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There may or may not be video footage of Abe Beame singing “Kiss From a Rose” with Dean Pelton.
You could make a decent argument that the best decade of the 20th Century for music was the 90s. Don’t laugh. It was the modern era of hip-hop, grunge, indie, a great decade for R&B and dancehall. There was Biggie, Dre, Selena, Nirvana, Pavement, 8Ball & MJG, Aaliyah, Missy, Jodeci. The foundation for post-modernism in basically every genre was laid during the period. But when I think about the 90s and the music I most closely associate with them, it’s not these seminal artists whose work has stayed with me over the last 20-30 years; It’s a separate genre that never evolved.
Its main contributors are crystallized in amber and perfectly preserved in their pre-historic forms in YouTube’s dark and unloved crevices. I’m thinking of the purveyors of a cultural detritus once referred to as Adult Contemporary.
Some context: I’m from a small town in upstate New York. Not so far from the city that Yankee Stadium wasn’t traversable on a school night, but well beyond the terrestrial reach of Hot 97. CBS-FM? fuck, we would’ve settled for Z100. Instead we had K-LITE. 99.3 FM, the only radio station in clear range, the only one my parents would really listen to if there were no tapes in the car. They played adult contemporary, music for bland, undiscerning grown ups who had surrendered. I didn’t have an older sibling to school me, and sure, I have GZA anecdotes and D’Angelo stories and memories closely tied to Gangstarr, but a surprising amount of my youth can be sketched and fleshed out with adult contemporary Top 40.
It was ever-present wallpaper. You didn’t have to love it or hate it, it just was.
This is not some sort of apologist, devil’s advocate reclamation of this unfairly maligned art. The music is shit. For the young and uninitiated, adult contemporary was a big tent category at the time, but for the schlock that really hit its Billboard chart some defining traits emerged, regardless of origin. Think about “dad-rock”. Now imagine that genre was even less self aware. Schmaltzy, not quite the vibed out easy listening of its ancestors such as yacht-rock, delivered as if there were high stakes involved in every song.
Sentimental, humorless, marked by bad songwriting, Intro to Poetry lyricism, titanic hooks, overly orchestrated, symphonic, overlong and self important. It’s nakedly maudlin and I would have trouble making eye contact with a person in the same room as me if any of these songs came on anywhere but in my ear buds (and even then it’s difficult). Everything to excess besides restraint or wit or thought (and appropriately 90s in that respect). It’s fundamentally unbearably white, intrinsically in its spirit if not always racially. It’s not quite rock. I’ve come to think of it as R&B music for people who never fucked and probably never will.
No, this primer is nothing more than a pornographic work of nostalgia. Or more like auto erotic asphyxiation because it’s a twisted form of stimulation drenched in shame and self loathing. The equivalent of breaking diet and copping a drunken Big Mac on a late night ride home. Only that’s inaccurate because I’m sure some people enjoy Big Macs. This is a guilty pleasure with very little pleasure, before the idea of a guilty pleasure ceased to exist. It would be difficult to even appreciate ironically because they’re all trying so fucking hard (You’ll want to laugh at Blessid Union of Souls “I Believe”, among others, but it’s impossibly earnest and cringey).
This is a curio. A Coney Island Freak show where the attractions all have the worst haircuts and clothes and everyone makes terrible decisions. By all means, you should feel bad about enjoying this.
And yet it has this slippery pull on me. I’m not sure what it represents but Sting’s treacly, smooth-jazzy “If I Ever Lose My Faith in You” takes me back to my grandfather’s station wagon which had a bench in the trunk you could sit on and face out the back window as he drove through town at a crawl, when Casey Kasem’s weekly top 40 played on K-LITE Sunday afternoons. (A lot of adult contemporary features once-great artists experiencing desperate, sweaty last grabs for mainstream acceptance.)
Dave Matthews Band’s braying, Starbucksy “Ants Marching” reminds me of a first day of school and a flannel I wore even though it was still way too hot in early September, but that’s how much I wanted to wear it. How much hope and promise each generic, unremarkable year of elementary school held at its outset. The opening of Madonna’s terrible, late-period ballad “I’ll Remember” takes me back to the one screen run down movie theater in my hometown where I saw the equally terrible movie whose soundtrack it came from, With Honors, a preposterous, magical, homeless Joe Pesci teaches HARVARD STUDENT BRENDAN FRASER about life flick that I also somehow still love and owned on DVD.
I would imagine some kids are born with impeccable taste, but by this point it should be obvious I wasn’t. For me K-LITE represents being young and uncool with no real vocabulary or rubric for what constitutes as “good” or “bad,” with little in the way of access so I would just kind of sponge up whatever I could get my hands on. And sponge is the right term, because this music is the equivalent of run-off, the fetid bacteria collecting on the corner of a kitchen counter in an oft-neglected run of grout. Before culture became cheap, easy and accessible enough to pick and choose from it was meted out through a funnel shaped feed tube, shoved down the throats of ducks having livers fattened for the slaughter. The size, population density and median income of the place you were from determined the circumference of the stem. If that stem happened to be narrow, you made a meal of what you got.
If you were born in the 80s and had a similarly odd, uncool childhood maybe you have some memory or relationship with this music and it will trigger the same things for you. If you’re a young person reading this and you want to rubberneck at how bizarre the 90s were, enjoy. Or maybe this a completely masurbatory exercise it was fun for exactly one person to write and a mixtape it will only be fun for one person to listen to. Just know that I truly hate this music, and hate myself for having a lukewarm affection for it I don’t fully understand. And I’m fine with that. Or at least I’m trying to get to being fine with that.
The Proustian Siren Call of Shitty 90s Adult Contemporary
- Martin Page – In the House of Stone and Light (In the House of Stone and Light 1994)
- Madonna – I’ll Remember (With Honors: Music from the Motion Picture 1994)
- Buffalo Tom – Late at Night (Big Red Letter Day 1993)
- Elton John – Can you feel the love tonight (The Lion King Soundtrack 1994)
- Sting – If I Ever Lose my faith in you (Ten Summoner’s Tales 1993)
- Better than Ezra – Desperately Wanting (Friction, Baby 1996)
- Seal – Kiss From A Rose (Seal 1994)
- Dave Matthews Band – Ants Marching (Under the Table and Dreaming 1994)
- Joan Osborne – One of Us (Relish 1995)
- Duran Duran – Ordinary World (Acoustic) (Duran Duran 1993)
- Hootie & The Blowfish – Old Man & Me (When I get to Heaven) (Fairweather Johnson 1996)
- Dishwalla – Counting Blue Cars (Pet Your Friends 1995)
- Peter Gabriel – Digging in the Dirt (Us 1992)
- Eric Clapton – Change the World (Phenomenon Soundtrack 1996)
- Blessid Union of Souls – I Believe (Home 1995)
- Go West – The King of Wishful Thinking (Indian Summer 1992)
- Collective Soul – The World I Know (Collective Soul 1994)
- Bryan Adams – Everything I do (I do it for you) (Waking Up the Neighbors 1991)
- Billy Joel – The River of Dreams (River of Dreams 1993)
- The Cranberries – Linger (Unplugged) (Everybody Else is Doing it, So Why Can’t We? 1994)