Five 90s Songs That Made Self-Loathing Cool

A few weeks ago I took a trip back to the 90s when I attended a Beck concert in the Berkshires. The song of course that got everyone out of our lawn chairs and up on our feet was Beck’s 1994 single “Loser.” As I sang, “Soy un perdedor/I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me?” I had a flashback of Kennedy, Andie MacDowell’s hair twin and host of MTV’s Alternative Nation, wearing her prescription lenses and crop tops (way ahead of her time) introducing Beck’s video as I watched from a basement rec room at boarding school. Twenty years later, I didn’t have an “OMG! I am actually a loser!” epiphany or anything like that, but the musical walk down memory lane did leave me with this takeaway: a lot of the most popular, decade-defining music of the 90s was about white men hating themselves.

In fact, the 90s Alternative rock aesthetic made self-loathing infectious mainly because the lyrical content of some of the decade’s most memorable rock songs are also about self-awareness as much as they are self-hate. Alternative 90s music taught a whole generation of us in the gray space between Generation X and Millennials how to be self-aware. Unfortunately, the conduit of this coming of age realization was a brutal self-loathing.

Here are my picks for five 90s songs that present portraits of self-hatred too many of us can still relate to today.

Offspring

Offspring, “Self Esteem”

A description of the ultimate toxic romance, this song relays the tale of a man whose low self-esteem keeps him in a horrific relationship that mirrors just how little he thinks of himself.

The narrator puts up with a girlfriend who “sleeps with my friends” and says that he’s like a “disease.” Why? “The more you suffer/The more it shows you really care/Right? Yeah yeah yeah.” For the tormented narcissist, martyrdom is the ultimate test of love. It’s also, in this case, a sign that this dude knows exactly who he is. The song ends with this self-conscious assertion: “I may be dumb/But I’m not a dweeb/I’m just a sucker with no self esteem.” Here, I interpret dweeb as the literal acronym for “dick with eyebrows,” meaning the narrator, however low his self-image, acknowledges that he is not a jerk, but instead a “sucker,” meaning he loves obsessively. Only what he loves here is not the girl but hating himself.

STP

Stone Temple Pilots, “Creep”

This STP classic delivers a huge dose of the “I wish I could go back in time” narrative. But the “half-man” making this claim is an emotional and spiritual kleptomaniac evidenced by one of the song’s refrains: “Take time with a wounded hand/’Cause it likes to heal, I like to steal.” So healing is synonymous with stealing? But stealing what? Who the narrator “used to be” back from time of course. It’s lame and pathetic to be backward-looking non-productively, but who doesn’t bear at least a scar or two from self-flagellation of this sort? It also takes some reflective chops to admit that you’re a mess compared to a better version of yourself as opposed to someone else’s example. 

radiohead

Radiohead, “Creep”

Most of us have had the experience of being romantically rejected by someone more attractive, or more popular than us, etc. And though that rejection may have played on repeat in our heads for weeks or even months afterward, Radiohead boils this universal self-esteem killer down into an anthem that is at once cathartic and beautiful because it unapologetically declares not only how the humiliated party appears: like a “creep, a weirdo.” But also how we feel within ourselves with the Q&A, “What the hell am I doing here? I don’t belong here…” Well, the place we don’t belong may be the bar where we have just made the come-on that went horribly wrong. At the same time, the emotional headspace where none of us belong is the one where this kind of self-hatred creeps in on us.

