In each of the decades of the latter half of the 20th century, battles were fought between various genres of music for dominance, novelty and popularity. The real prize however, was the claim to having shaped a genre or to have successfully captured and influenced the mood and essence of an era. In the 1990's, a decisive moment in these battles was the release of Nirvana's album Nevermind, its number one hit Smells Like Teen Spirit, knocking off Michael Jackson as the most popular artist at the time.
Punk and Grunge are decidedly White forms of popular music, which is reflected in the use of basic three-piece instrument setups, the predominance of darker themes and of course in the makeup of the bands and their fans. Glib rap and disco soundtracks that remain ever-popular with non-Whites rarely depart from the same tiresome formulas: the jubilant celebration, the chest-beating thug, the lovesick man or woman, or more recently, the tales of grievance from racism and social oppression.
Whilst White audiences remain the major commercial consumers of all of these types of music, the early 90's presented an opening for a new type of Rock that could engage with the broader tastes and sensibilities of a Western audience. There were however some major differences between what would become of Rock from the 90's into the 2000's.
A couple of weeks ago I was listening to a 90's Rock nostalgia playlist on Spotify and came across an old 90's pop favourite, Cigarettes Will Kill You by Australian artist Ben Lee.
I remember seeing this on Rage one morning back in 1998. This was not the glam rock of the 80's or the Seattle grunge of the early 90's. This was syncopated, symphonic and sophisticated. This was the earnest and heartfelt sorrow of a talented loser. Leading with a catchy off-beat piano riff echoing Ben Folds Five's '97 hit, Brick, Lee lays out a rhythmic build up before belting out out a melancholic, gravelly chorus:
>You throw me in a pan
>You cook me in a can
>You stretch me with your hands
>You love to watch me bake
>You serve me up with cake
>And that's your big mistake
>Your guest comes in dressed smart
>You offer a la carte
>You didn't have the heart
>No way to let off steam, don't bother milk or cream, no way to let off steam
>And I want a TV embrace. And I, I'm getting off this boiling plate
>They swore you'd steal my steam to feed your dream, and then be gone.
>I wish I could say that everyone was wrong
As you might imagine, Lee is a low-status male who has been a victim of love. Having been unable to voice his frustrations during the course of his relationship, he comes to acknowledge his friends' forewarning of the 'supporting role' he found himself playing in girlfriend's life. In his heartbreak, he yearns for a 'TV embrace', a simulacrum of the highly staged dramatic hugs that he would watch on American television, to console his sense of loss.
Having endured his dose of suffering, he declares he 'getting off this boiling plate', calculating that there is no future in being played the fool. Not only is he hurt by his lover, he laments the loss of face he must go through, "I wish I could say that everyone was wrong", childishly clinging to the idea of a world that would conform to his ideas about the way things should be.
The song itself is musically well-constructed and even the lyrics, whilst revealing boyish weakness and vulnerability, admit the truth of his failure and a resolve to end the matter. What is more concerning than any of the 90's Wuss-Rock themes about being victimised by life, emerging from similar bands such as Matchbox 20, Ben Folds, Ben Lee, Counting Crows, Hootie & the Blowfish and others, is not the promotion of male weakness as virtue, nor is it the misappropriation of Rock instrumentals to serve liberal-friendly music to Western audiences.
Seven years later in 2005, Ben Lee released a new hit single, Catch My Disease.
No, this is not an ode to the revolutionary tactics of the Gay movement in San Francisco in the 1980's. Complete with Blacks spinning globes on their fingers and playing jump-rope, Catch My Disease contains all of the most stereotypical and safe global pop elements imaginable. Zylophones, na-na-na's, goofy dancing, self-deprecating begging and female worship all illuminate a great sense of oneness and joyful acceptance of the world as it is, or at least as he now sees it.
>My head is a box full of nothing / And that's the way I like it
>My garden's a secret compartment / And that's the way I like it
>And that's the way I like it
>So please / Baby please /Open your heart /Catch my disease
>I was backstage in Pomona / And that's the way I like it
>She drank beer with coca-cola / And that's the way I like it /And that's the way I like it
>She told me about the winds from Santa Anna / And that's the way I like it /And that's the way I like it
>They play Good Charlotte on the radio / And that's the way I like it
>They play Sleepy Jackson on the radio / And that's the way I like it, yeah, that's the way I like it
>I hear Beyoncé on the radio / And that's the way I like it, 'cause that's the way I like it
>They don't play me on the radio / But that's the way I like it
>She told me she loved me like fireworks / And that's the way I like it
Here, Lee completes his transformation from emotional and needy Jewish beta to unashamed and goofy millionaire rockstar loser. His professed satisfaction with his own ignorance My head is a box full of nothing / And that's the way I like it indicates a state that reflects proto-Non-Player-Character. How did this happen? How could an introspective and musically dynamic artist so easily turn into a third-rate regurgitator of the worst kind of cringe-inducing loser pop?
My own hypothesis is that his earlier work, much like that of his other Wuss-Rock contemporaries, wrote their earlier works before having achieved much real word success. In the backdrop of 90's suburban ennui, these guys were social misfits and nobodies in their own lives. From Lee's earlier 1998 album, Breathing Tornadoes, the track Nothing Much Happens demonstrates an uncanny insight into the life of a man who does not take charge of his life.
>It's sad and spent /Feel the motion again
>Stop and pause / Then move some more
>Still surprise you when it shatters / But nothing matters
>Still surprise you when it shatters / Don't you know that nothing happens
>But a lot goes on /A lot goes on /But nothing happens
>A lot goes on / A lot goes on / But nothing happens
>Choose a town / Find a girl to follow around
>Stay on track /And just sit back
>Still surprise you when it shatters / But nothing matters
>Still surprise you when it shattered / Don't you know that nothing happens
These lyrics describe the lives of many young urbanite males today, perhaps many more than back in the 90's when Lee was writing. The difference between the sad and dejected Lee and the jubilant replicant in the 2000's can only be one thing: worldly success. Having cashed in on his sadboy diddies, he was pulled into the warm embrace of the American music industry that was crying out for sensitive young males getting in touch with their "feminine sides". It did would not take long before fame, money and easy women would eliminate the self-doubt, personal failure and introspection that had given shape to his earlier work, creating the perfect mouthpiece for sickly-sweet one-world anodyne pop.