The other day, via Instagram, I asked folks to tell me what one song they would choose to represent the 90s. Obviously this is a deeply unfair question. An era can never be encapsulated by a single cultural artifact, to say nothing of the pervasive heteronormative whiteness that marginalized so much art created across the decade. So here’s the better, more interesting question: “What did the 90s sound like to you?” This is what I always want to know about people: what reverberated in your Walkman headphones? What swam inside your head at night, when your face was smashed against your pillow and you wanted to sleep, but couldn’t? It’s interesting to ask this question about any decade or year or month—temporality is always a more compelling study when considered in terms of resonant art. But this newsletter is, at least in part, focused on the 90s, and since I’m the one writing it, I’ll share a few of the songs that feel pinned to that time. I hope that, in response, you all will do the same.
What follows is a woefully incomplete list. In truth, I would need weeks to cover the whole of my personal 90s soundtrack. Maybe this will be the start of a series! In any case, read on with the knowledge that I’m probably not doing anybody justice, and that I’m inevitably leaving out extraordinarily crucial songs.
Garbage, #1 Crush
When you’re 12 years old—mostly a little person, but with new, strident desires that often baffle you—you learn very quickly that the exhilaration of a crush can just as easily plunge into exhaustion, to say nothing of despair. “#1 Crush” embodies the exhaustion and agony of lust, both of which felt like old friends by the end of sixth grade. I yearned, pined, and gazed anxiously and furtively at people who were not likely to reciprocate my affections. And so, Shirley Manson’s performance of this song felt just right: at its beginning her voice is practically dragging itself across the floor, finally pulling itself upright to howl through the chorus. The spooky energy that electrifies the rest of the track—and that always made me, the listener, feel very cool—seems only to well up from desperation. How unbearable it is to want a person, to want them to bear witness to your need, and to the tributes you long to bestow in their name. And as far as song and movie pairings go, making this the first track on the soundtrack for Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet was an act of sheer genius. If ever there was a piece of literature about wanting to set yourself on fire for somebody, Romeo and Juliet is that text, and “#1 Crush” is that song.
K-Ci & JoJo, “All My Life”
I was obsessed with this song; it seemed like Platonic love set to melody. As such, it will always be tethered to my preteen melancholy. DJs played it at every school dance, events that were only wonderful so long as the fast dances were plentiful. When those telltale keys announced themselves, I either shuffled to the side of the dance floor to wait out the song by myself, or I danced with someone I didn’t really like, and who probably didn’t like me either. It felt almost comical to me, swaying like a humanoid pendulum with one of the bozos from my grade—both of us carefully dodging eye contact—as this exquisite tribute to tender love filled the gym. Certainly, my own circumstances were antithetical. But still, I carried with me a little spoonful of hope that I could one day hear this song and not feel both ridiculous and sad.
Hanson, “Where’s the Love”
Throughout seventh and eighth grade, I was in love with Taylor Hanson. And in retrospect, there has never been clearer evidence of my burgeoning bisexuality. I was less enthralled with his music, but I still listened to it faithfully and covered my walls with his face. My mother was a devoted supporter of my every celebrity crush and would scour the supermarket magazine racks for any teenybopper magazine that promised coverage: new posters or a new, but always redundant, q&a. As for this song—goddess help me, I did love it. Every afternoon, I would turn on VH1’s top ten countdown, desperate to see the music video. And at night, I would devise elaborate, narratively bulky fantasies in which I saved Taylor from danger—always ludicrous, and always deadly— and became both his hero and the object of his desire.
Smashing Pumpkins, “Tonight, Tonight”
Goddamn you, Billy Corgan, for being a monster of a person who also, somehow, managed to create music so lush and sweeping that I wanted it—still want it—to swallow me whole. When I first heard “Tonight, Tonight” it sounded like the inside of my heart: melodramatic and urgent and just the slightest bit hopeful. It made me want to turn pirouettes and cry and have sex, even though I didn’t really comprehend the latter’s machinations. Corgan’s voice is not good at all, and yet I think this might be one of the only perfect songs. The juxtaposition of a hoarse, raggedy testimony—of loss and change and the stagger towards reconciliation—against the soaring, heaven-shot orchestra strikes me as apt: it’s an ideal depiction of tired, imperfect humanity striving for something beyond itself, something glorious.
Meanwhile, Corgan has mutated into the sort of deranged asshole who appears on InfoWars. Let us raise a glass for D’arcy, who endured so much, and probably knew that this was always going to happen.
Tori Amos, “Bliss”
In eighth grade my best friend Emily, already a staunch Tori fan, made me a mixtape of some of her favorite songs from Little Earthquakes, Under the Pink (my favorite album), Boys for Pele, and From the Choirgirl Hotel. I was immediately besotted: Tori’s sound was at once what I was always chasing—big, like my feelings, wild, and gorgeous—and entirely specific to her. When she released To Venus and Back in 1999 I was a high school freshman, and “Bliss” was precisely the sort of song I wanted to live inside my ears. Tori has always known better than anyone how to coax sonic catharsis, and when I heard the chorus, those tremulous vocal stepping stones—“Steady—as—it—comes”—that climb and descend until, inevitably, she flies away—“I’ve said it all / So maybe we’re bliss of another kind”—I was awash with affection for this woman I didn’t actually know, but who seemed always to be writing just for me.
