A Popular Consensus
Rock and realism in the early 1990s
EMF’s ‘Unbelievable’ was released in the US in June 1991, and reached number one on the Billboard charts two months later. The band were raved over by Axl Rose, and taken on tour as support by Jane’s Addiction and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Everywhere they were mobbed by fans who had seen them on MTV. The NME’s David Quantick met some at an LA show, and asked them what all the fuss was about. ‘They’re cute, if you think about it,’ replied one girl, ‘and you can dance to it!’ ‘I like their hair!’ said another. ‘And I like Extreme’s hair!’ ‘It’s good dance music!’ the first girl added. ‘It’s new, it’s like Jesus Jones and they’re all from London!’ The band, meanwhile, had embarked on what Q later described as ‘a lifestyle of monumental hedonism — drugs, girls, drugs and girls, girls on drugs’.
All in all, EMF was doing well — far better, certainly, than most British bands did in the States in the early nineties. But they weren’t happy. ‘Their most abiding anxiety,’ said Q’s Matt Snow in September 1991, ‘is credibility.’ Songwriter Ian Dench worried that EMF might soon be nothing more than a line in a Billboard Annual, another band of cute guys with nice hair who had a hit and disappeared forever. ‘I hope we’re not just another pop band,’ he told Spin.4 Dench liked pop, and insisted that it was important for music to be accessible. But what worried him about EMF being labelled a pop group were the ‘associations’ that went with it — that they were a manufactured band, that they couldn’t really play, that they were popular simply because they were cute and had good hair.
This, in 1991, was a real cause for concern. Two years earlier, a group named Milli Vanilli released a fresh-sounding pop-soul album ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼called Girl You Know It’s True. Catchy tunes like ‘Blame It on the Rain’, ‘Baby Don’t Forget My Number’ and ‘Girl I’m Gonna Miss You’ made the record a hit, and in February 1990 singers Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan appeared at the Grammys to accept their award for best new artist. Ten months later, they gave it back, after it was publicly revealed that neither Rob nor Fab had sung a single note on Girl You Know It’s True, or at the many concerts and TV performances they’d given throughout the year. The defrauding of millions of unsuspecting listeners with false music became one of the year’s biggest news stories. In the future, warned CBS’s news presenter, ‘you might have to think twice about what you think you’re hearing’. As a result, English groups like EMF, who relied heavily on sequencers and samples in their live performances, found themselves skating on very thin ice in America. Critics noted that when the band smashed up their gear at the end of their set, the sound coming out of the speakers remained curiously unaffected.
The Milli Vanilli saga seemed to prove what many American rock fans and critics had long suspected — that the pop industry was guilty of deceiving and manipulating its audience. The music was shaped in the studio using computers and other gadgets to make it sound more radio friendly, concerts were over-rehearsed, pre-fab affairs where the group’s sound was augmented and in some cases replaced by programmed synths and backing tapes, and the public was being fooled into buying this stuff instead of real music by real bands. ‘All the kids will eat it up,’ observed Kurt Cobain in his journal, ‘if it’s packaged properly.’ That this might be a problem was seen by rock artists and the critics who supported them as virtually self-evident — real music was better than artificial stuff for the same reason that fresh fruit was better than Coke. The Red Hot Chili Peppers offered their 1990 album Mother’s Milk as a healthy option in a music market otherwise full of artificial junk. ‘Basically, it’s fucking good for you,’ explained the group’s bass player Michael ‘Flea’ Balzary. ‘Music is a direct expression from the heart, or it should be.’ Flea singled out synth-pop duo the Pet Shop Boys as ‘indicative of what’s happening in the pop music industry’ — studio-bound boffins doing ‘pop bullshit for the sake of money’.
￼￼￼￼￼Rock musicians like Flea had long distinguished guitar music as the antithesis of pop bullshit. But in the 1980s, rock itself seemed to have submitted to this process to a frightening degree. ‘Rock and roll has become an artificial experience,’ complained the Pixies’ Black Francis. In 1988, Billy Corgan met D’Arcy Wretzky at a concert by the Dan Reed Network. ‘You can tell this band was put together by a record company,’ said Corgan, as they stood outside after the show. The songwriter knew he was watching a choreographed performance by a fake rock band when he saw the way the singer moved onstage. ‘Real people in bands don’t jump around like that,’ he insisted.8 Critics felt that this kind of market-researched rock was one of the most unwelcome developments of the last ten years. In the eighties, wrote Rolling Stone’s Anthony De Curtis, rock and roll became ‘terminally safe’, joining a rock band ‘about as rebellious as taking a business degree — and if you got lucky, more lucrative’. In the eighties, argued Legs McNeil in the NME, ‘instead of Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll, we ended up with fear and addiction and corporate sponsorship of rock and roll’.10 As the decade came to an end, critics like McNeil and De Curtis saw an opportunity to clean house; to call time on an era of pre-fab rock, and hasten the return of real music.
