Culture | June 9, 2023 6:25 am

This Podcast Reminds Us How Moving ’90s Musical Nostalgia Can Be

If you’re not listening to "60 Songs That Explains the ’90s" yet, now’s the time

Rob Harvilla posing against a brick wall with musical notes.
Rob Harvilla's podcast series centers on 120 songs from the 1990s.
Rob Harvilla/Danica Killela

Rob Harvilla has thought long and hard about at least 120 songs from the 1990s. He’s also written over 100,000 words about those songs — and then spoken them aloud into a microphone for his podcast, 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s

The title’s a misnomer: Harvilla has already covered not 60 but 93 songs from the 1990s (beginning with Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know,” which first aired in October 2020). The final batch of 30 — making for a grand total of 120 — kicked off a couple weeks ago with the show’s white whale: “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana, with special guest Courtney Love. 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s will wrap up after this final set; Hachette Books will release a companion book, Songs That Explain the ’90s, this November. 

Clocking in at two hours, 39 minutes, Harvilla begins the “Teen Spirit” episode like the 90 that came before it: with an eloquent, and often elegiac, expression of what the song meant to him (as a teenager growing up in the Midwest) and how it changed the culture at large. In this episode, he threads the needle from outsider artist geniuses Wesley Willis and Daniel Johnston through a succession of Batman films to the present day — somehow communicating what Nirvana meant when nobody knew what Nirvana would become. 

Most of Harvilla’s episodes feature a guest commentator. In this episode, that commentator is Courtney Love — a polarizing figure, maybe, but one who proves to be thoughtful, candid and surprising. If you’ve listened to the first 90 episodes of this Ringer podcast, it’s difficult to imagine a better 91st episode. Harvilla’s skill is similar to This American Life’s Ira Glass or Fresh Air’s Terry Gross. He’s an empathic listener with a killer taste in music and no agenda. He told us he “tries to approach everything with an open mind and a certain amount of kindness,” and that’s evident in the Nirvana episode. 

We spoke with Harvilla soon after its release. If you’ve ever fallen in love with a rock song, you can’t miss it — for the empathetic take on Willis and Johnston, for “bloody night out” and especially for the moment when Love — who shares previously unreleased lyrics to her husband’s generational anthem — asks Harvilla to accompany her on guitar as she sings them. “Do you have a guitar — do you know ‘Teen Spirit’?” Love asks, as Harvilla howls with laughter in the background. “In a perfect universe, I would pull out a guitar and do that, but that’s just not going to fucking happen,” he says. If that’s not the spirit of the ’90s, nothing is. 

InsideHook: One of the reasons I really love the show is because you’re not based in New York or LA, so it seems more “real,” whatever real is.

Rob Harvilla: Yeah! Ohio is as real as it gets, man! That’s funny. I lived in Oakland and worked in San Francisco for a few years, I lived in New York for about five years, but my wife and I always knew we would come back here. I mostly grew up south of Cleveland; she grew up in Columbus. Our grandparents are here. We can afford a house, all that kind of stuff. We always knew we’d be back in Ohio. But it’s been weird. It’s weird to have worked remotely long before COVID. It does feel real around here — everyone’s really into landscaping. So I’m just out there mowing the lawn and trying to weed and trying to keep up so I don’t get kicked out of my house.

The ’90s is the first decade we can’t forget due to the Internet, plus it marked the end of monoculture. It was the last decade listeners learned to love a record because they bought it. Do you think 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s would work for any other decade? 

I think it could. I do think that the ’90s, as you said, is the perfect decade for it. What I’ve realized over the course of doing the show is what makes it perfect for me is I was a teenager in the ’90s. It’s when I went to high school [and] college, and the music that was important to me then is more important than any other music. I think that’s true for anyone. 

But you’re right about the Internet. I  went to journalism school from 1996 to 2000, and it’s so funny to think of myself then, and to picture the Internet as this giant meteor hurtling toward Earth. We had some idea of what we were in for, but only like 2 percent of how traumatic and how different our profession was going to be, even five years from that point. 

The ’90s feel distinct. Everything thereafter is so atomized. It’s so real to me — when you said the idea of buying a CD and you listen to it 200 times because you bought it — you made an investment; you chose that CD over five,10, 15, 20 other CDs. You’re gonna get maximum value, right? I love just picturing myself at Camelot Music in the mall and agonizing over whether to buy a Soul Asylum CD versus this Teenage Fanclub CD. I don’t miss those days, but I do love that image and how much this music used to mean. 

Wes Anderson’s “Asteroid City” Considers the Future by Looking to the Past

The director's ode to the Space Age sees him turning his focus to questions of ambiguous motivation and mysterious inspiration

Was it fate or extremely good planning that led to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as your 91st episode?

