Stop All the Clocks

A brief pause after a long pause

I planned to return to Cornflake Victorians this afternoon—to talk about the upcoming release of my first book and, of course, to delve into the broad topics that inspired me to begin this newsletter in the first place.

But then I saw the news.

Many of us know that Kobe Bryant is a complicated figure. But the nuances of this particular tragedy are not for me to discuss. I grieve for his wife and children. I especially grieve for his thirteen-year-old daughter, Gianna, who died alongside of Bryant, together with her teammate and her teammate’s parent. It is startling and humbling—the ease with which a life can end.

Mourning has become familiar to me in the last few years. Mom died two years ago in November, and in early December, her father, my Pop Pop, died after a week of health complications. Loss must always be felt; I am learning that. It does not await our readiness.

So, what is most appropriate, I think, is to pause yet again, briefly, and leave you with a poem that I return to whenever the world is especially weighted with sadness.

Funeral Blues, by W.H. Auden

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone.
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling in the sky the message He is Dead,
Put crêpe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever, I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun.
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.


Here is a moving recitation of the poem, which I used to play for my students when I taught Auden. It’s from the original Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Please be well.

In muchness,

Rachel

My Sonic 90s

Please, step into my melodramatic preteen brain.

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.

Bush, “Glycerine”

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, “Creep”

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.

  1. No Doubt, “Don’t Speak”

  2. Britney Spears, “…Baby One More Time”

  3. Savage Garden, “To the Moon and Back”

  4. Madonna, “The Power of Goodbye”

  5. Robyn, “Show Me Love”

  6. Goo Goo Dolls, “Slide”

  7. Mase, “Feel So Good”

  8. U2, “Ultraviolet”

  9. The Cranberries, “Dreams”

  10. Smashing Pumpkins, “Disarm”

  11. Mark Morrison, “Return of the Mack”

  12. Mariah Carey, “Honey”

  13. Third Eye Blind, “The Background”

Farewell and goodnight, my loves.

Born—Bridalled—Shrouded—

Of course we are going to talk about Dickinson

If you were to create a Venn Diagram with the overlapping circles “19th century period pieces,” “queer femininity,” and “homages to Jane Campion and Sofia Coppola” “Rachel’s interests” would be directly at the center of it. As such, Alena Smith’s “Dickinson,” the slightly absurdist, stylish, and emotional-sucker-punch-replete show about American poet Emily Dickinson is profoundly my shit. In fact, the only way it could have been more tailored to my predilections is if it had been focused on the Brontë sisters instead. When the Mitski music cue hit, I swooned. By the time I reached the spate of Bleak House jokes I thought, “I am being flagrantly pandered to, AND I LOVE IT.” I’m annoyed by Apple TV+, but I’m mostly likely going to keep my subscription because it’s impossible that I won’t binge on this show several more times in the coming months.

Despite loving 19th century novels and poetry, I’m rather selective about the adaptations and period pieces I watch. There’s a swath of BBC Dickens adaptations that I haven’t yet seen, even though a number of them are wonderfully cast, the most famous of them probably being Bleak House. Adaptations, to my mind, are always interpretations, so I don’t expect absolute textual fidelity, but I will be aggravated if the emotional tone is all wrong or incoherent or if whatever I’m watching doesn’t make a case for its own existence. Just because I love reading something doesn’t mean that I’ll also love watching it; the mediums are distinct, and it’s annoying to me when an adaptation or biopic leans heavily on its source material without telling me anything new or interesting.

That said, I am always thrilled by success stories. I’m sorry that Alfonso Cuarón regrets his present day setting Great Expectations because, as readers know, I love it. Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet is a masterpiece, too (not Victorian, I know, but the Victorians loved Shakespeare). Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre is exquisite, as is Thomas Vinterberg’s Far From the Madding Crowd (when I was in the movie theater watching the latter I responded to one particularly romantic scene by rapturously sighing and smacking my chest so hard that everyone around me giggled; once I had recovered from the emotional transport I was a bit embarrassed). The BBC North and South is also particularly well cast, and it beautifully honors the spirit of the novel.

