Alanis Morissette had a bunch of hits, Jägermeister shots made me sick, and the fly summer girls in Sea Bright, NJ, macarena’d in lime green dresses and sparkly silver shoes and tiny backpacks all 1996 long, or at least well past Labor Day. Slinking back east that July I rinsed two years of insular Seattle exile away in a humid Atlantic mainstream far cooler than I expected—Clueless on endless HBO repeat, the nerd miniatures of Fountains of Wayne as soothing a mirage as Oasis rocking the bloat, radio in short a scrap heap yielding the raw material for a suitable summer soundtrack. Odelay may have seemed rock and roll future in locales hip enough to disdain the glossy ephemera that seaside cover bands were learning to butcher, but where I was at “Where It’s At” was just a smarter novelty single than Superdrag’s “Sucked Out.”
When the biz is confused, anything can happen, even if it usually doesn’t. At that delusional moment in ’96, willful indie-aligned industry types convinced themselves at least that “alternative” wasn’t just pop metal’s latest commercial alloy, but a haven for brighter variants on the sort of bouncy formal experiments college radio always mistook for pop. If you liked Alice in Chains, went the thinking, you’ll love the Cardigans. And honest, I heard Imperial Teen’s “You’re One” on the radio. Lots. 106.3 in Eatontown, you could look it up: boy-girl-boy-girl homophile celebrants strumming a cryptic Cobain eulogy so willowy-tart you’d think K finally decided to release real albums instead of scenester field recordings.
1996 was also the last moment when anyone born before Star Wars could gripe about media caricatures of ou-ou-our genera(liz)tion. By the time of 1999’s stupidly overlooked What Is Not to Love, a band name that once playfully tweaked bohemia’s inner pedophilia turned hollow joke—the Teen empire now demanded the fealty of all Caucasoid pop. For all its soggy metal retreads, “alternative” offered a not-just-a-phase worldview you could potentially nurse into your dotage. And for all its liveliness and immediacy, teenpop imagines no more extended forecast than “hold onto 16 as long as you can.” Even guitar-based variants like Blink 182 stamp an expiration date on their consumers: Do Not Rock Out Past This Date.
What’s our age again? Well, Roddy Bottum turned 39 on July 1. His band released their Merge debut several weeks prior. Whether bouncing forward with peppy gender balance (the B-52’s with Kate and Cindy handling rhythm duties?) or glancing back with no less peppy ruminations (Belle and Sebastian with Kate and Cindy ibid), On is the sound of a band being liberated from commercial expectations. As produced by fellow consolidation casualty Anna Waronker of That Dog, the glee emerges from encoded interplay of guitar and keyboards, or, in “Ivanka,” of four distinct voices.
The minimalist softcore of “Baby” (“I do you/You do me”) sets the tone—free-floating lust settling like faerie dust on a dozen fortunate objects. “Our subtext is our plot,” the band confessed on their debut, Seasick. Now their surface is their subtext. On cuts back on the smart-assery and queer wink—expressing their gregarious pansexuality is just their way of saying Hi. If this is serial monogamy, then it’s Super Sugar Smacks with sliced fruit on top. But when Will Schwartz sings of “The possibility/Of us making history” on “Captain,” he may indeed be hoping for something more than a full-color entry in the Guinness Book of All-Night Fucking. Manifest destiny hasn’t sounded so cheerfully slight since Men Without Hits’, er, Hats’, 1987 gem “Pop Goes the World.” It’s a small world after all.
A true believer, Schwartz has opened his once petulant whine into a not-a-boy, not-yet-a-fogy yearn of possibility. Dunno what his “Heavy metal in the sound/And there’s still an underground” means (please not the Rye Coalition), but when he adds “It’s our time,” well, why not? Just because they’ll never have a real hit single doesn’t mean Imperial Teen can’t turn the Spirit of ’96 on its head and playfully sixty-nine amongst themselves. “Put your ear up to the radio/What you hear is a miracle,” Schwartz coos before advising, “Go the other way/There’s another way.” What a dream—pop and subpop living together in perfect harmony. Let the suits and song doctors rule the overworld, we’ve got work to do down below. How adult a vision.
For all the Teen’s “I’ve waited and waited/ For a youth of my own” there’s no nostalgia here, just a grasping toward a perfect world, a Never Never Land where the imaginary radio plays your favorite non-existent songs and age ain’t nothing but a number. Bohemia, it used to be called. “City Song” finds the quartet slipping into ashrams, grad school, the convent—anywhere “undercover where we can be safe from society’s rules.” But their best hiding place remains the pop commune of Imperial Teen itself. And their most utopian sentiment is their most realist, as quoted in the liner notes: “We wrote these songs, together, in San Francisco.”
Also in This Issue:
“Imperial Teen Motorvate the Bowery” by Robert Christgau