This is another dip in the old search-query-that-brought-someone-here-mailbag. This question is honest and simple, and I spent a good part of my mid-20s trying to figure it out. Here’s what I came up with:
Yes. Everyone who was just becoming a teenager as the 90s wore down, I’m talking about you. This is what happened:
Your boomer parents gave you a lot of disposable cash for no good reason.
You spent it on Britney Spears, boy bands, and clothing that wasn’t ironically cool (that is, clothing that cost more than $4.)
You did not spend it on Oasis or Nada Surf or Harvey Danger. You did not spend it on The Flys or New Radicals. You absolutely did not spend it on REM. You also didn’t didn’t spend it on AOR or Adult Contemporary (goodbye, that whole genre). No New Bohemians, no Mazzy Star. Good bye John Mellencamp. It’s been fun, John Secada. Peace out, Tonic, Gin Blossoms, Dishwalla, Joan Osbourne, Black Lab.
Hello, all delighted teensters with your expendable non-work-related dollars. Hello, Generation Bigger Than The Baby Boom. Hello, malleable taste-makers, hello.
Goodbye, alternative radio formats. Goodbye, Y-100. Goodbye, you last hangers on of Generation X, you would-be Cusacks. Goodbye, Empire Records.
I graduated from high school in 1998 and made the excellent choice of working at BestBuy that summer. My domain was the media department, and my duties included farming CDs (I love doing that. I started doing it at stores I didn’t even work at), helping customers make not-sucky choices (I added that to my job description), catching would-be shoplifters (the best), stocking shelves, and looking stuff up on the DOS databases. I was also expected to try to sell monster cables to people buying new media equipment and service protection plans for PlayStations. I was better at the other stuff.
All of this is important for a few reasons:
Working at BestBuy was like what I imagine working at Empire Records would have been like if those meddling kids hadn’t convinced Joe (that really is Anthony LaPaglia, by the way) to damn the man. At BestBuy, all the Ethan Embrys worked in media and all the Renee Zellewegers worked the registers. We had polo shirts and BHAGs and talked about shrink. My immediate supers, which were team leaders directly below the department manager, were in their mid-twenties, which made them world-wary and wise. One was a Zeppelin freak, the other was bound to name his first son Sid Barrett. DVDs were very new and DVD players were very expensive. Where were the Liv Tylers, you ask? Grow up, dear reader. There’s no Liv Tyler.
Some really good music came out that summer, much of which we listened to for hours on end via the Turn On The Fun Summer Sampler.
I got to buy the biggest microfridge ever made on the cheap because of my employee discount. To the gentleman who had that item reserved and never came for it, we did try to call you. 300 feet of rope later, my best friend and I sailed that thing down Rt 22 West in one of the more harrowing transports of our lives. I’ll be honest, it may have been 300 yards. If you think you can’t load two microfridges into one 12-year-old Tempo, think again, friend. Think again.
That second point, as you may have guessed, is the one we’ll be exploring today via a round-up of archived posts from 2009 about 90s music and 90s awesome. (I doubt you could have guessed anything after the word via, so I hope you like your surprise. I made it just for you. If you hate it I can take it back, or make another out of tears.)
Speaking of tears, here’s one of my favorite post titles ever: How Not To Be Sad About the 90s. The impetus for that one was that someone really did make their way to this blog by searching that term. Bear in mind that this post is 2-and-half years old, written well before I learned to stop worrying and love the blog. Also before I lightened up about a lot of things. Turning 30 is now like what growing a mustache was in the 70s.
Sad (Great) 90s Songs, Part II is a follow-up to above, mostly because I’d finally figured out what the third song in the sad (great) BestBuy song trilogy was.
Oh, and don’t let anyone fool you. I still can’t watch that Flys video without losing my mind about how the 2000s turned out. Still, one thing I’ve learned since writing these old posts is that sometimes, you really can pick up with people right where you left off, and that sometimes, old contexts aren’t as important or as fleeting as what you keep on doing.
This particular adventure seems to have taken place in 2011.
I don’t remember what prompted me to think about microfiche last night, but I think it was probably Pawn Stars. I do remember asking my wife why it was called microfiche in the first place, and I think she said “because it’s small.” She then proceeded to pat me on the head and tell me everything was going to be alright.
I know we’re only a paragraph in, but I remember now. It wasn’t because of Pawn Stars, but we were watching Pawn Stars while she was reading some historical newspaper articles online. The quality of their digitized forms was very high, and we supposed that they must have been converted from microfilm by a local researcher in a library. Then I said “maybe it was microfiche” and I started saying “fiche” over and over again until I sounded like the lunatic chef from The Little Mermaid.
Microfiche. One more thing your kids won’t do, Generation X. But your great-great-great grandkids might. In the proper conditions, it turns out that microfiche may be a more stable method of date preservation than digitization. If you’re keeping track at home, that’s Analog Media 2, Digital Media 1.0 × 10100. But the old school’s two points, one each for document/image storage and audio capture, arguably represent the summation of everything we preserve in the first place. Someone who knows more than I do about the merits of actual film and digital video should weigh in on the most stable ways to preserve The Princess Bride and my Christmas Concert ’89 tapes. Did someone say “time capsule!”?
(Speaking of time capsules, the other day was the Super Bowl. Generic congratulations to all you Packer fans now out of the way, let’s talk for a quick second about Jim McMahon. His Starting Lineup figure (Bears gear) was my contribution to a 7th grade time capsule still buried somewhere behind the junior high. Why Jim? Because I could not part with Randall Cunningham or Reggie White, obviously.)