And now we come to Dickinson, which is not an adaptation, of course, but it does draw heavily from the poet’s work, and the whole enterprise could have gone terribly wrong if the hands involved were not so deft. For one thing, we could talk at length about the show’s music, which is always just right. My favorite track, apart from the Mitski, of course, it probably this remix of Alice Boman’s “Be Mine.”

I remember seeing Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette in the theater. Surprise of surprises, I love this film too, and I also recall thinking to myself that as brilliant as I found the contemporary accents, the effect could have been distracting and ham-fisted, rather than emotionally and thematically illuminating. My thoughts followed a similar path as I watched Dickinson, which is even more of an assemblage, and which strikes an even trickier balance. The key, I think, is that the humor never relies too heavily on the contemporary dialogue—not without telling us something about a character/historical figure (Louisa May Alcott remarking that “Hawthorne can eat a dick, amirite”) or emphasizing an affective moment within a relationship or laying bare a key emotional development. It makes sense, after all, that the young adult characters would speak to each other in a way that’s distinct. Sure, in the nineteenth century, nobody really answered the question, “Are you reading Bleak House?” with “I’m mainlining that shit,” but it was probable that you would express yourself with more enthusiasm and contemporary idiom if a friend asked versus your tradition-braced father. Also, as someone who believes that everybody should mainline Bleak House, I feel profoundly justified by this line. (Charles Dickens was a terrible person, but he managed to write some great books.)

And while I am not as intimate with Dickinson’s poetry as I am her British contemporaries, I know enough to understand the voltage of her formal and conceptual innovations. It makes a certain sense to explore her life and sensibilities by imagining the way she might have spoken and behaved if time and conventions were not so pinned together, if there were more of a temporal fluidity to discourse. When I taught her work in a women’s literature course—I call it this because that was the name of the course, but there’s a great deal to say about identifying literature in this binaristic way—I insisted upon spending a chunk of class on one line from the poem that begins “Title divine—is mine!”

Here’s the full text:

We dug into line 10, “Born — Bridalled — Shrouded—,” and I’m sure my students wanted to throttle me by the end of the discussion, but it mostly seemed as if they were compelled. The poem is brilliant through and through, but it’s this line that lays bare so much of how Dickinson perceived a woman’s life: you’re born, then harnessed by marriage (“bridalled” does such magnificent work here), and then you die. The possibility resides in the emdash after “Shrouded,” a full-bodied pause suggesting that what comes after death is unknown and, for that reason, a site of opportunity, of freedom. Men might have organized and controlled the details of a woman’s life on earth, but they cannot master whatever comes next.

Dickinson doesn’t explicitly engage this poem, at least it doesn’t in its first season, but this sentiment is everywhere present: in Emily’s refusal to be married, in her obsession with death, in her devastation over Sue’s engagement. “Is this — the way?” indeed.

And if women are “bridalled” they are also easily branded, particularly for unruliness. When the circus comes to town, Emily imagines announcing herself as poet and, as a result, becoming a tattooed carnival woman.

It’s a splendid scene, and Hailee Steinfeld, perfectly cast in any case, offers a performance that is bewildered and ambivalent—the expression she wears on her face! There is, she realizes, no perfect freedom available to her, and getting what she thinks she wants—literary fame—could be as alienating and violently exposing as it is exhilarating. She is not Louisa May Alcott: she does not need to write to support herself, which is a privilege. It also means that she can consider the sort of writer she wants to be, and whether defying her father and seeking publication will somehow render her more authentic.

The above shot is a near neighbor of the tableau, a bonkers nineteenth-century pastime of which we’re offered a glimpse in the Othello episode. There was no real narrative purpose to the following shots, but they shock the pleasure center, and I think Dickinson would consider that reason enough for their inclusion.

