I’m a 90s kid. As such, I find it increasingly weird that fashions of the 1990s are popular again. Whenever I see a rack full of plaid flannel, I have flashbacks to school shopping in high school.
I’ve been watching vintage Lindsay Ellis film and pop culture critiques and one of my favorites was Top 10 Music Videos of the 90s. It got me thinking about the music I listened to when I was in high school, which seems like it happened in a different universe now.
I attended a small public high school in a little prairie town in Nebraska. My graduating class was larger than average, having just over 100 students. The nearest large town had, at the time, about 23,000 people, and was a half-hour drive away. It had the closest real music stores– yes, music stores. Shops devoted to music, where you walked in and could look through their selection of vinyl albums, cassettes, and- by the time I reached high school– that snazzy new thing known as the compact disc. There was no Spotify, no iTunes, no YouTube music. It was even before Napster and Audiogalaxy (anyone remember either of those?).
Once upon a time, you could either listen to the radio or buy your favorite band’s latest album.
Given that I grew up in a little town on the Nebraska prairie, my radio options were limited. You had your choice of a single station of each of the following: NPR, Top 40 Rock/Pop, Country and Western, or Oldies. Or you could switch over to AM and listen to weather forecasts and crop market reports. To choose your own music, you had to be old enough to drive yourself the nearly 40 miles to one or the other of the music stores and plop down $15-20 for a CD.
Looking back, it’s almost amazing I developed the sort of musical tastes I have, given the effort it took to get away from what was on the radio.
So in no particular order, here are some of the songs teenaged me would happily listen to over and over again while flopped on my bed while wearing clunky headphones plugged into the stereo on my desk.
- ‘The Mummer’s Dance‘ by Loreena McKennit (The Book of Secrets, 1997)
Somehow, a dance remix of this showed up on the Top 40 station, and it was a hit. I managed to find a used copy of the album, The Book of Secrets at the larger of the music stores and listened to it endlessly. It appealed to me and my friends, who were small-town Goths/wannabe witches who wanted to be anywhere other than where we were– Ireland in particular.
- ‘Tonight, Tonight‘ by The Smashing Pumpkins (Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, 1995)
To high school me, this double album from my favorite band was nothing short of brilliant. While I recognize now that several of the songs aren’t that great, ‘Tonight, Tonight’ is sheer brilliance, and its music video is one of the very best ever made. I never really liked the Grunge movement that swept radio from 1991 on (I know. A 90s kid who didn’t like Nirvana. Blasphemy!), and Billy Corgan’s high-pitched but articulate singing voice was an antidote to the often unintelligible mutterings of the Grunge bands you couldn’t escape from. Whether it was the symphony-backed extravaganza of ‘Tonight, Tonight’, the rock art that was ‘Porcelina of the Vast Oceans’, the delightful weirdness of ‘We Only Come Out at Night’, or the rage-fueled ‘Bullet with Butterfly Wings’, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is an album I listened to so much that I still have almost every song memorized.
- ‘Baba‘ by Alanis Morisette (Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, 1998)
To say that I grew up in a very religious area is putting it mildly. But while I grew up in the church, (and despite the limited availability of other perspectives from anywhere except the local public library), I was questioning the beliefs I grew up with during my last couple of years of high school. While others were singing the praises of ‘Thank U’ and ‘So Pure’ from Alanis Morisette’s second album, her song ‘Baba’ was closer to what I felt about religion at the time, even though she was singing about the selling of Eastern religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, etc.) to Westerners visiting India and I was questioning the mainline (white) Protestantism I grew up with. The sentiment felt the same, and the anger felt the same.
- ‘The Beautiful People‘ by Marilyn Manson (Antichrist Superstar, 1996)
Marilyn Manson was one of the most controversial musicians of the 1990s, with a lot of hand-wringing from (white, middle-class) parents who were concerned that Manson’s freakish costumes and makeup, gender ambiguity, sexuality, and shocking lyrics would warp their teenagers and turn them into violent sociopaths. *sighs* Whenever I was sick to death of dealing with the snobby and oh-so-wholesome-seeming Tiffanys and Trishas at school, I would go home and listen to this some a time or three to vent my frustration.
As you can see from my current bookish self with a wardrobe that would suit a librarian, I was obviously warped by Manson’s music.
That said, many are surprised to find out that I attended a Manson concert during the tour following the release of his 2007 album Eat Me, Drink Me.
- ‘Ophelia‘ by Natalie Merchant (Ophelia, 1998)
In this brooding song, Merchant describes an array of women who broke the mold of traditional feminity to carve out lives for themselves, whether it was as a nun, a circus performer, a mafia courtesan, or the titular Ophelia of the Shakespearean play. It begins sedately but builds to a storm by the time Merchant comes to the Shakespearean tragedy. For 17-year-old me, ‘Ophelia’ felt like a feminist anthem for the ages.
- ‘Possession‘ by Sarah McLachlan (Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, 1993)
While everyone else and their dog was in love with McLachlan’s song, ‘Angel’, I loved the dark edge of ‘Possession’, which she stated was written from the point of view of an obsessed fan. Creepy. I loved the music and the way McLachlan’s voice ranged from mezzo up toward the soprano stratosphere when it counted. The disturbing nature of the lyrics didn’t hit me until later.
- ‘Ava Adore‘ by The Smashing Pumpkins (Adore, 1998)
Adore was not well-received when it came out in 1998 (as far as I know. I was in the middle of nowhere with a dial-up internet connection in the days of AltaVista’s dubious search engine), but it’s probably my second favorite Pumpkins album, based almost solely on the strength of Adore and its bizarrely artful music video. Seriously. The planning and choreography that went into that video are mind-blowing, and it features Billy Corgan in a fantastic black coat, looking like he’s achieved his highest Goth-self. It’s another one of those songs that I know by heart, 22 years later.
- ‘Stand Inside Your Love‘ by The Smashing Pumpkins (Machina: The Machines of God, 2000)
I bought this album for myself for my eighteenth birthday in 2000. It’s one of the few albums that had me hooked, always and forever, from the first note. To my knowledge, Machina was even less liked than Adore, but it’s my favorite Pumpkins album. The music was unexpected and gorgeous and so polished in an era where Grunge (and its requisite noisy, grungy almost unpracticed sounds) still held sway. Thanks to my classically trained musician sister, I grew up listening to a lot of classical music (seriously, I had Brandenburg concertos being played live from the bedroom down the hall and Chopin live from the living room), and Machina gave me all the musical complexities my ear longed for– and generally didn’t hear– in popular music, as well as the dark weirdness my little Goth heart craved. Seriously. The album tells the story of a musician named Glass who believes he hears the voice of God through, and so seeks to spread his idea of the word of God through his music, but eventually, he starts to wonder if he’s going insane. Of all the songs on the album, though, ‘Stand Inside Your Love’ is my favorite, and its black and white music video is pretty fantastic, too.