On the last day of US History class this spring, I showed my students various pictures of how I perceived popular culture in the 1990s, especially in TV and Music. It was an opinion piece, and I told them this, and I encouraged them to do their own research.
The 1990s started on a high note. The euphoria of the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe seemed to carry over in the music of the day: M.C. Hammer, Michael Jackson’s brief comeback, Hair Bands were still somewhat popular. The rise of Hip Hop and R&B into the mainstream.
And then grunge came along and made everybody sad. A good part of Generation X sought a deeper meaning of life, and the more they looked, the less they found. Of they found something, it was a deep-seated hypocrisy as America had proclaimed itself to be the Greatest Country in the world, yet large segments of its own population did not benefit from this prosperity.
In fact, with Rodney King, O.J. Simpson, The Branch Davidians, the Left Behind series, and the approaching Millennium, the country and world seemed to be tearing itself apart.
The music reflected this. It became darker, more visceral. Grunge. Nine Inch Nails. Marilyn Manson (Of course you still had popular, upbeat music, which made a rebound toward the end of the decade).
The music entered my D&D games.
It began with Stone Temple Pilots. (And it turns out Scott Weiland used to play D&D.) My players heard “Plush” on evening as their characters approached the city of Safeton in the Greyhawk campaign setting.
“Vasoline” made into a scene where the player-characters weren’t sure if they were hallucinating, seeing an illusion, or if the strange hooded figure was actually there…
I prepared a whole “mixed tape” (yes, a cassette tape) for when the player-characters ended crossing The Field of Nettles, an infamous battlefield in the Blood War in the Gray Wastes of Hades. A very depressing place if you know your Planescape lore. Alice’n Chains featured prominently in this selection
As did Soundgarden.
There’s a pattern here. I listened to Stone Temple Pilots, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains a lot back then.
And now the lead singers to all three bands are dead. Drug overdoses. Suicides.
I wasn’t exactly a happy person back in the 1990s. I suffered from a lot of angst, ennui, and outright depression. The music didn’t help.
I thought it was helping. I thought it was a great addition to my games, and great to listen to away from my games. The music “spoke to me” (except for the part where I didn’t dress grunge nor did I do drugs). My life was pain, man, and they understood.
I describe music like this as “passive pain.” There is no call to action, just a general lamentation to the horrors and meaninglessness of life. If you listen to it long enough and often enough you start thinking that life is meaningless.
A general lethargy. A downward spiral. A great depression.
And then one day I heard “Du Hast” and snapped out of it! (Maybe not over night, but it was a step in the right direction).
“Du Hast” was one of the most amazing things I’d heard come over the radio while riding in a friend’s car. Then I often played Rammstein for my games.
And I lived happily ever after.