Peeling the Onion: The A.V. Club Takes on ’90s Alternative Nation

So we’ve entered the second decade of the 21st century. Having just emerged from the Aughts (one can only begin to wonder what lay in store for its future historiography) bruised, bewildered, but still here, it would seem an appropriate time to reflect on past decades if only as a form of escapism. In this way, the Onion’s AV club contributor Steve Hyden turns to his own recollections, theories, and musings regarding each year of the 1990s. Entitled “Whatever Happened to Alternative Nation?”, Hyden’s first three installments traverse a broad cultural landscape, however, if one theme or band ties them together its undoubtedly Nirvana. At first this sounds off putting, so much space has already been accorded to Kurt Cobain’s band, but Hyden does well to tease out the larger issues and underlying ironies that the band represented. (Example: Did you know that Axl Rose loved Nirvana and repeatedly made overtures to Cobain, who rebuffed him numerous times even exaggerating there famous altercation at the Video Music Awards?  Which of course also seems indicative of the 1990s the power of MTV in regards to music).

Admittedly, Hyden remains tightly focused on the kind of music the series title announces, (“Alternative Nation” — think the aforementioned misanthropes, Pearl Jam, Jane’s Addiction, Urge Overkill, Liz Phair, you get the idea) but he also points out (and for the most part in the first three installments stays true to this) his lack of connection to this period, whereas once it had been integral to his life, that animated his thoughts on the subject:

The truth is that I feel little nostalgia for ’90s grunge, and almost no connection to the version of myself that once felt part of the Alternative Nation. I once believed that the rise of so-called alternative music in the early ’90s was the greatest thing to happen in my lifetime—world-changing, no less—but now this notion seems almost too embarrassing to admit in print.

Additionally, so far the series seems to focus on heavy hitters like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Guns N Roses, exhibiting a great man/women sense of history. In this regard, Hyden tips his hand a bit in his first piece, “Once Upon a Time I Could Love You”:

So, yeah, it’s worth noting that ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ sounds like Pixies, and that ‘Come As You Are’ is a direct lift from Killing Joke’s ‘Eighties.’ But Pixies and Killing Joke never got played on the radio in places like Appleton. Nirvana did, and this fact alone makes that band more important than any of Cobain’s underground precursors, who only started to matter on a macro level because they were Nirvana reference points.

Okay, but with the exception of the opening essay, Hyden’s articles remain circumscribed by alt rock deities (including the Zeus-like giants previously mentioned and smaller gods like Teenage Fanclub). One hopes that at some point he places the increasingly commoditized genres of “alt rock” and the decades true behemoth, rap in conversation. Still, small criticisms for what so far has been enjoyable pop culture candy.

Yet, its not only about music. Hyden enters the 1990s 12 going on 13. Growing up in Appleton, Wisconsin, Hyden’s reflections also illustrates the stark changes that have washed over the music industry, the ethereal nature of popular memory (did you remember that Use Your Illusion I and II came out the same year as Nirvana and was greeted with pandemonium?), and the role of technology. Perhaps most importantly he captures a critical site of the burgeoning proto hipster identity, the independent record store, remembering it “as an oppressively cool place that frankly terrified me, as most things did back then.” So I guess not everything changes.

Ryan Reft