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September 27, 2017

Book Notes - David Friend "The Naughty Nineties"

The Naughty Nineties

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

David Friend's The Naughty Nineties is an impressive cultural history of the American '90s as seen through the lens of sex.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"A witty, comprehensively researched time capsule from an unforgettable age of excess, scandal, and sex."

In his own words, here is David Friend's Book Notes music playlist for his book The Naughty Nineties:

As I wrote The Naughty Nineties: The Triumph of the American Libido—a cultural, political, and sexual history of the Clinton years—I often relied on that decade’s audio track. Admittedly, I was informed by ’90s films (Thelma & Louise, Pulp Fiction, Boys N the Hood, The Big Lebowski, American Beauty), television (Seinfeld, Sex and the City, South Park), and books (Backlash, Iron John, and, yes, The Starr Report). Digital breakthroughs and platforms that emerged back then (The World Wide Web, AOL, The Drudge Report) were also close at hand. But I couldn’t have written the book without drawing from music’s memory bank.

Admittedly, there were a raft of songs in the 1990s that dripped with Eros, from Salt-N-Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex” to Missy Elliott’s “Sock It 2 Me,” from Marcy Playground’s “Sex and Candy,” to Kid Rock’s “Cowboy,” to the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s “Blood Sugar Sex Magik.” (Bizarro real-world factoid: Flea’s father drove our children’s school bus in suburban New Rochelle, New York.) Some songs of that period, in fact, are too steamy for this playlist. (Let’s rule out Li’l Kim’s “No Time” and 2 Live Crew’s “Pop That Coochie,” shall we?) And yet while I was writing the book, this was the ’90s soundtrack that helped shape the narrative on the page.

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, and Dave Grohl, 1991

“A mosquito/My libido…” No single track better captures the turbulent soul of America’s alienated youth in the 1990s than Nirvana’s unsettling anthem from Nevermind. With acidic irony, Cobain’s EveryGuy declares: “Here we are now, entertain us,” suggesting that the Great Unwashed had become a vast class of voyeurs—watchers, not doers. In terms of young male alienation and chronic self-doubt, three other ‘90s songs ranked up there: Nirvana’s “Lithium,” from 1991 (“I’m so ugly, but that’s okay, ’cause so are you”), Radiohead’s “Creep” from 1992 (“I’m a creep/I’m a weirdo”) and “Self Esteem,” from 1994, by Dexter Holland and The Offspring (“Now I know I’m being used/That’s okay, man, ’cause I like the abuse.”)

“Rebel Girl,” Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna, Billy Karren, Tobi Vail, and Kathi Wilcox, first performed 1991, released 1993

Bikini Kill and other punk-infused bands jump-started the riot grrrl movement and added vitality, virality, and urgency to what became known as Third Wave Feminism. “For a while,” writer and musician Sara Marcus recalls in her study of the riot grrrl scene, Girls to the Front, “no other music mattered [to me,] just that breastbone-shaking bass line and Kathleen Hanna’s voice singing with all the concentrated fury of a firehouse, ‘Dare you do what you want! Dare you be who you will!’” The song “Rebel Girl” distills that fury to its aural essence.

“Remember the Time” by Michael Jackson, 1991

For me, this track about nostalgia and lost romance has its own nostalgic force field. On assignment for Life magazine in the 1990s—before all the child-abuse cases were filed against Michael Jackson—photographer Harry Benson and I were the first print journalists allowed to profile him at his private California compound, Neverland Ranch—a Man-Child’s paradise with a petting zoo, steam-engine train, lush gardens, and a full-scale amusement park. At one point, I took a spin on one of the rides: a swinging, gravity-defying pirate ship gondola ride. And the surrounding loudspeakers were blasting out “Remember the Time,” as if to underscore the fact that that very moment was a fleeting instant of pure joy that, despite its childish glee, would somehow resonate well into my golden years.

“Baby Got Back,” Anthony Ray (Sir Mix-a-Lot), 1992

As I write in The Naughty Nineties: “Sir Mix-a-Lot had the nation’s No. 1 hit, distinguished by its propulsive beat and cheeky lyrics, ‘I like big butts and I cannot lie.’ Mix was branded a misogynist and a racist and a liberator. MTV, alarmed, would only air the song’s video in nocturnal rotation. But America was hooked. The track would become, in the view of’s Rob Kemp, ‘our national anthem of ass.’ Or as the A&R-man-producer-journalist Dan Charnas would say, ‘Mix was ‘the loudest voice for the cultural overthrow of the Euro-centric beauty aesthetic.’” Mix’s motivation? He was angry that women of color were being shortchanged—exemplified by ‘heroin-chic’ fashion shoots—as the arbiters of commerce, culture, and style seemed to be foisting lanky or waiflike women onto an increasingly diverse and dissatisfied consumer.

