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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.