This, I believe, is meant to be A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

And clearly this is Macbeth (lol):

I’m overjoyed that the show has been renewed for a second season, although I suspect it will be a difficult watch in certain ways. We know what Dickinson’s life was. We know that the person she loved most was “bridalled” by a conventional marriage—to Dickinson’s brother, no less. We know that she never saw a real volcano, or travelled to Europe: instead, she created worlds inside of her bedroom. But we also don’t know what pleasures and joys were possible inside of that confining life, and I am glad that this show gives us space to imagine them—for Dickinson’s sake, and for the sake of those who love her.

P.S. If you have not already heard, John Mulaney plays Henry David Thoreau. I repeat, John Mulaney plays Henry David Thoreau. He is as hilariously petulant and self-aggrandizing as you would hope. And Wiz Khalifa is the sexiest, spookiest, most elegant Death.

P.P.S. The show is very gay, and that is IMPORTANT. This scene, which calls to mind the lush green shots in Jane Campion’s Bright Star, is just so lovely.

Sensory History and Whiffing Nostalgia

Or Why Clinique Happy Makes Me Revisit Teenage Angst

Dear and faithful readers, I owe you an apology. (Please see the above screenshot of cherished (fictional) 90s couple Willow and Tara and imagine me taking each of you into my arms as I murmur penitent assurances.)

I began this newsletter and then, almost immediately took multiple, unplanned hiatuses. In retrospect it’s tricky business to launch an essay newsletter while you’re finishing book edits and balancing freelance work: my timing was not, shall we say, especially wise. But now galley copies of Too Much are out, and I can’t—much to my agitation—do any further editing. Instead, I need to focus on doing everything that will give this book the best chance to succeed while continuing to write (which is not unrelated)…and while thinking about Book Two.

On this note, I hope you’ll pardon me for a little Too Much-related housekeeping before heading into the programming that actually brought you here.

(Isn’t she sexy?)

You have likely seen me post about this on Twitter, Instagram, or even cursed Facebook, but Too Much hits bookstores on February 25, 2020. Over the next four and a half months I’ll be doing my best to publicize without becoming contemptible to myself and to everyone else. People often ask what they can do to support an author when they have a forthcoming book, and so hopefully it will not be too aggravating for you to hear a little bit about that right now.

  1. Far and away, the most helpful thing you can do is to preorder my book and to encourage others to do the same, both by word of mouth and on social media. This is especially crucial for a first time author like me, whose platform is modest, and who does not have the backing of an industry publication help her publicize (although I am extremely fortunate in my savvy, compassionate team at Grand Central Publishing—writing a book with a Big Five publisher is an enormous privilege and a gift). Preorders tell my publisher—and the bookstores where you place the order—that people care about this book and my writing in general. It gives me a shot at making bestseller lists (a book about Victoriana and feelings making bestseller lists! Think of it!), and it solidifies my ability to write more books and to be paid a solid wage for them. Preordering is also a way to give future you—or future someone else—a gift, because you’ll likely forget that you’ve done it, and then, on February 25, a book appears on your doorstep as if by magic! You can preorder Too Much here. Please, if possible, do preorder from an independent bookstore.

  2. Once you’ve preordered, or even if you already have (thank you!!), share that you’ve done so on your chosen social media platform(s). You can tag me (here for Twitter, and here for Instagram), say you’re not UNHAPPY to have paid cash monies for my words, and share the preorder link. I know this sounds very icky and performative: it really is! But unfortunately, as our lives seep evermore online, our livelihoods depend upon the glare of visibility. It really does help to share your enthusiasm in public ways, and I’m always very grateful for it.

  3. If you’re on GoodReads, please add my book to your “want to read” list.

  4. If you are associated with media (news outlets, radio, tv), a bookstore, an academic institution, library, or another venue that might be interested in talking to me about the book/my work/my cat, you can email my lovely publicist at Grand Central Publishing. Her name is Kamrun, and you can find her email here.

Okay! Enough of that for now. Allow me to segue into the good stuff with a link to the playlist that has carried me through the book writing process, and one for the playlist tailored to the theme of my book (yes, this is who I am). You will not be surprised by much of what you find on either.


