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A Reason to Believe: Wilson Phillips and 90s Poptimism


By Melissa Avdeeff

My poptimism started early. Or, in reflecting on established expectations, I failed to “grow out” of my poptimism as I aged through adolescence and into adulthood. Instead, I made a vocation out of it, devoting my time to advocating for the most popular, to critiquing and drawing attention to that which has the widest cultural influence, and using my platform to make sense of why it matters.

I don’t know where the cassette came from, or how I, in particular, acquired it, but I have strong memories of being in my childhood bedroom, probably about eight years old, listening to the Wilson Phillip’s eponymous album on repeat. I played it on my dad’s Sony Walkman; one of the original versions made out of metal, chosen for its capacity as a skiing companion for my dad. My parents put tape over the volume knob so I wouldn’t wreck my hearing. But I found a way around that tape, and look who’s laughing now.

Wilson Phillips   (1990)

Wilson Phillips (1990)

This was before Spice Girls. Before I knew anything about 60s Girl Groups. And definitely before Destiny’s Child and Beyoncé. But it was through the all-girl trio, the Wilson Phillips, that I discovered the strength of women’s voices, even in their breathiness, and the power of pop music. Not that those are intrinsically connected categories – the pop and the feminine – but nonetheless they guided my early tastes in music, and how I came to understand pop music as industry.

I only remember having two cassettes at this stage in my musical development: the Wilson Phillips (1990) one, and Paul Simon’s Graceland (1986). As diverse as these albums are, that diversity itself remains a part of my eclecticism in both my tastes, and research interests. From the Wilson Phillips I found my first inklings of feminist thought. And from Paul Simon I first experienced the intrigue of intercultural music making. I was captivated primarily by the songs that feature Ladysmith Black Mambazo, with sound aesthetics quite foreign to me as someone growing up in a small town on the West Coast of Canada.

I continue to lecture on the issues of cultural appropriation vs. appreciation that have plagued Graceland, and others, and how these songs relate to wider systems of power that I was not yet attuned to as a child. Through IASPM, I had the opportunity to visit South Africa in 2011, and see the lasting effects of Apartheid in person.

For many people, the Wilson Philips are a one-hit wonder, a group to feel nostalgic about when you watch Bridesmaids. Although I came to know the girl group before the music of their famous parents, others may consider them a product of celebrity nepotism, and trivialise them as such. The group is not so easy to write-off, though, as they also learned great songwriting from their respective parents – Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys and John and Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and Papas – and honed those skills into early 90s pop excellence. With a little help from Glen Ballard. A timely blend of tight harmonies, soaring synth, and hints of adult contemporary rock, a term that seemed to die with the 90s, only to be rejuvenated (in spirit) once those 90s children became “Millennial” adults.

As those at the upper end of that contested Millennial generation, myself included, will no doubt have noticed – the sounds that epitomize the Wilson Phillips are re-emerging. With groups like HAIM, the retro-early-90s WP vibes are undeniable: close sisterly harmonies, light rock, and punchy electro beats that sounds like the entire thing is overlaid with a glossy Instagram filter. Other music critics have picked up on this as well, which you can find here and here. It’s difficult to know whether HAIM came to these sounds on their own, or as influenced by the listening practices of their family. Regardless, it points to the reality that, as youth we often want to distance ourselves from the music of our parents, but HAIM are a great example of what happens when you embrace the familiar and the familial, repurposing it for a new generation.

At the same time, the fact that these sounds are now “retro,” fills me with a great sense of existential anxiety. Once the cyclical nature of pop culture comes full circle, does that signal the close of one’s youth? I wonder what happens once you see that circle close the second, and even third, time. The postmodern cycle of pop is speeding up, as the long tail is coming into full effect. The postdigital era of pop is upon us, and retro is quickly becoming meaningless.

It’s not only the sounds that have re-emerged. The cultural issues surrounding that album have only become amplified in recent years. As a child spending ample time reading and re-reading the cassette leaflet, I admired the diversity of female body representation afforded in even those three women. Yes, they were all attractive, white, women of a particular level of privilege – but at the same time it was rare to see a plus size woman achieve a high degree of success in pop music. I identified with Carnie Wilson, and looked to her as an example of succeeding in spite of hegemonic conventions.

While the concept of intersectional feminism existed much earlier, it was only a year before Wilson Phillips that the term was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw. More recently, the ideas surrounding intersectionality have expanded to account for issues of body positivity. It’s a bit problematic to connect the girl group to intersectional feminism in this way, as their whiteness is counter to the original aims of the term. But it draws attention to current trends whereby young artists are challenging issues of representation, not only in terms of body size, but also traditional expectations of gender performance. For many, the 90s, as re-imagined in 2018, is also a throwback to gender neutrality, through a non-binary lens, in a way that is simultaneously political and laissez-faire.

In writing this piece, I was a bit disheartened to see that the Wilson Phillips’ fan engagement is something that has not translated well to current practices. In an era where impact is measured in likes and followers, the group is pretty low-stakes with just under 14k Twitter followers. But in discovering Carnie Wilson’s Instagram page, I found new inspirations for body positivity. Her feed is full of no-makeup selfies. Not the typical GenZ influencer ones, with their unmasked youthfulness, but those of a strong woman navigating an ageing female body. Her visibility is striking, and her positivity inspiring.

I continue to embrace and love pop music. I share my passion with my students and beyond, as we use it as a vehicle for exploring cultural issues, and self-reflecting on the construction of subjectivities. It’s never just about the music, but the music is that important mediating moment for nostalgia, identity, sociability, and embodiment.

Melissa Avdeeff is a Senior Lecturer in Communication, Culture, and Media at Coventry University. Follow her at @avdeeff.

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