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When I was thirteen, a lot of terrible things happened. And more bad things took place before then. The ’90s, in general, were not so kind to me. Life stopped being polite and started getting real. Really real. Real, real, real.
Early on in the decade, pop culture’s premium on ‘realness’ emerged: It bit the beautiful slacker’s hand that fed it; it extended itself into slick and sinister virtual realms; and it was filmed by television producers intent on capturing how it imbued the lives of fresh-faced, young folks with an addictive earnestness that viewers would allow to merge with their own inferior realities that constantly betrayed them.
See, there was ‘real’ and then there was real. The latter belonged to us, the regular people whose lives weren’t being filmed, because the media wanted nothing to do with it. I understood this even as a precocious pre-teen quick to jump on the latest fad that primetime Fox, all too liberally, doled out. In 1993, I was wearing chokers and crocheted vests layered over bodysuits that echoed Jane, the drippingly sincere, but oh-so-hip boutique owner and doting wife of Dr. Michael Mancini on Melrose Place. I was twelve. I was insecure and susceptible to the charms of advertising. I bought the sickly sweet perfumes featured in every print ad in Seventeen magazine. I wore them even though they made me gag. Yet, I was media-literate and happily let myself be duped. Smelling like a brothel fronting as a bakery, I was Cindy Crawford confronting the elements of fire and ice. I embraced the sham(e) of it. I was the perfect demographic for the advent of ‘real’.
I knew that when I took off the velvet rope around my neck, my problems would loom much larger than whether or not I should lose my religion to Beverly Hills High’s resident bad boy. Or how I would ever reconcile my friendships with a black woman and male model with my conservative Midwestern upbringing. Were these real concerns, issues to take seriously and digest as a socially-aware consumer? Certainly. Were they germane to negotiating my own conflicted childhood? Well, yes and no.
It’s not really important what sorrowful threads made up my reality because I consciously traded them in for a realer reality so often that the threads started to braid themselves with those I co-opted from cable and Sassy magazine. I wanted the’90s version of an honest life: political activism, bowler hats, coffee, black baggy blazers, Toad the Wet Sprocket. I wanted to discuss the state of the environment with a bearded boy while wearing sensible shoes and my grandmother’s dress. I wanted us to fight about “selling out” our lives to capitalism and then make up in a dark bar with Eddie Vedder ringing in our ears. I wanted to break up with bearded boy unceremoniously and then get a tattoo (a black hole) to celebrate our dissolution. I wanted to live the sloppy, somewhat sad, pop-culture saturated life of Janeane Garofalo’s character in Reality Bites and have meaningless sex with guys in bands until my heart hurt constantly because I was just being true to myself. I wanted to lose my job, lose my purpose, lose myself in melancholy and inhabit the warbling chords of a Cure song that wasn’t “Friday, I’m in Love”. I wanted to live in Cameron Crowe’s Singles, but in a grimmer version that sucked slightly less.
But let’s be real: I was in 6th grade. I didn’t know what the hell I wanted. I just wanted to escape from a bedroom that was always dark even though it was filled with pink stuff and neon-headed Troll dolls. I wanted to scrub away the patina of stability and comfort my parents offered to mask the amorphous gunk of death and dysfunction that crudded my childhood home. My dad had begun videotaping our outings to riverside parks and craft festivals, forcing us to smile as we made memories to put off the inevitable. My mom insisted we buy a Sears photo package the year before she died. By that point, you could see the disease in all of us. I’ve looked at those pictures once since they were taken. The ghosts scared me off. The date is on the back of the photos: May 1992. In 1992, I wished for a life that would make me miserable, over-analytical and hyper-aware of the tragic beauty of the human condition, but in ways that I did not currently already know. I sought to live authentically as someone else. Someone equal parts Christian Slater’s quirky love-interest and Natalie Merchant. I thought it a fair compromise.
In 1993, I loved Nirvana, Lenny Kravitz, and Dr. Dre. I liked Toad the Wet Sprocket. I hated the Gin Blossoms. In 1994, my mom died. And so did Kurt Cobain. In 1995, I dye my hair cherry-cola red in an attempt to become Angela Chase. The hair dye is semi-permanent. I am still me.
What’s, perhaps, most strange is that Toad the Wet Sprocket evoke the ‘real’ of that time in my life more than almost any other band. At the time, they were just a signifier of false promise that rang true, the sincere score accompanying my coffeehouse daydreams. My pubescent soul took in their folky poetry and clung to it as much as I did to Johnny Depp’s mischievous gleam or a new addition to the MTV Buzz Bin, which is to say I buried it somewhere very deep within my burgeoning consciousness of what should forever shape my identity.
“All I Want” can play anywhere and I get nostalgic for a life that was never mine. This irrevocable loss feels so real that I conflate it with the actual loss that did take place. The song is a melancholic lilt—if there could be such a thing. During the verses, the singer embraces their purported honesty and tethers himself to the real: “The truth is not kind. And you’ve said neither am I.” And then he begins to hope, to evade the truth he’s grimly laid out, allowing himself to be beckoned by the siren’s call of “everything”. And he wants and he hears things on the evening air that he desperately wants to believe. By the time we reach the bridge, it’s clear he’s reached the core of his truth: the siren’s song is just a taunt of what will never be: “Though the air speaks of all we’ll never be/It won’t trouble me.” The singer’s easy dismissal of this deceit, in the guise of accepting what’s he’s lost, somehow seems more dishonest than anything. For we know, he will go on wanting and listening to the air “confessing everything” despite what will never be. Acknowledging the futility of this wanting doesn’t make it any less true. The ‘real’ will continue to defeat the real. He’s just pretending to be honest with himself.
This is how I hear “All I Want” in June 2012 while drinking a margarita beachside at a Jacksonville bar & grill. My dad’s ex-girlfriend’s daughter is getting married the next day. I am nursing the wounds of a book proposal rejection and trying to enjoy the Florida sun with my boyfriend. I am attempting to be real with myself. I am in my 30s now and no longer want the ’90s version of an honest life. I want what my life is naturally: its complications and disappointments confessing everything that I wouldn’t myself. Or this is what I say anyway. It might have been the tequila, but I couldn’t help it: It is fall of 1993. I am Neve Campbell coping with a family tragedy, clad in tasteful denim and a baggy Gap sweater. My boyfriend has eyes like Johnny Depp’s soul and his goatee circa 1994. The leaves are gold and the sky is dark. The moment is quiet, sad and real. The air outside is soft.