In the early nineties, rock musicians and critics took great pains to let the audience know there was a difference. Joe Carducci’s influential book, Rock and the Pop Narcotic, published in 1990, argued for a precise re-definition of rock as the real-time interaction of bass, drums and guitar, as opposed to its opposite — pop — which relies heavily on technology and is created according to a formula. The following year, Thurston Moore explained the meaning of a Sonic Youth poster for Dave Markey’s camera in The Year That Punk Broke. The poster featured a Raymond Pettibon drawing of a girl performing onstage. ‘This picture represents the fact that it’s a live gig, see? This is the singer singing live,’ he said. ‘It’s not a clone. It’s not a fake. This shit’s fuckin’ live, man!’
But if rock could be redefined as real rock, there was also the possibility that pop might be redefined as real pop — genuinely popular music as opposed to the stuff that is, as Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic put it, ‘rammed down people’s throats’. For many, the problem with pop in 1990 was not so much that it was popular, but that its popularity ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼was manufactured, that people only consumed it because they’d been brainwashed into doing so, or because the music industry made sure that they would never know any better. The idea that mass culture is a form of manipulation had been a staple of cultural criticism in America since the post-war period, when refugee intellectuals from Nazi Germany began to see disturbing parallels between advertising in America and the propaganda used by fascist leaders in Europe. Capitalism, according to German sociologists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, destroyed consumers’ critical self-awareness, and left them vulnerable to exploitation. This pessimistic view had to be rethought in the 1960s after the advent of rock and roll, which seemed to have pulled off the neat trick of using mass culture to critique mass culture. But by the early nineties, after ten years of sensationalised politics and blockbuster albums, many had returned to Adorno’s unsparing critique, or something like it. ‘Audiences do, in fact, interpret messages variously,’ wrote media critic Herbert Schiller in 1989’s Culture, Inc., ‘but when they are confronted with a message incessantly repeated in all cultural conduits issuing from the commanders of the social order, their capacities are overwhelmed.’
Singer-songwriter Sinéad O’Connor had no doubt that this was the case in 1990. Seeing the music industry up close had given her a sense of just how much hype and manipulation was involved in ‘breaking’ an artist. Radio stations and record companies collaborated to manufacture hits and keep everything else off the air. ‘That’s not an honest representation of what people like,’ she complained. ‘How can it be?’ O’Connor believed that the chart success of her own minimally produced and emotionally raw music constituted proof that what people wanted and what the pop industry was giving them were two quite different things. ‘People don’t want to hear what’s on the radio,’ she said, ‘people are screaming out for something more.’
In July 1991, music writer Gina Arnold saw this ‘screaming out’ for herself at Lollapalooza, as she watched 9,000 people cheering the Butthole Surfers and shouting along with the chorus of ‘Cop Killer’ by Body Count. The next day, she drove from San Diego to Los Angeles to interview Nirvana. She listened to a pre-release copy of the band’s new album on the car stereo, and as the chorus of ‘On a Plain’ roared ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼out of the speakers, she thought to herself that ‘if the world were a better sort of place, it’d be a hit single’. Arnold saw nothing wrong with artists having hits and playing for huge audiences as long as they deserved them. She believed it was possible to create genuinely popular rock music outside of corporate manipulation, that pop music could become, as Sinéad O’Connor had suggested, a genuine expression of what people like.
It was this vision of pop as a democratic rather than a commercial process that guided independent bands and labels in America through the eighties, a vision fostered by DIY heroes like Ian MacKaye of Fugazi, Beat Happening’s Calvin Johnson, and fanzine writer and label boss Bruce Pavitt. What excited Pavitt about the indie scene in Seattle was not its obscurity, but its popularity — a popularity that was created by genuine local enthusiasm, and not, as Pavitt later put it, by ‘this industry that’s manufacturing bands’. The name Pavitt gave to his record label expressed this idea perfectly — Sub Pop. You have been deceived by MTV, it seemed to say. Hidden below the surface of what you are told to buy, is something people actually like.