A few weeks ago I used that little Instagram stories tool to ask people what the 90s smelled like. Like a fool, I didn’t save the answers, but I’m sure you’ve already anticipated some of them: CK ONE, Gap Dream, Clinique Happy, Noxema, Auntie Anne’s pretzels, Bonne Bell lip gloss—and then of course there’s the original Herbal Essences formula, which for me is especially evocative of the preteen sex fantasy (maybe because hair washing often preceded bedtime?), Garnier Fructis, a whirring CD-ROM drive, any acne treatment with benzoyl peroxide (I can’t remember when my mother started buying Proactiv for my sisters and me), GAK, chlorine from heady summer days at the pool, troll dolls, the near-nauseating sensory assemblage of a Bath and Body Works, jelly sandals, cupcake dolls (CUPCAKE DOLLS!), old-nearly-disintegrating textbooks, and the list continues, infinitely.

Our engagement with the past is always based in the senses, but sight and sound have something of a combined monopoly in this regard. We read about history, look at old photos, tour museum exhibits, watch old films and listen to old radio programs. Sometimes we even touch artifacts, though for the sake of preservation this is often regimented, or perhaps we eat a dish based on a hundred year old recipe (though of course the results are bound to be approximate). Smelling the past tends to be a more difficult endeavor, at least when one is studying an era so totally ensconced in history that our access is entirely mediated by or saturated with modernity.

When I was in graduate school I took a fantastic course on sensory history and early modern literature from Holly Dugan, a scholar as compassionate as she is brilliant. She called our class’s attention to the curtailed possibilities endemic to smelling the past, and asked us to consider what that might even mean. Smell is invasive and also fundamentally transient—what odor endures indefinitely, after all? But then again, we could consider the act of smelling as passivity dressed up in the trappings of agency. It is something we do, but it is also thoroughly permissive: when we inhale something, it travels through our bodies into unseen and sensitive crevices, ever so slightly reconstituting us in the process. I’m skeptical of theory for theory’s sake, but I find Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s work on assemblages—which I’m about to vastly oversimplify—useful for thinking about our more vulnerable engagements with the world. We’re all comprised of one another; we are assemblages from the moment we’re born, and beforehand, too. Our particles mingle and sink into one another’s skin, or they float into our noses and throats. When I was working on my dissertation I grew fascinated with physiological responses to writing and reading and the sorts of embodied bonds the text could forge between author and reader—this is a more mediated relationship, to be sure, but it felt and still feels to me of a piece: that we are always making and unmaking one another, and that we have constant, often profound physical impacts on other people through the most everyday interactions. We shouldn’t need to think of this in order to prioritize empathy, but if nothing else, there’s a logistical argument for it here: if, when it comes down to matter, our boundaries grow labile, then shouldn’t we, well, matter to one another more? (Another theorist who writes about this is, if I’m remembering correctly, Karen Barad. She has a physics background and has actually demonstrated just how permeable we all are—that where I end and you begin is actually quite unclear and is perhaps nearly impossible to ascertain.)

You may have heard this quote from Judith Butler’s Precarious Life; it’s one I dearly love and that I try to keep in mind: “Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something.”

Scent is dangerous precisely because it does have a unique and peculiar power to undo us. You can’t really smell by halfs: you more or less have to commit to the experience and let it do what it will to you. If we see something we don’t like, we can turn away or shut our eyes. A bad taste—we can spit that out and gulp some water. A smell is not so easily abolished, and so the act becomes nothing less than a leap of faith.

Tangled in all of this is the argument to take nostalgia more seriously than we do—by which I mean we should interrogate it, rather than to bask in its whimsical surfaces. In England there was a short-lived attraction called Dickens World, which purported to immerse tourists in the famous Victorian author’s milieu. It closed in 2016, and word on the street is that it floundered precisely because it didn’t offer the cozy, sanitized fantasy of Victorian London that one might have found in a 19th Century annual. (I am, as you might imagine, devastated that I never got to visit this by-all-accounts extremely bonkers theme park). It’s unpleasant to think about the Thames littered with rotting corpses, or the city slums stinking with pestilence, or the streets covered in the contents of chamber pots and horse shit. It’s also horrifying to consider the millions of people of color slaughtered as the British sought to expand their empire by nearly any means necessary, the women who were dying in childbirth, and the children who died inside chimneys, or of black lung. These are wretched smells, and it should upset us when we try to summon them. Dickens had his own fantasy of Victorian England because the one he represented on the page was very often nightmarish (Dickens also seemed to believe himself a consummate victim and was a terrible asshole).

