Before looking closer into particular moments in time throughout music history, it is important to understand the psychology of the medium. Music influences people. The ones that disagree with that statement you will find are the ones that are influenced the most. Music is what creates fashion, social cliques, and other annoyances. I mean, have you ever seen a goth kid? Seriously. Do you think that kid woke up one day and thought it would be a good idea to dress and behave like a circus vampire while being shunned from everyday society? There is normally a purpose behind every form of madness (even the Manson family, who were influenced by the Beatles so much they thought the White Album was a secret code just for them to decipher. Yes, a private message from the Beatles) Music has influenced almost every part of my life from the way I have dressed, to haircuts (or no haircuts), to lifestyle choices and relationships. Art does not imitate life, because life isn’t very creative (have you ever seen “Glee” or “American Idol?”). Life imitates art at all times in modern society. There is a reason that Hot Topic is still in business. There is a reason that Old Navy still sells flannel shirts. And there is a reason that people get tattoos on their eyelids like Lil Wayne. For every action, there is a reaction. If someone listens to The Cure way too much, they are going to start dressing in black, start wearing eye liner, and gelling their hair up like they are constantly touching one of those static crystal balls you get at Spencer’s. If someone is listening to way too much Jay-Z, they are going to react by getting one of those baseball caps with the unbent bill and barely sitting it on the side of their heads and say things such as “Jigga.” If someone listens to way too much Nirvana, they are going to react by wearing old jeans with holes in them and search high and low for a fuzzy baby blue cardigan. If someone listens to way too much Grateful Dead, they are going to react by taking a lot of drugs (because that’s what it would take to listen to that for a long period of time). There is definitely a reason that “skeet skeet” is a commonly used and acceptable term used across all races in today’s culture. Music made this all possible.
Look at it like this, music even has the power to create counter-cultures. Although their ultimate political cause was correct, would hippies in the 1960s really have thought that not bathing for long periods of time was a good idea had they not been influenced? Consumers are so easily influenced it is staggering. Look at Pac-Man. Influencing? Yes, maybe. Look at people in rave or techno clubs in contrast to Pac-Man. You’re running around a neon-lit room like a mad-man eating pills, running from ghosts, and listening to annoying, cacophonous, and repetitive music. You do the math. Music even influences sexual desires. For example, remember every single horrific boy band ever created and marketed? What can make a young girl start riding a pole faster than a boy band? Nothing. It’s really amazing. Not only boy bands, but rock as well. As Eddie Murphy so eloquently put it in the 1980’s; “Mick Jagger is an ugly mother f**ker!” People, whether they know it or not, choose what music influences them whether it is rock, hip-hop, punk, metal, or 80’s synth pop.
In some way or another, words and melodies can fill voids that are left and can explain things and life in ways better than the listener has ever heard and can help make sense of how that individual looks at the world. There have been times myself when I’ve realized that Eddie Vedder’s words and the mood and they way in which he delivered them had a big part in getting me through my teens and 20’s. To me, nobody has captured exactly how I’ve felt growing up and growing into myself with feelings of confusion, angst, longing, ambition, love, loss, and malaise. It is a way of relating to a shared experience. The way Eddie Vedder delivered “I would not ever touch you, hold you, feel you in my arms never again” is still bone-chilling to me as an adult. Mainly because I’ve been there and know what he is feeling and can identify with the anger and desperation that a situation like that can make you feel. Musicians make music because they feel the same way the listeners do. Either putting it down on paper or taking it out on an instrument is their way of therapy. By looking at it in this regard, many people just don’t “get” rap music. Most certainly every listener is not sharing the experience of every song being about how great you are and how much of a real “gangsta” you purport to be. That is where a big difference is felt. Jay-Z explained it the best I’ve heard it explained, and I suddenly got it. Rock music is inspirational. Rap music is aspirational. Either way, it influences and can have a great impact whether conscious or unconscious to the listener.
Music is an all-powerful medium. People who were that age at that time in history, will never forget the feeling they had the first time they heard the first two bars of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” It was a wake-up call to a befuddled and looked down upon generation to get angry and do something. And we did. If you didn’t fall into that demographic, you wouldn’t understand. Kind of like how I don’t understand and can’t fathom how anyone in their right mind could sit around and listen to Vampire Weekend or Arcade Fire now. In a nutshell, music influences individuals; and if you were lucky enough to have been a certain age at a certain time, then you are lucky enough to have seen it influence the masses of a generation and shaping their lives forever. I hope that the state of the music industry, American Idol, reality TV, and the dominance of Clear Channel haven’t prevented such a happening for future generations. One can only hope others get to experience what mine and my parents’ generations experienced. An awakening. The doors of perception opened. “Only love can break our fall.”
