June 22, 2018
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Karl Taro Greenfeld's novel True is a dark and compelling coming of age story.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"Greenfeld’s dynamic writing is infectious; his deeply flawed heroine is as compelling as she is damaged."
As a character, True seems almost indifferent to the larger culture around her, outside of her passion, soccer. The novel is set during True’s junior and senior years in high school, 1996-98. These were the last years before the widespread advent of digitally downloadable music, when Shawn Fanning was still dreaming up Napster in his Northeastern University dorm room. We still had to buy compact discs at music stores and we might spend an hour or two flipping through those rectangular, impossible to open jewel box packages. Music magazines—Rolling Stone, Spin, Vibe and Ray Gun—were crucial tastemakers, and we occasionally made decisions about new bands based on a review and how they looked on their CD case.
Kurt Cobain had passed away in 1994, but Nirvana’s music spawned a renaissance in guitar rock, and effectively ended the hair-metal era. Alternative Rock became a genre. Within just a few years of its inception as a format, it would lose almost all meaning, gradually expanding to include bands as diverse as the Violent Femmes and Pavement and Radiohead and Pearl Jam.
Now, the entire alternative genre could more easily be described as guitar rock’s last stand. Radiohead’s The Bends was released in 1995, Oasis’ Definitely Maybe was released in 1994, Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy was in 1995. Soundgarden, Stone Temple Pilots and Blur were all vital, if widely different, rock bands. But for the generation growing up on an MTV that still showed music videos, the future was all too apparent: hip-hop and teen idols would rule the millennium. Guitar would become dad rock.
It’s hard now to recall MTV’s cultural influence. It was a national television channel that could make an artist with the showing of one video. The introduction, in 1997, of Total Request Live would be the vehicle of the late 20th century explosion of teen idol acts, from Backstreet Boys, whose debut album was released in 1996 to Britney Spears, whose “… Baby One More Time” would debut in 1998. By then the Spice Girls had already sold 51 million albums and you couldn’t turn on MTV without being inundated by boy bands or Britney.
The mid-90s was the era of the great schism between West Coast and East Coast hip-hop, with P-Diddy and Dr. Dre as rival impresarios and Notorious BIG and Tupac Shakur their representative artists. In Los Angeles in the mid-90s, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, WarrenG and Ice Cube were ubiquitous, blaring out of car stereos—which back then were frequently stolen from our cars---and at house parties. On the west coast, Notorious BIG did not have nearly the airplay that he did in New York, and Wu Tang Clan was restricted to occasional spins on the Nine Deuce Trazy, as 92.3 FM, the leading hip-hop station, was known. However, also inescapable would have been the rap-metal of acts like Limp Bizkit and Korn, which were then both regulars on MTV. That’s a genre that has not aged well.
We don’t like to think of our characters as being vacuous, but I suspect True, as she was written, did not have discerning taste in music and would probably go along with whatever her peers were playing. There is only one sequence in the book in which music is important, when True goes to a house party thrown by the boys soccer team, and there she encounters a common enough phenomenon of her time, a battle for control of the stereo, between guitar-rock fans and rap fans. “There seemed to be a war going for control of the music,” she recalls. That’s a battle that, over time, we now realize the guitar rock fans lost.
The playlist I am including is the music that the rival factions, rap fans and guitar rock fans, would be playing that evening, an inflection point in the life of my central character, when she meets her first lover, and her rivalry with a teammate becomes personal as well as athletic.
The Rap Faction:
Tupac Shakur ft. Dr. Dre – California Love
The ultimate celebration of West Coast hip-hop, It’s Dr. Dre definitively making his case—“A state where you never find the dance floor empty”-- and also propelling Tupac to mega-star status. “It’s all good from Diego to the Bay. . . Dre. Putting it down for Californi-A.”
Snoop Dogg – Gin and Juice
“Rolling down the street smoking endo, sipping on gin and juice. Laid back. With my mind on my money and my money on my mind.” Snoop laid down the soundtrack to '90s LA, complete with NWA genealogy and credibility through Dr. Dre. This was one of his numerous party anthems that could be counted on to get hands in the air like you just don’t care.