So where does this leave me with my obsessions for Victoriana and the 90s, the two focuses of this newsletter? I can allow myself these enthusiasms, sure, but certainly not unchecked. It is unethical, and an abuse of privilege, to dwell in what is pleasing without extending oneself towards the challenging and the painful. It is easy for a white woman to love the 90s because I was not lacking in cultural representation. It is slightly more difficult as a bisexual woman, because in that area, I sorely was—and this is just on reason I didn’t come to terms with my sexuality until relatively recently. The smells I listed at the start of this ramble are, for the most part, smells born from middle class comforts. My family belonged to a swim and racquet club, and so I had access to a gorgeous, clean pool with gleaming white diving boards. Clinique Happy delivers me into the hands of my adolescent angst because my family could afford to buy me—then a child—relatively expensive perfume. My volatile skin was assuaged with expensive products, Clinque and Proactiv. I’m sure I treated my Cupcake Dolls and Polly Pockets with the care of a spoiled child who had too many toys vying for her attention.

When I consider the allure of Clinique Happy—that I liked how it smelled, yes, but also liked that it would make me smell like everyone I knew—it’s a reminder that most of the people I knew were wealthy white kids who attended private school. I certainly was “happy” in circumstances if stridently unhappy in various other ways. I probably spritzed the perfume on my wrists and neck before school dances, where I felt unattractive and ungainly and unwanted, and was flush and coddled and impossibly lucky.

Note: If you’re interested in scent, you should subscribe to The Dry Down, an exquisite perfume-focused newsletter written by my brilliant friend Helena Fitzgerald and Rachel Syme.

The Earnest 90s

A cultural decade after my own schmoopy heart

First and foremost, I need to apologize for the unexpected hiatus. My plan was to write even more often in July, but instead, after turning in my line-edited book, my brain oozed out my ears, and I sent exactly zero newsletters. But now I’ve returned, and we will proceed without further delays. Thank you for bearing with me: writing a book and all the attendant anxieties, not to mention the project’s inextricability from the loss of my mother, has been an emotionally complex—albeit deeply rewarding—process.


For several months now, I’ve been thinking about the way we characterize the 90s in terms of its cultural and emotive legacies. I’m especially mulling over this now because I’m working on a piece about 90s erotic thrillers. Films like Basic Instinct and The Last Seduction—in which a woman with no interest in genuine, emotional ties exploits a bumbling man for money, sex, or both—seem to support a prevailing theory that this was a decade marked by cynicism. Certainly, there were plenty of reasons to be disillusioned: Reagan’s “trickle down” economics, Desert Storm, and the AIDS crisis, which was all but ignored by the aforementioned president and ravaged communities across the country. And we can point to all sorts of artifacts that seem to exemplify atmospheric cynicism. There’s the slew of erotic thrillers which seem to articulate a widespread moral vacancy. There’s the grunge movement. There’s “Daria” and “My So-Called Life” (goddess bless Daria and Angela Chase).

And there’s the film “Reality Bites,” which is often treated as 90s representation par excellence because the four characters at the core of it, particularly Winona Ryder’s Lelaina Pierce and Ethan Hawke’s Troy Dyer, are altogether uninspired by the workaday world beckoning to them, regarding their options as uninspired and precarious, thanks to an economy shattered by the previous generation. Troy opts out altogether. Instead, he justifies his slacker tendencies by mansplaining continental philosophy to everyone within earshot (Troy is terrible). Lelaina fears that she can’t trust capitalist America with her art (and probably, she can’t—no ethical consumption, etc, etc).

