I celebrated a seminal birthday this month, and, instead of going existential about life’s brevity, I decided to run through my 30-year-old music catalog. Belatedly beginning today, the Nostos Algos Daily Doses of September will present the songs and videos that defined certain epochs in my life (in no particular order) because, as I’ve said before, music marks moments.
So here it is, the first installment: “No Scrubs” off TLC’s second studio album CrazySexyCool, which was released in 1994 when I was a 4th-grader learning the complexities of the California Mission System.
For many of my music loving brethren, an older sibling played a pivotal role in their musical development. This left me, an only child, at an effervescent disadvantage. Luckily my Motown-loving Father and folk-favoring Mother gave me a solid foundation, but they did nothing to help me branch into my own decade. In this vacuum, I had to rely on the older neighbor girl who introduced me to The New Kids on the Block instead of The Talking Heads–a band I would much prefer to cite as my gateway musical drug.
It wasn’t until high school that I truly began to diversify thanks to chain record stores and the older brother of my first boyfriend. Remember, this was a pre-internet age that Apple hadn’t yet iTransformed; you actually had to leave the house and moderately interact with other humans (if only at checkout) in order to peruse new and old releases. For a shy, awkward teen girl with overprotective parents (again, only child) I did not often find myself alone in public, EXCEPT for places like The Warehouse and Best Buy* where Mom would let me run around and explore to my heart’s content while she attended to her own business. It was in places like these that I stumbled across Modest Mouse and Built to Spill, two of my favorite bands of all time and the opening dialog with my future boyfriend’s incredibly cool older brother.
This fella, to whom we shall refer as J, was a recent high school grad who had just joined the U.S. Marine Corps. He was a man of few words who read Bret Easton Ellis novels and wore a lot of black. I was awe struck, not sexually speaking (I want to get that out of the way) but rather in the way that only kids are always looking for surrogate sources to brothers and/or sisters. It sounds creepy, but it’s not; this is not a Single White Female situation. To some extent, solo kiddos such as we are unsocialized and ever grateful for a little guidance. Having just delved into the Kerouac literary catalog while clutching every Modest Mouse album I could find close to the chest, I was ripe for a cultural infusion J was only too happy to provide. What he loaned me were the aforementioned Ellis novels as well as CDs ranging from Cab Calloway to The White Stripes, all of which I greedily burned and played to death.
This is when J gave me the gift of Sleater-Kinney in all their Riot grrrl glory. For those who are unfamiliar, the Riot grrrl movement was partially incubated in Olympia, Washington, where Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker–founding Sleater-Kinneyians–were attending Evergreen State College in the early 1990s. Often associated with third wave feminism, Riot Grrrl music gave women an outlet in a typically male dominated punk realm as grrls lyrically unleashed taboo topics such as rape, patriarchy and domestic abuse without apology. In her book “Words + Guitars: The Riot Grrl Movement and Third-Wave Feminism”, Hilary Belzer explains how the movement sought to develop mediums that spoke to girls who were “tired of boy band after boy band, boy zine after boy zine, boy punk after boy punk…BECAUSE a safe space needs to be created for girls where we can open our eyes and reach out to each other without being threatened by this sexist society and our day to day bullshit.”
If you think about it, this motive is not dissimilar to the socio-educational rhetoric of the mid- and late-1990s. Everywhere I turned, parents and teachers were discussing how I felt and where I stood. Do girls feel comfortable raising their hands to speak their minds in co-ed classrooms? Are girls athletic programs given as much play as boys? We were given Murphy Brown and Title 9 to look to, but by rioting these grrrls spoke to an undercurrent that could never have been mainstreamed on television screens or in legislation. For me, grrrls like Brownstein and Tucker spoke of being sold out to and sucked in by teenage hormones–a predatory right of passage that often floated boys adrift on a testosterone tidal wave of conquest but just as often left girls with a handful of shiny placations, gemstones we thought were diamonds but revealed themselves to be nothing but paste. This is the dynamic that makes a promiscuous football player a legend and the equally adventurous cheerleader a slut on a high school campus, but I had never thought about that before listening to Sleater-Kinney’s eponymous album. MIND BLOWN.
