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PopCulture25YL- March 1994: Downward Spiral & Superunknown Debut, Sarah Michelle Gellar Has a Big Soaps Month

 

This month in PopCulture 25YL, we’re taking a look at the music, shows, video games, and whatever else we want from the month that was March of 1994.


VHS In the VCR

by John Bernardy

Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Kendall Hart makes a (villainous) friend on All My Children

A scene from All My Children with Susan Lucci as Erica Kane and Sarah Michelle Gellar as Kendall HartBefore Sarah Michelle Gellar made Buffy the Vampire Slayer a household name, she was playing the role of Kendall Hart on All My Children. Kendall was the complicated daughter of the always-scheming Erica Kane (classic soaps diva Susan Lucci) and was given up for adoption by a then-15 year-old Erica who’d been raped and in no position to raise a child. Kendall’s instinct to exact revenge on Erica for abandoning her at birth would’ve solidified her as a proper villain, except she also had an intense want for Erica’s approval. Kendall rightly had a chip on her shoulder. And instead of healing by starting a new life together as mother and daughter, Erica opened up all of Kendall’s old wounds by suggesting Kendall would be best served going back to her adoptive mother. This set off a chain of events best described by Gellar herself:

I seduced my stepfather, and when he wouldn’t sleep with me, I slept with the stable boy, cried rape, and my mother stabbed him with a letter opener. Then I went to jail for perjury.

This is where we pick up with All My Children this month 25 years ago.

I used to watch this show over my mom’s shoulder when she caught up with her recordings on the weekend. I was well versed in the love story of Haley (before she became “the” Kelly Ripa) and Matteo (before he became Riverdale’s Hiram Lodge). I didn’t like Erica’s current husband Dimitri—his half-brother Edmund Grey was way cooler and a better human being—so Erica stabbing him in the neck seemed earned from other deeds even though this time around Dimitri was doing the stand-up guy thing and Kendall was lying to get him into trouble. Kendall eventually repented on the stand and got herself a 30-day sentence in Green Briar Correctional Facility, where she met Janet “from another planet” Green.

Which was a big damn deal and I knew it.

Years earlier, Haley and Matteo were having Nancy Drew style adventures helping her uncle Trevor solve crimes, and near the top of the list was a storyline when Trevor’s main squeeze Natalie was a captive at the bottom of a well while her twin sister—played by the same actress naturally—secretly took over her life. Janet conceived a child with Trevor in this period before her scheme was found out and Natalie was rescued. And Janet was sent to prison for a long time. Until this month.

While in Green Briar this month, Janet constructed a new identity—with Kendall’s help— as “Jane Cox” in order to reunite with Janet’s daughter. Not only did this play into Kendall’s own separation issues, this made both of these villains sympathetic for their reasons while they unethically went about scheming against the rest of the Pine Valley characters. It also formed a lasting friendship between the two antagonists until 1995 when Gellar left the show and took the character with her. There are few things as fun to experience as a viewer than good villains having each other’s backs, and this is where it began.

Soap Operas may get a bad rap for being fluffy, but the character storylines are just as fun and compelling as anything you’d find in a WWF/WWE ring or an X–Men comic. And this was one of the best periods you could witness on All My Children.

Ellen

Logo for the sitcom Ellen

The sitcom starring Ellen DeGeneres debuted this month under the title of These Friends of Mine. The title will change to Ellen in the fall thanks to not wanting to get confused with soon-to-debut Friends, and Ellen–and her character–will not come out as gay until 1997, so this show isn’t quite what it will end up being. The first episode is equally less than groundbreaking; Ellen goes to renew her license but her new photo keeps not turning out well. Humble beginnings here.

The Busy World of Richard Scarry

Busy World of Richard Scarry cartoon box set cover

 

The Busy World of Richard Scarry is a cartoon based on the classic books I–and probably you–grew up with. It debuted on Showtime, eventually made its way to Nickelodeon and all the way to a life in DVDs and current syndication on PBS. It ran 65 episodes all told, and it followed Huckle and Lowly Worm and all their friends (I bet even Mr. Fix It is around in some episodes). I loved the books but was too old for this so I never watched the show, but my boys have been verifiably entertained by this show.


