Songs of the Year—1994 Geek Rock Comes out

You say I only hear what I want to.
You say I talk so all the time so.
And I thought what I felt was simple,
and I thought that I don’t belong,
and now that I am leaving,
now I know that I did something wrong ’cause I missed you.
-Lisa Loeb

Songs of the Year: “Stay” Lisa Loeb; “I Should Be Allowed to Think,” They might Be Giants
Runners-up: “Better Man”, Pearl Jam; “Animal”, Nine Inch Nails
Honorable Mention: “21st Century Digital Boy”, Bad Religion; “All Apologies”, Nirvana

1994 was the year that, for however brief a moment, cardigan sweaters were cool. Thick-rimmed glasses were no longer tokens of an embarrassing limitation but rather a sign of honor from a glorious Geekdom. Green Day were geeky punks. Weezer sang a song about 12 sided die.

1994 saw the release of albums that surprised and stuck around. I still remember the furious onslaught of the The Lead Singer as he tried to persuade me to love Green Day’s Dookie by enumerating everyone he knew (who was cool) who liked it. He should have known that this was the wrong tack to take with me. Contrarian I was.

The list of great albums that came out in 1994 is long, but a few highlights include: Nine Inch Nails’ Downward Spiral, Weezer’s Blue Album, Ill Communication by the Beastie Boys, Stranger than Fiction, Bad Religion, Definitely Maybe, Oasis, Ready to Die, Notorious B. I.G., Ruby Vroom, Soul Coughing. Tracks from these CDs would dominate the world for the next few years. But not me. Not yet.

What won me over in 1994? First, the saccharine, wordy and breathless vocals of one Lisa Loeb. If 1994 was the coming out party of Greek Rock, Lisa Loeb was done up to be a geek’s Princess Peach. With her retro-glasses, sweaters, baby-doll dresses and demure poses, she was the hot future librarian, the intelligent cute hipstress, the approachable attractive girl all the geeklings could fawn over.

She also had a sweet, smooth voice and could fit 6 syllables where most could have only three. The only decent song she released, “Stay”, was a mainstay of mainstream and alt-rock radio stations. I heard it everywhere I went. The sweetness wheedled its way inside of me. There is something about the combination of the choral backing for the bridge and the lyrics “Some of us hover when we weep for the other / who was dying since the day they were born”. I have no idea what these words mean, but they make me (nearly) weepy.

I told at least two girls that I might die if someone ever sang that song to me. (Nobody ever did. Wah.)

The brief rise of geek rock was nearly ideal for They Might Be Giants. Their 1994 release John Henry seemed to anticipate the themes and atmosphere of the times better than any of their previous (or subsequent) albums. It was their darkest album; it was their rockiest album. I remember purchasing it soon after it came out (after waiting over a year from hearing the first reports about “Snail Shell”)

My song on John Henry was the youth anthem “I Should be Allowed to Think”.  Starting with lines from Allen Ginsburg’s “Howl”, “I should be Allowed to Think” revisited ground of their first album’s “Nothing’s Going to Change my Clothes” but with more focus and vigor. The second verse, starting with “I saw the worst bands of my generation / applied by magic marker to dry wall” gave voice to what I saw as TMBG’s frustration at coming to maturity in a world of hair-bands; but it also echoed the dislocation I felt between my musical tastes and those around me. (One that was just then changing).

The rest of the song seems almost clairvoyant: the Johns complain that “everyone should have a call in show” and claim that “I should be allowed to blurt the merest idea / If by random whim, one occurs to me”. When I was young, I took this seriously—everyone should be able to speak his mind, right?. It wasn’t until later that I suspected irony when listening to the complaint: “I am not allowed / to meet the criminal government agent who oppresses me”. In 1994? I went on a blind date where we stayed at home to watch X-Files. I wanted to believe.

I really really wanted to

In the age of the interweb, these claims seem less serious; everyone does have an asshole, but does that mean we want to see it? The mocked paranoia of the final line seems clearer and the absurdity of everyone expressing his/her opinion all the time is obvious. But, in 1994, the Johns found in me a kindred spirit; I did not yet know irony. I did not see suspecting government agents as preventing originality as paranoia (is it?).

I was in two places. Half of me longed for a geek-princess, shushing anyone in the car when Lisa Loeb came on. The other half bought Ginsburg and Kerouac and suspected that the Man was definitely thinking about keeping me down. Maybe. (Because I was just that damn special.)

Other songs: “Better Man” was too pretty for Pearl Jam.
“Animal” made me uncomfortable and eager.
“All Apologies” was Nirvana’s most memorable Unplugged performance and just a bit too late.
“21st Century Digital Boy”? If I were much cooler, that would have been my favorite song. Talk about clairvoyance.

Horrors of the year: “Tootsie Roll” 69 Boyz; “Self Esteem”, The Offspring (my least favorite band of the 1990’s); “Circle of Life”, Elton John; #1 Hit: “All 4 Love” Bryan Adams, Rod Stewart, and Sting; Everything by Hootie and the Blowfish; “Cotton Eye Joe,” Rednex

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