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Herb Sundays 49: Rob Harvilla
The Ringer senior staff writer and podcaster's concept playlist: Trying to Seem Cooler Than I Am 1990-1996.
No tricks today, so I'll use Rob's bio to start this off: Rob Harvilla is a Senior Staff Writer at The Ringer and host of the podcast 60 SONGS THAT EXPLAIN THE '90s. He's written for the Village Voice, SPIN, Deadspin, and various alt-weeklies that mostly don't exist anymore. He lives in Columbus, Ohio, with his family and is trying his best.
This playlist is, of course, a concept mix and it works beautifully (if you like alt-rock). The title is TRYING TO SOUND COOLER THAN I AM 1990-1996 which Rob describes as a playlist of ever-so-slightly less obvious alt-rock songs that he thought made him look cool in junior high/high school, or more specifically:
"I was a government-issue suburban alt-rock kid in the early '90s, but of course I sought to expand my horizons to a degree and at a speed imperceptible to the naked eye. Here are 35 songs exactly one-tenth of one percentage point more obscure than Pearl Jam or whatever."
I was introduced to the vocal stylings of Harvilla via Yasi Salek (Herb Sundays 16 ) (big thanks for linking Rob and me) as a guest on her genius Bandsplain podcast and found their banter around U2 perfectly compelling. I'm sure I had read him before and his name rang a bell as an Important Writer but there wasn't a card on file in my brain.
I finally dug in on his podcast/column 60 Songs That Explain The ‘90s (which has blown past its title to 70-some episodes now) and encountered something slightly more damaged than its peer podcasts. While each episode is based around one song in total, instead of a dutiful recounting of the song's history or making, Harvilla takes you on the scenic route of the song, via the artist's backstory, and through his own spiraling autobiography. For instance; for the intro of the Bone Thugs-n-Harmony episode (“Tha Crossroads”) we go through Jefferson Airplane, Pete Rock (and Rob’s obsession with wanting to watch him sample hunt), and Ta-Nehisi Coates even before we even start talking about the group. It's great.
But the real hit is Harvilla’s own meditations, his own cringe reflections on youth which read like a twisted midwestern Karl Ove Knausgård. For Harvilla, Proust's Madeline can be the sound of his high school friend Todd's car (Todd later “steals” his girlfriend) or the feeling of drinking 8 Dr. Peppers while playing Nintendo 64. It's a sensory rush of nostalgia but there's enough pathos in it to keep it tight and urgent. If someone asked me to describe what it was like to be a teen in the ‘90s I would probably point them to this series first.
The memory palace angle of the series is great because it allows him to talk about the largesse of music without irony, which is pretty damn herby. Each song is an emotional journey to his, and maybe your, youth. Harvilla has such good mic control, almost standup-esque, that it's almost a downer when he finally ends his monologue to welcome a guest for the backend of the show. Sometimes these interviews yield great results (The new Janet Jackson episode comes to mind) that he couldn't get to free solo, but energy-wise he has to slow down the car to pick the guests up. I’m selfish and I just want rabid puerile Uncle Rob alone in the studio, losing it.
This flow only works because Rob is someone whose ego death reaper is already on to the next town. He has abandoned hope of being cool and left it amongst his Ikea on the curb in New York. It is only because of this that he can now truly get to work. As a fellow ego-crushed midwesterner, I can relate of course. The "gunmetal sky" in Ohio is the same one in Michigan and I know for a fact we've meditated over the same lonely bundle of dirty snow while the churn of our Discman cassette adapter whines in the car stereo.
But it’s not all nostalgia, Harvilla hints at what made him a great music writer in the first place, well beyond humor. On the recent Sunny Day Real Estate episode, after a long opening riff on the seminal 1997 N64 multiplayer James Bond game, Goldeneye, he moves to describe the band and leaves you with a forever bar:
"The genius of Sunny Day Real Estate is how much of that intrigue was left to your imagination...This band is just a barrage of hyper specificity and obscurity and random beguiling combinations. You get it just enough right away to spend the rest of your life luxuriating in the parts you'll never get"
One’s own embarrassing moments in life, like making mixtapes for unrequited crushes, weigh a little less heavy after Rob goes through his own recounting. Each episode contains an exercism from shame, not wildly different than the best work of last week's Herb, Mark Leckey, just a lot less cool. I'm not sure the moral of it all but I think the series serves to bask in what music felt like when it sat atop the mountain of pop culture before the millennium hit, and music filed back in line behind tech, games, and nü golden era television. It is simply a memoir of the monoculture.
Special thanks to Why Is This Interesting crew Noah Brier and Colin Nagy for featuring Herb Sundays last week. Def subscribe to that high-grade newsletter:
Poll Place - HERB MARKET
So after 30-some years of collecting, I’ve been looking to start moving some of my collected artifacts (tees, posters, all forms of music media, etc.) and want them to find good homes. Part of the fun of collecting is making space for new things and I don’t love the idea of dumping stuff into the marketplaces with no context, so wanted to start with you, the Herb Populi first to ask your advice. Feel free to hit me up if any suggestions, etc.