Modern Rock: 7/27/1996

primitiveradiogodsrocketLooking back 20 years is kind of a funny thing. When I peruse the 1996 Billboard Alt-Rock Charts for my “Modern Rock” column, there are really two reactions I am prepared to have.

  1. Wow, this artist was popular 20 years ago, and still has a similar level of esteem today. It’s comforting that some things never change. For example, a casual glance at the Alt-Rock Charts reveals that Butthole Surfers, Oasis and Pearl Jam all had significant hits in that year. You still hear about these bands on occasion, depending on which circles you run with.
  2. I can’t believe what we, as a nation, though was acceptable merely 20 years ago. I’m glad we all woke up from this collective fever-dream. Nobody ever needs to hear this song again.

The general consensus from anyone who lives through a decade and sees it distilled down to its basic elements is that good songs have a way of sticking around, and bad songs have a way of dropping out of the zeitgeist. Your millage my vary on the objective quality of any given song, but I think it’s safe to say that there is a reason that only “Mississippi Queen” has stood the test of time from Mountain’s presumably massive back catalog. I would put actual money on the fact that none of the group’s other songs is nearly as good (and really, only the first 30 seconds of “Mississippi Queen are all that great).

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But that’s an assumption. There are plenty of artists that have never gotten mainstream appreciation, yet are enormously influential and critically adored. That’s essentially what “indie” music is. In this way, Billboard’s Alternative Charts become a weird paradox. Billboard purports to tell us the most popular songs each week from a genre that, by definition, represents an alternative to the mainstream. At what point do these groups cease to be “alternative”? Certain parties will tell you that after 1991 (the supposed year that punk “broke”), there was no more underground scene to speak of, as bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam paved the way for a major-label raiding of the hardcore and grunge scene.

So when we look at a group that was on the Alt Charts for a week or so, then vanished from public consciousness forever, how do we know that this group is a “One Hit Wonder” in the traditional sense? Wasn’t the alternative list of the 90’s (alive in spirit through college radio) sort of a document of banks that briefly broke big and then went right back to their comfortable indie life? If you picture the underground rock community as a large school of fish, some of these fish will briefly come to the surface, if only to catch insects and such. A listing of popular alternative music, especially in the 1990’s, is a document of all those brief trips to the surface. Some fish like it at the surface and try to go back as often as possible, Some prefer to stay underwater. But (and this is key) the indie community is the only place where an artist can make a brief splash and graze something resembling popularity and then go back to the original state without being branded a “one hit wonder.” The pop charts are far more merciless, probably because there isn’t really an established underground pop scene, and there is nowhere for the former pop star to hone their skills, so to speak.

So should we be more forgiving of forgotten groups because they’re on the alternative rock charts? After all, there are plenty of groups with well-established fan bases that have only had one technical “hit.” Pavement is a good example. So is Sonic Youth. Nobody would accuse Pavement of being one-hit-wonders because the only song that has crossed over to the mainstream is “Cut Your Hair.”

It is with question in mind that I approach “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in My Hand,” by Primitive Radio Gods. Most of you have probably heard it, though nobody remembers it by name.

My opinion of the song, both upon its release and today, is that it’s a really good tune that expertly combines elements of rock and hip-hop, while sustaining an appealing and wistful energy throughout its run time. Listening to this song, you can definitely see why it was a hit at the time. Really, it could be a hit right now. Nothing about it seems dated, especially compared to other artists on the Alt List (Silverchair, anyone?).

When the people who control the Internet right now are marketing every element of the 90’s to desperately nostalgic and unhappy millenials, this song rarely warrants a mention, often in favor of objectively lesser entertainments (Hanson, Pogs, etc). It almost seems like this is the one item that didn’t get stuck in the vast netting of the 90’s revival. That fact alone is kind of impressive, if nothing else.

Rather than asking why Primitive Radio Gods didn’t have another hit, I want to explore the question of how we should treat the one hit they did have. Is it with the general disdain that we reserve for artists like Gerardo and the Spin Doctors, or is it with the careful reverence that we show for groups like Radiohead? That’s really what I’m trying to explore.

What do you guys think? 20 years later, how forgiving should we be toward the artist? When a pop artist fails, we blame the artist, but when an indie artist doesn’t catch on, we tend to blame the general public for poor taste. Is this fair? Let me know in the comments!




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