It’s been twenty years since the United States invaded Iraq, a key moment of the last two decades. During the lead-up to war, there were controversies over opinions on the war and support for the military. In this episode, I take a look at two of the more well-known of those controversies: “Freedom Fries” in reaction to France’s opposition to the war, and The Chicks’ comments about President George W. Bush.
Content Note: Politics are discussed and my political views are voiced. Listener discretion is advised.
It was generic. It was kind of lame. And it was everywhere. From the late 1970s until the late 1980s, “Corporate Rock” ruled the airwaves. But what, exactly, was “Corporate Rock”? Join me as I plumb the depths of middling rock radio with a playlist of mid-tempo rockers, power ballads, and the ultimate Corporate Rock song.
It’s the fifth episode of a six-part miniseries that examines the books, movies, music, comics, and other popular culture that directly addresses or is about the attacks of September 11, 2001. In this episode, I look at music, covering the music that was popular on the charts in September 2001, songs that had a resurgence because of the patriotism following 9/11, the infamous Clear Channel “don’t play” list, and songs written in response to 9/11. These include pieces by Alan Jackson, Tori Amos, the Beastie Boys, and a lengthy review of Bruce Springsteen’s album The Rising.
A quick content warning: Though these events are now 20 years in the past, they are still traumatizing to many, and I also discuss some of my personal feelings and views, so listener discretion is advised.
In 1996, the Sayville, NY-based punk band Wasted Time released their only album, “When It Was Fun.” To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the CD’s release, I’m interviewing the lead singer (and one of my oldest friends), Chris Lynam. We talk about the Long Island music scene of the mid-’90s, what made him want to play music, the band’s history, and the music he’s making now.
It’s time for another trip down the rabbit hole that is the music of my formative years! This time around, I’m taking a look at B-sides and rarities that are some of my favorites or marked an important moment in my time as a music fan or collector. You’ll hear me talk about scrounging record stores for “import” CDs, years of random rarities put on mix tapes, and why songs by Metallica, Nine Inch Nails, Bruce Springsteen, and even Ben Folds Five are important to my musical tastes.
I have a battered and bookmarked copy of the tenth edition An Introduction to Poetry by X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia on my classroom bookshelf that I use for reference in planning my AP Literature poetry units each year. It’s one of those textbook-meets-anthology books that English teachers like myself seem to collect throughout the decades of their careers, and I’ve found this one to be especially helpful because of the way that the authors take us through the genre and its forms via the lens of various literary devices. When the reference dialect, one of my favorites to teach*, they include an excerpt from “Auld Lang Syne” as an example of how a poem written in a particular English dialect sounds richer when read using those words, pointing out that “auld lang syne” when translated into standard English would mean “old long since”, which doesn’t have the same ring to it.
The song, which is credited to Robert Burns in 1788, is an indelible piece of our popular culture and the traditional soundtrack to midnight on January 1. Burns gets credit for a number of the verses, but he is quoted as giving credit to the tradition of passing down folk music, saying that quite a bit of the inspiration from the song came from “an old song, one of the olden tunes, and which has never been in print, or even in manuscript until I took it down from an old man.” In fact, Burns also references a poem by James Watson from around 1711, and when it is all put together, we get these lyrics (courtesy of Scotland’s official website)**:
Should auld acquaintance be forgot, And never brought to mind? Should auld acquaintance be forgot, And auld lang syne.
Chorus: For auld lang syne, my jo, For auld lang syne, We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet, For auld lang syne,
And surely ye’ll be your pint-stowp! And surely I’ll be mine! And we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet, For auld lang syne.
We twa hae run about the braes And pu’d the gowans fine; But we’ve wander’d mony a weary foot Sin auld lang syne.
We twa hae paidl’d i’ the burn, Frae mornin’ sun till dine; But seas between us braid hae roar’d Sin auld lang syne.
And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere! And gie’s a hand o’ thine! And we’ll tak a right guid willy waught, For auld lang syne.
Should old acquaintance be forgot, And never brought to mind? Should old acquaintance be forgot, And long, long ago.
