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When Ska Was King, With Rob Harvilla

Aaron Barrett and Derek Gibbs of Reel Big Fish perform at Southampton University on March 5, 2011.
JSN Photography/WireImage

You don't get to choose what kind of stuff is going to stick in your brain, not any more than a shopping cart tipped over in a stream can choose which color of discarded plastic bag will wind up snagged on its upturned wheels. Or anyway I haven't really had that choice, and buddy my upturned wheels are absolutely lousy with discarded plastic garbage at this point. As a kid and a teenager I did not so much sip as chug the cultural sludge that was everywhere on tap; for the first decade of what was notionally my adulthood, I spent a retrospectively embarrassing amount of time trying to figure out where I personally fit into the cultural products and pretensions with which I had surrounded myself.

I'd love to say that I have moved on from all or even any of that, but it would be a lie. I'm less anxious and weird about it, I think, but my taste for cultural sludge and my personal tendency to retain memories and feelings related to it long beyond any utility are unabated. All of which is to say that having The Ringer's Rob Harvilla, whose 60 Songs That Explain The '90s is adapted from his slightly less-new but equally delightful podcast 60 Songs That Explain The '90s, on the pod felt not just exciting, but like a kind of apotheosis—here, or there on the other end of the call, was someone who didn't just understand how that felt, but had grown up big and smart and strong despite having so many of the same tendencies that I have.

What made this conversation such a fun one to have, beyond our guest's delightful personality and general vibe, is that our appetites all seemed roughly equivalent even though our tastes diverge. What Drew aspired to as a kid growing up in the '90s was different than what I aspired to growing up around the same time, and both of those were different than what Rob was after. (It is not giving anything away, really, to note that he is the only person on this podcast ever to have been in a ska band.) But all three of us used the culture and more specifically the music that was around us to figure out who we were, and what we liked, and what we wanted to be. And so while we talk a fair amount about the actual music of the 1990s in this episode, with special attention given to the welter of fads and jumped-up subgenres that gave the era a mostly cosmetic but not entirely fraudulent sense of chaotic diversity, we mostly talked about what we took from it all, in all the ways that a person takes stuff from it.

It is, if I'm being honest, kind of heavy on the Middle-Aged Man Chat even by our usual standards, but what would you have us do? Not talk about the experience of making mixtapes? Not mine the anxieties and breakthroughs and tragicomic moments of personal discovery that happened not so much alongside as through listening to these songs during our teenage years? I don't really know a way to talk about this music without also talking about all of that, because I never had an experience of that music that wasn't shaped and colored by all of that. Rob's book, which unfolds through a series of funny, loosely linked essays associating often extremely different songs in clever and telling ways, is very good at balancing all of that. In the moments when Drew and I briefly stopped hooting about Def Leppard or whatever, I think this episode is pretty good at it, too. The rest of it is just us firing quarters into the jukebox, honestly, but I feel like that's okay. There are many worse ways to spend your time, or your quarters.

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