The mainstream success of Soundgarden showed that Pavitt’s instincts had been correct — a band whose music most industry heads would have regarded as commercial suicide only two years earlier now had an album in the charts and a hit on MTV. The members of Soundgarden — singer Chris Cornell, guitarist Kim Thayil, drummer Matt Cameron and bass player Ben Shepherd — were all veterans of the Seattle indie scene, and Thayil had in fact played a key role in its formation. It was he who had introduced Bruce Pavitt to his future Sub Pop business partner, Jonathan Poneman, with the idea that the two might start a label to release Soundgarden’s debut single, 1987’s ‘Hunted Down’. Since then, however, the band had made a jump from the alternate universe to the real one, having signed to A&M records in 1989. Their major label debut, Louder than Love, had brushed the Billboard Top 100 in 1990, and the band had toured with Guns N’ Roses.
If any of Soundgarden’s peers or fans had worried, upon learning this, that the band would soon be spending ten thousand dollars a night on strippers and drugs, or that Cornell might soon be seen putting his foot up on the foldback amp and pointing at the crowd, they needn’t ￼￼have. Like Mudhoney, Soundgarden was a band composed of smart guys; smart enough to steer well clear of mainstream metal’s ‘paaarty and fantasy crap’, as Thayil put it, smart enough to know that rock itself was slightly stupid. Their biggest hit to date was a song called ‘Big Dumb Sex’, a venomous put-down of LA’s metal monsters, written by musicians who — like their indie peers — treasured a vision of music as a communal experience, in which the rock singer is, in the end, not so different to the fans. The highlight of a Soundgarden show was not, as in mainstream metal, the elevation of the singer on a cherry picker over the audience, but the singer’s descent into the crowd. This ‘cool little bonding thing’, as Kurt Cobain called it, was the ultimate expression of indie rock’s musical democracy. Music writer Grant Alden watched Soundgarden play at the Bumbershoot music and arts festival in Seattle. ‘Chris Cornell finished the night in the mosh pit,’ he later recalled, ‘and it felt like we had all finally won.’
Soundgarden’s breakthrough suggested that the world might be about to become, as Gina Arnold had hoped, a better sort of place — a place where real bands with great songs filled stadiums, topped the charts, and got played on the radio. There would still be rock stars in this new world, but they’d be better ones, rock stars who knew about punk and had some awareness of feminism. The promise of alternative music, it seemed, was about to be realised. By 1990, alternative rock had been alternative for so long that people seemed to have forgotten what it meant — it had become shorthand for a style of music, when in fact, it had always been more like a party in opposition. Now, in 1991, alternative bands had finally got the majority of the vote, and were about to take power.
But this argument assumed that alternative music would survive its trip to the top of the charts with its message and its ideology intact — and there were already signs that this might not be the case. ‘I don’t think the mechanisms that exist in the mass media are sensitive enough to what we want to do,’ explained Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto, ‘that’s why we don’t sign to a major.’ Picciotto and his bandmate Ian Mackaye insisted that the alternative revolution could not take place at the expense of the bands’ independence. As far as Fugazi was concerned, there could be no collaboration with the commercial media. Calvin ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼Johnson too, felt that the world-wide network of labels, bands and fans that had been established over the past decade ought to remain — as it had always been — fiercely and proudly outside of corporate control.
‘As the corporate ogre expands its creeping influence on the minds of industrialized youth,’ he wrote, ‘the time has come for the international rockers of the world to convene in celebration of our glorious independence.’ Johnson’s call-to-arms was printed on the flyer for 1991’s International Pop Underground Convention, a gathering of the world’s indie tribes held over a week at the Capital Theatre in Olympia, Washington, featuring bands, film nights and stalls. Fugazi, the Nation of Ulysses, Mecca Normal and L7 all played at the festival, and many more bands and musicians came along to enjoy themselves, including Soundgarden.
Had the band not read Johnson’s warning printed on the flyer, ‘no lackeys to the corporate ogre allowed’? To the festival’s hardcore indie ideologues, Soundgarden must have seemed like opportunists — a great underground rock band who had sold out their fans and the community that supported them so as to make more money and become more famous. But to Soundgarden’s Matt Cameron, such people seemed less like idealists and more like snobs — cultural elitists trying to preserve a make-believe revolution while a real one was taking place right under their noses. Wandering around the IPU convention, the drummer spotted a pile of T-shirts with the legend ‘Kill Rock Stars’ printed on the front. Cameron asked if he could buy one. ‘No, man,’ said the guy with the stall, ‘you’re a rock star.’ Cameron walked away. ‘What a close-minded idiot,’ he thought to himself.