And for long, long ago, my dear For long, long ago, We’ll take a cup of kindness yet, For long, long ago And surely youll buy your pint-jug! And surely I’ll buy mine! And we’ll take a cup of kindness yet, For long, long ago. Chorus
We two have run about the hills And pulled the daisies fine; But we’ve wandered manys the weary foot Since long, long ago.
We two have paddled in the stream, From morning sun till dine; But seas between us broad have roared Since long, long ago.
And there’s a hand, my trusty friend! And give us a hand of yours! And we’ll take a deep draught of good-will For long, long ago.
I included the song’s lyrics in their entirety here because like a number of older songs that are traditionally sung, we tend to forget or neglect that they’re much longer than we realize. Also important to note is that the tune of the song was not Burns’ composition but was a traditional Scottish folk tune–in other words, the lyrics were just put to music, even if that was not Burns’ intended tune.*** The tradition of singing it to celebrate the new year began in Scotland, and Scots have a particular ritual of sorts to go along with it:
It has long been a much-loved Scottish tradition to sing the song just before midnight. Everyone stands in a circle holding hands, then at the beginning of the final verse (‘And there’s a hand my trusty friend’) they cross their arms across their bodies so that their left hand is holding the hand of the person on their right, and their right hand holds that of the person on their left. When the song ends, everyone rushes to the middle, still holding hands, and probably giggling.
With the phrase meaning “for old time’s sake” and intended to be sung at the end of a long night of celebrating, “Auld Lang Syne” winds up being a perfect drinking song about friendship. When you sing it to someone or with someone, you are connecting with them across the years and honoring what you’ve shared. And that first verse being a rhetorical question is key, especially with New Year’s Day wiping away the past and in some cases saying good riddance. So we wind up having to ask ourselves “Do we really want to get rid of everything?” Then we look at all we’ve done in the past and decide that we will drink to our friendship for old time’s sake.****
Now, I’m a fan of traditional drinking songs and have been so since I discovered Great Big Sea in the late Nineties. But many of those songs tend to be upbeat and rowdy, the party having to come to you for a few minutes. “Auld Lang Syne” is appropriate for midnigth when you are more than a few in and clinging to whatever second or third wind you’ve gotten.***** And it’s sentimental, a folk song version of “The real treasure was the friends we made along the way.” No wonder it’s sung at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life.
Funny enough, this year seemed like a reckoning more than anything, so “Auld Lang Syne” is less sentimental and more of a cling to hope. Or maybe it’s a positive reminder. Singing a song where you ask yourself “Are you going to forget your old friends?” at the end of a very tough year does help you put things into perspective, even if the question is rhetorical and you’re actually supposed to answer “No. Of course I won’t forget them.”
As I contemplate this question at the end of the end of 2020, there are those people whom I can’t forget and wish were with me to celebrate ringing out this stressful, tough year. And yet, there are also those old acquaintances I should forget. Not that they weren’t really friends to begin with or anything (that’s too simple of a way of thinking, to be honest). People change, circumstances reveal things, or you just grow apart. So, sometimes the real treasure is the friends you lost along the way. I don’t want to get into too much about how tough this year was, especially since we can all offer up our particular 2020 stories, except to say that there were moments in the year that were revealing and while some of them still hurt in a way, they’re moments I am grateful for.
I continue to be grateful for them and am grateful that I can head into 2021 with a glimmer of hope, because I need to say something other than complaining about what a shit year it’s been. It’s not being a Pollyanna; I just think contributing something more positive is important. Consider my cup of kindness raised to those who I’d like to remember and my best wishes for a happy, healthy new year.
*It’s really only one of my favorites to teach because I can whip out a flawless Long Island accent that always amuses my class.
**It’s not hard to see someone’s twenty-post Twitter thread about Robert Burns being a plagiarist and how this somehow ties into classist oppression.
