Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? On our new show, 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s, Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla embarks on a quest to answer those questions, one track at a time. Follow and listen free exclusively on Spotify. Below is an excerpt from Episode 2, which looks at the backstory and legacy of Gin Blossoms’ 1992 hit, “Hey Jealousy.”
Gin Blossoms formed in the late ’80s in Tempe, Arizona—a bunch of random dudes from a bunch of other random bands who joined forces and somehow got really, really good at harnessing a jangling guitar sound, and became functionally the house band at a Tempe hot wings joint called Long Wong’s.
Regional fame ensues. The Gin Blossoms release their debut album, Dusted, in 1989, recorded locally, released locally, and a pretty big deal locally. If you really want to hear it in 2020, Dusted is a YouTube proposition, unless you’re the sort of person who’d pay $60 for a used CD. The value in that, to my mind, is the chance to play Fantasy A&R Guy. You imagine yourself as a big-shot record-label stooge, with your feet up on your gold-plated desk, smoking a cigar, with giant stacks of CDs from regional sensations teetering behind you, and you pull Dusted, at random, from one of those stacks, and you pop it in, or you have your assistant pop it in, and you light another cigar, and playacting all this now, you try to imagine if you’d have heard it. It—the fame, the fortune, the glory. MTV. The radio. Karaoke. Thirty years or so later: shows like this one. Could this band be huge? Could this song be huge? It’s a tough game, sometimes. Not this time. It’s all there, on Dusted. It’s all there on Track 9, which is called “Hey Jealousy.”
That’s the Dusted version. That’s the song. It’s faster, and it’s cruddier sounding in a charismatic sorta way, and there’s a “hot wings joint in Tempe, Arizona” scruffiness to it all, but it’s “Hey Jealousy.” And the difference between that “Hey Jealousy” and the “Hey Jealousy” you know and love is down to diction and studio gloss. It then becomes Track 2 on the band’s 1992 major-label debut, which because this was 1992 they called New Miserable Experience. It’s just now it sounds bigger, and sharper, and softer, and harder, and brighter, and shinier. It sounds plated in gold.
The idea of smuggling really sad lyrics into a super bright and catchy pop song did not originate with the Gin Blossoms, or with the ’90s, or with rock ’n’ roll, or with pop songs, really. But in 1992, ’93, ’94, “Hey Jealousy” on the radio was supposed to be the antidote, the contrast, the rom-com counterprogramming to Nirvana, to Pearl Jam, to Nine Inch Nails, to grunge, to rage, to macho anger and self-loathing and loathing-loathing. It was just a bonus, really, that “Hey Jealousy” could also be 10 times darker in sentiment than songs that sounded 10 times heavier. Which you’ve got to credit to the guy who wrote it: Doug Hopkins.
In retrospect, Doug Hopkins was the Pete Best of the Gin Blossoms, though when he was actually in the Gin Blossoms, he was arguably the McCartney or Lennon of the Gin Blossoms—or arguably both. People say a lot that he could’ve been what Noel Gallagher was to Oasis: the cranky mastermind, the genius songwriter, the conscience. Doug didn’t sing much, but it was his voice—his angst—and in the early ’90s especially your angst was the most sacred and powerful and monetizable thing you owned.
The lurid details, the grimier aspects of how Doug came to leave the band, I’m disinclined to get in the weeds too much. It’s ugly, it’s upsetting, it’s hotly contested, it’s immaterial. The basic chronology, which everyone more or less agrees on now, is this. The Gin Blossoms sign with A&M Records, with a major, and an initial burst of major-label bullshit ensues, but eventually they find themselves in Memphis, Tennessee, recording at Ardent Studios.
This is the band’s big break, and Hopkins is struggling, in this famous studio, beneath the weight of these great expectations, and all the drinking he’s doing to manage these expectations. John Hampton, who produced the album, later explained it to Magnet magazine this way: “Have you ever seen the movie Leaving Las Vegas? Try making a record with someone like that.” That was not the ’90s movie you want to be compared to. Hopkins plays guitar all over New Miserable Experience, but a lot of those parts he meant to rerecord, to improve, but he just couldn’t, and his bandmates put up with it until they didn’t. They kicked him out before they’d even finished the record; it’s possible that the label made them do it.
So Hopkins goes back to Tempe, and New Miserable Experience comes out, and initially, it bricks. The band tours, relentlessly, in the shitty van on the album cover, but it’s going nowhere, and the whole thing looks like an abject failure, until one of these vague record-label stories where the suits decided to give “Hey Jealousy” one more push. They’d shot a video for $5,000, and then they shot another video for $10,000, but now they decide to drop $40,000 on yet another video. That video is super boring: They’re all just hanging out in somebody’s house, Wilson sings to a fish in a fishbowl, he sings to a blender, I don’t know, man. But it clicks. “Hey Jealousy” climbs the charts. “Found Out About You” follows. Back in Tempe, Hopkins starts another band, and regional fame ensues, but the story goes he quits that band, onstage, after botching a guitar solo, and afterward those guys won’t take him back either. Meanwhile, his old band is on a completely different trajectory.
To hear the full episode, click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Thursday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.