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What I’m listening to
Read Max is, ostensibly, a newsletter about the future, but it is also, with some regularity, a newsletter about the 1990s. Perhaps this is because, as the writer Gavin Jacobson suggested earlier this year, the 90s is “the primal scene of our present discontents–an age of reactionary populism, unbounded corporate power, economic and international instability, culture war, mass depression, surveillance capitalism and an obsession with celebrity culture.” Perhaps it’s because the futures envisioned in the 1990s shaped our present; perhaps it’s because the anxieties and desires of the 1990s limit our futures even today. Perhaps it is because I am 36 years old and was born in 1985 and was never allowed to buy Desert Storm trading cards. Who can say?
Among my current 90s-related interests, alongside 90s Dad Thrillers and the blessed return of relaxed-fit pants, is the 90s revival that has been spreading across music for the last few years. One of my favorite albums of this year was Fragments, a collection of short, meditative guitar pieces by Rachika Nayar, an experimental composer and guitarist. Nayar has impeccable avant-garde credentials; she performed at the Shed this year; but listen to this track and tell me it doesn’t sound like the midwest emo1 band American Football. (As Nayar herself would acknowledge.)
Another album I got really into this year — on the other end of the 90s-music spectrum — was TDJ’s SPF INFINI. Over the last few years, trance, and especially its progressive/euro offshoots, has sometimes felt to me like a kind of personal final frontier of 90s revivalism — even as other cast-off musics of the 90s crept back into the holes in my Swiss-cheese brain, trance remained stubbornly difficult to enjoy. Something about the TDJ album — and especially its accompanying video, embedded below — finally broke through for me. WARNING: The video and album are for advanced 90s-rememberers only. Watch and listen at your own risk.
Trance and Midwest Emo revivalism are, of course, only two prongs of the ongoing 90s wave. I’ve been tinkering for a bit with a playlist organized around contemporary music that might’ve ended up on prime-era TRL2: a mix of glossy boyband pop, snotty wordy pop-punk, wounded alt-rock, perfectly engineered RnB, and ska-inflected bullshit3, featuring favorites of media professionals like Haim and Olivia Rodrigo but also some bands and singers you (maybe) haven’t heard of. If you’re my age and spent any time at all watching TRL, you’ll absolutely hate this playlist, and maybe also secretly love it!
A brief peek at our weird future
What I’m reading
“The complex reality of drug addiction and homelessness” by Jay Caspian Kang: As readers of this week’s newsletter know, I’m bullish on “super-meth” as a meme for the IDW set in the coming few months. The idea — put forward in a new book by the journalist Sam Quinones excerpted in The Atlantic in October — is that the meth market has come to be dominated by a particular type of meth, phenyl–2-propanone, or “p2p,” that’s wildly damaging to its users, and the psychotic episodes and feverish addiction it causes is the root cause of our homelessness crisis. Quinones’s book is well-positioned to be consumed by berks who regard homelessness as essentially a problem of public order and policing rather than a problem of housing, but, as Jay points out, it’s a bit short on evidence to be wholly convincing to skeptics. He also links to this strong (and persuasive) response to the Atlantic piece from Ned Resnikoff at the UCSF Homelessness and Housing Initiative.
“How Shein beat Amazon at its own game — and reinvented fast fashion” by Louise Matsakis, Meaghan Tobin and Wency Chen: An excellent overview of the world of the ultrafast-fashion marketplace Shein and its ecosystem of shady and super-cheap reproduction, with an absolutely stellar opening anecdote about an art student who found a sweater vest at a thrift store and posted it for sale on Depop, only to find she’d accidentally created a mini-industry:
Replicas of the vest soon began popping up on countless other clothing sites and e-commerce marketplaces, including Amazon, AliExpress, Walmart, and Shein. Over time, the image of King’s torso would be altered, warping her body shape; at one point, another person’s manicured hand was awkwardly photoshopped onto it.
Eventually, retailers began using their own product photos, but that didn’t make the experience any less surreal. Unknown brands with names like GadgetVLot and WEANIA marketed their versions of the vest with jumbled strings of keywords: “Autumn Preppy Style Streetwear Clothes,” “Plaid Cotton Knitted Vest Elastic V-neck Sweater Crop.”
Real-estate listing of the week
What I’m watching this week: This video
What is “midwest emo”? It’s music that sounds like this video:
As everyone knows, the 90s happened twice, first between 1989 and 1995, and then, again, between 1996 and 2001. The cultural revival of 90s I is probably at or near its peak; the revival of 90s II, sometimes called “y2k,” is still building.
One thing to note is that this playlist consists mostly of revivals of white popular music of the late 90s, with the exception of Erika De Casier, a Cape Verdean-Danish singer who makes gorgeous g-funk RnB. I know there’s some 90s rap revivalism going on, but not really TRL-type stuff, and the truth is that I don’t know many contemporary artists mining the popular RnB of the late 90s for their sounds, which probably reflects my own blind spots and listening habits more than any reality of what’s happening in contemporary music. Which is a long way of saying, if you know of any singers or producers bringing back early Destiny’s Child, Ginuwine, Mariah, 112… please let me know.