(5) deee-lite, "groove is in the heart"
(12) toadies, "possum kingdom"
Read the essays, watch the videos, listen to the songs, feel free to argue below in the comments or tweet at us, and consider. Winner is the aggregate of the poll below and the @marchfadness twitter poll. Polls closed @ 9am Arizona time on March 9th.
succotash wishes and siamese dreams: karen pojmann on "groove is in the heart"
At the end of 1990, at a time when we imagined ourselves too independent for conventional family vacations, my sister, Wendy, and I traveled with our parents to San Diego. We wouldn’t have considered not going, of course; it was the coldest, grimmest, darkest part of winter, and we lived in the bleak American Midwest. Grasping a chance to visit sunny and progressive California was—to use a phrase that was then soaring in popularity and at which I already had begun to roll my eyes—a no-brainer.
Opinions differed, though, regarding what constituted a fun vacation. At 17, I held vague notions of “adventure,” a thing I craved insatiably and sought directionlessly, informed only partly by actual experience. Wendy, 20, went to college in Chicago and had an elevated, though unarticulated, relationship with excitement. I was wildly envious.
Our parents' idea of pleasurable travel, as far as we could discern, involved driving around in a large, comfortable rented vehicle and looking at stuff. Lovely scenery. Interesting architecture. The ocean. They did not share our interest in dusty thrift shops, dark night clubs or boys with mohawks. They did not want to linger in record stores or take in spoken-word performances. They chuckled at our appearance on the beach, in black tights and floppy hats, a Goths-in-Hot-Weather-blog scene materializing long before blogs were even a thing. Moreover, as a retired Army colonel and spouse, my parents were drawn to the perks and small luxuries officer status afforded them in various parts of America. So when traveling as a family, we found ourselves frequenting locales in polar opposition to the bastions of nonconformity we sought: military bases.
On a base in San Diego, shopping at the post exchange, Wendy and I searched the music department for something to distract us from the suburbanity of the van. Pickings were slim. We settled on the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Mother’s Milk and, somehow, Deee-Lite's World Clique, both on cassette. Back in the van, we’d cycle through the Chili Peppers, our parents cringing and shifting the sound to the rear speakers, and then pop in Deee-Lite for the catchy "Groove is in the Heart."
Every time the song ended and the first few notes of the subsequent track, “Who Was That?,” sneaked into the airwaves, Wendy would huff in annoyance, stop the tape, rewind back to the one-hit wonder of which she had inexplicably grown fond, and play it again. It was odd behavior. She was the sort to mock people who knew only a band’s greatest hits, nearly always, knowingly, deeming an obscure B-side superior. Yet here we were. “Groove is in the Heart.” Over and over. Not even on “repeat” because it was a tape. The ritual began to infuriate me. Eventually, I was all, “Really? We can’t even give the next song a chance? What if this is a good album?” But her resolve was firm. “Groove” only.
The real question isn't why Wendy refused to hear World Clique in its entirety, to bask in its kitschy glory, but, rather, why we were listening to Deee-Lite at all. We were rebels. We eschewed the mainstream. And she, certainly, was not one to succumb to “catchy.” She ridiculed my bent toward alt-pop, my elevation of Morrissey over, say, Soundgarden. Moreover, at that particular moment at the start of a musically complicated decade, she stood on the precipice of definitive ‘90s musical innovation. She worked for Chicago’s Limited Potential Records and had become friends with the members of the band Smashing Pumpkins, among others. In fact, a scant five months from that day in the van, we would be in Chicago, on the eve of my high school graduation, bar-hopping with Billy Corgan and James Iha in the wee hours of a spring night/morning. Billy would be describing to me how he wanted their first music video to reflect “not so much the progression of the song as the intensity” and I’d be naively dismissive of yet another pretentious garage-band-guitarist friend of my sister’s. A mere two weeks from that moment, the album Gish would be released and the American indie music scene would be turned on its head. Or notably affected, at least. And this newly famous band’s members would find themselves grilling burgers on the tiny back deck of Wendy’s Wrigleyville apartment. This is the level of cool my sister had attained in the early 1990s. So why the Deee-Lite fixation? What was, if I may borrow another phrase from the decade, the deal?