***This is also true of another song that is commonly sung in America, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
****Unless, of course, you’re Dan Fogelberg. Then it’s a lover.
*****Or, if you’re me, you wake up because you fell asleep in the big chair at around 9:30.
In 1990, David Fincher directed one of the most iconic videos of all time, “Freedom ’90” by George Michael. The video featured five supermodels lip synching the song and was a literally explosive deconstruction of the image he had created in his 1987 solo debut, “Faith.” So, on the video’s thirtieth anniversary, Amanda and I sit down to talk about George Michael and his music, do a video commentary, and then segue into a discussion about fashion in the early Nineties.
This time around, I’m back to looking at my history with music by going deep into the early 1990s and my early teens, recollecting those nights I spent in my room listening to the radio and rushing to hit record so that I wouldn’t have to wait for the station to play that Brian May song. I talk about the stations I grew up listening to, the tapes I made, my unfortunate music choices, and how I learned about what was popular (and what wasn’t) before I finally got my own CD player.
So the picture above isn’t of my exact radio, but it is the radio I owned and used to tape all of those songs. It’s the Sony CFS-230 cassette-corder boombox. I got this for either my birthday or Christmas sometime in the late 1980s and it was eventually replaced with a cassette/CD player that I received for my fifteenth birthday.
And here is the Spotify playlist that includes the songs I featured in the episode. Enjoy!
It’s the end of 2019, so I think that every publication has been doing some sort of “End of the Decade” or “Best of the Decade” article during the last few weeks. Even some of my friends have been making lists of their favorite pieces of popular culture from the past decade. Meanwhile, I and a number of people who have settled into oncoming middle age have been legitimately surprised that we are on the precipice of another ten-year period. I mean, I am able to do the math, but it still feels like 1999 was ten years ago.
Anyway, rather than lament that I pretty much missed an entire decade because I was adulting or becoming more lame or something of that nature, I thought I would try and remember what it was like to ring in 1990, which was the first time I remember a new decade coming into being (I had been all of two years old when 1979 became 1980, so I don’t remember any of that). At the time, I was twelve and in junior high school, so I probably didn’t do much in terms of actual celebrating during New Year’s Eve. More than likely, I spent the evening at my grandmother’s while my parents went to their friends’ party, and at some point or another I listened to all 106 songs of 106.1 WBLI’s end-of-the-year countdown. I may have even made a list–I was really into cataloguing stuff like that back then. So the memories, at best, are spotty.
I remember feeling that 1990 was going to be a big year. It’s probably because the dawn of the Nineties coincided with my transition to junior high school and teenagedom, and when you have one foot in childhood and another foot in the quasi-adult world, everything can feel like some sort of benchmark or milestone. I was also watching way too much TV back then and there that feeling of the next decade being some how markedly different was a pretty common message.
I wish I would have been able to find articles, shows, features, or even commercials that reflected this, but the prepositional phrase that seemed to permeate so much of what I read, saw, and heard, was “…of the ’90s.” Even in 1989, it was code for less frivolity and more substance in your life. Granted, that would become a pretty harsh reality for a number of people within seven months of the new year when the recession that would last until 1992 took hold, but we were more or less being told that we had to take things more seriously.
An image from the “Foreclose on a Yuppie Contest” promo where the cool guy in the leather jacket and jeans gets the douchebag yuppie’s money.
MTV, which had latched onto and helped define youth culture throughout the Eighties, even got in on this, sponsoring a contest called “Foreclose on a Yuppie”, which had a decidedly non-yuppie-looking guy getting into the apartment of a typical ’80s douchebag and taking all of his stuff, then making the douchebag yuppie his butler. The prize was $50,000 and a BMW.* But nothing is that simple, especially considering that throughout late 1989, MTV was still airing NKOTB and hair metal in heavy rotation and they gave more exposure to lighter, poppier rap/hip-hop acts like Ton Loc and Young MC than harder-edged stuff. In fact, as the Eighties closed, we still hadn’t seen MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice release their biggest singles.
