The Better 1990s

Bettie Serveert’s Palomine

As I stumbled into the kitchen to turn on the coffee pot, the world outside the window painfully bright, I suddenly heard the voice of Bettie Serveert’s Carol van Dijk in my head: “Down under lock and key/There’s a brain tag to every secret”. I just couldn’t figure out why.

History as it should be: Bettie Serveert.

I immediately wanted to hear “Brain-Tag” — the song those lines are from — off the Dutch band’s wonderful debut album Palomine, a tremendous favourite of mine that I had somehow not listened to in many years. Searching the CDs on my shelves, I was frustrated to find it missing.

Musically, the record hit my sweet spot as few before or since have, reminding me of what I loved about both the Jefferson Airplane and Joy Division, while sounding like neither.

Bettie Serveert had the soft-loud-soft progression popularised by so many alternative bands of the late 1980s and early 1990s, but with the contrast between them turned down several notches.

I loved how their evocative guitar arpeggios were strung together by a bass line with a mind of its own and the way van Dijk’s vocals resisted them both. They sounded simultaneously tense and relaxed, which is not an easy feat.

As I drove around running errands later that morning, the urge to hear Palomine again became so overpowering that I made a detour to the record store. Not surprisingly, there were no copies to be had. I figured I would have to order a used copy online.

Then I remembered that I could stream the album.

Considering that I spend many hours each week listening to music on Bandcamp, Spotify, and YouTube, it must seem ridiculous that I forgot about this possibility.

But the workings of memory are strange. Over and over again, I’ve discovered that content I got to know through physical media is stored in a different part of my mind than the kind I first encountered over the Internet. And stored differently, too.

As I would later realize, the song “Brain-Tag” had special significance for me in this regard, since it is explicitly about the dangers and thrills of memory. The reason is so deeply personal that it’s hard to explain to someone who doesn’t know me extremely well. It’s simply too subjective.

Having said that, there are objective qualities in Bettie Serveert’s music that made this epiphany possible, ones which I think might prove helpful to others who are grappling with the passage of time.

To reveal something about them, I need to situate Palomine in its historical context, both in my life and in the culture at large.

Palomine came out in Europe during the fall of 1992 and the following year in the United States. Although I was online during that time, my experiences were almost exclusively textual. It would be years before music could be easily heard that way.

More than any time before or since, 1993 was the year when my whole world centred on music.

My girlfriend at the time worked for the non-profit organisation connected to the San Francisco Bay Area’s ticketing service BASS, which had a near monopoly. With the exception of Grateful Dead shows and a few other events with extremely high demand, she and her fellow employees could put in a request to get seats before anyone else.

Not only that, when there were still plenty of tickets available right before the date of a concert, she would frequently get them donated.

I went to every single concert I wanted to that year, from Lollapalooza and the Smashing Pumpkins to Sonic Youth and Stereolab. I saw the first American show Nirvana had given in months, a benefit for Bosnian rape victims at the Cow Palace.

The Bettie Serveert concert I saw at the Great American Music Hall just might have been my favourite of all. They weren’t as well known as the big alternative bands or as hyped by hipsters as some of the indie stalwarts. But I loved how pure they were, clearly relishing the opportunity to share the music they had created without any posturing.

When I had picked up Palomine a few months before that show, I quickly recorded it onto cassette, so my girlfriend and I could listen to it during drives. Those were the days, not only before downloading music became a thing, but before compact disc players were common in cars.

If you really wanted to take a record to heart, the best way was to play it over and over as a soundtrack to different landscapes.

The other side of that cassette was Bob Mould’s first solo album Workbook. I have vivid memories of listening to those two albums on vacation in the Pacific Northwest. “Brain-Tag” came on while we were stopped at a railroad crossing in a rain so light it looked like mist.

By the time the two of us were seeing Bettie Serveert live for the first time, we knew Palomine so well that we would look at each other whenever there was a deviation from the recorded version of a song.