 Nirvana

Nirvana, “Dumb”

Unlike the narrator of the Radiohead song, the speaker here “can pretend” to be like the people he’s surrounded by. How? With intoxicants. Yet, the “fun” of getting high causes the narrator to suspect that he’s “…dumb/Or maybe just happy.” What’s the line between happiness and stupidity? Self-awareness, yes, but at price. Along with the narrator’s acknowledgement that his “heart is broke” comes the impulse to pretend again, use again, with the mention of some “glue” to “inhale.” Because substance abuse makes euphoria “dumb” euphoria isn’t really euphoric at all. At the song’s end, “Think I‘m just happy” is repeated four times while “I think I’m dumb” is repeated twelve. Undoubtedly, addiction is the engine of low self-esteem. 

weezer

Weezer, “Undone – The Sweater Song”

Beginning with a dialogue between two bros, one of which is excited about the band and the after party while the other guy, the narrator, isn’t excited about much, this song is about social anxiety disorder. The narrator declares, “Goddamn/I am” and even acknowledges talents, but upon being asked for a ride to a party, he responds: “Who I/I think/I sink/And I die.” Not of suicide, but by the hands of the instruction: “If you want to destroy my sweater/Hold his thread as I walk away.” The jokiness of it all and the lightness of the melody serve to obscure the strangeness of giving out to the world a personal recipe for one’s destruction. Yet that’s exactly what the unraveling of the sweater constitutes.

Do Boys Face Sexism In Utero? Or Am I Just Sexist?

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From the time I found out I was pregnant I was certain I was having a boy. If acquaintances asked if I wanted a girl or a boy, I’d offer up, “It doesn’t matter,” or the old standby, “I just want a healthy baby,” but in my heart I knew the matter was settled, so I acted accordingly.

On the street when I saw small children or infants I mainly paid attention to the boys in an effort to glimpse my own little genetic stowaway. In my online wanderings through baby paraphernalia, I never bothered to look at any girl stuff. And besides calling the baby by the surname of one of my favorite male poets, the only other names I liked or gave any serious thought to were also for boys. So when a penis confirmed my intuition in my second semester sonogram before the technician had a chance to call it I breathed a sigh of relief. My instincts had proven an accurate compass that I soon would have plenty use for on the rocky path of parenthood. However, what I could not have anticipated were the immediate responses to my XY news right there in the hospital pavilion.

After the sonogram I had an appointment with my ob gyn and the nurse practitioner took my weight and blood pressure before the examination.

“Did you find out what you’re having?” she asked.

I was elated. “Yes, a boy.”

“Oh,” she responded, following up her disappointment with, “it’s better for the first child to be a boy anyway.”

“This is going to be my only child.”

“Oh,” she uttered again, teetering on a shudder.

When I went to have blood drawn the female technician asked me to make a fist before she inquired about my baby’s sex; I told her. She sprouted a toothless smile, but there was no congratulations in it. “I have three girls,” she said proudly and left it at that.

For a second or two I thought these women’s responses to my boy-in-the-making might have had some racial undertones. The altered playing field boys of color face is a well-documented one. Could bias reach into the womb? Well, of course, but across the world the selective-sex abortions of girl fetuses is the most prominent threat the unborn face. Here, in Upper Manhattan, however bothersome it was to me, I was encountering something altogether different and eons less consequential than a sex-preference amounting to girl genocide.

I did not have “gender disappointment,” meaning sadness about having a baby of one sex when I had my heart set on another, but the women I encountered in the prenatal unit where I am being treated not only expect their patients to want girls, as I’m sure their experience has taught them, but actively feel sorry for us when we’re not carrying them. Though as a feminist I feel this inverted sexism to be heartening, it has made me confront my own sexism. Was I really that certain I was having a boy? Or did I just not want a girl?

In response to my boy news, a close friend at work emailed: “I know why you’re so happy. You won’t have to do anyone’s hair!” To an extent, my friend is right. I have been undone by the beauty obsessed culture of womanhood and though in the best of all worlds I would like to imagine that I could protect my daughter from soul-killing objectification and appearance based low self-esteem, the challenge makes me wince. By no means do I think boyhood is a walk in the park; rather it’s just a giant unknown and for that I reason, funnily enough, I don’t fear it.

