HighSchoolMixtape: Britpop or Bust

During the summer of 1991, I began making mixtapes. These were pretty simple: a catalog of the songs I had heard and liked, with each side of the tape separated by month. Most importantly, these were songs I had access to, whether through my modest yet growing record and cassette collection, or my sister and mom’s stuff. In the pre-Internet days, just because I heard a song on the radio didn’t mean I could switch on a computer and download or stream it — besides, I didn’t even have a computer, and I only interacted with them sparingly at my high school in Sacramento. Trying to borrow cassettes and records from flaky friends and acquaintances was another can of worms.

So my first tape, “Songs from May-June 1991,” cataloged my introverted obsessions: Morrissey’s early solo career, the Housemartins, and R.E.M. Elvis Costello was a constant, thanks to my goal of purchasing his entire catalog. He was a natural shit-talker who took gleeful aim at the world around him, and who seemed adept at encapsulating his thoughts into a pithy, memorable phrase. Yet he seemed aware that his verbal aggression couldn’t mask his bruised sensitivity, that he was just “another fool,” as he often put it. I imagined him as an idealization of the cynical and uncompromising writer I wanted to be.

Eventually, my abiding passion turned to the music I heard on 120 Minutes, the Dave Kendall-hosted MTV show that brought alternative music to a nation of jaded suburbanites. It was awash in the sounds of British rock, from the Madchester jangle rock of the Stones Roses and the Charlatans; to the shoegaze trippery of Lush, Ride and My Bloody Valentine. Hearing these songs felt like being told a secret. I didn’t get the irony that I thought music being played on a nationally televised video show was worthy of cult affection. In my stifling Sacramento reality, I only knew a handful of classmates who bothered watching 120 Minutes, or went to see Ride and Lush when they played at the local all-ages venue Cattle Club. (I’m still bitter that I missed out on that show.)

My absorption of Britpop coincided with my first, tentative efforts to break out of my hermetic shell, open that aforementioned “can of worms,” and befriend people who might have similar tastes. A girl in debate class offered to make copies of her Cocteau Twins collection, and soon my tape deck was dominated by the alluring and cryptic voice of Elizabeth Fraser. I became best buds with a high school dropout who collected manga from the San Francisco emporium Japantown, had a subscription to Sub Pop’s legendary “Singles Club,” and turned me on to the blissful miseries of Joy Division. (He later earned renown as an Asian pop culture expert with his own Wikipedia page.) I cataloged my newfound likes on my bi-monthly tapes.

As for hip-hop? Sure, I watched BET’s Rap City and, occasionally, Yo! MTV Raps. (I thought Yo! hosts Ed Lover and Doctor Dre were annoying.) Like most kids during the late ‘80s and early early ‘90s, I zombie-d out to afternoon video shows simply to kill time and boredom. But MC Hammer, Digital Underground, and Heavy D & the Boyz were just part of the oppressive pop Zeitgeist. I liked Public Enemy, but that was like supporting a remote political figurehead that had little to do with my daily struggles at school, and my daily struggles to communicate — or not communicate — with the people around me. Britpop seemed like a more exotic world, and I interpreted its relative obscurity as proof of its superior quality.

Eventually, however, I grew out of my Britpop phase and embraced the golden age of hip-hop. I arrived at college just as the “weed rap” craze was taking off, and it was more fun to smoke, drink and party to the Pharcyde’s “Pack the Pipe” and Gang Starr’s “Take Two and Pass” than Morrissey’s mopey arias. When I went to Moz’s Your Arsenal concert at the Concord Pavilion, I paid a proper farewell to that chapter of my difficult youth. — Mosi Reeves