My first impulse was to save it for the end. I do think, in a lot of ways, it’s the definitive ’90s song. It’s a question I’ve been asked so much. I love getting requests from everybody, but that’s the one I’ve been asked about the most: “Where’s the ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ episode?” I have to keep saying, these are not ranked — we’re not going in ascending order of importance or whatever. 

I always figured that I would save it for the end, but then that started to feel like a foregone conclusion. I thought maybe we should just start this last season with it, even though the challenge will be to build up to something else. So I was already thinking about it, and [then] Courtney Love came up. It was like, “Well, she’s interested in talking — now we absolutely have to do it now.”

Are you ready to be part of Courtney Love’s extended circle?

It’s wild. It’s so wild even to hear her voice, you know what I’m saying? I try so hard to make these people real in my head and understand that they are just real people moving through the world. But to talk to her on the phone, to see her on a Zoom call, to get a text from Courtney Love is just such an absolutely surreal experience.

For those who haven’t listened, she asks you to play “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on guitar so she could sing alternate lyrics…

Oh my God! 

Or pull up the karaoke machine! 

I just started laughing! I’ve been sitting around thinking about whether I’m going to regret that. It would have required, like, 10 years of me practicing the song and actually being good at it to feel confident enough to just impulsively pull out an acoustic guitar and try and play that song with Courtney Love over Zoom. I just would have to be a completely different person. 

You’re a parent. You were not a parent in the ’90s. Did you omit or include any of your 91 songs due to fatherhood? 

Oh, sure. I guess the first one would be Tom Petty. I did an episode of “It’s Good To Be King” from Wildflowers. I started out talking about how when my first son was born, I was holding him in the hospital, and it was sort of instinctive — I was like, I should sing him a lullaby, and I just started singing him Tom Petty, something from Full Moon Fever. That episode is a lot about listening to Tom Petty when I was a teenager and thinking that he was unfathomably old, right? He was probably in his late 30s. And I was like, “He’s 80 years old, he’s gonna die soon.” He was just such a veteran to me when I was a teenager, and now I’m older than him when he was doing Wildflowers. Now I’ve got three kids. My kids don’t come up too often, but they do from time to time, and there’s no question that fatherhood affects everything I’m listening to and everything that I’m saying and doing, whether it’s explicit or not.

If Garth Brooks was on Spotify, would you have done a Garth Brooks song?

Garth is sort of back on the table, now that I am not bound to the song having to be on Spotify. That’s the way it was when it launched, but that’s no longer true. I try not to telegraph absolutely everything that I’m going to be doing, but it would be pretty hard to do this show without Garth coming up at some point. He’s so dominant, and the fact that his records aren’t readily available the way everyone expects everything to be, does that affect his legacy? I think we think about him differently.

I know you’ve never done a band or artist twice, but have you at least pondered an episode on Green Day’s “Brain Stew (Godzilla Remix)”

You know, it keeps coming up. I wasn’t aware of this at the time, but it was a foundational experience for me. It was a crucial building block of who I am, that Godzilla remix. It does warrant a closer look. I think I would be shocked if it didn’t come up again. 

I have considered going back to artists from time to time. Mariah Carey I’ve considered. I did “All I Want for Christmas Is You” pretty early on, and those early episodes are so short compared to the way they are now. It’s hard not to feel like those songs got a little short shrift compared to what I do now. So I’ve considered the “Fantasy” remix, just because Mariah is so important. It’s always possible that I will double up. The “Brain Stew” remix is absolutely something I gotta figure out. I gotta figure out what my fascination with that is. But it’s there. It’s real.

I know there’s a book coming, and you’ve written literally hundreds of thousands of words and said those words into a microphone, but it’s not exactly the same as just writing. Your take on “Rihanna Quiet Quit the Super Bowl Halftime Show” was one of my favorite pieces about the mini concert. Do you miss just writing? 

Oh, thank you, thank you — that was fun. I never wanted to lose the writing entirely. And it’s really fallen by the wayside, given everything, but it was a lot of fun to write the instant reaction, where I don’t have time to think about it really, or obsess over it — it’s just try and get it up within an hour or two. I never want to not do that. I never want to lose that.

If “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was spiritually the first song of the ’90s, what’s the last song of the ’90s?

It’s grim to say, but I agree with Chuck Klosterman’s The Nineties book: The decade doesn’t end when the decade ends, and it’s hard to avoid 9/11 as the end. 

Does that make “Last Nite” by The Strokes the last song of the ’90s? Or the first song of the 2000s?

I like it as the first song of the 2000s. Very early on I said it was “I Want It That Way” or “…Baby One More Time.” Everything after that sounds quite different.