The other part of why I am “gender satisfied” is that I really was set on a boy. My primary caregiver as a child was my grandfather who remains the most sensitive, caring, openly sweet person I have ever encountered in my life. I wanted a boy because a giant piece of me yearns to nurture and care for in a literal way a reflection of the person who I feel most cared for me. When my grandfather died fourteen years ago I remember journaling that the only relationship that could rival the closeness I experienced with him would be with my own child. Now, just a few months away from this new frontier of love, I can’t wait to enter its embrace at the same time I am scared as hell.

Weighing Sanity

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Pregnancy. Labor. Child rearing. The books are countless. The websites stretch the length of infinity. The message boards are insane. However, the one piece of advice I have taken is to keep my appointments with the scale limited to prenatal visits. So when we moved a few weeks ago, the scale did not come with us. And not one morning since have I missed it.

 

Black Women: Reality-vs-Representation

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African-American women appear to be doing doing great. People declared Lupita Nyong’o this year’s most beautiful person. Beyoncé rules the world. And we’re all used to Michelle Obama being our First Lady. Still, a chasm exists between the anomalous representations of African-American female success and what our lived experiences actually are. This divide between representation and reality makes it difficult to gauge where exactly African-American women are status-wise because common perceptions of our standing ping-pong between polarized portrayals of either dismissal and degradation and/or success and striving. However, one thing is certain. For African-American women the devil is in the details, not on the cover of magazines or cheerful, sisters-are-powerful social media posts.

Case in point: African-American women and postsecondary education. Filmmaker Janks Morton alongside Black and Married With Kids shared back in February that during 2011 college enrollment of black women as a group proportionately outnumbers that of all other race and gender groups, respectively: almost 1 in every 10 black women to be exact. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education consistently reports that at the nation’s top ranked universities black women considerably exceed our male counterparts. And a recent study by The Pew Research Center indicated that 69 percent of African-American women fresh out of high school in the spring had enrolled in higher education by the fall, whereas for black men the matriculation rate was 12 points lower. But just because we are doing better than black men doesn’t mean that we’re actually doing well.

Though educational achievement for black women has risen steadily over time our gains remain lower than the educational achievement of white women. In 2004, according to the Center for American Progress the graduation rate for African-American women was 24.1 percent. Since 2004, that rate has not considerably increased while degree attainment for white women, Asian-American women and Latinas has.

On issues of earning, the situation for black women remains bleak. The Center for American Progress also reports that African-American women earn an average of $610 per week, $56 less than African-American men. African-American women also have an unemployment rate of 10.5 percent compared to 5.8 percent for white women according to labor statistics released by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. From 2007-2012, the number of black women earning the minimum wage or below more than doubled. And while white women make roughly 78 cents on the dollar compared to white men, African-American women only take home 64 cents on that same infamous, shrinking greenback.

How does having so little of the American pie translate in other aspects of our lives? Well, a recent study found that the happiness bump experienced in pregnancy largely bypasses us. Our infant mortality rates according to the CDC, due to preterm births are 2.4 times higher than those for white infants. Unfortunately, the shit parade doesn’t stop there either.

Due to a widespread stigma toward mental health issues in our community, African-Americans don’t experience depression more than white people, but we are less likely to report the symptoms, and therefore seek treatment. A broad swath of experts attribute our silence to the “strong black woman” myth. Yet this idea that we are invincible, which actually makes us weak because it disallows us from asking for help when we need it, refuses to die. Maybe two months ago the new Saturday Night Live hire Leslie Jones gave voice to a virulent strain of this outdated defense mechanism.

Jones declared that though she has trouble dating in the 21st century, in the antebellum south, due to her height and strength, she would have enjoyed the status of a breeder, “popping out” field hand equivalents of NBA stars. On Twitter, Jones admitted that her monologue emerged from a dark place of what I can only assume is a deep feeling of being less than. As a black woman who did stand-up comedy and who was threatened for doing jokes about how white people don’t use washcloths, to a certain extent I get the “artist sensitive about her shit” aspect of her defense. At the same time, by perpetuating this myth of black womanhood, Jones pointed to the ways all of us can be weak when we don’t feel loved. However, we don’t need to look to unfunny comedy to get a grip on the places in ourselves and in our community we need to fortify. For that mirror, statistics are better than fine.

