For many years now, I’ve had it my head that I completely disengaged from popular music somewhere around 1991 (the year that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” brought everyone down), but that’s not really true. Yes, I was having more and more difficulty finding current music that I liked, as well as expanding my interests into other genres and time periods. But when I decided on a whim to build a Spotify playlist of ’90s songs that I remember liking back in the day, I very quickly piled up a little over eight hours’ worth of tunes. So obviously I wasn’t as oblivious to it all as I’ve imagined.
I haven’t done the research, but I have a hunch that a lot of my ’90s likes are probably clustered toward the end of the decade, when I was hooked for a time on an over-the-air music-video channel I discovered called The Box. It was a weird, fly-by-night sort of operation way down near the bottom of the UHF band (ask your parents, kids!). I want to say it was channel 58? Something like that. Down in the nether regions where reception was tenuous at best and a lot of the ghostly signals you managed to pull in were in Spanish. The Box had a primitive interactive model where you could call a phone number and request a video from a menu for a small fee, which occasionally led to crap like Marilyn Manson’s cover of “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” playing multiple times in a single hour for days on end. But it also lent the channel a sort of organic, homemade feeling. You could see anything from hip-hop to German heavy metal to electronic dance music. I found that I liked a lot of the pop-punk acts that briefly flourished around that time, groups such as Lit, blink-182, even Smashmouth before they sold out and “Allstar” got played to death in movies and TV ads. I also liked a lot of artists that probably didn’t have much redeeming value just because they were easy on the eyes. There was Britney Spears, obviously, and her contemporary Christina Aguilera; the Spice Girls, of course; and even the tattooed cutie who sang lead for Aqua. Yes, I just confessed to kinda-sorta liking the song “Barbie Girl.” Don’t say a word.
One of my favorite songs from that era actually sounded like something of a throwback to the Awesome ’80s, at least to my ear. “Never Let You Go” by Third Eye Blind is built around catchy pop hooks and some weirdly melancholy lyrics that the band’s lead singer, Stephan Jenkins, claims are about the actress Charlize Theron, whom he dated for three years. But what really earns my affection for this one is the breakdown toward the end when we hear that crunchy guitar sound I’ve always loved, the same sort of thing you hear in “Jessie’s Girl” or one of my other favorite Rick Springfield songs, “Love Somebody.”
I don’t have any specific memories associated with the song, other than just liking the sound and one of the lyrics resonating with my mood at the time (I’d just turned 30 when this song came out, and I was struggling to find a career and make some big life choices and with depression, and true to form for me, I was spending a lot of time looking backward):
“I remember the stupid things, the mood rings, the bracelets and the beads/Nickels and dimes, yours and mine, did you cash in all your dreams?”
The imagery doesn’t specifically align with my own experiences — I haven’t had a mood ring since I was eight, for example — but it’s highly evocative to me, suggesting memories of your early twenties when you didn’t have much, but you didn’t have a lot of cares either, and now those times are gone, and how the hell did that happen? Those lyrics occurred to me earlier this week when I was struggling with something at work, and “Never Let You Go” has been running on an endless loop in my mind ever since.
This video isn’t terribly remarkable, aside from Stephan Jenkins being a nice-looking man — I always wanted hair like his when I was young, that thick, floppy, rockstar thing — and there are some hot ’90s babes in the background. But enjoy the song anyhow as we head into the weekend. Maybe you too remember a girl who was like a sunburn you would have liked to save…