'Two Princes' is the Gen X trolley problem [May 23, 1993]
Plus: Suede, House Of Pain, and The Flaming Lips
Hey, Time Traveller! 👋 Welcome back to May 23, 1993!
📰 President Mary Robinson meets Queen Elizabeth II, the first-ever meeting between an Irish and British head of state.📽️ Wesley Snipes does Die-Hard-on-a-Plane in Passenger 57. 📺 Last bells at Bayside High as the Saved By The Bell kids finally graduate.
🎶 Number One song in the UK Top 40 is ‘All That She Wants’ by Ace Of Base which we covered last week, so let’s move onto this week’s Number 9…
Spin Doctors, ’Two Princes’
Imagine you’re visiting a city with nice old trams running through the street. You hear a scream and see a trolley has broken loose. It’s plummeting downhill, heading straight for a group of five pedestrians.
The pedestrians, oblivious to the danger, are about to be killed, but you can save them. You’re standing right next to a lever that controls the flow of trams—pull this lever and the runaway trolley will divert to an unused stretch of track.
But there’s one problem. A lone repairman is working on the other track. If you pull the lever, you will almost certainly kill him.
What do you do?
One, two princes kneel before you
This ethical dilemma is The Trolley Problem. It’s one of the more well-known bits of pop philosophy recently, especially since its recent appearance in The Good Place.
Since then, The Trolley Problem has kind of replaced Sophie’s Choice as pop culture’s go-to metaphor for any ethical dilemma where you have to choose between two terrible options.
In the summer of 1993, Spin Doctors presented the world with their own version of The Trolley Problem. You (the anonymous girl addressed in the song) are being courted by two young men. One offers material happiness, the other offers emotional connection.
The lyrics of ‘Two Princes’ puts forward a case for both potential suitors. Prince #1 offers the following qualities:
Diamonds in his pockets
Wants to buy you rockets
Wears nice jackets
Has a “princely racket” (Crime or tennis? Unclear)
Gets on with your father
Whereas Prince #2 offers the following:
No family tree
Your dad hates him
Talks for hours
Will let you call him “baby” and buy him flowers
Really loves you
Laying it all out, it’s not a dilemma at all. You shouldn’t marry Prince #1 because it’s 1993, not 1793. Women don’t have to secure their future by marrying well, they can build their own lives! Also, getting your father’s permission beforehand is kind of weird.
Prince #2 is also out. He’s doing that Nice Guy thing of “I have feelings for you so I’m entitled to you”, which is a big ol’ red flag. Also, he dresses like a Peruvian alpaca farmer.
On this level, the ‘Two Princes’ dilemma is easy: you tell them both to beat it, and ask your dad to stop accepting marriage proposals.
But what if this song isn’t about a literal love triangle? What if it’s a metaphor for a bigger moral dilemma, one that haunted people in the 90s?
What a prince and lover ought to be
90s culture featured a lot of love triangles like the one in ‘Two Princes’, where a girl has to choose between the wealthy jerk and the sensitive artist.
Reality Bites is the peak of this genre. This 1994 Gen X romcom starred Winona Ryder as a wide-eyed film school graduate trying to follow her dream and maybe find love along the way.
Winona meets and dates two very different men. Her two princes, if you will. Prince #1 is Ben Stiller, a boring-but-nice MTV executive who can help launch her career. Prince #2 is Ethan Hawke, moody lead singer in a struggling grunge band. He’s sexy and creative, although he’s not actually that nice to Winona.
(She ends up with Ethan. It’s a bad movie.)
Winona isn’t just choosing a boyfriend here—she’s choosing a lifestyle. Security vs adventure; dependability vs romance; pop vs grunge; money vs art; maybe even the 80s vs the 90s.
In essence, she’s grappling with the biggest ethical dilemma of the 90s: selling out.
Just go ahead now
Selling Out was a real concern in the 90s.
It was a big deal in music, especially in the grunge scene. Understandably so —there was a crazy amount of cash in the 90s music industry, and record companies were throwing money at every half-decent band.
(You could almost argue that ‘Two Princes’ is really about trying to decide between a major label and an indie.)
Non-musicians also thrived around this time. Social mobility increased throughout the 90s, as people from working-class backgrounds moved into well-paid office jobs, especially in the booming IT sector. Those people also struggled with the dilemma of selling out: if you move up the ladder, are you betraying your roots?
By the end of the 90s, this had become our most urgent philosophical problem. 1999 saw a string of movies—Fight Club, Office Space, The Matrix, American Beauty, Being John Malkovich—that all made the same basic point: bourgeois life is a trap from which we must escape, especially if you’re an angry white guy.
I was in my early 20s and approaching the end of college when these movies appeared, and I admit they rattled me. As Y2K loomed closer, it really felt like life was diverging into two paths: the boring path with a good job and a big house, or the exciting path with its many insecurities.
It was terrifying, like pulling the lever in a real-life trolley problem.
How 'bout that now
Younger people get very confused when you tell them about selling out. They blink at you and say, “Your biggest fear was…homeownership?”
The concept of “selling out” began to vanish from pop culture shortly after Y2K, when the world faced a new version of the trolley problem that went like this:
If you want an album, you must buy a CD for £15, of which around 20p goes to the artists. Alternatively, you can download the tracks for free from Napster, but doing this will kill the music industry.
We all chose Napster.
The ethics of music piracy are complicated (yes, it’s stealing, but the industry had been gouging fans for years). Whatever your personal view on the topic, the fact is that it had a devastating effect on artists, and the CD-driven gold rush of the 90s came to a sudden halt.
