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Book review: Craig Schuftan – ‘Entertain Us! The Rise And Fall Of Alternative Rock In The Nineties’

May 30, 2012

Craig SchuftanEntertain Us!: The Rise And Fall Of Alternative Rock In The Nineties. Available here.

As I pointed out in this review for The Thousands, Craig Schuftan’s new book about the rise and fall of nineties alt-rock, Entertain Us!, is one that (unlike many others before it) doesn’t just focus on the UK or the US. Other books and documentaries on this period perhaps overstate the competitiveness between those two nations, suggesting that Britpop was a direct reply to grunge, and that nu-metal was in turn America’s commercial fight back. Schuftan’s book points out that in reality the main rivalries throughout that decade were either between classes (Blur vs Oasis), tourmates (Marilyn Manson vs. Courtney Love) or differing ideologies (Billy Corgan vs. everyone else) – very few of them were transatlantic. The nationalistic, anti-Americanisation element of Britpop is of course acknowledged – particularly in Damon Albarn’s case, where he went as far as to insist Graham Coxon listen to Sonic Youth on his headphones in the tourbus so that he didn’t have to put up with any US music. But the book also makes plain that it seeks to find the similarities between records like Nevermind and Modern Life Is Rubbish, be it their congruent attitudes against the American dream, the disappointment at the failure of previous generations to make things better, or even their underappreciated grasp of irony.

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Indeed, those are three subjects that often crop up throughout this re-telling of the decade. Luckily they are approached with great thoughtfulness, as Schuftan is a writer able to make deep critical analysis of pop culture both accessible and readable, not to mention varied (as evidenced by his citations of Walter Benjamin, Naomi Klein and Beavis & Butthead). Therefore I welcome his take on such a culturally explosive decade, particularly considering how distant and bizarre it now feels. In my mind the successes of the nineties seem as incongruous and unlikely to be repeated as those of the sixties, and are made to feel even more extraordinary considering they occurred in a decade I’ve actually lived through. My recollections of that time are of unbelievably exciting records in the charts and on heavy rotation on TV, being made by clever  and considerate pop stars and discussed not just in broadsheets but in playgrounds and offices across the world. Take Nirvana for instance. They may now be treated as a familiar and comfortable part of rock’s coherent lineage, and have been ever since the success of Nevermind (as remarked on in the book, where a new Hard Rock Café has the words “Here we are now, entertain us” emblazoned above the entrance). But considering that Kurt was a wiry, paranoid feminist Vaselines fan with a crippling stomach condition and head full of worries, his role as the frontman of the biggest band in the world seems like a beautiful anomaly.

I’m pleased that a writer like Schuftan has decided to contextualise the decade in which something like that could have happened; what’s more, I’m glad that he’s been so anti-nostalgic about it. Many of the key players in this story were prompted to bring the counter-culture to the masses by hearing wistful baby-boomers endlessly recalling the sixties, saying that the Age Of Aquarius was a time when the sun shone every day and its glory would never be rivalled. Rather than accepting their parents’ view, the nineties kids asked why that generation failed in their aim to change the world for the better, and considered the aborted mission to create a united ‘alternative nation’ as unfinished business. In turn, Schuftan asks the same thing of the nineties’ rock icons. Why was this utopia never properly achieved? And, with so many bands claiming their aim was to take the underground to a wider audience, smuggling the voice of the disenfranchised into a mainstream conscience, how come they floundered and choked when they actually got the chance?

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Entertain Us!, like Simon Reynold’s Rip It Up And Start Again (perhaps the finest rock tome of recent years), is effectively a group of band biographies woven into a wider over-arching narrative, occasionally interspersed with sections on heroin chic or Guy Debord. However, by including year-by-year overviews and intertwining bands more often, Schuftan arguably tells the more compelling story. In some cases it would seem hard not to, considering nineties alt-rock’s catastrophic downfall from an idyllic, hopeful beginning. In 1990, with The Stone Roses making optimistic and defiant statements across the music press, organising the harmonious Spike Island gig and helping destroy the barrier between dance and rock, the future seemed bright. But the cracks began to show early, and warning signs that this encouraging generational camaraderie would be co-opted and cheapened by The Man for its own ends quickly appeared. For instance, Jesus Jones’ song about events in Eastern Europe, ‘Right Here Right Now’, was used on the Clinton campaign trail, while MTV used the fall of the Berlin Wall to help advertise new music videos. Around this point Schuftan remarks on Ian Brown’s attitude to the rock stars of the past, in particular Mick Jagger, encompassing it by saying: “Heroes let you down, but records last forever”. From that moment this seems to be the tone of the rest of the book, with the mood getting sourer with each year and ending with the bleakness and chaos of Woodstock ’99, with bands being taken to task for their mistakes and missteps along the way, and all punctuated by eulogizing about some truly great records.

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However, it is still the ‘fall’ part that seems to hold greater sway over this ‘rise and fall’ story. Everything troubling that occurs in this book seems to relate back to the problems of ‘selling out’, about the failure to coerce the underground to the overground without losing its principles and dignity along the way. The idea that this is even an issue is usually met with accusations of rockism and elitism, but it’s hard not to recognise it as the strand running through the book. Because while ‘selling out’ does encompass issues of commercialisation, the exposure of indie music and ideals to a wider world also involves questions of artistry, identity and interpretation by a mass audience. And this book is chock full of moments that make that plain. It can be seen when Stone Temple Pilots’ ‘Sex Type Thing’ is high-fived to by jocks and treated as a party anthem, even though the lyrics condemn the rape of a friend by football players at a high-school get-together. It can be seen when Nada Surf are confronted with having to play their hit ‘Popular’ in front of kids that would have made fun of them at school for MTV Beach House. It can be seen when Blur attempt to make a ‘difficult’ album to alienate and weed out casual fans, and it backfires when they accidentally write their biggest American hit. It can be seen when Richey Edwards carves ‘4 REAL’ into his arm, when Thom Yorke decides to limit his ‘lucrative’ vocals on Kid A, when Faith No More chuckle at the thought of annoying their San Fran peers by appearing on MTV. And it can be seen when both Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain were faced with having to fake the real emotion in their songs on demand and onstage every night. As we know, for one that ended with a taken life, and as Schuftan points out, Cobain’s death was not like those of other fallen rock stars like Joplin or Hendrix. Theirs was accidental death resulting from embracing rock and roll’s excesses too heavily; his was purposeful death from not being able to fulfil rock and roll’s demands without guilt. Having read Schuftan’s account of the incident and its reasons, it’s hard not to think of Cobain as a man who thought himself to death.

But this is a book that acknowledges that there are no easy answers to these issues. It raises questions of whether In Utero should have kept the harsh Steve Albini production intact, sure. But it also prompts questions of whether a movement like riot grrl should have aimed to reach a broader audience, so that its inherent feminist ideals could be promoted to the wider world (rather than just used as a way to sell clothes).

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As a parable on sudden unexpected mega-stardom, Entertain Us! demonstrates that there is an irresolvable absurdity of playing music promoting individuality to an audience that feels like an amorphous blob of indistinguishable humanity. Which basically makes it one of the more intelligent and thoughtful ways of reminding me to dig out Screamadelica and The Blue Album again.

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