Songs like “A Real Man,” “How To Play Dead,” and “Sold Out” turned my teenage angst into a feminist fist, and continue to resonate with me albeit in a different tenor. Sleater-Kinney is no longer on the road, except for one glorious reunion show of my dreams late last year where they shared the stage with Pearl Jam, and Carrie Brownstein is probably more recognized wielding a heavy dose of irony on Portlandia than she is for wielding a guitar. We grow up and things change. However, the beauty of aging is self awareness, and the falling away of the fog that causes young girls to thrash about in feminist fatigues. This is not to say that I am any less a feminist, but rather that I prefer to speak softly and carry a big stick. Instead of locking myself in my room, hitting play on Sleater-Kinney and writing terrible poetry about future things I hadn’t quite grasped, I pour myself a glass of wine, cue up the same album on Spotify and write about the things I remember. BECAUSE I know my voice has value. BECAUSE the space I write in is paid for by my own labor. BECAUSE now I’m old enough to know it’s the grrrl that makes the riot, and not the riot that makes the grrrl.
*This past Christmas, I wanted to buy my little cousin CDs I had loved when I was his age in an attempt to be for him the sherpa I never had. Not knowing my surroundings well, I opted to patron a Best Buy–the place I had purchased a vast majority of my CDs when I was a tween. Almost as soon as I walked through those automated doors a pit formed in my stomach: “I bet they don’t sell CDs anymore,” I said to myself. Technically, they do still sell CDs but it’s a random assortment of nothing anyone wants to buy. And as I rummaged through the pitiful, multi-genre chaos…I felt old.
Fiona Apple has had her ups and downs, publicly. There is her well documented Best New Artist acceptance speech at the 1997 MTV video music awards where she told us all that the “world is bullshit,” and, more recently, she stormed off stage during a performance at a Louis Vuitton event because the crowd was inconsiderately chatty. This is unfortunate since it dilutes the impact of her music, which is damn good. Coming of age at the height of Lilith Fair meant I have a profound connection to most female musicians of that era, but Fiona always spoke stronger to me. While I can’t imagine my mother was pleased to hear her 7th-grade daughter singing “Criminal” in the shower–“I’ve been a bad, bad girl / I’ve been careless with a delicate man / And it’s a sad, sad world / When a girl would break a boy just because she can”–her music, and my butchering of said music, was an integral facet of my development as a female. The ability to play act the scenes she sang about fattened my lexicon for real-life scenarios foreign to a sheltered kid. Plus, she made playing the piano look way cooler than it is, and I appreciated that as a fellow pianist.
My love for this woman is as wide as it is strong. Tidal, When The Pawn…, and Extraordinary Machine all save space on my shelf, and all three albums have, at one time or another, been invaluable companions on monotonous highways driving south. In fact, she’s been with me for so long, been through so much with me that I feel as if we’re old friends. Not in a Single White Female way, but in the spirit of mutual understanding–much like one could have with a bartender or barista at a frequent haunt. You don’t know them, they don’t really know you but you understand one another due to a shared interest and there is no judgement, it is a safe space. No, Fiona Apple does not know me but I probably know a thing or two about her because her music is nothing if not personal; this is the curse of being an artist.
Her music bonds the fragility of heartbreak to the venom of a breakup and the vacuum of the afterbirth, so to speak: that state of purgatory where love hasn’t fully seceded to hate or ambivalence, and you’re merely empty. It’s complex yet simple, and utterly relatable for a teenage girl whose every emotion is extreme (aided and abetted by watching too much My So Called Life). Listening to her old albums now is like a trip down memory lane where each song represents a different freeze frame in my life. I see the home in which I grew up, me sprawled on the floor of my bedroom, in winter, reading skateboard magazines with the comfort of my parents on the other side of the door yet shut out. I remember driving in my first car, sun roof open and hair whipping out the windows as I rushed through the warm Southern California night from one party to another and then home. So, what I guess I’m trying to impart on this Throwback Thursday is that Fiona Apple is home to me. The faces have been swallowed by the ground and the places have changed ownership, but I’m home in the house of memory as long as Fiona is by my side. And in these uncertain times, comfort may just be the quintessential throwback.
