The ’90s was a missing decade for me when it came to music. This was despite being in high school and college for eight years of the decade – musically formative years for many – and working in the music section of a big-box entertainment store (remember Media Play?). If it was new in the ’90s, I had none of it.
Though I’ve never been musically adventurous before or since – more passive in my pursuit, letting those I admire aesthetically turn me on to the good stuff – the blackout that occurred for me in the ’90s can be chalked up to a few things: Snobbiness, immaturity, and aesthetic confusion.
The problem, looking back, wasn’t about musical preference, but of binary thinking: Music was either good or bad. If I liked one thing, I couldn’t like another. Liking a band or even a song could build or destroy my aesthetic pride.
During that time, there was an unspoken list of characteristics I had for music to determine the degree of dismissiveness I’d have toward it:
1. Currently popular
2. Was produced in the ’90s
3. Contained vocals
4. Was insufficiently complex musically
5. Used fake drums
A dedicated music student, the music I listened to during the ’90s was primarily jazz, ’70s fusion, and anything recommended by anyone I respected musically or aesthetically: Jazz pianist Chick Corea (or his various fusion endeavors, like Return to Forever), jazz-grasser Bela Fleck and the Flecktones (after discovering them on an episode of “Austin City Limits” in 1993), or various obscura I happened upon (like the Russian gypsy-folk band I heard on the street in Los Angeles or the Medieval Times Dinner and Tournament soundtrack or the “Star Wars” soundtrack performed by the Electric Moog Orchestra).
The rules I created for myself were arbitrary at best. Blues Traveler, for instance, I deemed OK because of John Popper’s harmonica virtuosity, but only after they were touted by a music teacher of mine. The top hits of the ’80s were OK since most of my peers at the time would consider the likes of “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go” incredibly uncool. They Might Be Giants were OK since they were sufficiently obscure and came recommended by my brother’s girlfriend’s “weird” brother. Mostly, I favored the likes of Boston and Dire Straits and The Police (Sting’s 1993 release “Ten Summoner’s Tales” passed my test since it was sufficiently “jazzy”).
The blackout wasn’t for a lack of knowing. Working at Media Play, I saw with my own eyes which albums were most popular. Some of it I avoided then and avoid now: Hootie and the Blowfish, Bush (still not sure if this is a person, à la Beck, or a band, à la Rush), Foo Fighters, Goo Goo Dolls, Smashing Pumpkins, whoever sang “Who Let the Dogs Out?” or “The Macarena.” But my dismissiveness meant that while I was sitting atop my throne of music no one else was listening to, I missed out on a lot: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Green Day, Alannis Morrisette, Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead, Red Hot Chili Peppers. Decades later, it feels like the party everyone’s still talking about that I skipped because of stubbornness.
I eventually made up for it. In 2000, graduated from college and no longer an active musician, I came to resent my younger self and his attitudes. It was my own personal backlash. I discarded any pretense of taste and went on what I called my Top 40 Kick, in which I found myself downloading songs from bands that would have mortified my high school self: Sugar Ray, Ace of Base, Dido, John Mayer, Shakira, Lisa Loeb, Jewel (god, I came to unashamedly love Jewel).
Older now, I know that all music can’t be everything. Music is often not about the music at all but the people you were with, what was happening at the time, where you were, who you were. Choosing musical isolation or having such strident, arbitrary rules for what constitutes taste left me alone and regretful.
My entire aesthetic philosophy changed and exists to this day: If it makes you feel good – any part of it, whether it’s obscure, trendy, critically-acclaimed or the most saccharine chart-topper – let it in.