Medina native Rob Harvilla's podcast takes listeners through the music of the '90s
Music journalist Rob Harvilla started the podcast “60 Songs that Explain the ‘90s” as a way to journey through the songs that scored his teenage and college years in Northeast Ohio.
Nostalgia for the 1990s is alive and well, both for those whose formative years were defined by the sights and sounds of the decade and for others who might not have been around but discovered its music, film and fashion.
He started his music podcast in 2020, and it has since expanded from 60 popular ‘90s songs to more than 70 episodes as it has grown in popularity.
“You know, I've been a writer for 20 years, and it's odd writing words that I can speak out loud, right? As basic as that sounds, it's a very foreign concept to me,” Harvilla said.
On the podcast, Harvilla recalls personal memories tied to specific bands and pieces of music, while reminiscing about his time seeing concerts in Akron and Cleveland or driving around the Northeast Ohio suburbs with the radio blasting.
His stories then transition into an interview with a noted writer, artist or pop culture figure about each song that's dissected in the episode.
“If we limit this show to just my experience. My experience is limited. You know, anybody's experience is limited,” he said.
Harvilla now lives with his wife and children in the Columbus suburbs.
“In a lot of cases, there are aspects of a song, perspectives on a song that I just can't bring, you know, as like a white guy, you know, father living in the suburbs,” he said. “I want to hear from somebody else. I want to hear somebody else's experience with a song in real time back in the ‘90s and somebody else's experience with this music now.”
Guests on “60 Songs that Explain the ‘90s” include PUP drummer Zack Mykula, film critic and podcast host Karina Longworth, author Chuck Klosterman, Eve 6 frontman Max Collins, Cleveland journalist Annie Zaleski and more.
Harvilla grew up in Medina and has made his mark in music journalism with Cleveland Scene and as an editor for the Village Voice, Spin Magazine and Deadspin.
He now works as a senior staff writer for the popular sports and culture website and podcast network, The Ringer.
Choosing the 1990s
Harvilla has been writing about music for two decades, and choosing to put together a podcast about the popular songs of the ‘90s was a way to fuse universal nostalgia for the decade with his own personal memories.
“I went to both high school and college [in the ‘90s], and I'm sort of realizing that there's there's no substitute for the music that you loved, you obsessed over, at that time in your life,” Harvilla said.
The 1990s were “safely in the past but not far enough away,” he said.
“Music will always be important to me, but there's nothing that can replace that feeling of being a teenager, right? You know, being in high school, being in college, being a little past college— that music just imprints itself on you differently,” he said.
Some episodes of the podcast include larger social commentary on the politics, controversies or news surrounding a particular piece of music or artist.
Others include monologues about Harvilla’s memories of hearing a song or album for the first time.
Whether he’s sharing a story about his high school ska band, or toilet papering mailboxes after a Rage Against the Machine show, there is always an element of humor in each episode.
“As the personal connection is growing in these episodes and in this show I'm bringing more and more of myself in, it's just this is the music that I loved when I was young, and it's not any more complicated than that,” he said.
There is a darkness in some of the stories Harvilla tells, like that of pop singer Britney Spears’ conservatorship and Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain’s death.
He approaches the podcast with a lighter tone but works to remain respectful in recounting the artists’ stories.
“It is challenging sometimes. Absolutely. I think in general, I'm a pretty goofy person. And quite frankly, you know, I think that the tone that I bring just naturally, subconsciously is a little lighter,” he said. “I try to be careful and I'm trying to be respectful and I'm trying not to avoid these topics, but I'm trying not to wallow in them.”
Harvilla said the listeners the podcast speaks to the most are people who grew up in the ‘90s and have a certain relationship to the music of that time period.
“You know, if we're going to do that with the ‘80s, first of all, that's a little young for me,” he said. “And second of all, like I try and envision the audience for a show like this. I don't think you want to age out the audience that much necessarily. The ‘90s always felt like a sweet spot.”
Choosing the songs
From its debut episode covering Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” to its most recent episode on Sunny Day Real Estate’s “In Circles,” Harvilla’s podcast casts a wide net across genres of ‘90s music.
Choosing the songs is a process that involves several spreadsheets and Google Docs, Harvilla said.
“We have a long list that we arduously whittle down into a shorter list,” Harvilla said.
He said he can look at a list of 100-150 songs and pick out the 20 or 25 most essential tracks. From there, he and his team follow a “tier system” of more to less important songs.
“I always want to keep in a few for myself that were not as prominent to everybody else but were very important to me,” he said.
On the podcast, Harvilla often talks about his experiences with songs in the context of growing up in Northeast Ohio.
On the episode that covers the Offspring’s song “Pretty Fly for a White Guy,” Harvilla shares a story about attending a Stone Temple Pilots concert in Downtown Cleveland.
His first internship was with Cleveland Scene, and Harvilla said he’ll always cherish the memories of opening CDs in the publication’s office and hearing the transformational music of his youth during that time.
Harvilla said a highlight of his career involved his brother answering the phone at their parents’ house and hearing Weird Al Yankovic on the other end.
“I was just interviewing him for Cleveland Scene,” Harvilla said. “He called my house, and my brother was just blown away that he got to speak to Weird Al Yankovic, even for, you know, 15 seconds. Weird Al is certainly a career highlight.”
Harvilla and his wife lived in Oakland, California, and New York City for a period of time, and his career in journalism has introduced him to places and experiences that span beyond the borders of Ohio.
Still, he’s decided to stay in the area to work and raise a family.
“My wife is from Columbus. Her parents are still here in town. My parents, as I said, are still in Dayton. My younger brother is here, you know, 15 minutes from me in Columbus,” Harvilla said. “We've been here for eight years, and we're thrilled. We were glad to get away for a little while, quite frankly, but we are equally glad to be back.”
“This is the music that I loved when I was young, and it's not any more complicated than that."Rob Harvilla
Connecting with audiences through podcasting
On the Feb. 9, 2021, episode of “60 Songs That Explain the ‘90s,” Harvilla finally reached a total of 60 songs with Alice In Chains’ “Would?” featuring Chuck Klosterman as his guest.
Harvilla said: “That was 60 songs… and we’re gonna do 30 more in just a couple months.”
While “90 Songs That Explain The ‘90s” has a nice ring to it, he initially wanted to explore just 60 songs because he wasn’t sure if the podcast would take off.
“I was so self-conscious about whether this was going to work that 60 seemed a little safer,” Harvilla said.
Harvilla said the relationship between the host and listener has drawn in a loyal—and vocal—audience.
“This is the most feedback I've ever had,” Harvilla said. “If you listen to a lot of episodes of a podcast and you feel not a friendship but some kind of relationship with this person and their voice—it’s just a slightly more involved relationship between speaker and listener than me just writing, you know, a review of the new Drake record or whatever.”
He said after 40 or 45 songs, determining the final batch of songs to reach 60 became “super stressful.”
“I think it was just as simple as we had too many songs left. I was feeling like I was in a groove, and I could keep going. I felt like we had hit a nostalgic sweet spot,” he said.
“60 Songs That Explain the ‘90s” will now cover a total of 90 songs that helped define an era.