In the early 90s, when I was going my A Levels in Karachi (yeah, that's how old I am shhhh), we didn’t have music online.
Hell, we barely had music anyway. MTV was in our lives via satellite dishes but it wasn’t the same MTV the rest of the world got - we seemed to get far fewer videos on rotation and you had to wait around for something you liked to come on air. I guess that hasn't changed much.
Our way of getting music was via mixed tapes. We made a wishlist of songs we heard on MTV, at friends’ homes, on pirated cassettes some cousin from abroad threw our way - and then we handed this preciously curated list over to one of two or three music stores in the city to mix for us. I’m still not sure how they managed - I assume they scoured music from Dubai or some place, brought in the more popular albums on expensive CDs and pirated them a thousands of times over. The tapes came with little paper covers on which the names of the songs were typed out - yeah, I do think they were typed back then. Often with hilarious typos, too. Still, these tapes were what we had and we loved them.
Here are some of the songs my friends and I listened to the most back then. I'd like to think most of them don't sound too dated...
Alanis Morissette - "You Oughta Know" (1995)
Alanis Morissette was only 21 old when this track came out, not much older than my friends and I were when we first heard it. My best friend did a rendition of it for me before I saw the video on our new satellite dish connection and I remember thinking well that’s new ‘would she go down on you in a theatre, hmm?’. And she dropped the f-bomb! It wasn’t on the MTV version but hey, we could fill in the gaps. I mean… salacious, you know? We were kids in an Islamic country who’d only just got MTV, of course we were thrilled with a woman a few years older than us singing about oral sex! This was brilliant! Did it mean we could sing along? Did it mean we could… talk about it?!
Of course, what was really attractive about this song was Alanis’ awful, incredible screaming angst. Sure, none of us had our hearts broken in real life in this way, but so what? We could connect with that angst, with that anger and that bitterness at being ignored, pushed aside and ignored. What teenager couldn’t? Plus, that refrain of ‘you you you oughta know’ - well, you try not screaming along to that.
Jagged Little Pill was a pretty great album, I have to say. Oh, and Flea and Dave Navarro of The Red Hot Chilli Peppers are on bass & lead guitar on "You Oughta Know", creating the music based on Morissette’s vocals alone. Did you need more proof that Alanis was cool?
Blind Melon - "No Rain" (1992)
No one knew anything about this band. Hell, we barely had dial-up, we didn’t know much about any new band. But "No Rain" was an instant hit. That snappy little start, the deceptively happy bouncy beat, the quiet little falsetto at the start and the little bee girl in the video trying to find her tribe? Just warmed my angst-ridden pimply heart, didn’t it? Plus, it barely rains in Karachi so that worked for us literal types too. Yes, we did all complain when there was no rain. Plus, the literature students just loved the whole books as escapism bit, of course.
The thing is, "No Rain" is a fantastic song even now. Sure, it’s much darker and sadder than I remember it to be and Shannon Hoon’s vocals are pretty bad but they make you feel like you too can sing one successful pop-rock song once and make a million bucks, if you just get some decent harmonising to back you up.
Dee-Lite - "Groove is in the Heart" (1990)
I admit, I may have been one of the few people I knew in Karachi who loved the madness of Dee-Lite. Or at least one of the few who was open about it. I didn’t understand what this song was - it was retro but it wasn’t. It was funky and familiar but also strange and new. That slide whistle - that wasn’t something I’d ever heard before and it was amazing.
Dee-Lite sampled Herbie Hancock’s "Bring Down the Birds" and R&B artist Vernon Burch’s "Get Up" for that slide whistle, they had Parliament Funkadelic bassist Bootsy Collins played bass & do some guest vocals and they even had Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest do the rap. This was the strangest mix of legends and newbies and DJs you could have formed at that point in time. Both epic and irreverent. Plus, the video was insane. Like someone slipped some drugs into your packet of chilli chips and didn’t tell you. Just like that.
And what on earth is Lady Miss Kier even saying at the start?! Who cares! Diiig.
Sophie B. Hawkins - "Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover" (1992)
Now this was something else. Were there people singing so openly about their sexuality in pop songs back then? Hawkins was, and so so well. All the charged erotic longing and frustration and pent up energy of this song obviously resonated with 18 year olds - how could it not? With a drumbeat is sampled from Led Zeppelin’s "When The Levee Breaks", that deep resounding opening and those aching vocals, this still doesn't sound like a song that's over 20 years old.
I don’t think we considered what a huge deal this was, back then, that Hawkins was openly bisexual and happy to sing about it. In fact, she was more - she spoke freely about her omnisexuality in interviews, as well as about her longterm girlfriend. In retrospect, this all seems to me to be more than Karachi kids were exposed to daily, and we loved it all.
A couple of years ago, Hawkins guest starred as herself on the TV show Community, when the students confused her with Sadie Hawkins and arranged a Sophie Hawkins dance instead. The Dean asks her to record a voice mail message: "Dean, I wish I was your lover". There’s no escaping this song.
Here’s a mellower, older Hawkins doing the same song, with less angst and sweeter. Incidentally, Hawkins has two children, one of whom she gave birth to in 2015 at the age of 50, from an embryo frozen much earlier.
White Town - "Your Woman" (1997)
What was going on here? This is a man singing from a woman’s perspective! Why? Oh and he’s a desi?! Jyoti Prakash Mishra was even born in India! This was great! It was easy enough to love this song on that basis alone, given we were so starved for anyone who looked like us to be on the international pop scene, but you have to admit, the muted trumpet, retro new wave sound and deadpan vocals were all pretty catchy. But what did the song mean?
Mishra answered some FAQs on his side about "Your Woman" and its interesting POV, explaining that when he wrote it, he was trying to write a pop song that had more than one perspective. He said, "although it’s written in the first person the character behind that viewpoint isn’t necessarily what the casual listener would expect. I’d been reading a lot of Wilhelm Reich and Andrea Dworkin and they both influenced the lyrics in different ways. Yes, I’m a geek."
I have no idea what’s happened to him now, but how can you not love him? He went on to explain:
‘being a member of an orthodox trotskyist / marxist movement (as i was for three years in the 80s).
being a straight guy in love with a lesbian (ditto).
being a gay guy in love with a straight man (not tried this one yet).
being a straight girl in love with a lying, two-timing, fake-ass marxist.
the hypocrisy that results when love and lust get mixed up with highbrow ideals :-)
the last time i checked i was male. but as for gender….that’s another kettle of fish :-)’
And if that isn’t entertaining enough then hey, we’d studied Marx for the first time in A Levels. We loved that "high brow Marxist ways" line. For a change, we actually knew that meant. And that was often enough.