Consider the strange, rather adorable case of New Haven, Connecticut one-off band Polaris. It formed in 1993, consisting of members of another band, Miracle Legion, for the sole purpose of providing music for the Nickelodeon show “The Adventures of Pete and Pete.” Now, it is on tour for the first time ever, thanks entirely to the nostalgic feels it elicits for a whole generation when they hear Polaris’ ‘Hey Sandy,’ better known as the theme song to “Pete and Pete,” a soaring, snappy song that lands squarely between the college rock of the Feelies (who, hey, play here next week!) and anthemic sub-indie junk like The Gin Blossoms.
Before we go any further, let’s just get this out of the way: Anybody anywhere who yearns for the past or even deigns to visit it for a little while is at least sort of sick in the head (the word “nostalgia” implies sickness; “algia” basically means pain), which means we’re all sick in the head. There’s plenty of things for middle-class, mostly white Gen-Xers and millennials to desire about their formative years and try and recapture. For one, the economy wasn’t a fucking disaster back then, and there were still illusions that we might just save the planet and not doom it environmentally full-stop. Then again, this sentiment itself might be a distinctly nostalgic sort of argument, because there are plenty of things that were very terrible about the ’90s, such as, say, “don’t ask, don’t tell” or the “school of resentment” myth pushed by academics that, in retrospect, birthed this whole “social justice warrior”-as-pejorative crap we’re stuck in right now.
But on the pop culture tip, the ’90s were perhaps, the last gasp of unadulterated weirdness like “Pete and Pete” breaking through to the mainstream unvarnished and we like to think that was, well, something. Corporations hadn’t entirely cracked the code when it came to how to co-opt and sell what was “cool” back to the cool kids, so there was more of a give-and-take between business and creative types. Presumably, this is how a show like “The Adventures of Pete and Pete,” a bright, funny-for-adults and hilarious-for-nerdy-kids show about two brothers both named Pete and their weird adventures in a kind of suburban New Jersey of the mind’s eye, snuck through and was able to exist for three seasons. One episode revolves entirely around an obsession with Johnny Unitas, another about a marshmallow that looks a lot like Dwight D. Eisenhower. Michael Stipe of R.E.M. and Iggy Pop and Debbie Harry all made cameos. This was a kind of “Twin Peaks” for the pencil-necked geeks too smart for the rest of their elementary school.
And just a few channels away there was MTV, in its post-Nirvana ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ “the year punk broke” phase, breaking the ’80s underground wide open, flooding the normie culture with glimpses of zines and riot grrrl and sludge metal and The Jim Rose Circus and Doc Martens and gritty hip-hop and flighty stoner boom-bap rap and resulting in inexplicable shit like alt-comix heroes Dan Clowes and Charles Burns designing the cans for a kind of hipster Coca Cola produced called “OK Soda.” This was cool, though it wasn’t some super significant revolution man, just a confluence of things: a decade-plus prior of D.I.Y. culture knocked a few doors down and bumped right into the in-retrospect, desperate tail-end of the American post-war boom.
So, there was all this money and this new market of kids with mom and dad’s dough and a slacker attitude that wants so hard not to care but cares so much and wants to be spoken to, so they’re ready to get half-hustled by networks and corporations. So, some Nickelodeon suits green-lit “The Adventures of Pete and Pete,” and tiny little cult of sorts was born and it hasn’t died yet. Here is where we slow down and make it clear that this early ’90s alt-moment was no “better” or actually more important than, say, the late ’90s when N*Sync and DMX and Korn and Michael Bay movies and Aaliyah and Britney Spears in the ‘...Baby One More Time’ video and “The Matrix” and shiny suit rap took hold, but it was most certainly less governed, and ungoverned things generally don’t last that long and that makes them special.
Alternative culture’s center could not hold, so Kurt Cobain shot himself in the face and Puff Daddy soon took over what the Wu Tang started, but for a moment there, teens and children like myself had easy access to some underground subversiveness on cable TV and at the newsstands. A Cassingle of Polaris’ ‘Hey Sandy’ hid inside our box of Frosted Mini Wheats and planted the seeds for the future indie-rock industrial complex, which Polaris can now, in a reasonable and even kind of heartening way, capitalize on a bit.
The story of Polaris, a scrappy underdog band no one expected much of anything out of, a group that kind of never was, now back for the first time, feels like a touching, eccentric “Pete and Pete” storyline. There is even an episode of the show in which Pete hears Polaris performing in a garage and is enraptured by its music, and then the band mysteriously disappears and so, Pete starts his own garage band for the sole purpose of recreating its song, which is kind of the “get in the van,” D.I.Y., and all that ethos/mythos squashed into a 22-minute kids’ show.
Polaris even has a new single out for all the still-enraptured Petes out there. ‘Great Big Happy Green Moonface’ and ‘Baby Tae Kwon Do,’ Polaris’ two new songs, could be mistaken for current indie-rock critical darling Real Estate, a New Jersey jangle-pop crew that mines, with an A-student-like obsequiousness, the kind of music Polaris and bigger-deal ’90s bands made.
’90s nostalgia will eat itself.
Polaris play the Baltimore Soundstage on Nov. 29.