But cynicism is never what comes to mind when I think of the 90s—on the contrary, earnestness is. Some time ago, I referenced to Paul the “trademark earnestness of the 90s,” and he returned that, in fact, it was a little odd to characterize the decade this way when it’s typically described in such opposite terms. He’s right, too. I’ve been drawing conclusions based on my engagement with 90s popular culture and assuming they are widely shared. Because I was young in the 90s, I was less attuned to the larger milieu than to the scraps available to me, and while I’ve since encountered plenty of commentary that draws on this perception of a cynical 90s, I’ve nodded along without entirely feeling the truth of it. Yes, the 90s in many ways ushered in a specific variety of cynicism. But I would argue that 90s earnestness was far more present, far more structural in terms of its influence on popular culture, then we acknowledge.

And truly, would a sap like me love the 90s as much as I do if the decade didn’t supply so much heart-on-sleeve material?

Of course, there’s no either/or here; there never is. Earnestness begets cynicism in its way: we expect the world to be better than it is, and then when we’re disappointed, we retreat as a means of self-preservation. But that retreat—that malaise in the face of broken, crooked institutions—signifies a desire for something better suppressed by the fear of a broken heart. In the 90s, my friends and I thought Bush was relatively hardcore, though their most famous song, arguably, is literally entitled “Glycerine”—that is, sweetness at its most fundamental.

The music video makes some attempt at being artsy and weird, but it more or less amounts to compilation of footage in which Gavin Rossdale turns his melancholy puppy dog eyes towards, and then away from the camera, as he strums out—with profoundest drama—his romantic yearning on the guitar. “I needed you more / You wanted us less / I could not kiss, just regress” — this is the stuff of a heartsick, wannabe bad boy brimful of feelings, and to this day, I love it. You might say it “has a beautiful taste.”

This is the same era that gave us the women of Lilith Fair, musicians who understood irony—they were, after all, staring back at an entrenched, messy history of men convinced they knew better—and who were largely take-no-shit, but earnestness is not the enemy of resistance. The Indigo Girls’ cover of Dire Straits’ “Romeo and Juliet” is probably one of the sexiest pieces of music in existence. Sarah McLachlan all but convinced us that a subterranean temple was the ideal place to lose one’s virginity, such was profundity of the experience (of course, the Pure Moods compilation had a hand in that—you’ve listened to Enigma’s “Sadeness,” right?). Tori Amos and Ani DiFranco were idiosyncratic, but the feelings were always big—sweeping—fully transporting. K-Ci and JoJo wrote the soundtrack to our most consequential slow dances. In 1996, Baz Luhrmann gave us a gritty adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet,” but what could be more earnest than two stupid teenagers willing to die for one another? And while Garbage’s repertoire errs on the side of bored disaffection, “#1 Crush”—featured on the movie’s soundtrack—renders perfectly the wallop of attraction.

Even “Reality Bites” is deluded when it comes to its own pessimism. In spite of everything, Lelaina and awful Troy can’t relinquish the hope that love will provide some kind of salvation, and we’re meant to believe it does. And, for that matter, consider the song Lisa Loeb recorded for the film:

Oh, my fellow spectacled queen.

Likely enough it seems as if I’m splashing around in a bunch of lightly-considered evidence, but I don’t want to tarry much further because, well, I believe in this idea, and I’d like to see what possibilities there may be for it. But I created this newsletter on the deeply personal understanding that the 90s are a cultural vessel for Big Feelings, and I think that’s all the more evident when they unite with Victoriana where earnestness is tenderly embraced (we’ve already talked about Alfonso Cuarón’s “Great Expectations” and Jane Campion’s “The Piano”)—until, that is, Oscar Wilde came along and aptly and appropriately eviscerated everybody.

These days, when public displays of earnestness seem to demand a warning (i.e. “earnest tweet”), I cling to it like a dummy. Or rather, I cling to it like somebody who cannot be another way, only like this: bald-faced and daydreamy and saturated with every feeling. Sometimes I wonder if it’s naive, wrecked as our world is. But if we are wandering in a wasteland, an earnest hope that we’ll meander towards something better is really all we’ve got.

Loading more posts…