Afterlife Mélange

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As a sci-fi and horror fan who grew up thinking that all real stories were fin-de-siècle stories (due to heavy doses of Victoriana by way of Masterpiece Theater and Mystery, respectively. Not until The X-Files did I fully put this assumption behind me), and whose ideal writer-self is a horror novelist, (I’m happy to report that the ideal and the reality are finally merging), the promos for the new Showtime series Penny Dreadful had me at the proverbial “Boo!” Yes, as both a fan and a storyteller, I am head-over-heels for the iconography of spiritualism: floating tarot cards and tea cups of blood not to mention smart looking, gaunt women in corsets (Jane Eyre will always be the queen of my heart!). In the case of Penny Dreadful, a mélange of dark literary characters similar in that way at least to League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, all of this slickly produced imagery is nicely hinged on the narrative spine of a sharpshooter, a spiritualist and scientist aiding a bereaved, retired explorer in the search for his missing daughter. The kidnappers: well, they’re vampires, of course.

The term “penny dreadful” once described 19th century British serials published on pulp that cost a penny and were aimed at working class kids. The series creator John Logan said that he got the idea for this show after rereading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and connecting his own struggles as a gay kid to the so-called monster, or fiend’s heartbreaking plight for acceptance. The vampires here might be tattooed with hieroglyphs, have exoskeletons and are likened to beetles, scripting them as mechanized creatures with roots in ancient Egypt. But this less than human take on vampires is far from the show’s money shot. The revelation of the first episode is the reimagining of Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadway) not only as a megalomaniac scientist, but also as a caring, megalomaniac father.

Frankenstein is the ultimate poster boy for the reanimation of life, which makes the character the most central in a story where the primary villains at this point are vampires, or as I call them, in this, the fading age of zombies, “the mindful living dead.” The American actor good with a gun called Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) is destined for romance with the spiritualist Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) who possesses Holmes-like deduction skills. The spiritualist’s benefactor/employer Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) metaphorically traveled to “the heart of darkness” as an explorer in Africa and now back at home in the seat of the empire he tracks its literal heart as a vampire hunter. He also has a black butler Sembene (Danny Sapani) who is featured in promo shots, but listed on IMDB as a major player in only a single episode. In addition, there’s a Jack, The Ripper story filling in the background that seems lame, but given what the first episode did with Frankenstein I’m hopeful that the show can pull it out, especially with Dorian Gray entering the picture (sorry, I couldn’t resist that pun).

Now in the second episode, which airs tonight the relationship between Frankenstein and his creation will probably be torn to shreds, which I think I’ll be able to handle mainly because Reeve Carney plays Dorian Gray. Carney, a musician who famously starred in the doomed Broadway production Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark, was also cast a few years ago in a Jeff Buckley biopic that will probably never see the light of day. In any case, Carney is a dead ringer for Buckley, which means that in a dimension of my twisted fandom, watching Carney be Dorian Gray will kinda be like watching Jeff Buckley be Dorian Gray, which is not that far from what Buckley has actually become. Buckley died when he was young and beautiful and for that reason always will be young and beautiful if not in flesh, in pictures, and in song.

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(Jeff Buckley)                                                            (Reeve Carney)

Penny Dreadful is about the overlap of life and death both creating purpose and coloring experience with a sanguine, macabre beauty. I’m going to keep watching the show and writing about it because 1) I want to know what develops with the black character in that one episode and 2) believing in a little life after death even for an hour of television feels damn good.

Gossip Forensics: Two Sisters, A Dude & A Bodyguard In An Elevator

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Given I am currently moving and experiencing the end-of-the-semester-crunch all while working on a manuscript, it’s not an understatement to say that this week I have had about 1,001 things on my mind. Though I am sure that I would have found it titillating anyway, I have to admit that the leaked footage of Solange trying her damndest to whip Jay-Z’s ass in an elevator at The Standard Hotel while Bey stood by eerily disassociated has pumped the oxygen of gossip into a body that otherwise might have morphed into a nearly six-foot tall reminder list.