“F*ck and Run” by Liz Phair, 1993

“I can feel it in my bones/I’m gonna spend another year alone.” Phair’s Exile in Guyville album augured the emotional Ice Age that was beginning to calcify the mating game, stunting young people who were just aching for genuine connection. Her song “F*ck and Run” was released in 1993—the same year as the first Web browser—just as the culture was confronting chatrooms, “hooking up,” and Take Back the Night marches against date rape. How could a gal, trapped in Guyville, she asked, find “letters and sodas”—simple tried-and-true, heart-to-heart expressions of romance—when relationships seemed so freaking transactional and when sexual encounters, or violations, were so casual and cold, sometimes occurring woefully early in life (“Even when I was 12”)?

“Closer,” by Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails, 1994

This passage from the book says it all: “I am napping in my tent when I hear a howl. I can make out the words distinctly, ‘I want to f*ck you like an AN-I-MAL!’… Though muddled by dream and hangover, I awaken as the howl persists. I’m at Woodstock ’94 in Saugerties, New York, a three-day, mud-spattered gathering to mark the 25th anniversary (Boomer alert!) of the original Woodstock festival—the counterculture’s crowning hour. The lead singer is screeching now. The electronic hiss is unnerving. The lyrics too. ‘It’s Trent Reznor,’ says my companion…. Reznor seems to be asserting that sex on the primal level—hot monkey love—reinforces what we all are at root: animals in a single jungle. And perhaps it is our shared carnality that connects all living creatures, reinforcing our deeper, spiritual bonds. In looking back on that moment, I concede: rock has always been about sex, as jazz before it. But in Reznor’s splintering cry, rock had become sex.”

“Wannabe” by The Spice Girls with Matt Rowe and Richard Stannard, 1996

Madonna was the ’80s-and-’90s empowerment icon most responsible for busting gender norms, recalibrating women’s personal style, navigating the dynamics of sex and social interaction, insisting that individual women adopt true self-reliance and self-definition and, at the same time, disregard taboos to explore and express their sexual selves. But she is more identified with the ’80s. And I never really dug her music (or her voice) unless I was on the dancefloor and buzzed out of my gourd. For young girls in the ’90s, the more mainstream pop messengers of female empowerment—and for the cohesive force of sisterhood—were The Spice Girls, whose hit “Wannabee” counseled, “If you wanna be my lover/You gotta get with my friends.”

“Crocodile Man” by Dave Carter (Chris Smither's version), 1999

When singer-songwriter Dave Carter passed away in 2002, shock and gloom enveloped his family, friends, and fans. His album Tanglewood Tree, recorded in November of 1999, can still move me to tears. And one haunting, jarring track, “Crocodile Man,” sends chills down the spine. It captures the squirrelly soul of a sly, morally suspect trickster whose “mama knows exactly where her bad boy [had] been.” To my mind, Chris Smither's foot-tapping, trance-inducing take on Carter’s classic (from Smither's 2003 album Train Home) is the consummate rendition.

“Anything Goes” by Cole Porter, 1934

Just to put The Naughty Nineties in perspective, this classic from between the wars reminds us that at various stages in the culture (the 1890s, the 1920s and ’30s, the swinging ’60s and ’70s), songwriters have always found inspiration in how their libertine peers tested sexual limits. Writes Cole Porter: “Good authors too who once knew better words/Now only use four-letter words/Writing prose/Anything goes.”

And what are the alpha and omega tunes that, hands down, will immediately put you in the 1990s mood? Alpha: the Twin Peaks theme song, composed by Angelo Badalamenti, who won the 1990 Grammy for his instrumental milestone—a mesmerizing theme that echoes Twin Peaks creator David Lynch’s larger message: deep in the bedrock of every American city or town course forces more strange and dark than you can possibly imagine. Omega? The 1998 song that I would play most frequently to get jacked up about the book, the world, and this grand interlude called life: New Radicals’ “You Get What You Give.”

David Friend and The Naughty Nineties links:

the book's website
excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book

Globe and Mail review
Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review
TIME review

Chicago Magazine interview with the author
The Leonard Lopate Show interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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