But MTV would make sure it was showcasing the ‘now” as much as possible as 1989 ended by airing The Dawn of the Decade House Party at the Palladium in New York City. Airing live on December 31, 1989 (naturally), it used a setting familiar to viewers, as the Palladium was where the station’s daily dance show, Club MTV, was filmed; and the channel’s veejays and hosts at the time were the emcees. These included Club MTV host and all-around late-1980s MTV icon Downtown JUlie Brown, Remote Control host Ken Ober, veejay Kevin Seal, veejay and Headbanger’s Ball host Adam Curry, Yo! MTV Raps host Fab 5 Freddy, and MTV’s Half Hour Comedy Hour host Mario Joyner.
I only know of this show’s existence thanks to YouTube, where someone uploaded the entire special, including commercials, and my train of thought was, “Oh wow, I can see how people rang in the Nineties and it’ll be this great time capsule of the era and it’ll be so different than what I’m used to seeing on New Year’s Eve!”
Well, part of that is true because what you get in this house party is basically a two-hour special that is New Year’s Rockin’ Eve with just the performances and no Times Square ball drop. Now, I’m sure that there are people who absolutely love NYRE and crack up at the antics of Jenny McCarthy’s street-level interviews and dance in their living rooms to yet another performance from Pitbull or the Black-Eyed Peas, but in recent years, I’ve found that this is something you endure until midnight rather than look forward to. MTV’s Dawn of the Decade House Party wasn’t much of an upgrade, either.
On paper, it looks way more appealing than ABC’s programming. Excepting Clark, who was live in New York, NYRE ’90’s pre-taped Hollywood segments were hosted by Kirk Cameron and Lori Loughlin and featured performances by Michael Damian, Martika, Expose, and Dion**. MTV had the B-52’s, Young MC, Richard Marx, Neneh Cherry, Living Colour, and Lenny Kravitz, so they definitely had the edge when it came to cool. Granted, I’m not the best arbiter of cool, but I would take Living Colour belting out “Cult of Personality” rather than Michael Damian’s cover of “Rock On.” The show also ran through the top five videos of the year, which the show prior had led into with the other 95 videos of the year, so while we didn’t get to see Madonna perform, we got to see some of her video for “Like a Prayer”.***
So, considering the show was basically a “cooler” version of NYRE, would it have been worthwhile alternative programming? Assuming it was aired live, if you were actually in the audience, I think that it would have been something to brag about, if your friends cared about those things. Being twelve at the time and not having access to the channel (or such parties), MTV had the allure of looking in on the cooler older kids. I never emulated them by getting into the blazer with turtlenecks and Cavariccis or the huge cardigan with a turtleneck and Cavariccis or the sweater vest with a turtleneck and Cavariccis, though.
Neneh Cherry performs “Buffalo Stance.” Her outfit consisted of a Han Solo on Hoth parka over a bra. I don’t know how comfortable that would have been considering the club was probably pretty hot.
Anyway, the hosts do a capable job for the show’s two hours and probably did some partying themselves****, and the acts feel very “in the moment” of that time. The B-52’s are in the prime spot, on the stage for the countdown to midnight and then ringing in 1990 with a New Year’s version of The Beatles’ “Happy Birthday” followed by “Love Shack,” a song I keep telling myself that I don’t like but then sing along to whenever I hear it. Young MC does “Bust a Move”, of course, and all I the highlight of Neneh Cherry’s performance is that she was singing to a tape (as has been and is still done on TV) and kept singing after the tape ended. Even though the rock acts–Marx and Living Colour–give some really solid performances–it all seems so normal for a channel that prided itself on smacking down those norms*****.
This wound up being the general problem that MTV would have for the next couple of years as it tried to find its footing in the early 1990s. Throughout the show, there are advertisements for something called “MTV Part 2: A New Beginning”, which isn’t a show or a channel as much as M2/MTV 2, but a slate of programming that would include Unplugged and Liquid Television. And I only know this based on the short clips in the ads along with thirty years of hindsight. I’m not sure if I would have found any of it enticing back then, because anything called “… Part 2” sounded like it was not going to be worth the price of admission.
New year, new decade, new block of programming. Part 2: A New Beginning doesn’t sound very promising.
