Alone in My Love of 90s Melancholy
Reclaiming Pop Culture Poetry
I will be the first to say that a 90s Sarah McLachlan or Alanis Morrissette or Jewel is not Bach or Chopin. These are fundamentally different things, different expressions of the human experience. The captivation of the former is in simplicity and earthiness; the latter is in its calling beyond into heights and complexity.
But there is a real genius—as in all well-done folk simplicity—that I miss from that mid-90s era. I’ve realized since growing up listening to a lot of the singer-songwriter genre that it isn’t representative of the decade. There was a lot of dross, and idealizing the 90s is odd in the context of where it inevitably has led us, and in the context of the cultural richness of the other centuries to which we should more readily refer. But what’s always fascinating to me, and a little hill I like to regularly die on, is that meaningful language—poetic, questioning, intelligent—made it onto Top 40s charts and into the regular mainstream cultural sphere not so long ago, even if it feels like a silly nostalgic dream now.
I think we underestimate what has been lost. Even the simplest radio listeners just going about our days had near-daily occasion to reflect on what it meant to be human, the inescapable reality of sorrow and relational challenges, the starkness of our finitude, the need to gently consider who we are at our stripped back core. As a child and teen I often found myself bowled over by the insight of some songwriter’s gentle poetry sandwiched in between canned pop beats, predictable rhymes, and chaotic choreography—something authentic, real, and challenging fighting through the noise and reminding me I could be more than the vapidity of the culture that surrounded me.
Pop culture doesn’t offer this anymore, especially to the very young, except in a crazed, bold despair devolving into rabid lust, anger, and absurdity—or (and maybe sometimes worse) thin sentimentality. It makes me sad that there is so little cultural occasion to carve out depth and meaning in our souls, so little chance to remember who we are, in a time when we most need it.
Everything is increasingly pure carnival and spectacle, and so I do keep contact with my nostalgia for a world, only slightly old, without much shame.
A few real poetic phrases can cut in and transform a heart almost instantly; that is their power. I’d like to see a rekindling of that power again on our way back to our deepest cultural roots—honest heart cry things without the tint of pretence, propaganda, and reductive, mercenary aims at clicks and Spotify spins.
This is a favourite I recorded a few years ago: a simple, melancholy, aching song about the tension between the stark limits and sorrows of being human and the possibilities of what’s beautiful above it all, coexisting. Something pure and honest cuts through, giving room for something real to take root. It feels like a drink of water.
I recorded a simple version of it a few years back in my time sick in a basement apartment:
I don’t know the way back for us from our mostly shallow, ugly, despairing culture, beyond just building, creating, praying, choosing courage, sharing what’s beautiful. I don’t think everyone listening to melancholy 90s is the answer.
But bit by bit, we could all tap back into the things of our impoverished culture that still carry a small reflection of what’s real, treating these with reverence like a dusty artifact, and trust that those flickers could rekindle a warm fire in many hearts again in quiet rebellion against the cold and darkness.