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Dust Off Your Flannel

Does the looming '90s revival presage a Nirvana-style breakthrough?

Neither group is what you'd consider a rock band, but maybe that doesn't matter. Like a rising tide, Nirvana didn't just carry Superchunk and Dinosaur Jr. over the ramparts, they cleared the way for acts like They Might Be Giants and the Dead Milkmen. While media could only really conceive of flannel and Seattle, the alt-rock underground was — like that of their early-'80s predecessors — broad and diverse.

Yet there is no denying that the ready availability of music has changed how people consume it.

"You're coming out of something that was a little more of a whisper on the wind, and now you can find out all the information on your favorite artist," says Craig Finn (the Hold Steady, Lifter Puller). "Now kids are, like, 'I'm getting into Dylan,' and suddenly they know it all in three weeks. It took me until I was 28 to get to The Band, because I started with punk and there just wasn't enough time in the day [to work my way back]."

Nirvana's commercial breakthrough inspired a wave of alternative rock signings in the '90s.
KIRK WEDDLE
Nirvana's commercial breakthrough inspired a wave of alternative rock signings in the '90s.
The original lineup of Dinosaur Jr. reunited in 2005.
BRANTLEY GUTIERREZ
The original lineup of Dinosaur Jr. reunited in 2005.

The increasing irrelevance of radio among young people and the wide availability of music has sort of collapsed time. Established artists note how much young fans are as drawn to older songs and deep album cuts as they are to the artists' newest music. Thanks to the Internet, an artist's back catalog is nearly as relevant as the current release.

Some feel this smorgasbord complicates the emergence of another Nirvana. For a movement to gain steam, it needs to reach critical mass. People's tastes may just be too broad, and the available options too many, for people to fully buy in.

"The way everything works today — media and instant everything — there are too many distractions for one thing to solidify. It's not out of the question, of course, but it's that people listen to one song and move on to something else," Wurster says. "Kids are bombarded with so much that it's hard for anything to really get entrenched enough to form a movement."
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We've had plenty of trends. When will we have something that sticks, something transformative? The underground's ripe for it, like a Manhattan-size island of misfit toys. The Internet's cleared away the middle men, and the rigors of the road have hardened skins and sharpened wits. The success of Bon Iver, a Wisconsin-based band that sold 104,000 copies of its most recent album in its first week of release in the United States, shows that people will go for even relatively unknown acts without big-label budgets.

"I doubt, at least in the beginning, [Bon Iver] got a very different push from the label," Finn says. "What happened is people reacted. They heard that record, it made them feel something, and they sort of voted with their attention/dollars/whatever."

Given the viral intensity of mass communications these days, what's to prevent an even more virulent contagion than Bon Iver from cutting through the culture? Who wouldn't thrill to experience something like Elvis, the Beatles or the Clash in real time, as opposed to reliving it on documentaries and YouTube videos?

"It gives you hope when something like that happens," agrees Deer Tick's John McCauley. "But there hasn't been a sound of a generation yet."

We're just waiting on someone to lead the charge. Someone will take the reins. It's almost inevitable. Someone with enough charisma and savvy not to wilt beneath the hot media glare. Isn't that what part of what makes them Mick Jagger or David Bowie?

"It's the thing inside the people. It's the same thing as Elvis. It's want, drive, desire and power. That's all it comes down to. The cream does rise to the top," says Greg Dulli (Afghan Whigs, Twilight Singers). "Phenomena happen. Look at Frank Ocean, a perfect example of someone who basically got dropped by his label, put out his own record. Gave it away for free on Tumblr, and next thing he knows, he's playing Coachella. There's always that dude who gets around it and redefines it thusly. That will never stop."

Nor will rock. It will forever be a place kids go to find identity, sow some rebellion and just celebrate the fine art of living. Guitars and loud, boisterous music always will have a home in kids' hearts, even when the media and money men are indifferent.

"A lot of people say [guitar-based rock] sort of comes and goes, but for people like me and my friends, it never really went away," says Paul Saunier of noisy rock duo PS I Love You. "The mainstream notices it sometimes, and then they don't...For me, releasing albums was a fun thing I've always wanted to do, and now I do it. It's almost more about me."

These communities never truly disappear. As it does with any club, membership fluctuates. But underground rock persists because it offers something we will always crave: a sense of belonging. (Even/especially for the outcasts.) At a time when all of us are struggling financially, those uniting threads are stretched that much tighter. (Also like 20 years ago: Remember "it's the economy, stupid"?)

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2 comments
deneyterrio
deneyterrio

I hope not, I had a great time in the 90s. Even though the current 80s revival is stronger then ever it's still the 8th or 9th time that horrible decade has reared it's ugly head since the 90s ended.

 

For those of us alive and informed during the 80s it was a really crappy decade. The economy was shit, music became a prefabbed commodity(thanks to disco) and fashion was awkward. The problem with nostalgia is that reality takes a backseat while fantasy stand front and center with legwarmers on. These 80s revivals have taken the substance out of the decade and replaced it unabashed romanticism. There shouldn't be anything wrong with that but I can see this happening to a 90s revival or 2. The industry will get a hold of it and strip it down to it's exterior with no recognition of the meat of the decade. The 90s didn't save the world but it certainly changed it. I think the 'fuck you' creativity that was fostered then was reminiscent of the 60s.

 

The 90s weren't about flannel at all. That era was about music and music only. It was the industry that tried to make it a style. The clothes were a necessity to the climate in Seattle and the north. As someone that lived up the road in Vancouver at the time I couldn't relate to the bright colors and cocaine of the 80s. My friends and I would hang out on the shore and play guitars tell the sun came up. What style your clothes were wasn't important, they provided a function and flannel was the cheapest. Plus everything was grey and brown and wet so these clothes let us blend into the city. The last thing any of us wanted was to look like a bunch of Skittles in those bright clothes. Let us trudge along in the grey and life deafening drizzle. It's how we liked it.

 

The current 80s revival replete with banks like Ariel Pink making records as if they were the bastard children of an OMD/Spandau Ballet mating is played out. The majority of music was horrible, utter trash. Thankfully bands are starting to shift but now every 3rd band sounds like Mumford and Sons. Guh.

 

The 80s were a coked up, neon clad stock broker that came to define the 'me' generation. It was excess upon excess. A horrible decade that we were lucky to get out of. I hope the 90s don't get the same nostalgia paint job the 80s got. Oh sure, I'd love to see Black Happy tour around with Roots Roundup but you won't be seeing my stage dive anymore :)

matthewc0le
matthewc0le

@HoustonPress anything would be better than dubstep

 
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