Since Rob Harvilla first launched “60 Songs That Explain the ’90s” as a podcast in October 2020, the show has undergone a couple of notable evolutions.
The first was more immediate, with Harvilla, a Columbus-based writer for culture and sports site The Ringer, quickly eschewing longer sentences and adopting a more conversational tone. The second, however, revealed itself more slowly, with Harvilla gradually allowing the show to become more personal, incorporating stories drawn from his upbringing, quips offered by his children, and, in an examination of the Janet Jackson song “Together Again,” off the 1997 album The Velvet Rope, a loss experienced by Harvilla's wife in college, and which resurfaced as he listened to the album in preparation for the episode.
“I’m just playing this song around the house, and she starts crying, and then starts telling me her personal story about a friend who died in college. And now I have this very personal connection to this song, even if it’s secondhand, where I’m connecting with it on a deeper level,” Harvilla said in an early November interview at a Clintonville coffee shop. “If I was writing a career-spanning thing about Janet Jackson, I think I would be listening more as a critic and trying to find three or four songs that indicate this or that music style, or this or that lyrical approach. You know, these are the important things about Janet Jackson on this record at this time. But by that point in the show, having a more emotional approach and talking more about personal stories, I think I was able to listen to [The Velvet Rope] the same way I listened to Control when I was 10, where it’s coming more from a personal perspective. And that helps me connect with it in a deeper way than being a critic trying to figure out what letter grade this one gets.”
When Harvilla first conceived of the podcast in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, he envisioned delving into the tracks that he viewed as definitive of the 1990s, homing in on that particular decade in part because it coincided with his high school years, which he described as formative to his listening habits, and in part because it was the last decade not dominated by the existence of the internet.
“You say the ’90s and everyone gets an image in their head, and that doesn’t seem to be as true for the decades since,” he said. “Even the 2000s don’t feel as distinct as the ’90s, and why is that? Is it because I wasn’t a teenager anymore? Is it because of the internet? All of the above?”
Harvilla initially settled on 60 songs because 90 felt too daunting, and he feared a scenario where a podcast labeled “90 Songs That Explain the ’90s” was canceled a dozen episodes in. Of course, Harvilla has since blown well past 60 songs on the way to 120, carrying on with the original name in the same way that Conan O’Brien continued “In the Year 2000” long after the Y2K bug had come and gone.
The bulk of these 120-odd songs turn up in Harvilla’s new book, also called 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s, and . But where podcast takes a more segmented approach, each episode drilling deep on a single track, the book draws more connective tissue, with Harvilla grouping roughly 10 songs per chapter and then teasing out a link between tunes that upon first glance might appear unrelated.
“I was essentially trying to build 10 minor thesis statements and find ways to group songs together that sound chaotic when you just list them,“ said Harvilla, who batches songs under headers such as “Sell Outs (Or Not) (Or Maybe“ (artists who gained popularity after making what could be termed commercial turns) and “Vivid Geography, or, Everybody Hates a Tourist“ (songs that felt removed from his experiences growing up as a suburban white kid). “A few of the earlier reviews that I’ve gotten from [outlets] like Kirkus have been like, ‘This is chaos. What do these songs have to do with each other?’ And I’m sorry, but what unites them is that they’re in my head in that specific way, and I’m hoping that’s good enough.”
Indeed, the threads woven between these seemingly disparate songs is one of the book’s strengths, mirroring the experience of music discovery in those pivotal teenage years, where one song can lead to another which can then unlock an entirely new potential universe. In my experience, for example, the DJ Shadow album Entroducing….., from 1996, served as a skeleton key, of sorts, helping me to make sense of Pre-Millenium Tension by the British trip-hop artist Tricky, released two months later and bearing little in common beyond the order in which they entered into my world.
This is yet another of the strengths inherent in Harvilla’s book, as well as the associated podcast: It makes the reader consider their own connection with music and invites the kind of sharing that has helped build a community around the production. Harvilla said that he’s never created anything that has generated this kind of public response, and it’s not unusual for him to receive emails and late-night Twitter DMs in which listeners and/or readers relay their own experiences with music. “It tends to be people who were teenagers in the ’90s, too, and they’re reaching out and telling me their own stories,” Harvilla said. “And as people started giving back, and sharing these personal details, I imagine that probably spurred me to give a little more of myself in turn.”
When we met up in early October, Harvilla was preparing to record the 109th episode of the podcast, which he had only recently finished writing, and which he said finds him continuing along this path. “It’s not something I would have written at the beginning [of the podcast], and it’s more about grief,” said Harvilla, who expects the podcast to wrap its 120-episode run at some point in February, give or take.
Harvilla, who takes to describing his teenage self in less than glowing terms throughout the book (the word steakhead makes multiple appearances), said while the concept is rooted in the music he first heard as a younger man, he’s addressing these songs with nearly three decades of accumulated experience and growth, and he invites listeners and readers to do the same.
“It was a very intense experience, but it was also a pretty basic teenage experience, I think. I just had crushes on girls and was sad, and sucked at basketball and was sad about that,” Harvilla said, and laughed. “But, yeah, ideally I tell my own spectacularly mundane, teenage-listening-to-music stories for the purpose of spurring you to think about your own.”
Some of the connections drawn out in me as I read were more obvious (I went to the same sod-flinging Green Day concert at Blossom Music Center that Harvilla writes about attending in the book). Others were more unexpected, with the text transporting me back to the time I spent listening to Radiohead and Soul Asylum cassettes during a Pope John Paul II-led mass in the desert outside of Denver in 1993 (it’s a long story), and to the bond Nirvana helped me forge with an older kid named Tom who I met as a teenager working at Scorchers in the Valley, and the hole his death punched in my gut just two short years later.
Harvilla said he knew going in that Nirvana and the death of frontman Kurt Cobain would be central to the project, and he initially envisioned a scenario in which the Seattle band’s era-defining “Smells Like Teen Spirit” would serve as the final episode of the podcast. Even when the song turns up in the book, the passage both looks and feels different, with slight shifts in typography (there's an increased use of all-caps, for instance) and pacing, with the writing taking on a heightened sense of urgency.
“We have to stop at ‘THE WHOLE,’” Harvilla writes, breaking down Cobain’s shattering performance of the Leadbelly song “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” on MTV Unplugged. “He can’t ever take the breath. If he takes the breath the song keeps going, and the song ends, and the CD ends, and we leave the room, and everyone keeps getting older all the time, and we’re older now, too, and then suddenly we’re on the school bus at the corner of East Union and North Harmony, right in front of our old junior high, when the radio tells us that he’s gone.”
“It is written in a different way. … And there is a tone in that page and a half that I don’t think exists anywhere else in the book,” Harvilla said. “And that’s probably appropriate. I do think he deserves to be set apart a little bit, both because of what he meant to the ’90s and because of what he meant to me.
“I can’t really claim I was personally devastated, but of course it had to affect me. All of the people that alternative rock lost in real time throughout the ’90s, and listening to all of these songs about heroin and death and suicide, that had to have had an impact on me – even if I wasn’t aware of it then, and even if I’m not fully aware of it right now.”