Bittersweet Symphony (or, Friday seems like a good day for nostalgia)

They say the _____ you grew up with often becomes the rule by which you judge all subsequent _____s. Fill in the blank with anything you like, and the premise remains pretty much the same. Think of all those adult complaints that end with "these days," "used to be," and "anymore"? In a way the hopeful lens through which we viewed childhood taints our critical eyes. Music is no exception.

For my dad the proverbial bar will always be set at Journey, Led Zeppelin, and Fleetwood Mac. "It's poetry," he once described Journey's "Wheel in the Sky." "No one writes songs like that anymore." And while I could think of half a dozen songwriters whose lyrical metaphors could rival Steve Perry's output, arguing is not really the point. Nostalgia is a tough negotiator.

I can think of plenty of music that shaped my young adolescence -- the Spice Girls, R.E.M., indie folk, Smashmouth -- but the music that threads my growing up best is late-90s alternative -- The Verve, Tonic, Sister Hazel, The Wallflowers, and any of the other ragamuffin-looking groups from that little slice of musical history between grunge and Y2K. I was a shy, chubby, pimple-faced teen desperately trying to be cool, claiming a love for N*Sync and the Backstreet Boys while secretly reading manga and lusting after my dad's vinyl collection.


And late-90s alternative filled the space between my wanting to be cool and my hopeless prospects of ever not being a teenage nobody. It was pop enough to get mainstream radio play but edgy enough to separate me from the glittery-bubblegum-cheerleader crowd. I could still seem "current" without sacrificing my inherited rock roots. But most importantly, this music took all the sadness and frustration and wonder I didn't know how to deal with and repackaged them in catchy, three- to five-minute, cathartic sound bites.

Sure, Smashmouth's "All Star" reminds me of navigating the seventh-grade social game, but The Wallflowers' "One Headlight" reminds me of waiting for my dad at the pizza place across the street from the middle school on the one night a week I could see him. "Baby, One More Time" reminds me of awkward middle-school semi-formals, but Tonic's "If You Could Only See" expressed my frustrations with love and authority in a rawer way than Britney Spears could. The Verve Pipe's "The Freshman" reminds me of long bus rides home through weedy fields, and Our Lady Peace's "Somewhere Out There" of jogging at night through my neighborhood, trying unsuccessfully to keep my Discman perfectly level so it wouldn't skip. It's what I listened to when I was alone, when I was hurt, when I didn't know how to voice my own insecurities.


What I didn't know at the time was that, in a way, this was rock's last hurrah before dissolving into rap, hip hop, emo, and indie. Until the mid aughts, rock bands were still group endeavors that involved guitars, drums, and verse-chorus-verse. If you told me that any of these bands started in garages, I could believe it; if you told me that about most synth- and beat-based acts post-2005, I'd have a harder time believing you. Looking back it seems fitting that my own whirlwind of firsts and lasts should align with the end of alternative, guitar-based rock, and a millennium.

I'm not making a judgment call, per se -- there's plenty of good popular music created in the last fifteen years. But nothing has quite been able to embody growing up and all its difficulties the way late-90s alternative did.

And that's what this music will always remind me of -- waiting for my mom when band practice ran late, awkward slow-dancing, riding my bike through back streets, drawing hearts in yearbooks, and being angry, confused, excited, and full of enough energy to outshine the sun.


Further listening:
Tonic, "If You Could Only See" (Lemon Parade, 1996)
The Wallflowers, "One Headlight" (Bringing Down the Horse, 1996)
Matchbox Twenty, "Real World" (Yourself or Someone Like You, 1996)
Foo Fighters, "Everlong" (The Colour and the Shape, 1997)
Sister Hazel, "All for You" (...Somewhere More Familiar, 1997)
The Verve, "Bittersweet Symphony" (Urban Hymns, 1997)
The Verve, "Lucky Man" (Urban Hymns, 1997)
Goo Goo Dolls, "Slide" (Dizzy Up the Girl, 1998)
Goo Goo Dolls, "Iris" (Dizzy Up the Girl, 1998)
Semisonic, "Closing Time" (Feeling Strangely Fine, 1998)
Third Eye Blind, "Semi-Charmed Life" (Third Eye Blind, 1998)
Third Eye Blind, "Jumper" (Third Eye Blind, 1998)
Filter, "Take a Picture" (Title of Record, 1999)
Foo Fighters, "Learn to Fly" (There Is Nothing Left to Lose, 1999)
Tonic, "You Wanted More" (Sugar, 1999)
Matchbox Twenty, "Bent" (Mad Season, 2000)
Incubus, "Drive" (Make Yourself, 2001)
Our Lady Peace, "Somewhere Out There" (Gravity, 2002)
Foo Fighters, "Times Like These" (One by One, 2002)

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