Other real-world events also destroyed the idea of Selling Out, including the 2008 financial crash from which we’ve never really recovered. Falling wages and spiraling living costs have devastated a generation of young artists.
There used to be a time when you could live in London or New York and survive on a part-time job while you chased your dream. That’s impossible now. Art vs commerce is dead. These days, the only battle is sink vs swim.
Marry him or marry me
The concern about Selling Out might sound stupid these days, but I think the underlying anxiety is universal. When you’re young, you have all of these important decisions to make that will define your life. Deciding between two princes taps into that anxiety, as does worrying about whether to sell out or stay indie.
But then it turns out—as we discovered after Y2K, as Spin Doctors discovered when they were unceremoniously dropped after their second album bombed—that life is never so simple that it boils down to a single decision.
Selling out doesn’t mean success; not selling out doesn’t mean you’ll find spiritual fulfillment. The rich prince might be the right choice of husband; the poor prince could turn out to be a real asshole.
Life is not as clean-cut as The Trolley Problem. In real life, you just have to pull the lever and hope for the best.
Elsewhere in the charts
[Number 8↑] House Of Pain, ‘Jump Around’
Behind-the-scenes notes: I try to cover everything on the exact 30th anniversary of the moment it became popular. Sometimes, this isn’t as easy as it sounds. For example, 1993 saw pivotal albums from Wu-Tang Clan and The Cranberries, but I’m holding them off until next year because they both landed in the charts (and public consciousness) in 1994.
‘Jump Around’ came out in 1992 and had a decent chart run, so we covered it last year (you can read it here—it talks about House Of Pain’s beef with the literal children of Kris Kross). However, it didn’t really break through until this re-release, so chances are that your memories of the song are from 1993.
Does this matter? Do you care? I’m genuinely asking. Let me know in the comments about how to decide on a song’s exact 30-year anniversary.
[Number 11, New] Guns N’Roses, ‘Civil War’
It is 1993 and you are a Guns N’Roses fan. This is the seventh single from Use Your Illusion I & II, which came out almost two years ago. You are exhausted. You just want a new record.
And then finally you get some good news! Apparently, G N’R are back in the studio working on a new album called The Spaghetti Incident. Sounds great! What can possibly go wrong?
[Number 16, ↑] Louchie Lou and Michie One, ‘Shout (It Out)’
The Summer of Reggae continues with this fun version of the old Lulu hit.
Lulu also co-wrote the Tina Turner song in this week’s chart, plus she’s about to have a big hit with Take That. A good year for her.
[Number 22, New] Suede, ‘So Young’
Probably the weakest of the singles from Suede. It’s not bad or anything, just lacks the vigour of ‘The Drowners’ or ‘Metal Mickey’.
[Number 33, New] Tasmin Archer, ‘Lords of the New Church’
I’ve bemoaned Tasmin Archer’s mishandled career in previous issues, which seems to have been the result of a bungled record label strategy.
Songs like this really show what was squandered. ‘Lords of the New Church’ isn’t as catchy as ‘Sleeping Satellite’ and arguably the production is a bit too glossy, but it’s still a fine bit of songwriting. Whatever the problem was in Archer’s career trajectory, it wasn’t a lack of talent. Again, I think it’s just that her management team didn’t know what to do with her.
Album of the Week
The Flaming Lips, Transmissions from the Satellite Heart
Warner Brothers signed The Flaming Lips in 1990, which still seems like a bizarre move. Warner are Madonna’s label; The Flaming Lips are the guys who once made a multi-CD symphony for car stereos.
Their first Warner LP, 1992’s Hit To Death In The Future Head, failed pretty miserably, which seemed to confirm that this partnership was doomed. The next record, Transmission from the Satellite Heart, seemed destined for the same fate, until something strange happened.
Lead single ‘She Don’t Use Jelly’ started to get some airplay. College radio at first, which is the natural home for whimsical psychedelic rock about vaseline sandwiches. But then they got invited onto David Letterman’s show, and then were featured on Beavis & Butthead (who said, “uh-oh, I think this is college music”).
And then, somehow, they ended up playing ‘She Don’t Use Jelly’ on Beverley Hills 90210. They even got a namecheck (“Is that The Flaming Lips?”, “Well it sure ain’t Michael Bolton!”)
Transmissions didn’t exactly become a smash hit, but it was enough to turn people onto the unique charms of Wayne Coyne and the guys. And the album itself does a pretty good job of showcasing the band’s immense talent.
In fact, you could almost argue that ‘She Don’t Use Jelly’ is the weakest song on Transmissions, simply because it’s a little less adventurous than the other tracks. Like, it doesn’t quite prepare you for the 60s timewarp of ‘Be My Head’, the juxtaposition of crunching guitars/sweet vocals on album closer ‘Slow Nerve Action’, or the sad, lo-fi cover of ‘Plastic Jesus’.
A great record from a great band at one of the most interesting phases in their career. You can take your pick of best track—they’re all great—but personally I like ‘Superhumans’ slightly more than the others.
Time for a break!
Sun’s out, so it’s holiday time. We’ll be back on June 13th with more hits from the summer of 1993. See you then!
I remember hearing 'Two Princes' so often on radio and MTV that I began to hate it. Enough time has passed that now it has the fun nostalgia factor. Sorta.
My gut response is '93, since that's when Jump Around really peaked. But in recent years the university here has adopted it, and plays it during (American) football games. so...timeless classic?