Once upon a time I was a 1990s teen, residing just at the tail end of Generation X. When I think about the pop culture that influenced me during those formative years, that I now look back upon nostalgically, it’s startling how pervasive the self-loathing, angst and cynicism is. Everyone was either angry or had given up, or both. Music was the same. In no other era could grunge music have flourished like it did. Prior to the early ’90s, the idea of bands thriving on negativity didn’t exist. It’s “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” after all, not “depression, despair, and rock and roll.” Of course you had the occasional band like the Smiths or the Cure, but people recognized those bands as music for the fringes of society. You couldn’t expect to reach mainstream success with a lyric like “Hey! Wait! I’ve got a new complaint.“
In the 1990s, for the first time in the history of human civilization, that all changed. Women were angry. African-Americans were angry. Poor people were angry. And white middle-class males were angry about the fact that they felt guilty. As a result, Nirvana (and Pearl Jam and Soundgarden and Stone Temple Pilots and countless other grunge bands) reached the top of the charts when they would otherwise have been cast aside as losers. These bands sang about alienation, abuse, depression, rape, addiction, and suicide. It wasn’t just grunge either. Two of the biggest songs of the decade had the following choruses:
Soy un perdedor, I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me
I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo, what the hell am I doing here, I don’t belong here
And while grunge imploded upon itself with the arrival of bubble-grunge (Bush, Creed, Candlebox) and pseudo-punk (the Offspring, Pennywise) bands, Beck and Radiohead were in it for the long haul.
As late as 1987 R.E.M. sang “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” Jesus Jones reached the top of the charts in 1990 with his anthem “Right here, right now, there is no other place I wanna be.” How is it possible that by 1992 everything had changed? That’s what Craig Schuftan’s Entertain Us is all about. At least I think it is. The “story” of alternative rock is told by Schuftan chronologically, jumping from artist to artist, each after just a few pages and without any segue as the discussion moves from Nirvana to Blur to the Riot Grrrl movement to Urge Overkill. There are probably dozens of books that could be spun off from individual chapters in Entertain Us (and, in fact, there are of course books just about the Seattle scene, or Lollapalooza, or Riot Girrl, etc.). Schuftan has struck gold, but he doesn’t do a very good job of mining it. For example, he writes a chapter about how different sensibilities of irony – American vs. British primarily – shaped the music of bands like Pearl Jam and Blur. Developed properly, this could have been an entire book, or at least a major section of one comparing music from the different sides of the Atlantic. (After the rise of the rock star who didn’t want to be a rock star, American alternative music vs. Britpop is the second-most prominent theme in the book. Third is women’s place in rock music. Fourth is the true meaning of authenticity. Fifth is … well, you get the idea.) But before we can delve too far into this we are into the story of Kurt Cobain’s suicide and the music world’s reaction to that. And so on. You can tell that the author is extremely bright. It’s almost as if he has too much to say. Unfortunately, by telling us everything he risks saying nothing. (There’s a half-chapter where Schuftan talks about Rage Against the Machine and Marxism. It comes from out of nowhere and isn’t mentioned again. This is absolute gold, and one of the many wasted opportunities to tell a deeper, more interesting story.) Honestly, there is so much here to like – I felt that if Schuftan had just stuck with a subject, any subject, just a little longer it could have paid off so much more.
As an aside, one frequent complaint of this book is the way Schuftan quotes so extensively from other sources – it’s almost like an oral history cobbled together from magazine articles and other assorted first-hand accounts. That aspect of the book doesn’t bother me at all. I actually highly enjoy this method of story-telling; there is no reason to re-write that which has already been said better by others. But with this style of writing comes an even greater responsibility to form strong opinions and organize one’s thoughts into consistent and coherent messages. Schuftan doesn’t do that to the extent I would have liked. Entertain Us is highly thought provoking, but doesn’t do the extra work of actually thinking itself. It is, however, a worthwhile read for a broad overview of the time – the sheer volume of compelling information (some of which I’ll hopefully retain) about 1990s music and culture is astounding – it’s gold – assuming you actually care about that sort of thing.