appearance thereof, has rubbed people the wrong way, leading to political coups and heads being guillotined. Sometimes the hedonistic subcultures have slowly marched their way into wide social acceptance, as we’ve seen the LGBT-rights movement do. But mostly hedonism is accepted as a phase that people go through when they’re young and don’t need very much sleep. Taking drugs, losing all your inhibitions, living out your naughtiest fantasies, trying to bang out some sense of yourself out on the dance floor – if it doesn’t kill you, it’s a healthy growing experience.