Van Dijk’s lyrics made a big impression on me. Although lacking the abstract quality of the cut-up aesthetic popularized by Kurt Cobain or the intense stream-of-consciousness of PJ Harvey and Throwing Muses, I found them endlessly compelling.

Born to Dutch parents in Canada, Van Dijk had moved to the Netherlands for grade school, where she struggled with the language. Her English is fluent, but always felt a little off. There were a few too many idioms, as if she had been collecting them in a notebook.

Van Dijk’s stresses were often clumped together in ways that clashed with the beat. And even when her phrases made sense, they didn’t sound like something a native speaker would say.

The opening lines of “Brain-Tag” are a great example: “How does this rhyme?/Cause every time I see you/Well, I could swear/I must have met you somewhere”.

While poets frequently want to defy expectations, I didn’t get the sense that van Dijk had made these moves consciously. Rather, it felt like she was tapping into places deep inside her where things never quite made sense, where rhymes didn’t produce a feeling of calm – as they typically do when they fall at the end of lines with a regular meter – but one of distress and confusion.

Ironically, though I was taken with van Dijk’s lyrics from the start, critics tended to dismiss them.

In a 1993 review of Palomine for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, my friend Eric Weisbard wrote that her lyrics were “playful, basically” and that, athough they were “never an embarrassment”, listeners were “unlikely to listen to them closely” since they were “basically not the point”.

Given how unpretentious Bettie Serveert were in interviews, I can imagine them agreeing with this assessment.

I still think it’s wrong.

Or wrong for me, anyway. Because if I wake up with a song from three decades ago in my head, one I haven’t listened to in years, it seems clear that, even if the lyrics are “basically not the point”, they still stuck me with it.

More than anything, the lyrics on Palomine communicate a sense of existential mismatch. Sometimes the person we need to connect with comes into our lives too soon; sometimes too late. And sometimes we are that person.

Maybe critics like Weisbard thought that the lyrics were inconsequential, merely playful, because they weren’t about what is or was but what never really could be. The Surrealists used the counterfactual in that way, discerning liberation within it.

Van Dijk, though, is able to see the counterfactual as a place of confinement, the prison walls that prevent us from finding our match. “Well, I wish I’d known your name,” begins the title track, “Is it possible that we might have felt the same?”

“Tom Boy” begins by describing the singer in a position of disadvantage: “From where I stand/I can see/They’ve got the upper hand/On me.”

When she gets to the chorus, though, the tables have seemingly turned: “They call me a tom boy/And I love it/Cause only a tom boy/Could stand above it.”

Van Dijk describes what it’s like for a young woman to be hailed in that way. It’s an identity that gives her power, at least temporarily, but forecloses the possibility of bringing the see-saw of gender relations to a standstill.

I’ll be honest. Although I thought long and hard about the lyrics to Palomine back in the 1990s, I failed to register these qualities in a way that seemed useful. They were like the secrets van Dijk sings about in “Brain-Tag”.

The day that began with her voice in my head ended with my finally understanding why they had mattered so much to me three decades ago.

Once I realized that I could stream the album, I played Palomine over and over until I keenly felt the sense of mismatch the lyrics convey.

On the one hand, I realized how in sync van Dijk’s words were with the cultural theory I was reading back in the early 1990s, much of which focused on the problems with identity politics.

On the other, I perceived the disparity between then and now, how much has changed for the worse in the intervening three decades, even though it felt like we were making real progress for a while. And I saw, with frightening clarity, the crucial role that the Internet has played in this trajectory.

While it’s deeply depressing to contemplate all the potential that has been wasted in that time, the fact that the 1990s are an object of fascination for many young people today gives me hope.

There’s a great deal to learn from the culture of that decade, which continues to exert a disproportionate influence on the politics and society of today.

As we find ourselves reliving the kind of debates that dominated political and social discourse in the era of records like Palomine, we could do worse than make use of the hard-won insights of that time, when people were less distracted by the crises we face today.

Photograph courtesy of Guss Krol. Published under a Creative Commons license.