Rusted-out Cultural Roots

I’ve lately been struck by the staggering beauty of the music video for Rusted Root’s 1995 song, “Send Me on My Way.” And at the risk of saying what has already been said by so many, so many times, I want to point out that the nineties were a simpler time. Granted, in 1995 I was seven years old, and I didn’t hear the song (like many people my age) until it was featured on the soundtrack of the 2002 movie Ice Age. But that really doesn’t matter. In fact, it almost makes my discovery of the song all the better, coming upon it as if it were a time capsule (and how, in fact, is it not? A time capsule can only attempt to preserve the artifacts of the present against moth and rust, but a youtube rip is impervious to both.)

The lyrics really don’t matter. All seven members of the group share the songwriting credit, and the words sound like something produced via committee. Which isn’t to say anything bad about the song, because it’s hard to find fault with. It’s just also really hard to find meaning in.

But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention one aspect of the lyrics — the made-up words like “oombayseeyou” and “seemoobadeeyah.” And there’s certainly a place for nonsense and scat and unpremeditated vocalizations in feel-good pop — I’m thinking now of “Mr. Wendal” and “MMMbop,” those other great pieces of 90s aural posi-stalgia. But the quality of these vocalizations in “Send Me on My Way” is so… I want to say “brave,” but I think a closer word is “naive.” One reviewer referred to it as “bad Ladysmith Black Mambazo,” which seems fair. And the pennywhistle solo sounds, within that context, as generically “African” as the vocals. And it doesn’t end with the music — the video for the song shows the band members cavorting in an arid canyon while wearing baggy earth tones — the lead singer’s wearing a flowing tunic shirt and a shark-tooth necklace paired with what looks like Buddhist beads, and his accompaniests are wearing a truly improbable but highly photogenic array of Baja shirts and mukluks and serapes while wielding djembes and tambourines. And I’m only scraping the surface here — for such a simplistic video, the visual vocabulary of props and costumes is stunningly well put-together. Oh, and there’s an Indian chief in the cutaway shots, who periodically raises his arms in some kind of benediction to Rusted Root’s world-beats-inflected rock.

It’s a Sesame Street video for adults, and it’s glorious.

It’s a fin-de-siecle, the end of an era, but a high-pointed end, the optimum point on some tradeoff curve plotted by globalization. It’s a maximization — a sweet spot — right where gleeful cultural abundance spills over into geopolitical awareness. To be white in America in the 90s, this video suggests, was to be aware of other cultures, and to love them, because you hadn’t yet realized your own culture and the geopolitical interests it represented and came from had screwed those other cultures over so badly. It’s great to realize there are other people out there, beyond your own suburb, and there’s a moment where it’s really fun to put on a sweater with an Arapaho pattern and dance to vaguely tribal sounds. And then you wonder where those Indians went, anyway?

Which is not to say I’m writing a white guilt piece here. Or a nostalgia piece. Because like I said, I don’t really remember the 90s all that well. I’m only slightly aware of the optimism of the Clinton years and my political recollections are pretty much strictly post-9/11. But like I said, that makes this sort of find all the more gripping. I’m looking not at my own past, or even my parents’, but something situated between, a historical moment whose participants belonged to a demographic I have no clear connection to.

So my attitude is not nostalgic, just marveling. And I don’t think I’m alone — the song has been used in no fewer than eight films, and several other pieces of media, most of which came out long after the song was actually on the charts. The song is appealing because it tells us that there was a time when adults were childlike, when feeling good was unquestioned. I dare you to find a song as unabashedly happy on the radio today. I’m hearing Pharrrell’s “Happy” everywhere I go lately, but it’s so… safe. So obvious. It may be happy, but it doesn’t take joy in anything; it’s the happiness of someone on mood stabilizers (and indeed, the constant injunction to “clap along” suggests an audience tranqed out to a state of suggestible vegetation.) I heard someone list Cee Lo Green’s “Fuck You” as a feel-good song the other day. I mean I suppose if bitter defiance makes you happy, go for it. No, I think it’s fair to say that there was something different happening in 1995.

And of course all periods think that the era preceding was more innocent than the current era. And as many will quickly point out, this is hardly true — horrible things happened in the past, and probably more than are happening right now. Now we’re more aware, and more able to stop horrible things from happening, due to that awareness. The innocense was never there to fade, but the naivety was, existing now only as videos to be stumbled across by more jaded generations. It’s weird, and disconcerting, and more than a little sad.