In the spirit of Italian literary critic Franco Moretti and his practice of “distant reading,” Generation Bubble offers a series of essays devoted to our attempts to “unlisten” to pop past and present — to consider individual songs in light of how they helped structure everyday life in their moment.
No band symbolizes the 1990s alternative-rock gold rush like Veruca Salt, a synthetic riot-grrl confection that seemed at the time designed to cater to all the enlightened prejudices of music consumers in order to expose them as pretentious postures.
With the hyping of Veruca Salt, many of the ideals nurtured in the 1980s indie underground were transformed into unembarrassed marketing come-ons. If Liz Phair’s crypto-feminism was lucratively alternative (indeed, it established Matador as the successor to Sub Pop as the premier talent incubator for major labels), and if it successfully sold the fantasy of putting the patriarchy on the run, and thus afforded male taste-czars an opportunity to give their aesthetic pronouncements a progressive sheen, then why not double down with a Chicago band featuring two front women who tout themselves as “post-feminists,” who have old-fashioned-sounding names (Louise Post and Nina Gordon) as vaguely nostalgic as a baby-doll dress, and whose band is archly named — just so you know they are sufficiently self-aware and ironic — after a rude, spoiled girl in a beloved children’s book? Veruca Salt play meticulously produced guitar rock, but with enough distortion and pouty lyrical references to adolescent self-hate to pass as grunge. They’re novices on their instruments, of course, but listeners can tell themselves that the band’s rudimentary chops constitute a challenge to the culture industry’s standards of professionalization, which stifle folk expression and replace it with slick commercialism. The fact that Veruca Salt itself is the most slickly commercial product imaginable only makes it more meta.
Rising to fame after a 1993 South by Southwest showcase that helped establish the template for aspiring “indie” groups, Veruca Salt was one of the first bands of the alternative wave that was consumed and exhausted as pure hype before most people had heard them. The first article about Veruca Salt appeared in the January 1995 issue of Rolling Stone, a few months after their debut album American Thighs had been reissued by DGC, Nirvana’s label. Already obliged to note the backlash among “insiders” against the band, the article’s writer, Al Weisel, goes on compares his subject to Big Star and Cheap Trick. The overheated atmosphere surrounding the band made it impossible to tell if Veruca Salt’s music was any good. Today, it seems promising but half-ripened, marked by too many 90s-era cliches. But at the time the songs were entirely occluded by the preceding circumstances of the band’s notoriety. One could only consume the hype.
Despite the lofty touchstones he mentions in the Rolling Stone article, Weisel can’t help but present Veruca Salt less as a band in their own right than as an occasion for the ascendant alt-rock milieu to celebrate its market power. Thus the article features roll-call sentences like this one: “Backstage at the [Veruca Salt] concert, Chicago seems like the center of the music world. Courtney Love is spreading slanderous rumors. J Mascis plays air guitar to the Led Zeppelin song playing in his head. Urge Overkill’s ‘Eddie’ King Roeser explains to Smashing Pumpkins’ James Iha why Neil Diamond is a god.”
Veruca Salt’s inevitably insignificant career was always already a footnote to the bands that managed to break out of obscurity and redefine “alternative” as a wholly integrated market segment.
Veruca Salt are about to play in front of a huge audience for the first time in their career, but their music has already become beside the point. The point of Veruca Salt for the industry milieu in which they found themselves was to consolidate the triumph of their indie predecessors as the latter came to savor the awareness that they had become the icons of the music-industry establishment. Their imitators now drove press coverage; A&R people now sought their avatars. Their backstage banter had now taken on the trappings of lore. Veruca Salt’s inevitably insignificant career was always already a footnote to the bands that managed to break out of obscurity and redefine “alternative” as a wholly integrated market segment. Even before they got national distribution, they were already destined to be that flash in the pan that signifies the complete reification of a once vibrant and organic artistic style, which afterward lives only in memory, in legend, even for the performers who have been therewith made legendary. Veruca Salt meant that from that point onward, the alt-rock vanguard could only go through the motions of their petrified genre.
“Seether,” the first single from American Thighs, bears the imprint of being a band swallowed by publicity before they could begin. In his Rolling Stone article, Weisel describes the song as “a harrowing self-inquiry full of barely repressed rage and pain.” Gordon tells him that she wrote it after experiencing a moment of intense contempt: “I was talking to someone, and I felt myself seething…. I had this vision of scraping this person’s face on the sidewalk. I was so shocked that I wanted to do that.” Gordon tries to slot that sentiment into the girl-power zeitgeist of the time, which was approaching the zenith of its commercial potential, with the bridge: “Oh, she is not born like other girls, / But I know how to conceive her. / Oh, she may not look like other girls, / But she’s a snarl-toothed seether!”
The premise is that the seether is a barely controlled internal monster that occasionally escapes to wreak havoc and possibly smack down the unrighteous. But in the verses, the monster is a nebulous external force — “Seether is neither big nor small / Seether is the center of it all” — that, the chorus tells us, one “can’t fight.” This irresistible force that makes the singer do bad things figures not merely as repressed rage and self-loathing but as the very social conditions that produced “Seether,” the hackneyed, radio-friendly single that would make the band a one-hit wonder. Small wonder, then, that Gordon, as Weisel tells us, was embarrassed to present this tune to the rest of the band.
To no one’s surprise, Veruca Salt’s second album, Eight Arms to Hold You, made virtually no impression, and the band’s fate in the music industry was sealed in actuality. Apparently aware of this themselves and already suffering internal dissension, the band had fallen into consolatory self-mythologizing. The track “Volcano Girls” reprises the riff from “Seether” and even mentions the song by name in the lyrics: Borrowing a trick from the Beatles’ “Glass Onion,” Gordon sings, “the seether was Louise.” At that point, however, the hype cycle had moved beyond them, leaving them with nothing to do but point fingers as they played out the rest of their recording contract.
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