Craig Schuftan: “The ’90s were a terrible disappointment at the time”
If you’re a person that likes to think about music; about the cultural and musical context your favourite album was conceived in, about the complexity of the artistic landscape that gave birth to post-punk and Britpop, about how Nirvana speaks the same language as William Wordsworth; people like Craig Schuftan are a godsend.
This is a man who has had his finger on the pulse of art and music culture probably since he sat listening to grainy transmissions of the American Top 40 in the early 80s. Schuftan has presented triple j’s art and culture program The Culture Club since 2001; guest-curated the Powerhouse Museum’s The 80s Are Back exhibition in 2009; and, since 2007, has written three books on the complex intersections of artistic and cultural movements, explaining age-old mysteries like why your dad doesn’t like rap music and how emos are epic poets at heart.
His latest book, Entertain Us! The Rise and Fall of Alternative Rock in the 90s, is an exploration of the landscape of 90s alt-rockers; what made them angry, what inspired them, and how they grew up.
Where did Entertain Us! come from? Was it a natural progression from your retrospective look at the ‘80s and the ‘80s revival?
Yeah, it was partly to do with that. I remember coming up with the idea for a book about the ‘90s because of my last book. There’s quite a lot in there about Weezer and the Smashing Pumpkins, and in the process of researching and writing it I got really interested in the history of those bands and the context they arrived in, you know, the culture that produced them. And then I got a call out of the blue from Powerhouse Museum asking me to curate an exhibition about the ‘80s, and I thought, wrong decade! [Laughs] But it was actually good in two ways; first of all, to understand how the ‘90s balanced out the ‘80s – It was great preparation in that sense because so much of the music at the start of that decade was a reaction to things like ‘80s metal, and it was really good to get a sense of why that stuff was the way it was – and it was also good to get a sense of why it was necessary for there to be some kind of alternative to Michael Jackson and Madonna. So looking at that decade kind of outlined what was to come later. It also got me thinking about the culture industry and the process of the bringing of a decade or the legacy of a decade.
So in light of that idea that bands react to their cultural and musical context, do you think there’s anything to [music critic] Simon Reynolds’ philosophy that music should be perpetually trying to break free from the past, and that the notion of ‘retromania’ – relying too much or being too nostalgic about music and pop culture from the past – is negative? I was wondering how you think post-’90s musicians have responded to ‘90s music. Has it managed to break free from it as well as borrow from and expand on it, or are these two things the same anyway?
I think so. I can’t remember where this quote comes from, but there’s a little phrase that’s always stuck in my head, which is, ‘Every art movement has a good father and a bad father’, like the father you like or learn from and the father you want to kill, and I think that’s probably true. I know it was certainly true of grunge. For bands like Pearl Jam, their immediate predecessor that they wanted to destroy was lame metal and what they saw as the corporatisation of metal, but then there was a good father as well, going back to bands like Black Sabbath or Led Zeppelin.
Every art movement has a good father and a bad father
So that’s why I worry a bit about that whole philosophy of revolt, because you’re always pushing against something but also claiming or relearning or reconnecting to the past. No one is really ever starting from scratch. But I guess towards the end of the ‘90s there was a bit of a reaction to alternative rock… I mean, what it’s revolution represented was a desire for reality, you know, no dressing up, no fantasy, but an emphasis on real life, real problems. They were the reasons why it was touted as an improvement. But pretty quickly that became a kind of straight jacket; it was good in that it threw out all the stuff that had become unnecessary and boring, which allowed it to explore new territory, but it also created a new set of rules, which, in their own way, were quite restrictive. And you could tell, even as early as ‘97 or ‘98, Pearl Jam had this desire for spectacle.
There’s also a great Triple J interview with Hole in 1999, just after Celebrity Skin came out, where Courtney Love was asked about songs that changed her life and she said Guns ‘N’ Roses’ Sweet Child O’ Mine, which raised a lot of questions, you know, and she said, ‘It’s weird for me to think about because in 1987, all I wanted to do was fuck this band up’, you know, they were the enemy, but she says, now, there was something interesting about them, they had destroyed them, but there was something in them now.
What do you think were the greatest musical transitions in the ‘90s, then, in terms of the cultural history of music? Probably the first thing that comes to mind for me is grunge, and Britpop as a reaction to that perhaps, but what are the most significant transitions within the decade as you see it?
Well I guess there were a lot of significant transitions and there were a lot of actions and reactions that affected the cultural landscape. I think Beck’s Odelay is a great example of this. I think of it as an important transitional album of the ‘90s because it’s the first time a white, indie rock, or alternative rock artist really absorbed some of the more formal innovations of hip hop.
When I say that, I know there were songs and albums and bands that used elements of hip hop style, particularly rap style – earlier in the decade there was the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Faith No More’s Epic and things like that – but essentially when white alternative bands took on hip hop they almost thought the white rock contribution to rap music would be to add ‘real’ instruments. The nice thing about Odelay is that it used what turned out to be the more important aspect of hip hop in the 90s which was the sampling, that way of constructing music, which was something totally new and which really hadn’t been incorporated into rock music much up until that point.
Odelay is a really dramatic turn-around, and the real reason was that it really suited what Beck had to say. It was all about disorientation; it followed the experience of him playing Lollapalooza in 1995 and playing to all these audiences that heard Loser on MTV and wanted to hear him play it again, and he found it a very alienating experience, as it was for a lot of people in that situation. He said he really did want to connect with his audiences; he felt that they had come to him for something important and he had something important to say to them, but there was this terrible kind of gap between them.
That’s why that album is so fragmented; it’s fun but it’s really confusing, it’s full of all these really odd juxtapositions where styles appear that are totally unrelated but they’re just kind of slammed into each other with these really brutal edits. So I think of Odelay as a bit of a crossroads in that sense, but then the whole story of that decade is about things sort of fragmenting and merging all the time, you know. The whole idea of ‘rock music’ was fragmenting into all these tiny little subgenres all through the decade; all of these things were cross-pollinating with each other. In some ways it was frustrating because it felt like things were separating all the time. More and more it felt like it was hard to find consensus about what everybody would like; in fact Nirvana was the last time that that could be said to have happened.