1990s revivalism may be entering its dwarf-star phase without ever having shed proper light on itself. Last week, the 22-year-old rapper Vince Staples argued that for his generation, hip-hop's official Golden Age matters less than the viral onset of 21st-century stars like Soulja Boy. A flash of outrage was followed by the acknowledgment that Staples had made a perfectly reasonable point. Meanwhile, the only arguments assessing why people are now bingeing on the Spice and Gilmore Girls are either blithe listicles (even the inevitable vaguely ironic New York Times think piece, by Kurt Andersen, said little more than, "Hey, the Clinton era was awesome") or fretting about millennials' "early-onset nostalgia." Deeper questions about what made the 1990s distinctive remain largely unaddressed.
Maybe that's because we think we know what made the 1990s special, particularly when it comes to music. Nirvana! Biggie and Tupac! If you're a raver, Daft Punk! The decade's icons seemed to each move in his or her own stream; though movements/marketing strategies like grunge, Lilith Fair and backpack rap had occasionally intersecting audiences, at first glance they don't add up to a movement the same way the 1960s counterculture or even various takes on 1980s New Wave did. In fact, they can seem deeply divided geographically, in terms of demographics and even in ruling principles. 1990s rock was a rebellion against excess while Golden Age rap expanded in response to new resources and opportunities. Feminist singer-songwriters called for self-respect and self-nurturing while ravers indulged in chemicals and infantile pleasures.
Sometimes, though, it's useful to consider a figure who's something of an outlier, a singular talent less bound by ties to a particular scene, to better grasp the underlying character of a particular artistic moment. Jeff Buckley stands out that way. The artist's latest posthumous release, You and I, is a collection of very early recordings coming out on Legacy Recordings in March (you can see the complete track list at the bottom of this page). These songs, mostly covers including the version of Sly and the Family Stone's "Everyday People" you can hear in full on this page, illustrate a quality found in many 1990s cultural touchstones: a responsiveness to history that both acknowledged a debt and insistently moved beyond its often oppressive shadow.
Buckley, an extravagantly gifted singer-songwriter who released one studio album, 1994's Grace, before drowning in the Mississippi River at age 30, stood apart from the milieus that now epitomize his time. He learned his craft in New York City, not Seattle; he made lush, jazz-influenced rock disconnected from the punk ragers and hip-hop battle rhymes favored by his peers. His florid crooner's wail and unabashed emotionalism make him kin to female peers like Tori Amos and P.J. Harvey, yet these affinities remained mostly implicit. "As it happened, Grace was received with mixed feelings from critics who probably thought they were getting the next great alt-rock savior, and instead felt they'd received dinner theater for the moody crowd," Dominique Leone wrote in Pitchfork when the album was re-released in 2004. Beyond his considerable cult, Buckley came off as something of an oddity: an astounding performer who didn't know how (or couldn't muster the will) to focus and fit in. In death, Buckley remains that singular figure, his reputation burnished to a glow by time but not quite absorbed into history.
Yet Buckley did share a particular subject position with Kurt Cobain, Tupac Shakur and Polly Jean Harvey. He was born in 1966 to parents enmeshed in the counterculture. He belonged to Generation X; artistically, as a devotee of Nina Simone and Sly Stone, he also insistently claimed a place within the cohort of color Nelson George dubbed "post-Soul." (Read Daphne A. Brooks' excellent short book on Grace for more on Buckley's musically interracial bona fides.) It's been difficult for this relatively small generation to claim a full, clear moment in the cultural spotlight — this might be why you'll hear fewer X-ers than millennials remembering the 1990s with pure glee. Raised with the insistent noise of their parents' liberation movements ringing in their ears, chased by the helicopter parenting-revved footfalls of a generation just younger, X-ers and post-Soul babies have been, in many ways, reformers and revisionists, correcting the excesses of the baby boom while drawing out connections those elders were too self-absorbed or stoned to fully articulate.
The 1960s sat on the 1990s in a strange way, too distant to serve as a viable dreamscape but too present to fully make room for new visions. Open rebellion against the counterculture seemed almost retrograde, but so did accepting its vestiges. 1990s artists grappled with this heavy shadow by both questioning countercultural values and refashioning countercultural styles. Jeff Buckley's music did this in rich, unexpected ways.
Consider Buckley's repertoire, elegantly laid out in these excavated, mostly solo recordings from his first session after being signed to Columbia Records. He was known for the eclectic range of his cover versions. The ones collected here do not seem like scatterbrained selections; they form a very clear map. Taking on Sly Stone and Bob Dylan, Buckley proves he can take on canonical 1960s songs without imitating their originators. He shows his affinity for those who've already worked through the burden of classic rock, embracing both the decadence of Led Zeppelin's "Night Flight" and, on two tracks, the more stringent troubadour reworkings of The Smiths. Yet Buckley is also careful to demonstrate his knowledge of other music in order to free himself of the paternal burden of the '60s. His forays into jazz standards and blues obscurities fed a growing mastery that went beyond apprenticeship to his father, the psychedelic folk pioneer Tim Buckley, who had in fact mostly been absent from his life. It also complicated a classic-rock lineage that for many X-ers felt oppressive, something Cobain's public championing of obscure punk did for him or Tori Amos' way with piano bar favorites did for her.
More important than his song selection was the way in which Buckley completely reworked this material. In her book, Daphne Brooks quotes Buckley on his process: "When I sing, my face changes shape. It feels like my skull changes shape ... the bones bend." What this statement indicates is Buckley's dedication to making songs bend — his understanding of music-making as an act that refashions texts and makes them legible to new ears. Buckley's music foregrounded process, and that process involved fully absorbing the songbook he'd carefully compiled, erotically melding with it, giving it not just new life but a whole new form, a new body. Buckley's most recognizable peers and inheritors, like Thom Yorke or Antony Hegarty, similarly take in and reconfigure musical sources in pursuit of new sounds that also mark time on music's long now.
This is one way to understand what 1990s music accomplished. It incorporated the past to create something that could be free of it. The task was more complicated than plain rebellion and more honest than the narcissistic pursuit of the new. In many ways, the 1990s was a bridge; but on that bridge, the best artists found a way to soar.
You and I will be out on Columbia/Legacy Recordings on March 11.
1. Just Like A Woman (Bob Dylan cover)
2. Everyday People (Sly & The Family Stone cover)
3. Don't Let The Sun Catch You Cryin' (First recorded by Louis Jordan)
4. Grace (original)
5. Calling You (Jevetta Steele cover)
6. Dream Of You And I (original)
7. The Boy With The Thorn In His Side (The Smiths cover)
8. Poor Boy Long Way From Home (traditional blues song, Bukka White cover)
9. Night Flight (Led Zeppelin cover)
10. I Know It's Over (The Smiths cover)