the nineties

How Pavement Became the Greatest Band of the Nineties This Year

Pavement split up in 1999, announced some reunion shows last September, and spent the year since doing pretty much the same thing as Betty White: riding high on a wave of goodwill, fond memories, and free-floating cred. Tonight, they’ll play the first of a series of sold-out shows in Central Park. Before that came a best-of compilation, a GQ profile, a tour that took them from New Zealand to Norway, and Pitchfork’s recent list of the Top Tracks of the 1990s, on which their “Gold Soundz” placed No. 1. (Full disclosure: I was one of many people involved with that list.) Somehow, along the way, this much-loved indie staple’s reputation started to look a touch more like what Robert Christgau called them thirteen years ago: “the finest rock band of the ’90s.” Which is a funny thing, for a band whose ambitions to be Legendary and Important were audibly low — a band that’s been sauntering through this whole reunion with a characteristic shrug.

These little shifts in reputation aren’t always easy to explain, and they’re better taken as the start of a conversation than the end of one. You could apply many theories to this band’s sudden pull. There’s the fact that they appealed to exactly the kind of music geeks who think of themselves as discerning — the snots, like us, who grow up and rewrite musical history with our own clever secrets at its center. Zach Baron, writing in Slate, put a generational spinon it: as the Baby Boomer version of rock history gets put to bed, a Gen X band like Pavement gets to do the elder-statesman bow for a while. Also, unlike, say, Sonic Youth, the band wrapped up neatly and called it quits in 1999. Legends get bigger when they disappear for a while. (See also: Beatles, 2Pac, Nirvana.)

Since then, one member, Bob Nastanovich, has spent time managing racehorses. Stephen Malkmus makes solo records and plays fantasy sports. (The best way to get in touch with him about Pavement, says Nastanovich, is to propose a fantasy-league trade and slip a music question into the e-mail.) Mark Ibold plays bass in Sonic Youth and bartends in the Village. And guitarist Scott Kannberg, who’s kept up another band and released a solo album, now spends Pavement shows looking like the guy who cares the most, like he’s mentally willing his bandmates to join him. It’s like a reunion of five guys who are still a little surprised to run into one another backstage.

And that seems critical to the band’s rising rep as the secret kings of the nineties: It’s a question of ethos, isn’t it? This band sounded shaggy and cryptic; their humor was loose and parodic; their performances always seemed like they were about to become a shamble, but turned out graceful instead. They’ve been called lazy slackers, smart-asses, and insular mumblers; when Beavis and Butt-Head caught one of their videos on TV, they yelled at the group to “Try harder, damnit.” And while Pavement’s never been quite as slack or wiseassed as their reputation would have you believe, there really is a kind of effortless, unbothered elegance to their best songs. Through the nineties, there was always something happening in rock that was more exciting than this band — more stylish, more committal, more of-the-moment — but these guys had that Gen X diffidence down, that air of being a little too wise to get wrapped up in anything.

So how does that sound to you: Lovely, or like the most irritating thing in the world? It’s a big point of contention, and what’s terrific about the band’s resurgence is that they’re so great to argue about right now. After all, that attitude — and the attitude of a lot of their fans — cast a long shadow over the past decade. (A style dates quickly; an ethos can linger.) Hip rockers spent a while turning away from it: For years we heard more earnest, ambitious, stylish bands, with all the striving energy of a generation much younger than Pavement. Some got rewarded with mainstream audiences, advertising money, movie soundtracks. But then there are others pulling back from that ambition, slinking toward modest, undemonstrative mumbles. And then there are the many, many folks who’ve come to hate “indie” acts for exactly the reasons Beavis and Butt-Head hated Pavement — all that blasé diffidence, all these fans with a sense of themselves as a little too clever and discerning.

If this really is the moment in which a Gen X sensibility gets to celebrate itself, well, it could turn out to be a fleeting one. Pavement is being set up as exactly the kind of legendary band younger people love to reject — especially since that wry disaffection isn’t as useful anymore, what with there not being much of a monoculture to be suspicious of. Maybe it’s a good year to enjoy some shagginess and a few more shrugs, in case those get put to bed, too.

How Pavement Became the Greatest Band of the Nineties This Year