In honor of the news that they will release their first album since 1996 this September, Throwback Thursday is devoted to Mazzy Star. I hopped onto the Mazzy Star train in college when I became obsessed with their 1993 album So Tonight That I Might See. To be clear, I was not in college in 1993 (I was in third grade), but the 90s will forever by my good times decade. That CD, yes physical CD appropriately playing through my 1990s boom box, was spinning constantly, and “Fade Into You” was often on repeat to what I can only imagine to be my neighbors’ chagrin. Much angsty late-teen, early-twenties poetry was written by the light of that album. That song was the band’s chart-topper, and has been used in a surprisingly diverse array of terrible films and generic television shows: everything from Starship Troopers to Burlesque “starring” Christina Aguilera and Cher, CSI: Miami (in four different episodes) to Desperate Housewives. Despite these unfortunate appropriations, the song remains a mainstay–a strong as its debut, carrying the weight of coffee shop culture from the 90s into the new millennium. Here’s hoping nostalgia doesn’t preclude me from hopping on the 2013 Mazzy Star train as it comes through the station.
Patti Smith is undeniably cool. In 1980, she straddled the dead space that followed the end of rock and roll (as it was known to that point) but preceded the stranglehold of punk with her seminal album Horses. Nirvana is undeniably cool. After the release of their album Nevermind in 1991, the year that would be 1992 had no hope of swimming with the current and, instead, swam upstream into Grunge. When both artists sing the same song you get two sides of a very hip coin. To piggy-back on last week’s Courtney Love adventure, this week’s Throwback Thursday gives you the oft-imitated video for Nevermind‘s first single, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” in comparison with a Patti Smith video of her “Smells Like Teen Spirit” cover.
Aaaaaahhhhhh, Courtney Love–the train wreck we love to hate but secretly hope never fades from the limelight permanently. Let’s be honest: people like Courtney Love serve a vital purpose within our society as benchmarks for our self-esteem barometer. Loves the world over are a means to gauge how we’re doing on a personal level, a way to compare ourselves to the “rich and famous” and say, “At least I didn’t fall off a barstool and flash my southernmost private parts to the entire MTV audience, crew, and a music icon.” This is the same reason an old roommate of mine would watch the show 16 and Pregnant when she was depressed: no matter how bad her day was, at least she wasn’t sixteen…and pregnant.
I have a soft-spot for Ms. Love, forever the former Mrs. Cobain, because she was omnipresent during my formative listening years; this means I had no choice but to like her (the proverbial cop-out). Her hot-messness aside, she musically explores what it means to be a woman in the world and this feminist angle hasn’t been adequately explored because she often gets in her own way. Okay, she ALWAYS gets in her own way but hear me out on this tangent. Take, for example, the song “Doll Parts” from Hole’s album Live Through This, released in 1994, in which Love discusses society’s perception of women as playthings (dolls), how it forces women to regress into infantile desires (for cake) to get attention and the effect of this dynamic (turning women fake, making them ache). She’s pissed, and wants you to ache like she aches:
“I am doll eyes
Doll mouth, doll legs
I am doll arms, big veins, dog bait
Yeah, they really want you, they really want you, they really do
Yeah, they really want you, they really want you, but I do too
I want to be the girl with the most cake
I love him so much it just turns to hate
I fake it so real, I am beyond fake
And someday, you will ache like I ache
Someday, you will ache like I ache
I am doll parts
Bad skin, doll heart
It stands for knife
For the rest of my life
Yeah, they really want you, they really want you, they really do
Yeah, they really want you, they really want you, but I do, too
I want to be the girl with the most cake
He only loves those things because he loves to see them break
I fake it so real, I am beyond fake
And someday, you will ache like I ache
Someday you will ache like I ache”
In 1998, Love released what I believe to be her second best album to Live Through This which is Celebrity Skin. On the title track of this album she refers to herself as a “walking study in demonology”–an admission that she is routinely vilified in the press, and rightfully so as her behavior is erratic and often violent. (For more enlightenment on this facet of Courtney, I recommend watching Kurt & Courtney from BBC documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield). However, she is singled-out as particularly heinous where the same type of behavior from her male counterparts are often begrudgingly accepted as part of the rock and roll effect. That makes Courtney Love a fascinating specimen in our search to understand the perception of women in our current culture, particularly because she is so self-aware and open if not tragically unwilling to clean up her act. But should she have to? That is the question.