1990-91 was a time when grunge was evolving and “college rock” was enjoying a heyday. New sounds came in forms like Jane's Addiction and Nirvana. The original Lollapalooza was born. Emerging music was edgy and loud and dark. Often cathartic. But it was also a time when, conversely, people who had never experienced Flower Power firsthand suddenly became nostalgic for it. Claire's Boutique sold peace-symbol jewelry. College girls donned mini-skirts and braided headbands or combed secondhand shops for polyester bell bottoms. Volkswagens experienced a surge in popularity. In the absence of a Vietnam War or a draft, of real civil unrest or a civil rights movement, the colorfully Deee-Liteful trappings and adornments culled from the late '60s and early '70s offered solace. Balance. They provided an iridescent lightness to counteract grunge and rage rock. A groove. A happy place. Respite. We were not immune. In short, Deee-Lite’s funky tune had a good beat, and we could dance to it—though never in public.
Karen Pojmann is a university communications director and magazine editor in Columbia, Missouri. Her poetry has appeared in in Writers Digest, The Madison Review, Mom Egg Review and Interpretations. She co-directs a monthly arts and literature series in a local gallery.
do you want to die?: porochista khakpour on "possum kingdom"
In the Nineties, I had a thing for dangerous white boys, but who didn’t? It must have been the golden age of raw white boy pain and it was hard to escape it. The screeches and groans and growls and whines were on every radio station. Kurt Cobain, Elliott Smith, Scott Weiland—they all had it, and their pain still feels so alive to me that it’s hard to remember they’re gone. Sure, there were the girls too—Riot Grrrl culture was so important to me, but I found my ultimate shelter in it mainly because I was doing so much time with those angry, angsty white boys who refused to let you quit them.
While my Eighties were a glorious mess of hip hop and hair metal obsession, my Nineties were devoted to grunge with some dips into punk. There were the big popular bands, of course—Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, etc—but there were also the one-hit wonders. They were often the most special to me because they mattered the least—what can I say, being a loser was cool in this era.
I couldn’t tell you if The Toadies had only one hit but “Possum Kingdom”—the only song of theirs I know—was one of my favorite songs of the era. You’d have to imagine me in 1995—17, painfully skinny, mustached, perpetually in ripped jeans and some GAP V-neck T-shirt, with baby bangs and a bob, hoping for less Iranian-refugee-foreign as I was pining for the look of those androgynous white girls. I never made the cut—hair metal aesthetic recognized my fluffy hair and curves-in-training and brown-ness with more reverence, because exoticized sexualization was built into the scene’s (misguided) politics of chivalry. The grunge guys weren’t into that. You barely ever saw “hot girls” in their videos; they weren’t from the world of grown adult women of all shapes and sizes. But they’d still claim them in their ballads and odes, always wronged by some woman or another. They were complicated, these dangerous white boys. Even with their skirts and nail polish, their dances with genderfluidity, you could never quite figure them out and just maybe they knew this.
Like most music I came to love, I first heard “Possum Kingdom” on KROQ, LA’s great alternative rock station. Immediately I thought there was something in the neo-thrash grunge aesthetic—the mid-tempo riffs, twangy guitar, and heavy bass—that reminded me of Pantera. I didn’t know then that I was hearing what was also a Texas band in full Texas sound: groove metal essentially repackaged in grunge. (I had just discovered Pantera and I’d play it on my Walkman at the lowest volume because I was certain if anything was that Satan’s music that everyone was so upset about back then, this had to be it!)
And “Possum Kingdom” passed my first test: so damn natural to head-bang to.