The decade would take a little while to become “The Nineties”, and we’d have an Eighties hangover for a couple of years. Even so, there is such a difference between the early and later parts of the decade that it is hard to define in simple ways. The people who put together MTV’s show at the Palladium weren’t thinking about any of this and were probably just looking to throw a cool party that hopefully skimmed some of the ratings off of Dick Clark’s stalwart of a show. But they inadvertently provided us with a snapshot of the decade-to-decade transition we were about to go through. Lenny Kravitz closes the show. This was a few years before “Are You Gonna Go My Way”, so his closing slot was the dead one–most people watching the show had probably already gone to bed. He finishes his set with “Let Love Rule”, a song that has its roots in the Sixties but with its stripped down aesthetic is less slick than Whitesnake or Motley Crue. Of all the songs I heard and all the moments I saw, this last one felt the most Nineties.
This embodies “transitional.” The saxophone is very 1980s while Kravitz would go on to be one of the biggest mainstream rock acts of the 1990s.
* In a look back at crazy MTV contests of the 1980s, Rolling Stone said that according to the Chicago Tribune, the winner of the contest, 23-year-old John Rogers, crashed the BMW and his resulting partial paralysis led to him spending most of the cash winnings on medical expenses.
**Yes, as in 1950s frontman of The Belmonts. According to Wikipedia, he had a comeback album in 1989 that was well-received.
*** The clips were cut to make room for the live show, so we got a little bit of each. The other four, starting from the bottom, were “Won’t Back Down” by Tom Petty, “Straight Up” by Paula Abdul, “Cult of Personality” by Living Colour, and “She Drives Me Crazy” by Fine Young Cannibals.
****The look on Adam Curry’s face is that of a designated driver, or at least someone who had to stay sober enough to be the last veejay standing around 1:00 a.m. when he announced Lenny Kravitz.
*****Marx finished his set with “Edge of a Broken Heart”, which was a hit by all-woman heavy metal group Vixen. I then did some googling and learned that he wrote the song for them in the late 1980s.
It’s been derided as one of the worst Billy Joel songs ever written, maybe even one of the worst ever, and when Christopher Bonanos of Vulture put it second to last in a comprehensive list of all of his songs*, he called it, “The biggest problem for the Billy Joel apologist, because it is so highly popular and inescapably bad.” But for me, a “We Didn’t Start The Fire” is important—while Billy Joel was inadvertently summarizing the entire Cold War in three minutes, I was taking my first steps into the world of collecting music.
Released on September 27, 1989, the song, which was the first single off of Storm Front, topped the Billboard Hot 100 for the weeks of December 9 and 16 of that year and came on the heels of his monstrous 1980s grand slam of An Innocent Man, Greatest Hits Volume I & II**, The Bridge, and the Russia tour. That prior success and the chart-topping first single helped Storm Front go quadruple platinum, outselling his prior studio album, something that’s impressive for what is half of a good album, although the singles, especially “The Downeaster Alexa”, “I Go to Extremes”, and “And So It Goes” have gotten many a replay over the years.
Of course, “We Didn’t Start the Fire” overshadows all of those. Its verses are laundry lists of events and people from his then forty years, which Bonanos trashes by saying, “So much is wrong here: boomer-generation narcissism, the tri-state area-news myopia (‘hypodermics on the shore?’ ‘Bernie Goetz’?), the iffy rhymes (‘James Dean’ with ‘winning team’ and many others), the double mention of the Dodgers.” But the appeal was the challenge of memorizing every single reference, which while not as tough as, say, “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” by R.E.M., was still a task, especially since Joel was not known for his ability to enunciate and it was years before I realized that “Dien Bien Phu falls” was not prnounced “Din din foo falls.”
To do so, I would need a copy of the song and while I was content to wait until I heard it on the radio and had a tape ready to record, but fate intervened in the form of Saturday Night Live and my junior high school.