Now, I am in no way (I repeat: I AM NOT) advocating Love as the pinnacle of feminist mystique, but I do commend her on the courage it takes to be Courtney Love in all her grotesque glory; she is nothing if not consistent. From Hole’s video for “Violet” (featured above) where you can clearly see Kurt’s influence and understand his fascination with her to the video for “Celebrity Skin” (seen below) which showcases her attempt to professionally rebirth herself as the movie star rocker chick, Courtney Love lives her life on a public stage and forces us to confront her and what she represents. Whatever your feelings are about this, you can explore them in the flesh when she plays The Independent here in San Francisco tonight. A truly a throwback Thursday if there ever was one.
The perk of being an archivist and historian to pay the bills is the cultural ephemera I scan daily. At one point in our great nation’s history, sexism and racism were ubiquitous and, as such, invisible. Being a woman of the late 20th- and early 21st-centuries, I was raised in classroom curriculum that bent over backwards to equalize gender in a way that basically skewed it the opposite as so much focus was placed on girls. Do they feel comfortable enough to raise their hands and speak in class? Are gym activities gender neutral so girls don’t feel inferior? You get the picture.
They also spent a significant amount of time educating us about AIDS; they were very, very concerned we were all going to get AIDS. Fourth graders? Getting AIDS? But that’s another discussion for another time.
This over-equal ideological footing may be why I’m able to see the humor in our nation’s past indiscretions, you know, in a “Yes, I smoked pot but I didn’t inhale” and not a “No, I did not have sexual relations with that woman” sense. Meaning, if we can’t laugh at uncomfortable situations that are largely absurd (sexism and racism have no scientific evidence, making them absurd) then what else are we supposed to do, right? As long as it’s merely absurd, like claiming to have smoked pot but not inhaled as opposed to sexually manipulating a young intern with the power of the presidency. See the difference? Good, we’re on the same page.
In the spirit of I-shall-become-stronger-by-owning-the-negative and using it for a positive charge, I therefore find blatantly sexist “news” articles from the 1940s chuckle-worthy. This is especially true when they’re titled “‘Men Seldom Make Passes–‘: Blonde Wins Beauty Contest for Girls Who Wear Glasses”. That’s right, ladies, if you wore glasses in the 1940s you were a segregated minority on top of being a segregated minority. What followed is as follows:
“Vera Parks, a far-sighted blonde, today won first prize in a beauty contest for girls who wear glasses. She had on a pair of octagon-tops with coral mountings which set her back 18 bucks three years ago. The contest took place in the Hotel Piccadilly and was sponsored by the Community Opticians Association, an organization which wants to prove that Dorothy Parker didn’t know what she was talking about when she wrote: ‘Men seldom make passes, at girls who wear glasses.’
‘Anybody ever make a pass at you?’ the winner was asked as she relaxed with a scotch and soda. ‘Naturally,’ she said, ‘my husband.’
Mrs. Parks immediately began planning her trip to Hollywood, which is the prize she receives. She wants to go to a premiere out there and see Claudette Colbert and Ronald Coleman.”
Isn’t that cute? She dreams of Claudette Colbert while sipping a scotch and soda by her husband’s side. She may wear glasses, but she’s still the picture of wifely femininity: simple, sweetly involved in her silver screen stories and liquored up. Yay for the 1940s!
The movie Clueless was a formative experience in my burgeoning adulthood. I had the fuzzy pen, the satin mini skirts and and was obsessed with Jane Austen so I perfectly understood what motivated the Cher / Emma character in a literary-teenage way. “As If” bumper stickers that the movie inspired aside, Clueless promoted some solid ideals: avoiding judgement based on appearances, LGBT acceptance, and, of course, doing good stuff for other people in Pismo Beach who may have lost everything in a disaster, even their winter sports equipment.
If you’re also a fan of the movie, you’ll enjoy this Buzzfeed quiz Which “Clueless” Character Are You?Not only was it the perfect way to unwind after a long day at work, like when you pee your pants laughing after your manfriend comes up as Tai (hypothetically), but it also kicked off a Cranberries listening excursion that entertained me for most of the next day. That is called double winning.