FROM POWELLS.COM

 

Milk It!: Collected Musings on the Alternative Explosion & the Music of the 90s
by  Jim Derogatis


A Review by Gerry Donaghy

When Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" began blaring from radios in the early 1990s, it signaled a seismic change in America's musical taste. Finally American teenagers could stop washing their hair and wear flannel even if they weren't lumberjacks. It was a beautiful time of liberation, we were seeing the light at the end of the dark tunnel that was Bush -the -Elder's administration and on the verge of electing a cheeseburger-loving hillbilly who wasn't too ashamed to play his saxophone on television. We thought we could change the world.

Just when we thought we had it all sewn up, the focal point of this movement, Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, decided that he'd rather redecorate his greenhouse with his brains than see his songs used to sell tampons or floor wax. The movement lost its direction and failed to maintain unity in the face of a thousand musical imposters. His widow, Courtney Love, was christened the next Yoko Ono and history began to repeat itself. Another Bush in the White House, another war in Iraq... these times are far from a-changing.

If you look back on the '90s that way (and sometimes I do), than you're missing most of the picture. Yes, Nirvana can be held responsible for the creation of the silly yet easily-marketed format of "alternative music," but they also created a very short-lived belle epoque of music diversity. Or, at least it was different from what was being played in the prior decade. In the scramble to avoid missing the next big thing, record labels threw money hand over fist to any white musician with a goatee and a Social Security number. And like any mass movement, there were a few diamonds to be unearthed amongst the hubris.

Rock journalist Jim DeRogatis spent most of his professional career covering these acts and lived to tell about it. In Milk It!, he collects his best essays as a testament to a movement that produced some really beautiful moments, but, while significant, ultimately had to burn out as every other movement before and after it.

The tragedy of most rock writing these days is that it is written to be read quickly. It's no wonder fewer people are buying magazines like Rolling Stone and Spin. All you have to do is pick it up, look and see how the record was rated in terms of stars and find the line or two in the review that justifies your purchase or shunning of a piece of music. No need to take it home, especially if they are on their third profile of Britney Spears in a single year. It's designed to sell music, not talk about it.

Thankfully, Dero, as he is affectionately known, avoids this trap. He's pretty free and quick with his opinions, and doesn't care who gets hurt. But he's not in it for cruel kicks. He doesn't live to expose tone-deaf hacks, but that doesn't mean that he doesn't have fun with them. And he has a bullshit detector that has withstood the test of time. We are discussing, after all, a guy who got fired from a pretty posh gig at Rolling Stone for daring to pan a Hootie and the Blowfish record in print.

Whatever you thought of the whole grunge movement, there was more to music in the '90s than Nirvana and their legion of clones. Dero devotes a lot of ink to bands that could have been the next big thing (Urge Overkill, Elastica, and Material Issue), but fizzled out in the dark shadow of radio indifference. And, at the risk of getting too personal here, the fact that he has an essay on Julian Cope, easily one of the most talented, creative, and overlooked musicians of the last twenty years, should get Dero nominated for sainthood.

Jim DeRogatis isn't a music writer with the manic disposition of Lester Bangs, and he isn't a writer of the frequently interesting, yet often pompous, scholarship of Greil Marcus. He's a rock everyman who panders to neither his audience nor his subjects. In his introduction he writes, "How do those who love rock 'n' roll interact with it in real life? We sit on the couch and blast the stuff on the stereo, trying to convince each other that the music we love is something that our friends need in their lives..." this sums up the foundation of the book. Milk It! is like having a really well-informed friend over to your house on a Friday night, pawing through your music collection, never shutting up and leaving you with a list of things to check out the next time you're in the record store.

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