In late September, NBC aired a huge prime-time special to celebrate SNL’s 15th Anniversary (which I covered in episode 45 of the podcast). It was, as these shows tend to be, a huge retrospective of the characters, comedians, guests, and sketches from the show’s history, and just about everyone in my grade wound up watching it, or at least that is what I could tell from the number of times we repeated lines in class for weeks after. This ultimately led to the last time I ever really dressed up for Halloween—my friend Rich and I wore gray sweatpants and sweatshirts and weight belts and went as Hans and Franz.
The costumes were a hit and we won “Funniest costume”*** and a $25 gift certificate to Record World, a record store in the Sun Vet Mall that even in 1989, when mall record and tape stores were still important destinations for teenagers, seemed like a relic of the decade before. The décor was deep brown shelving with gold carpeting that might have at one time held years’ worth of nicotine tar. The cassettes were locked behind glass cases, and the disaffected employees working the register stood in a perch, nearly inapproachable. Think Empire Records, but with paneling. Rich and I walked in and almost immediately saw the cassingle for “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, snatched it up, and then grabbed other tapes we were interested in. I can’t remember what else we got, but the minute I got home, that cassingle of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” went into constant rotation on the boom box with its partially broken antenna that sat on my bedroom dresser.
Later that winter, Rich and I, along with my sister, would set my parents’ camcorder up on the washing machine and record a music video of us lip syncing the song, using the mallets of a croquet set as guitars and microphones, which is something we’d been doing for a while****. And while my peers and I had no context for the majority of the song, we belted out the lyrics and many of us had to research them.
Now, I was never asked to do a research project on one of the song’s many allusions, but more than a few of my friends were, and it’s even Bonanos writes that he didn’t place the song last in the list because it made him learn something. I’m pretty sure that Joel didn’t intend to hand junior high teachers a lesson plan, but he did and even to this day, you can find online lessons available. Most of them haven’t changed much in 30 years—I don’t care if you add multimedia, you’re still looking up a song lyric and doing research. So whereas Boomers could wax nostalgic, their kids could be forced to learn about all of the important things in their generation’s lifetime. And for a generation as notoriously narcissistic as the Baby Boomers, “We Didn’t Start The Fire” was perfect fuel for the nostalgia that had been started by American Graffiti, ramped up with The Big Chill, and was chugging along with The Wonder Years.
Over the years, Joel has been asked about adding extra verses to the song but has declined, which I can respect, because he doesn’t need to. Future generations can take it upon themselves to follow it up, like Matchbox 20 did with “How Far We’ve Come”, a Gen-X spiritual sequel that has a similar sound (superimpose the final verse of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” over the song’s bridge, it fits perfectly) and a video that is flashes of events from the late 20th and early 21st Centuries. And I guess it’s appropriate that a band whose Greatest Hits album is called Exile on Mainstream is paying tribute to an artist who practically defined mainstream during their youth.
“We Didn’t Start the Fire” was the first cassingle I ever bought. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was a watershed moment. Up until that point tapes were something I flipped through as TSS while my mom was shopping***** and I only had the few that I put on birthday and Christmas lists–Thriller; Born in the U.S.A. (which I wore out and had to replace); and the soundtracks to Footloose, Over the Top, The Karate Kid Part II, and Top Gun. Songs were something I heard on the radio and taped onto a blank cassette. As I made my way through junior high and then into high school, I’d start a music collection. And while my taste could be–and has often been–called into question, to this day I will still loudly proclaim, “Rock and roller cola wars, I can’t take it anymore!”
* Last on the list was “The Mexican Connection”, a piano instrumental off of Streetlife Serenade that isn’t bad per se but is certainly a very deep cut.
** At some point in the mid-1980s, just about every household on Long Island was issued a cassette copy of Greatest Hits I & II and I can imagine those cassette copies of the album circulate in the area’s garage sales like currency.
*** I remember someone yelling at me that it wasn’t fair because the prize was supposed to some guy named Emil who dressed in a toga and I honestly don’t remember why he didn’t get it but it just sticks out at one of many “You didn’t deserve this, loser” moments from my formative years.
**** A video that no longer exists because I threw the tape away years ago.
*****When I wasn’t staring at Samantha Fox posters.