‘90s Nostalgia, Pearl Jam, and the Return of Drum n Bass

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd | March 9th, 2011

In 1995, a grunting, curly-headed Eddie Vedder banded together with fellow ‘90s man-scion Mike Watt and sang the lyric, The kids of today should defend themselves against the ‘70s. It was an impassioned treatise against becoming mesmerized by the halcyon nostalgia that prior generations had painted, and a call for youths to form their own packs. Vedder, unhindered by the oft-froggy latch in the back of his throat, belted it, exhilarated — he’s a protest singer at heart. He was believable enough that my alternating disdain for and dalliances with his band of baggy-khaki’d bros, Pearl Jam, experienced a brief and potentially unfortunate renaissance at the time. To this day, the chorus for “Against the ‘70s,” off Watt’s pleasantly syntactical first album Ball-Hog or Tugboat?, drifts up from my subconscious, materializing in full vibratic bleat to warn off some throwback tentpost or ideology. It is not a very “cool” thing to admit, but it is the truth.

Only now, for me, the sentiment is amended to 1990s fervor. The ‘90s deja vu moment has been hanging tough for a hot minute now — kids are all up in the club donning Spice Girls tees — but no year this millennium has felt so 1992 quite like 2011. Broader notes from the culture, for the point: Grunge redux came up heavier than usual on fashion week runways last month, spreading its mothholes to London and beyond. Aubrey Plaza’s character April Ludgate on NBC’s Parks and Recreation has become the modern incarnation of My So Called Life’s Angela Chase (deadpan as sincerity). PJ Harvey has a freaking new album out (it’s conceptual). And certain factions of music go full throttle back to the future, flannels and/or Boy London caps flailing in the wormhole. So while the distorted burble of guitar bands like Wavves, Yuck, and Golden Girls jackhammer for Dinosaur grunge; and gentler groups like Real Estate and Cults hold seances for the pared-down breeze of old-school Olympia pop parties; and house producers like Azari & III and MR INTL channel the triumph of Martha Wash piano house; the long train through the not-all-that-utopian Clinton era chugs along, stompy in Doc Martens (revived footwear) and stoic, as though time never passed. Drum n bass is back, y’all.

The strangest ‘90s moment of recent import, though, was watching Kathleen Hanna, late of Bikini Kill, speak at a Planned Parenthood Rally at Foley Square last week. While she did not perform her craggy wail and shredded-up warbles — her band LeTigre is on hiatus, though soon to release a tour film — it was a creepy reenactment of the kinds of things she was doing with her band in Washington DC in the olden days, like a time-space loophole that couldn’t be helped. But given the circumstances, it got me questioning the clarity of the rehash. The kids of today should defend themselves and whatnot, plus a little nausea. Still, if we all start markering up our skin with agitprop theses (“Pro-Choice,” to invoke Vedder in a Ten-era MTV clip) or flaunting our lady parts in blood art homage to the second wave, it’s cynical to totally indict the idol-mimicry of starry-eyed young love, even if the Pavement-worship does grode you out. I like all of the aforementioned bands, some quite a lot (perhaps not coincidentally, none of them sound like Pearl Jam), and the cultural trend cycle teeters upon itself so often it cannot help but morph into newness eventually. A couple weeks ago, I interviewed New Jersey producer Todd Edwards — a man credited with kick-starting the 1990s house music sounds that eventually morphed into UK garage, and whose original sound is coming back into vogue again. He told me he feels like almost everything is an uptake of an earlier genre, whether consciously or in homage, and that ideas “in the universe” barely self-generate. It’s a holistic way to look at it, generous of intent, and as long as we can sever ourselves from regressive fundamentals — at least these new guitar bands are more accepting of rap — there’s joy to be had in a woozy bit of flange pedal. At the very least, we can take consolation in the fact that ’80s lust is finally toast, grungy reverb and earnest slack swooping in to stomp out glammy excess one more time. Don’t even get it started on the ’70s.