Marci Cohen, Head of Research Services for Instruction and Consultation, Boston University
“Loud quiet loud” was the signature volume modulation pattern that gave name to the documentary about the Pixies (Steve Cantor, 2006), describing the sound they started crafting in the late 1980s with college radio hits like “Gigantic” (Surfer Rosa. 1988, 4AD). But it came to the forefront with the alternative rock explosion of the 1990s, led by Nirvana. Kurt Cobain was unabashed in acknowledging the influence of the Pixies and the Replacements, and his band can claim the lion’s share of responsibility for bringing those sounds into the mainstream. Production styles fall from favor, but there is an inevitable nostalgia cycle, with the ‘90s back in vogue, not just with music. Teens and twentysomethings are wearing Friends sweatshirts and flocking to Instagram opportunities at Central Perk re-creation pop-ups, and they are similarly embracing the aesthetics of ‘90s rock. The popularity of the Nirvana logo has spawned memes about young people assuming that the serif-font band name is just a clothing brand.
A prominent example of ‘90s alt rock nostalgia is Olivia Rodrigo, currently topping the charts worldwide with her sophomore album GUTS (Geffen Records). A 20-year-old Disney Channel alumna, Rodrigo’s music career exploded in early 2021 with “Drivers License,” the lead single off her debut album Sour (Geffen Records), released a few months later. She is not shy in flying the flag for her inspirations. The Breeders, led by former Pixies bassist Kim Deal, are opening for Rodrigo at Madison Square Garden, part of their tour marking the 30th anniversary of their landmark album Last Splash (1993, 4AD). In a recent Rolling Stone interview (Angie Martoccio, “Olivia Rodrigo Is So Over Heartbreak,” September 13, 2023), Rodrigo namechecked 1992’s Fontanelle (Reprise) by grunge goddesses Babes in Toyland, an album introduced to her by her mother, as well as Rage Against the Machine.
On tracks like “ballad of a homeschooled girl,” GUTS brings the guitars in ways that invoke fond memories of Veruca Salt. But lead single “vampire” uses the loud/quiet/loud motif on a piano ballad, alternatively intimate and understated then soaring, closer to Tori Amos in delivery than the full-throated Adele. Rodrigo is lyrically less abstract and poetic than Amos apart from the metaphor of the title. (Rodrigo eschews capital letters in song titles in ways that will drive copy editors to distraction). Where Rodrigo, who co-wrote all the tracks, succeeds lyrically is through specificity and universality. She captures the everyday travails of early adulthood in relatable ways that resonate with her peers. “get him back” recounts the details of sorting out the conflicted feelings about an ex, and “love is embarrassing” only has her blaming herself for being blind to someone’s shortcomings. Coupled with the confessional sentiments, there’s enough slickness to it, especially with processed vocals on many tracks, to make it friendly to modern ears. She pins what her peers are experiencing and what older listeners can look back on and be thankful to only see in the rear-view mirror.
Rodrigo is currently grabbing lots of attention for wearing her ‘90s heart on her sleeve, but she’s not the only purveyor of this sound. It’s also all over Bully’s Lucky For You. The super-catchy track “Days Move Slow” bears enough sonic resemblance to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (Nirvana. Nevermind. Los Angeles, CA: DGC, 1991.) that it is fittingly released by Sub Pop, the Seattle label that signed Nirvana and fomented the grunge eruption. Bully conforms to the indie rock trope of a female musician, in this instance guitarist Alicia Bognanno, taking on a band name that disguises working as a solo artist, although Bully did start out with a full line-up. Bognanno is four albums and eight years into her recording career with Lucky For You, released in June. Her credentials include penning songs for Her Smell, the 2018 feature film starring Elisabeth Moss as an indie rocker.
Bognanno’s perspective skews slightly older than Rodrigo’s. Album opener “All I Do” has her pleading “I want to feel the way I used to.” Bognanno addresses exes with “Change Your Mind” and “How Will I Know” but without the kinds of regrets over her own naivete that populate GUTS. Despite the similar nods to ‘90s alt rock, Lucky For You sounds decidedly more raw than GUTS. There are hooks and some evidence of electronics beyond the standard guitar, bass, and drums, but no pop sheen. While Rodrigo sings with control and clarity, Bognanno’s raspy voice conveys desperation, and she knows the value of judiciously-applied guitar distortion. Her lyrics are more abstract, less literal. “Hard to Love” bears a few marks of studio wizardry, driven by a rough-and-ready bass line accented with some psych rock-ready guitar flourishes. Following the Pixies/Nirvana template, the verses are quiet while the chorus is noisy. “Lose You,” which features Soccer Mommy, another female solo artist with a band name, is Lucky For You’s Veruca Salt moment. The album closes out with the anthemic “All This Noise,” a politically-minded call-to-arms that recalls Rage Against the Machine more so than anything on GUTS.
Both Rodrigo and Bully are popular not just with her peers but with the parents of their peers who are nostalgic for the sounds of the ‘90s. Rodrigo is swinging for the outfield while Bognanno is content to let an audience find her rather than making obvious concessions for the commercial mainstream. Bognanno is currently touring with a band that seem more kindred spirits than hired guns, playing clubs that hold hundreds, not arenas that hold thousands. The packed audience at a recent Boston-area Bully show was a mix of young people close in age to the band and middle-aged folks who listened to music that sounded like that when they themselves were young. But audience nostalgia doesn’t explain it all. You can’t underestimate the impact of music industry taste-makers. With Gen Xers taking over from Boomers in positions of power, they can entwine the need to turn a profit with their more personal nostalgia of the music of their youth in their choices for where to provide airplay, press coverage, and inclusion in playlists. GUTS and Lucky For You are albums that kids and parents can bond over or enjoy strictly with their own age group.