How 10,000 Maniacs made their mark in alternative rock

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Lately, the instrumental strains of 10,000 Maniacs’ “These Are the Days” can be heard in a commercial for microwavable food. For alternative music fans who remember hearing the band from Jamestown, New York in the 1980s and 1990s, the snippet might have prompted a question: “What happened to them?” In short, like with a lot of other bands, personnel changes have ensued, but 10,000 Maniacs remains a vibrant band that tours and records.

However, what some might call the band’s “golden years” or “heyday” occurred when Natalie Merchant sang lead. These days, lead vocalist duties are handled by Mary Ramsey. Still, it is important to reflect on what 10,000 Maniacs contributed to alternative music during the years they were arguably most popular.

10,000 Maniacs and America’s alternative music scene

Audiences familiar with MTV’s “120 Minutes,” had heard and scene 10,000 Maniacs because of their video, “Trouble Me.” The song, characterized by Merchant’s rich, earnest vocals, and the insistent, mid-tempo rhythms of the instrumentation, was about caring for an older person, perhaps used to doing the caring, such as a parent or grandparent. “Why let your shoulders bend/underneath this burden/when my back is sturdy and strong/trouble me.”

“Trouble Me” was released in 1989, and if it was a person’s first introduction to 10,000 Maniacs, it showed the band to be one of few with positive and uplifting messages. Which is not to say that popular music, especially alternative music, is supposed to be filled with such. That is exactly why the band stood out.

The year of “Trouble Me’s” release was the same year The Smiths’ broke up, and Morrissey began producing solo albums; The Cure, Depeche Mode, and others continued on their moody trajectories. Yet, 10,000 Maniacs (at least with this one song) encouraged listeners to think about others and their concerns. It was a nice moment while it lasted.

10,000 Maniacs: “Eat for Two”

The same year that “Trouble Me” was released, 10,000 Maniacs also released “Eat for Two.” Both songs were from the album “Blind Man’s Zoo.” A dark, drum-heavy song about teenage pregnancy. The lyrics are sung from the perspective of a girl who is too far gone to do anything about a pregnancy that is possibly killing her. The end, with the repeated line, “I can’t breathe,” complete with pauses, is haunting.

“Because the Night”: 10,000 Manics cover Patti Smith

While 10,000 Maniacs had an impressive early career in the 1980s, it seemed that when the band covered “Because the Night” and performed it as part of their famous MTV Unplugged set, which was included on a CD that captured the performance, suddenly everyone knew who the band was.

“Because the Night” in either version is an unapologetic tune about desire and longing. The night is made for lovers, and as such, the singer and her beloved should be together. The phrase “they can’t hurt you now” is repeated and audiences can only assume that it refers to the larger society. The song is intimate, brash and poetic. Merchant’s voice shows an expressive range as she stretches the notes of the word “now” in a style similar to Smith’s.

10,000 Maniacs has undergone a number of changes since its inception. Original guitarist Robert Buck died in 2009. Drummer Robert Wachter died in 2013, and Merchant left the band in 1993, two months before the “MTV Unplugged” album was released.

Nevertheless, 10,000 Maniacs’ body of work reminds listeners of the eclectic styles that could be found under the genre title, “alternative.”

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Dodie Miller-Gould is a native of Fort Wayne, Indiana who lives in New York City where she studies creative nonfiction at Columbia University. She has BA and MA degrees in English from Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne, and an MFA in Fiction from Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her research interests include popular music and culture, 1920s jazz, and blues, confessional poetry, and the rhetoric of fiction. She has presented at numerous conferences in rhetoric and composition, and creative writing. Her creative works have appeared in Tenth Muse, Apostrophe, The Flying Island, Scavenger's Newsletter and elsewhere. She has won university-based awards for creative work and literary criticism.

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