(If it interests you, a couple of years ago I wrote a rapturous love letter essay about Tori Amos’s music.)
Loreena McKennitt, “Dante’s Prayer”
When I was in junior high, my mother began listening to a radio station that played contemporary music, which meant that, all of a sudden, she was buying CDs that I wanted to steal from her. I wasn’t as taken with Loreena McKennitt’s “The Mummer’s Dance” as she was—at the time it was a radio mainstay—but when Mom procured The Book of Secrets I discovered tracks I positively loved, including “The Highwayman” (Anne Shirley recites it, after all) and most of all, “Dante’s Prayer.” Because I was lonely, insecure, and all too often thinking about myself, it follows that I appreciated a song that I could imagine playing at my funeral. It was morbidly satisfying to imagine people wishing I weren’t gone, or that perhaps they had been kinder. But apart from this rather narcissistic fantasy, I was at base a porous-hearted girl who only wanted music that encouraged her to dwell in her unwieldy and oceanic feelings.
In the end, “Dante’s Prayer” has become a soundtrack to death—but not my own. Instead, it is a song I summon when I want to think about my mother, who on November 29th will have been gone for two years. What luxury it now seems, fantasizing about mortality when I was not actually forced to confront it. My love of this song persists as almost a beautiful, sick joke.
Monica, “Angel of Mine”
As it happens, “Angel of Mine” was released on this very day in 1998! I did not know that when I set out to write this newsletter, but please pretend that I did. I was 13 when the single dropped, and it felt utterly adult to me. I adored the music video, too: Monica is so beautiful in the gauzy, dove grey nightgown, and it ends on such a tender and intimate note: Tyrese Gibson climbs into her window—I always assumed she has spent the duration of the video awaiting his arrival—and, finally, they are alone, and free to fall more deeply in love. Of course everything about this was foreign to my own experiences, but that didn’t matter. I think that much of the music we listen to when we’re adolescents points to emotional aspirations: we listen so that we can imagine feeling a certain way—in love or lust, or righteously heartbroken, or triumphant. We’re scouting out affective potentials. Through “Angel of Mine” I imagined the felicity of reciprocated love, something immaculate shared with a person who was as kind and compassionate as the boys in my grade were brutish. (“Angel of Mine” was another junior high slow dance staple, and I felt as ludicrous dancing to it as I did during “All My Life.”)
Sarah McLachlan, “Sweet Surrender”
I do not exaggerate when I say that I wanted to lose my virginity to this song. (I did not lose my virginity to this song.) And perhaps it will not surprise you that I’ve written extensively about that. Sarah McLachlan’s earnest horniness was exactly my pubescent vibe, and my vibe it remains. I am convinced that there exists of coterie of bookish millennial women who, thanks to Sarah McLachlan, longed to have sex in a monastery, preferably atop an altar of some kind.
I know now that Bush was never especially hardcore, but in sixth grade they seemed like the epitome of grunge (I hadn’t really explored Nirvana or Pearl Jam). Besides, the architecture of Gavin Rossdale’s jaw was so finely wrought, a perfect contrast to his vulnerable, boyish curls, and he looked sexy in a threadbare teeshirt. I loved the way Rossdale seemed almost to sing through gritted teeth, as if he were beating back the full thrust of his longing—and failing in the attempt. There is, too, a pleasure to “Glycerine” that hearkens the appeal of “Tonight, Tonight”: a gravelly voice extended itself across euphonious melody. But “Glycerine” always sounded erotic and a little bit aggressive. There’s no hope for redemption in its world, only regret and yearning and, probably, sweaty breakup sex.
TLC was always cooler than everybody else. When I first heard this song I only vaguely understood it and loved it anyway. And the silk pajamas the group wears in the music video—now iconic and eternally coveted by yours truly—are the perfect, understated gesture to the song’s premise. “No Scrubs” tends to make all of the Best Of lists, and it should. But this track has always been my personal favorite from TLC’s oeuvre.
Before I bid you adieu, I’ll list some more tracks that belong on this list and that I may indeed write about at a later date.
No Doubt, “Don’t Speak”
Britney Spears, “…Baby One More Time”
Savage Garden, “To the Moon and Back”
Madonna, “The Power of Goodbye”
Robyn, “Show Me Love”
Goo Goo Dolls, “Slide”
Mase, “Feel So Good”
The Cranberries, “Dreams”
Smashing Pumpkins, “Disarm”
Mark Morrison, “Return of the Mack”
Mariah Carey, “Honey”
Third Eye Blind, “The Background”
Farewell and goodnight, my loves.