So I ask: what does it mean that maybe Bey was paying Julius all these years to protect Jay from Solange? What does it mean that Bey can flash a battery operated smile in the immediate aftermath of such serious family turmoil? Is it true? Is my Beysus the ultimate Stepford pop star? Or worse yet, a straight up robot? Well, as someone who has absolutely no answers about Bey, the most fascinating boring person of our time, and among my to-die-for-favorites, what I do know is that the story of the fighting little sister in a pixie wig has spawned a beast of a scandal that conforms very closely to the academic literature on rumors.

In the classic study The Psychology of Rumor by Gordon Allport and Leo Postman, the mid-20th century psychologists defined rumors as a form of communication free from “impersonal standards of truth” that result from three distinct processes the co-authors called “leveling, sharpening and assimilating.” Leveling constitutes the absence or omission of information from an incident. Sharpening entails adding a new or specific piece of speculation to the event while assimilation in this context is defined as an interpretation of the event, or even behaviors surrounding it, that rings true to those fueling the gossip mill.

Leveling: No Audio

The element that could undoubtedly contextualize the elevator footage is audio. The fact that there isn’t any is the first thing that levels this event. Rumors start on the basis of missing information that the community, in this case, the world, thinks they know but really don’t.

Sharpening: The Other Woman Scenario

So how to fill in the blank the absence of audio has rendered? With narratives forensic gossip specialists are piecing together, the most popular of them being “the other woman” scenario. For one, it has been alleged that Solange yelled at designer Rachel Roy, ex-wife of Dame Dash, Jay’s former business partner, at The Met Gala after-party shortly before the elevator scene jumped off. Wendy Williams speculated here that Jay used to sleep with Roy and may have flirted with her in a way that humiliated Bey and enraged Solange. This piece of blind gossip was published about the affair between a music mogul and a fashion insider and the wife who is counting down the minutes and the dollars until her business arrangement of a marriage is behind her.

There’s also another “other woman” tale out there co-starring Rihanna. In this narrative, Jay wanted to attend Ri-Ri’s after party; Solange protested; Jay spat some fighting words and  Solange made good on them. In line with the cheating husband who seeks variety at every turn, this blind item might not take the cake, but it certainly spells out the names of women with pretty firm cakes themselves whom Jay has had public associations with.

Bey, The Assimilator

After an incident is leveled and sharpened the last step is assimilation, which means that people interpret the event through the lens of what they know to be true in their own experiences. And this is where the Internet streets have focused their gaze on Bey. Why was she so removed from the heated situation in the elevator? The common social media retort: because she’s accustomed to Solange’s behavior. Why did Bey fiddle with her dress as her husband was being attacked? Whatever had Solange so fired up paralyzed poor Bey because Jay has hurt her that much.

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In light of this reading, the mega-rich couple looking happy & laughing courtside at Nets’ games this week was a calculated attempt to put the rumors of marital discord to rest. The pics of the Knowles sisters all over Bey’s Instagram feed were also to show familial solidarity while the post of the Vogue photo where Bey is side by side with Rihanna tells the world that the Queen Bey doesn’t think her husband has ever slept with that island woman. Do all of Bey’s shout-outs to the integrity of her intimate circle bespeak its disintegration or its strength? How do people assimilate all of this, in the end, really?  I think this way: Bey’s a long-suffering wife desperate to make the rumors go away by pretending that she’s good with her man, she’s good with her sister and she’s even good with Rihanna.

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Yet before the elevator footage was leaked to TMZ, there’s been speculation that Bey has had her wedding tattoo removed. Maybe Bey is not as passive and desperate as this media campaign comes off and she really is on a Countdown to rejoin the Single Ladies? For my money, only Julius knows. And his words would speak a lot louder than this statement.