Ice Cube – It was a Good Day
Another vivid celebration of LA life. If NWA is the Mt. Rushmore of West Coast Hip Hop, the break-up left fans factionalized between Easy-E and Ice Cube, with Dre somehow transcending the feud by immediately developing new acts like Snoop and Tupac. And Cube would somehow live the most LA life of all, making his acting debut in Boys N the Hood and becoming among the most successful rappers to cross over to acting.
Sir Mix A Lot – Baby Got Back
Because, come on, it’s a fucking party.
Warren G ft. Nate Dogg – Regulate
Another blast from the Coast that gave the East Coast the vapors. Released in 1994 just a few months before Notorious BIG’s Ready to Die, it was an almost casual expression of Death Rows and Suge Knight’s dominance. If you were living in LA in 1994 you knew you were living in the cultural capital of Hip-Hop. P-Diddy, BIG, Wu Tang and Mace were about to fire back, but for a few months, even P-Diddy had to admit the West Coast was the shit.
Master P – Make Em Say Uh
There was some pretty lousy hip-hop released during the mid-90s and much it was played at high school parties. It’s hard to remember now, but for a few years, Master P was arguably the most successful producer and rapper in the world, founding his own label, No Limit, and financing his own films. He never had an agenda in the West Coast-East Coast battle, content to release some commercial rap songs and amass a personal fortune estimated at $350 million. “Make Em Say Uh,” wasn’t great hip-hop, but you could not escape it. The video featured guys in gorilla suits dunking basketballs and the song included the chorus, “na na na na.” Did I mention he’s worth $350 million?
The Rock Faction
Pearl Jam - Corduroy
With Cobain’s demise, Pearl Jam inherited the title of most popular rock band in America, and while it was never released as a single, Corduroy represents Pearl Jam at the peak of their powers and was high school party staple through the 90s.
Third Eye Blind - Semi Charmed Life
This was one of the best songs about the highs and lows of crystal meth use ever written, and the band got massive airplay, with the drug references bleeped out, because of an irresistibly catchy hook. A 1997 teen party would gravitate toward rock radio hits, and occasionally, such as in this case, they were actually great songs.
Guns N’ Roses – Sweet Child O’ Mine
There were still a few million music fans who believed Guns wasn’t yet a totally spent creative force. I wrote an essay about them for Harper’s that pretty conclusively makes the case that they were. And within a few years, my own daughters, both millennials, wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between Guns N’ Roses and Led Zeppelin, because for them, the history of guitar rock is about as relevant and interesting as the Battle of Jutland. But True mentions this song coming on at one point during the party, so here it is.
Radiohead – The Bends
I like to imagine that some precocious high schooler at a house party thrown by the boys soccer team would sneak on the title song from this 1995 album. It’s as epic and overblown as guitar rock gets, and compared to later Radiohead it is so accessible and anthemic that it hardly seems like the same band. But for a high school boy high on testosterone and beer, the monumental heaviness should have been irresistible. Or were the nerds listening to this in their cars and were not even invited to the party?
Oasis – Supersonic
Despite the repeated mantra that Oasis never really made it in America, Definitely Maybe sold over a million albums in the US. And Supersonic was in heavy rotation on KROQ, LA’s formerly new wave rock station that suffered an identity crisis in the 90s as to whether to play bands like Pearl Jam and Oasis who were decidedly not new wave but were new and making bands like The Cure and Depeche Mode seem like quaint anachronisms while U2 had become a bloated, touring monster releasing mediocre albums like Zooropa and Pop. U2 would return to relevance with 2000's All That You Can’t Leave Behind, but, in the mid-90s, they merged into the general MTV blur of Madonna, The Spice Girls, No Doubt and a few other acts that would have been in heavy rotation in True’s world.
Karl Taro Greenfeld and True links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists