Rock critic Rob Harvilla explains, defends music of the ’90s: “The greatest musical era in world history”

In the throes of the pandemic, music critic Rob Harvilla had an idea: create a podcast that provides comfort in times of uncertainty while celebrating nostalgia.

“I wanted to do a podcast about songs, and I fixed very quickly on the ’90s as the era that I wanted to discuss because it is, in my opinion, the greatest musical era in world history, and that’s because I grew up in the ’90s,” Harvilla told CBS News. “I have nothing against the Beatles, but the Beatles got nothing on Stone Temple Pilots.”

Harvilla’s passion for the decade’s music is on full display in his podcast, “60 Songs that Explain the ’90s.” Each episode takes a deep dive into songs that define the decade based on criteria including genre, style and impact.

The podcast became so popular – and the number of songs to choose from in a compiled Google document too long – that it has expanded to 120 songs, double the original plan, even though its name is unchanged. The podcast is due to wrap early next year.

“I thought 60 would suffice and it just does not,” Harvilla said of the original podcast concept. “I got to around 50 and I was like, ‘Oh no.'”

His success led Harvilla to write a book based on his work. “60 Songs that Explain the ’90s,” out Tuesday, as a companion to the podcast. In addition to featuring more than 60 songs, it explores the trends, the backstories and the humanity behind the decade’s biggest hits.

Pop is featured extensively in the book, from Britney Spears to the Backstreet Boys. The songs were catchy by design, even if the lyrics were irrelevant to the artist or, in some cases, nonsense.

“Pop is frivolous by design, disposable by design, but it’s so good at hiding all the work, the machinations behind it,” Harvilla said.

Hip-hop, on the other hand, saw an evolution in the ’90s with more intentional lyrics and sounds. In the book, Harvilla writes how Ice Cube once said he was creating music for Black kids, and White kids were “eavesdropping.”

“That’s a very startling word to hear if you’re me, if you’re one of the eavesdroppers, but it’s absolutely correct,” Harvilla said. “It’s important to try and keep that in mind, and try and keep you from identifying too much with something that you can’t really identify with…. You are just listening in on a conversation that other people are having.”

Eavesdropping on all genres helps Harvilla hone his craft. A rock critic for over 20 years, his work includes stints at Deadspin and the Village Voice. He now does his dream job from home in Columbus, Ohio.

For each song he chooses to explore, he does a deep dive on the artists and much of their discography. When it came to Chumbawamba’s earworm “Tubthumping,” Harvilla said he listened to “somewhere between eight and 50 albums.” 

Another earworm of the decade featured on the podcast and in the book is Los Del Río’s “Macarena.” Even in this novelty of a song, Harvilla finds humanity. “What really strikes me about the original song,” Harvilla writes, “is how delightful and genial and chill it is.”

“Los Del Río, just two sweet dudes from Spain. They had like a 30-year career, they come up with this catchy song and it gets remixed,” Harvilla said. “Somebody thinks up a dance and suddenly they’re global pop stars. It’s clear that they’re reveling in this…. They’re along for the ride as anybody else, and there’s something very sweet about that.”

Grunge music is another focal point of Harvilla’s work. He debunks the stereotype of the artists, from Nirvana to Pearl Jam, who helped define the genre.

“The key to it was not wanting to be a rockstar,” Harvilla said. “But some of that is a myth. You’re not on an album, you’re not on a magazine cover accidentally. You’re not a rock star accidentally. You do want this.”

Harvilla does not hide his own personality in the podcast or in his book. As self-deprecating and humble as he might be, he does realize he’s gotten people to understand the music they love a little better.

“I’m just some guy,” he said. “The whole reason I’m doing this is I talk about personal experience I had in the hopes that it gets you thinking about personal experiences. That I get to do this for a living is a gift.”

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