How Bad Can It Be?: “90210: The Soundtrack”

Written by CD Reviews, How Bad Can It Be?, Music

As anyone must be who follows pop entertainment, I’m a keen observer of trend cycles. Culture is a marketplace, and there are all kinds of practical reasons to keep an eye on what succeeds. There’s the mercenary motive, of course — predicting the market is the way fortunes are made, and if chutney is the NEW salsa it’s only smart to put your money into chutney — but even for those of us without a financial stake in the business, there’s a hum of recognition when something fondly-remembered bubbles up again. It’s the same pleasure you feel when the old familiar chorus of a pop song rolls around, sure as the sunrise — or, perhaps more accurately, the pleasure of a well-turned poem, which is all about the delight of the new as it evokes the old. Because history, you see, never quite repeats itself, but it often rhymes.

Beverly Hills 90210 is not particular fondly-remembered, at least by me. The whole franchise and its many spinoffs constituted a brief blip in my pop consciousness. But the impact, outside of my own personal headspace, was considerable. 90210, as it turns out, ran for ten years, from 1990 to 2000. (Who knew?) And the teen-soap model has been imitated and co-opted and recalibrated for subsequent waves of TV watchers. For a while, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the NEW 90210; but inevitably what went around came around, and now there’s a remake, or reboot, or reimagining of 90210 itself filling that void. New 90210 is the NEW Old 90210. And again, it seems, the 1990s are back.

So if the 20teens are the NEW 1990s, where does that leave us? I haven’t seen the show itself, so I can’t really comment on how it evokes or fails to evoke the 1990s. On the 90210 soundtrack album, though, there are definitely some moments that hew to 1990s musical models.

Much of it is actually rather good, as these things go. Mute Math’s “Valium,” (download) for instance, is gorgeous, folky and spacey all at once. Dig the swirly psychedelic intro, conjuring echoes of world music; the dudouk is the NEW didgeridoo, which was itself the NEW sitar — but if you’re intentionally evoking the old school, as here, sitar is still sitar. Overall effect of plainspoken melody with mildly lysergic ornamentation; Mute Math = the NEW Beth Orton.

Even better are N*E*R*D, a.k.a. the ace production team The Neptunes — producers are the NEW deejays are the NEW rockstars; “Soldier” is the highlight of the record, the ska underpinnings alternating Pharrell’s toaster-style rapping with throaty vocals from Santigold (hook girl is the NEW guitar solo).

The effect harkens back to a time before 90210, to a previous wave of ska, when two-tone groups bestrode the dancefloor like colossi; for one song, at least, N*E*R*D and Santigold are the NEW Selecter. (Okay, wrong decade. Still, great band.)

As on any compilation, there are some embarrassments. Jet — or, as they insist on spelling it, JET — doubtless wish to evoke the proud hard rock tradition of their native Australia, and stand bravely in the forefront of slovenliness as the NEW primping (under which formulation body odor is the NEW cologne); but spending a song — even a short song — in spiteful bitching about the subculture du jour is no way to get yourself taken with even the seriousness afforded an AC/DC. Jet set their sights on “hipsters” here — hipsters being the NEW yuppies, and now that you mention it, that footage of Corey Glover rockin’ the “Die Yuppie Scum” T-shirt really hasn’t really aged well, has it? — and pack their screed with references to Pitchfork and thrift stores — references that seemed up-to-the-minute when the song was written, I’m sure, but which were already hopeless clichés by the time of the record’s release. And so “One Hipster One Bullit” (sic) is so hysterical and hypocritical, and Jet so fundamentally a shamming novelty act, that their ‘90s analogue can only be another one-hit wonder who neither rocked as hard nor cut so deep as they may have wished; congratulations, Jet — you are the NEW The Odds.

And so it goes. “I Want You So Bad I Can’t Breathe” is a slice of fey robo-funk several levels sub-Bowie; with this track, OK Go are the NEW Nancy Boy. Later, the All-American Rejects follow up with “Sierra’s Song,” a melodramatic acoustic waltz livened up with harpsichord; the NEW Goo Goo Dolls.

It doesn’t all map up quite so neatly. The Raconteurs, for instance, remake “Many Shades of Black” with Brit chanteuse Adele on vocals. Adele has been acclaimed in some quarters as the NEW Amy Winehouse, which would make The Raconteurs the NEW Dap-Kings; but they’re remaking their own song here, although it sounds more like a karaoke track, which I suppose makes the Raconteurs the NEW “As Made Famous By The Raconteurs.” Which doesn’t quite pass muster, notionally speaking — but the song is still a pleasure, no matter who’s singing, the guitar-churned quick-waltz enlivened by horns and piano. (Another waltz! Is it too early to declare that three is the NEW four?)

Then the referential lines get really blurry. Sarah Solovay’s got a nice husky voice and “Hearts Collide” (download) sets it against sweet and sprightly folk guitars. Next up, Darrelle London’s “Understand” has chirpy, wholesome vocals (Darrelle is Canadian, by the bye, so for her presumably 90210 is the NEW DeGrassi) — “Sorry if you wonder why I don’t call you my BF,” she sings, in a line perfectly encapsulating the song’s utter twee-ness — set to “Chopsticks” piano and cuckoo-clock percussion.

And for the space of two songs, it’s like Fiona Apple and Sixpence None the Richer traded places. It’s all very heart-on-sleeve, anyway: obvious is the NEW ironic.

So what’s missing here? For one thing, there’s virtually no call back to the musical forms predominantly used in the original series; while 90210 1.0 was loaded with the pop R&B and New Jack Swing that ruled the charts in its time, African-American forms and artists (with the stellar exception of the N*E*R*D track) are barely present on the new disc. It’s pretty much white indie-pop from stem to stern, and that’s perhaps the first sign that we’re on a different point along the trend curve — the conscious branding of the new show as a niche product, the recognition that, in a 500-channel universe, the notion of a “general audience” is a relic of the past, and the best anyone can hope for a is a plurality share of any of a zillion tiny demographics. In other words, cult hit is the NEW hit full-stop, and white girls ages 13-18 are the NEW “everybody.”

But even a niche product should have some resonance with the larger culture, or it risks irrelevance. African-American musical forms are no less ubiquitous a presence on pop radio and high-school dancefloors now than they were in the 1990s — if anything, they’re even moreso — but they’re absent here, which makes it a weirdly inauthentic sonic portrait of the contemporary teenaged experience, even in Beverly Hills. The student body of the real Beverly Hills High School has a large proportion of minority students, most notably some 40% who are of Persian descent; the 90210 reboot, to its credit, manages one Iranian-American character — but they still didn’t dare make him a Muslim. Apparently updates can only go so far. The end goal of trend-spotting is sometimes described as the “New Black,” and there are indeed many shades of black, and they are embraced by real kids of all races — but you’d never know it from 90210.