The Quick Stop

by John Bernardy

Mega Man 6

Box art for Mega Man 6, by Capcom and published by Nintendo

Mega Man 6 debuted on the Nintendo Entertainment System and was the last to be made for the 8-bit console as production was rapidly moving to the Super NES. The NES was so dead that Capcom didn’t even want to publish the game in North America at all–Nintendo of America had to release it under its own banner. The game itself is generally derivative: Mr. X brought 8 robots under his control and it’s up to the blue bomber to stop them, and then surprising absolutely no one Mr. X is revealed to be Dr. Wiley in disguise. Yuko Takehara composed the decent-but-not-early-series-level music, and all of the robots were designed by design-a-robot-boss contest winners. Knight Man and Wind Man were designed by North American entrants, while Blizzard Man, Centaur Man, Flame Man, Plant Man, Tomahawk Man and Yamato Man were designed by Japanese entrants.

The Elder Scrolls: Arena

Box art for Bethesda Softworks’ The Elder Scrolls: Arena

 

This Bethesda Softworks game for MS-DOS is the first in the Elder Scrolls series. It’s a first person, open-world game with no set overworld (it generates as it goes). It’s one of the first games to feature a realistic day/night cycle, and you can literally take hours to travel from one town to the next. There’s 17 dungeons to conquer in the main quest and it’s a tough game. I’ve never played the series myself, but anyone who’s been absorbed into Skyrim owes this game a ton of thanks for starting the whole thing here.

John Candy takes his leave

John CandyComedian/Actor John Candy died on March 3rd of 1994 and left us with an ache in our hearts and an underrated assortment of films still enjoyable to this day. If I had to pick a favorite Candy role, I’m going to show my age and say Barf from Spaceballs. If you want to remember John Candy more fully, J.C. Hotchkiss wrote about his legacy here.

Spawn/Batman

Spawn/Batman by Image Comics, cover art by Todd McFarlane

The Spawn hype at this moment was at a fever pitch despite having less than 10 issues of story to the character’s entire published history. It was so big that somehow he was crossing over with the Batman in an official this-isn’t-fan-fiction way. The Image/DC Comics crossover event occurred in two books, and this was the book Image put out. It was the follow-up to Dark Knight Returns and written by that book’s writer, comics legend Frank Miller. The art was by Todd McFarlane who was famous for drawing Spider-Man before branching out and creating Spawn. The story itself wasn’t anything coherent enough to talk about, but man did that book look great.

Besides being gorgeous, the book ended up being a bit of a disappointment. Though by comparison it actually raised the esteem of the DC-published Batman/Spawn: War Devil because the Chuck Dixon-written story was actually a good story that made sense. It mattered a little less that the art inside had run-of-the-mill panel layout that merely told a story clearly.

Uncanny X-Men #312

Uncanny X-Men #312 cover, art by Joe Madureira

Marvel Comics’ flagship X-Men book was well in the middle of its story per usual. Storm, Yukio and Gambit fought the Phalynx, while Beast revived Iceman with CPR, but the story is way less important than the artist on this book: It’s the first time Joe Madureira is drawing the X-Men. He’ll eventually draw a long run on the book that culminates with Gambit being revealed as a traitor, and he’ll be so celebrated that he’s able to start Battle Chasers at Image comics and be the creative director for the video game Darksiders. But here back in 1994, we get his first issue as a guest penciler.


CDs On Rotation In Our 6-Disk

Quick Takes   by John Bernardy

Beck – Mellow Gold

Beck Mellow Gold album cover art

Beck’s third album mixes all sorts of genres way before anyone else was doing that sort of thing so haphazardly, yet it was still able to get a giant hit from the song “Loser.” That song, by the way, has the dubious honor of being the first song I never needed to hear again during this Spring of 1994 when I was finally discovering music. I don’t mind “Loser” at all now that I’d gotten used to Beck, but at the time my brain couldn’t compute.

Yanni – Live At The Acropolis

Yanni Live at the Acropolis album cover art

Laugh all you want but this was a big fucking deal when it happened. Everybody knew someone who had this album. My mom had it, which means I heard it too. And it wasn’t even terrible, it was just way over the top. I mean, look at that guy. He was a massive fop, and Linda Evans was nuts about the guy. He made pleasant-yet-dramatic non-confrontational music. Yanni funded this live concert album with $2 Million of his own money and mixed the footage together into a TV special that aired on PBS as well as this unavoidable album.

Aphex Twin – Selected Ambient Works Volume 2

Aphex Twin Selected Ambient Works Volume 2 album art

I didn’t discover Aphex Twin until he (Richard James) did a song on the American edition of NIN’s Further Down the Spiral, but once I did discover him it took almost no time to make it to this album. It’s exactly what the title says (AT’s first album was Volume 1, which came out two years earlier),.The tracks are less than melodic but the vibe is fantastic. The soundscapes are both dark and dreamlike and it felt like I was going to worlds when I got lost in either of the two discs. The album was perfect for a disaffected youth to write to, and I’ve got years under my belt of doing just that as proof. Tested it out for this and it still works.

I wish I’d listened to Elvis Costello’s Brutal Youth and Gang Starr’s Hard to Earn, or been more aware of Chainsaw Kittens’ Pop Heiress or even tried out Insane Clown Posse’s Ringmaster, but those March 8th releases did not have a chance with these next two juggernauts in their release day class:

Nine Inch Nails – The Downward Spiral   by Bryan O’Donnell

Nine Inch Nails The Downward Spiral album art

On this date 25 years ago (March 8, 1994), Nine Inch Nails released the epic concept album The Downward Spiral. While I loved this album at the time of its release, mostly because it absolutely rocks, I undoubtedly didn’t really understand it, as I would have only been 11 at the time.

Taking a listen now with more seasoned ears, the album is even more impressive. The album leads you on a journey down (of course) further and further into a hole of pain, anxiety, anger, and self-abuse — navigating through issues such as religion, violence, drug use, and suicide. The album now feels like the darker, more troubled cousin of Pink Floyd’s The Wall (not that that album is a walk in the park).

What I find as a pleasant surprise about this album is how seamlessly the songs run together. This is something I enjoy immensely in an album, and I didn’t remember this aspect from my younger days. I can’t even imagine touching the track-skip button until you get at least to the ninth song of the album, “Big Man With a Gun.” Still not a huge fan of that song. But those first eight songs, all flowing into each other like that? Man.

The Downward Spiral, great as a whole obviously, features a whole slew of songs that impress by themselves. Album opener “Mr. Self Destruct” (which features a sample from the George Lucas film THX 1138) starts things off with an angry bang, kicking off the album’s downward trajectory with Trent Reznor’s vocals ranging all over the place in classic fashion.

Singles “March of the Pigs” and “Closer” are still epic. I remember becoming so sick of “Closer” back when the music video came out and after hearing it thousands of times, but time away has brought me back to loving that song.

And midpoint track “The Becoming,” in addition to have an insane beat, features my favorite line of the album: “The me that you know is now made up of wires. And even when I’m right with you, I’m so far away.”

Perhaps the most fun part about revisiting The Downward Spiral is how Nine Inch Nails became wrapped up in the world of Twin Peaks. Other than “The” Nine Inch Nails obviously appearing in the mindblowing Episode 8 of The Return, the band can be linked to Peaks alum David Bowie, who was a major influence for Trent Reznor when making The Downward Spiral. Bowie also co-wrote the Iggy Pop tune “Nightclubbing,” which is sampled in “Closer.” To me, the darkness of The Downward Spiral feels right at home with parts of Twin Peaks. At times listening to the album (like during “Reptile,” for example) makes me feel like I’m trapped inside a dark room about to converse with the new form of Phillip Jeffries.

The Downward Spiral amazingly came out 25 years ago, but it sounds just as out-of-this-world as ever still today.

Soundgarden – Superunknown   by Will Johnson

Soundgarden Superunknown album cover artwork.

 

I was twelve years old in 1994 and I was just starting to get invested in music. Music that was mine: my choices, my decisions. But when you start buying your own albums with that hard-earned allowance cash, you have to choose wisely. So let’s fast-forward to a rainy night in Georgia. My boy scout troop was traveling back to Tampa, Florida from some godforsaken place in Tennessee. Due to intense rain on the journey, we had to stop at a very generous YMCA in Atlanta to sleep for the night.

My boy scout trip had been a disaster: I fell in the mud at one point and a steel rod hidden in the mud impaled my hand. Being a boneheaded scrapper who knew no fear (and also had no brains), I got in a fight with a fellow boy scout with manufactured bamboo sticks as our weapons. I never learned to defend myself so I got one in the snout: fractured both my cheekbones and my nose. One eye was closed shut entirely. I hadn’t slept for days and had bandages and ooze coming from seemingly endless places. I was being driven around in claustrophobic humidity and I wasn’t any closer to home because it was raining! Ugh, I was miserable.

Needless to say, we couldn’t find sleep. There were eighteen of us kids plus our parents and we were all crammed together on a hardwood basketball court. So, exhausted but restless, we found a television and put on MTV. We all settled in and just watched liked zombies. And then something amazing happened. The music video for “Black Hole Sun”, by grunge act Soundgarden, came on. You know those scenes in the movies where a character sees something powerful and the camera slowly pushes in as they rise with awe in their eyes. That was me (except, one of my awe-struck eyes was plastered shut).

With a mixture of horrific facial misconfiguration, eerie pedal manipulated guitar sounds, and, for a twelve-year-old, dark-as-hell lyrics, “Black Hole Sun” wasn’t just a creepy, engaging video and a compelling song, it became my mission statement. For the battle-damaged kid who was obviously filled with some kind of intense emotional issues as he approached manhood, the nonchalant darkness of Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” changed how I saw the world. Most importantly, it showed me I could channel my thoughts and feelings into music and use that as an outlet, instead of violence.

So, naturally, I had to buy the album “Black Hole Sun” was released on, titled Superunknown. And unlike other albums I bought at that young age which had a few radio hits and disappointing deeper cuts, Superunknown was one of the first albums I could listen to from front to back again and again because each song was as well crafted and lyrically important as “Black Hole Sun”. That said, I probably drove my mom crazy by listening to “Black Hole Sun” twelve times in a row because, well, I did. I was trying to capture that feeling again — but you’re only born once.

And now, 25 years later, I found myself sitting down and listening to Superunknown in full. I would always hear tracks from it on random when I had Spotify pulled up but now I was just sitting and engaging with the music from beginning to end, as it was meant to be heard.

Soundgarden, like other grunge acts that rose during the heyday of that sub-genre, managed to successfully mix the heavier guitars of metal and hard rock with more personalized lyrics and less showy ballads. Superunknown displays a wide spectrum of musical characteristics. The opening rocker “Let Me Drown” is fierce and fast-paced, with a catchy chorus. The second track, “My Wave” is equally as fast paced but more upbeat and less dark. It is this dueling sensibility that made Soundgarden’s albums so fresh and timeless.

The kaleidoscopic sonic journey continues with the ballad-like “I Fell On Black Days”, then one of the heaviest tracks, the progressively angrier “Mailman”, before hitting the title track, which functions as a combination of all the four previous tracks combined. It might be one of the most powerful, and uniquely different, opening arcs to an album there is.

The true hidden gem on the album is “4th of July”, a track that starts out with a nearly comical assault of down-tuned distortion. It is quickly countered by lead singer Chris Cornell’s crooning voice. The mixture of elevated vocals and dark-as-pitch guitars creates an otherworldly presence that finds you both repelled but unable to escape its comforting grasp. In a way, that feeling is the entire album as well as the band’s effect on impressionable 12-year-olds.

The amazing thing is that Superunknown still affects me 25 years on. Nothing speaks to a musical masterpiece like Superunknown more than longevity and emotional resonance. Oh, and my face is fine now.


Have any of your own memories from this month? Leave them in the comments or any of our social media locations below. We’d love to hear what 1994 meant to you, too!

 


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