Back to analog media. A few days ago I got to watch a digitized version of some home movies from the 50s. The originals were taken on Super 8, and let me just say: I’m glad for the ability to watch them without having to break out my projector screen (my house came with one, no lie), but there’s something dramatic and classy about what that film did with color. The fact that no one dressed like slobs back then also helps.
And now to the heart of the matter. Why, exactly, is it called microfiche? I discovered the form through my junior high librarian, probably the same day she enlightened half the class (that would be my half of the class) by explaining what the ROM in CD-ROM was. What an interesting little retro-future moment now that I think of it. I had friends with email and BBS, but most of my digital communications knowledge was based on that episode of Silver Spoons that featured Mister Mister. Anyway, I don’t remember Mrs. Willdonger telling us what fiche was in the first place.
I decided that my wife’s answer was finally inconclusive. Like you’re supposed to do when you get curious, I Googled microfiche. I clicked the Wikipedia link (Wikipedia is way more letters than Google) and was taken to a catch-all page for microform. Bush league, Jimmy Wales. Way bush league. Beer league, even. If you think for one second there were etymologies on a hack job like this one, guess again. If you’re not imagining me pronouncing “guess again” like Jimmy Dugan, you’re missing half the fun.
Back to Google I went. A few more clicks, a few more link farms. Finally I checked an online dictionary. Fiche is French for “peg, slip of paper, index card.” Of course. I have the llama from the cover of Vs. in my brain where junior high French should be. Ask this guy about that one.
Rather than stubbornly insist that a laptop with an internet connection is always the best way to get information, it would have been much more efficient to run upstairs and hold aloft the 10-pound dictionary on my bookshelf for the reason microfiche sounds like such made-up word.
I figured out what the third song in the “Got You Where I Want You” (The Flys) and “Time Ago” (Black Lab) trinity of obscure songs from Summer of ’98 BestBuy sampler was: “High” by Feeder. Sweet. Of course, Semicsonic and New Radicals were on there, too, but they got way more radio play than The Flys, Black Lab and Feeder did.
Man. That is beautiful late 90’s hair. Before all the the spiky short dos.
And then there’s “Suffocate,” which is awesome and totally different.
Sometimes I mourn the loss of acts like John (I Still Call You Cougar) Mellencamp and Tom (a hell of a lot more so) Petty on Top 40 radio. This post, from June 2009, is about missing acts like Black Lab and The Flys. Remember them? They came out in the summer of 1998 along with bands like Semisonic and Harvey Danger and Days of the New. I worked in the music section of BestBuy that summer, so I remember these things…
…a week or two after I loaded my new dorm-room-employee-discounted-fridge onto my best friend’s Tempo and secured it with 300-odd feet of rope, I was in college discovering mp3s and file sharing. Even if you didn’t use Napster, you probably used your campus network to copy songs from your friends’ computers. It can’t be a coincidence that so many of the bands that came out right before the industry shift this practice created haven’t stayed in the Top 40, which is to say we have only ourselves to blame for forfeiting popular radio and the lost art of music video to the market defined by our allowance-spending, dial-up connecting kid sisters. Hello, Brittney Spears, Backsteet Boys, NSync, et al. Hello and you’re welcome. To all the good bands we killed in the process, I’ll apologize on behalf of all of us. We didn’t do it on purpose. We were just cashless and cheap.
It’s hard to think of a major pop or rock band to emerge circa 1998 that’s still super popular now. You might come up with a few, but they don’t spring to mind like bona fide stars of the mainstream. Go back to 1996 or 97. Where are the Wallflowers? Why didn’t Primitive Radio Gods become the new Peter Gabriel? Come on, Better Than Ezra! Maybe it’s all very zeitgeisty. Remember that “Take a Picture” song by Filter from 1999? That song killed. I know, I know, Coldplay. But they’re so post-2000.
Everyone knows the saccharine pop side of what happened next. There was also the continued hip-hop move to the mainstream that started with The Chronic and Snoop’s early records, continued through Tupac, Biggie, Puff Daddy and Missy Elliot. Streets Is Watching came out when I was at BestBuy and then Eminem came in the fall. Oh, how we laughed at Slim Shady. “Who is this clown? What’s Dr. Dre thinking?” Well, we know better now. But hip-hop and rap records, huge as they were, didn’t kill alternative radio. That was never an either-or kind of thing. Then came the post-grunge, which started okay but became something else.
Somewhere in all of this, people stopped purchasing alternative pop into the Top 40. And I’m not talking about all the high-brow indie stuff. I’m talking about accessible, quirky, well-crafted music with some hooks and a few jangles. I could tie this in to the recent posts about irony, about how our tastes shifted as a way of escaping sincerity blah blah blah. I always liked that “Old Apartment” song by Barenaked Ladies. But “One Week”? Come on.
“So long ago, remember baby….” I would hear this at BestBuy and sort of know I was in the process of losing something. How about that look at 00:28? Video here.
“I think you’re smart, you sweet thing…” This is one of my all-time favorite videos. Do I miss circa 1998 Katie Holmes the way I miss circa 1998 myself? I think so. Or maybe I just hate the 2000s.
“Phonebooth” is one of the smarter songs of the decade, circa 1996.
How about Tonic? (The “You Wanted More” video from 1999 is here). Lemon Parade came out in 1996: