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 for free exclusively on Spotify. Below is an excerpt from Episode 35, which explores the history of Pavement with help from The Ringer’s own Chris Ryan.
This is 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s, and this week we’re talking about Pavement. We’re talking about the Pavement song “Gold Soundz.” Because now I’m the doddering old fart in the grocery store scoffing at the provocative fashion choices of dumbass teenagers, and yesterday I heard, as if for the first time, what struck me (this time) as the most profound, most poignant, most lucid and incendiary rock ’n’ roll anthem about suburban ennui and escape ever recorded. No, not “Gold Soundz.” This one.
“Box Elder.” By the Stockton, California, rock band Pavement. One of five tunes (“tunes” in scare quotes) from Pavement’s fabled debut EP, the self-released Slay Tracks: 1939-1966. No idea what that title’s about. Slay Tracks was released, on vinyl of course, in 1989. Did I hear the song “Box Elder” in 1989? Fuck no. Had I heard it yet in 1996? Nope. Thank God for college radio, right? But even then it took me until 2021, until just now, to fully wrap my head around “Box Elder” as the perfect encapsulation of my dumbass 18-year-old self. The depth of my suburban malaise. The height of my know-it-all arrogance. The unbridled joy of just knowing that I was going places, and none of the dumbasses I was raging against were going with me.
In 1994, the year I turned 16, my top five favorite bands were Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails, Pearl Jam, R.E.M., and They Might Be Giants. Weird outlier. Rage Against the Machine and Stone Temple Pilots probably in the top 10. Things were about to get mad awkward, in that 1994 was the year Pavement released their second full-length album, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, on Matador Records. That’s an indie label. Here we have Pavement’s “commercial breakthrough,” in scare quotes. It was a modest commercial breakthrough. They got played on MTV a little bit. That qualifies, in this case, as a commercial breakthrough. Anyway this is when I first heard of Pavement. This is all about me, right? The first song on Side 2 of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain is called “Gold Soundz.” Yes, Side 2 of the cassette. First song on Side 2. Very important. That’s “Gold Soundz” with a z on the end, not an s; they’re trying to undercut the poignance of this song by adding a wacky z to the title. Don’t fall for it. “Gold Soundz” is the song that taught me that there were other gods besides Fear. Mischief, for example. That’s a god, right? And we’re coming to the chorus now:
I keep my address to yourself
’Cause we need secrets
We need secrets-crets-crets-crets-crets-crets
Back right now
“I keep my address to yourself.” Stephen Malkmus is a little less lucid here, mostly, except in those moments when he gets extra lucid, and those are the moments that get ya, or at least they got me. Here in 1994, this is the moment when Pavement start getting light airplay on your more adventurous mainstream alt-rock radio stations. You can find their albums in Midwestern mall record stores among Pearl Jam and Smashing Pumpkins and Alice in Chains and so forth. Pavement are praised to the skies by various rock critics whose own coolness and sexiness I may have slightly overestimated in retrospect. And eventually the band wind up on the fabled Lollapalooza tour in 1995, alongside Beck and Hole and Sonic Youth and Sinéad O’Connor and the Jesus Lizard and the like, whereupon Pavement are infamously pelted with mud and rocks by an unruly crowd in West Virginia pissed off that they’re not as famous as Beck or as scary-looking as the Jesus Lizard. I imagine getting pelted with mud and rocks by unruly West Virginians hurt Pavement almost as much as getting roasted on MTV by Beavis and Butt-Head.
In summary, here is the moment when Pavement, a clamorous and obscurist and defiantly slapdash underground-rock sensation, goes overground, and attracts the attention and the ire and fascination and sometimes even the adoration of millions of uncultured, Nirvana-fattened, mainstream-alternative-rock-loving clods. I would like to speak to you today as one of those clods. The less cool (“cool” in scare quotes) you were when you first heard Pavement, the harder they hit you. And let’s just say I would soon find myself worshipping Stephen Malkmus, but I already worshipped Rage Against the Machine, and Alice in Chains, and for that matter, Beavis and Butt-Head.
To hear the whole episode click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.