Back then they’d play the same hit song on the radio way too many times, and you could also request it—I’d call up and request songs every day—and so I got a good chance to study the thrillingly chilling lyrics of “Possum Kingdom” closely. “Make up your mind/decide to walk with me/around the lake tonight,” the song begins, with lead singer Vaden Todd Lewis commanding creepily like a sedated lunatic Roy Orbison (another beloved Texan of mine) after too many drugs and video games. Soon enough the song has broken down into its darker side, “I'm not gonna lie/I'll not be a gentleman/Behind the boathouse/I'll show you my dark secret.” I was only a year or two into calling myself a feminist (or feminazi, just to irk my dad who had adopted the Rush-Limbaughism of that era)—and yet, I lived for these pretty-unfeminist-sounding darkest lines: “Give it up to me/do you wanna be/my angel?/ So help me Jesus.” I mean, I was definitely was a virgin—I’d only closed-lip-kissed a few guys during Spin the Bottle in my preteens—but I got it. I knew what the dark secret was, I knew what you were supposed to give up, I heard it loud and clear.
Or did I?! The song takes a turn, about four minutes in (yes, it’s just over five minutes), and erupts into the full-scream refrain, “Do you wanna die?” Over and over. I remember waiting for my family to go to some outing I was too antisocial and angsty to go to—“I have a school project,” I’d always automatically call to my parents when they’d knock on my door—and then I’d be myself: Walkman on, screaming at the top of my lungs into the roof, hoping the neighbors up above could hear, “DO YOU WANNA DIE?!”
It was the Nineties—you can bet I did. And oh, how I was the most dangerous white boy brown girl in all the land! After all, I never questioned what the hell that meant or why I was screaming it.
It took some time until I saw the video and, well, it was mostly like every video of that era. Skinny white guy with plaid shirt, shaved head (those boys always had long hair or no hair basically), angrily twitching and bobbing up down and around a microphone like it was the thing to manhandle if it weren’t for some allegiance to something else. The tiny crowd they were performing for looked to be all men—in fact the only woman in the video was the bassist, Lisa Umbarger, the sort of tough tomboy I wanted badly to be, the one you could imagine had no trouble hanging with those angry white boys. But this is only one part of the video. Then there’s these many disturbing scenes of a body bag being dragged out of a lake in one of those marshy yet dead, green and gray, defiantly gloomy Northwesternscapes of grunge. In the video, during the DO YOU WANNA DIE refrains, we have the climax: the body bag is hacked into pieces, just to reveal an ice sculpture underneath. That’s it! No body, just some ice sculpture of a girl with eyelashes, and a drip of water, or perhaps a tear.
There was something disappointing in the violence of the song being just a tease, I remember feeling guiltily—file under one of my many what is wrong with me moments of that era. I also remember learning that Possum Kingdom Lake was a real lake near Fort Worth and that was disappointing to me too. And that there was a narrative that I learned about years later when I finally broke down and popped the song onto my iPod—that hit was part of another song I’ve never heard by The Toadies called “I Burn” about, well, setting people on fire to achieve some higher state. Somehow I felt let down knowing “Possum Kingdom” was a persona poem like the ones I read and loved in that era (especially Ai’s). I just couldn’t stand the fact that the song wasn’t Satanic and that the band members were not homicidal and that the girl was just ice.
I wanted to understand my dangerous white boys as dangerous maybe.
I think a lot these days about the thrill of the dark side in the Nineties: how angst was almost a comfort, how anger was a swagger, how deep clinical depression made up the core of grunge counterculture. Evil was something to fetishize, the villains always our people. Maybe we didn’t have real problems, maybe we didn’t know about them. Maybe back then we slept thinking our world was still largely on the side of the good. Losers and slackers, what could we do? Everything was okay maybe, we thought. What could these dangerous white boys possibly do to that? Everything was okay. Maybe.
Porochista Khakpour is the author of the novels Sons & Other Flammable Objects and The Last Illusion and the forthcoming memoir Sick. Her work has appeared in several sections of The New York Times, as well as The Los Angeles Times, Bookforum, The Wall Street Journal, Elle, Spin, and many others. She currently teaches at Bard College, Columbia University, and VCFA.