Music in the 1990s was a special time. It was a unique time. The decade began on an artistic and creative fringe and ended with something completely different. For the musical story of the 1990s to be told, one must understand what happened culturally in the 90s with what is known as “Generation X.” This is my generation. The generation that older generations conclude is worthless and contributed nothing to humanity. Although there was no great foreign war in the face of Generation X, the generation that brought the internet and the technological revolution to the world and everything that comes with it such as email, online bill paying, easy access to porn, and the entire knowledge of the world at each person’s fingertips did nothing? That can immediately be brushed off as an ignorant notion. The 1990s generation is comparable to the 1890s generation. Where they brought industry, those 100 years later brought technology. What did the baby-boomer generation give the world? They were faced with the Vietnam War in their youth, but later on what was provided? Widespread debt and broken homes? Disco? Station wagons? TV Dinners? Reagan and the deregulation of Wall Street? One gift that the 90s bestowed upon the world was the re-birth of rock n’ roll. I’m sure that many people will disagree with that in our modern age, but I’m sure that older people probably sit around and have arguments about how Grand Funk Railroad was way better than Foghat as well.
The 90s is going to be known as the last era where rock music played a defining role in ‘youth culture’. Music now has to share that limited space with many more other distractions, namely videogames. Also, the 90s, in terms of rock music, was actually a strange blip where all the record companies had their ear to the ground, and were actually signing bands that they knew people wanted to hear. That’s long gone now. Whether your favorite band was Alice in Chains or Rage Against the Machine, the 90s are going to be seen as the closing chapter on popular rock music.
Music movements appear to be reactions of previous movements; punk in reaction to stadium rock, grunge in reaction to hair metal, nu-metal in reaction to grunge, emo in reaction to nu metal, deathcore/neo-thrash/black metal in reaction to emo…on and on.
The discussion of music in the 1990s undoubtedly begins in Seattle, Washington. As previously stated, the “grunge” movement was a definite reaction to the non-poetic and over-indulgent nature of 80s hair/glam metal. It began in the late 1980s with bands such as Green River, Soundgarden, and Mother Love Bone. Their music was a little darker, much heavier, and mostly in drop D tuning. Radio stations were quick to shy away from granting air time to this dark and somewhat gloomy music that seemed to only be regional to the Pacific Northwest. Most all of the bands knew each other and shared the same independent record label, Sub-Pop.
1990 did deliver two albums that will always stand the test of time and always be revered as classics. Those albums were “Temple of the Dog” by Temple of the Dog (comprised of members of both Soundgarden and Pearl Jam) and Pearl Jam’s debut album entitled “Ten.” However, neither of these records would gain national notoriety until 1991. Enter Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. Nirvana’s third album, “Nevermind,” is essentially what put Seattle on the musical map. When the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video hit MTV (back in the days when MTV was a music channel), all hell broke loose and Kurt Cobain became a celebrity overnight. In turn, every record label and every radio station that had been ignoring Seattle bands such as Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam swooped in like pirates to cash in on what MTV proved to be marketable with Nirvana. The movement was quick and so utterly massive; a whole new radio station format was born: alternative rock. At that time rock stations were only playing things like Warrant and Guns n’ Roses. Alternative rock at that time was more identified with bands like The Cure and Hall & Oates.
1990 to 1994 gave us Nirvana records such as “Nevermind” and “In Utero” as well as Pearl Jam records such as “Ten,” “Vs,” (Which sold more copies in its first two weeks than any other album in history at the time. That record was later broken by N’Sync) & “Vitalogy.” Each one of these records became multi-platinum sellers. It was a resurgence of rock music that was about something other than girls, booze, and Los Angeles. It was a return to form of raw music with poetic lyrical content. It was throwing the 80s away and returning to what made Led Zeppelin great in the 70s. It was music that mattered. It wasn’t covered up by synthesizers. It wasn’t covered up over-the-top production in the studio with 72 tracks of voice-altering harmonies. It was real. And more importantly, people realized it was real.
As with anything marketable, such as the Seattle music boom of the early 90s, everybody in the world tires to cash in. Suddenly, fashion shows in New York City and Paris featured the “grunge” look and supermodels were wearing flannel shirts and Doc Martens. Eddie Vedder had offers to appear in Calvin Klein underwear ads (which he obviously refused). Soundtracks for Hollywood movies turned to this new alternative rock sound to attract youth audiences to theaters. Films such as “Singles” and “Reality Bites” are perfect examples of how Hollywood used the soundtrack alone to market the film. It was a pop culture boom that only comes around once in a blue moon. Mainstream media was quick to follow. “Time” magazine even featured a cover story on the rage of “grunge” music. It was a revived youth culture that not only facilitated the election of President Bill Clinton in 1992 in the United States, but was able to spread worldwide influence as well.
As quickly as the Seattle musical boom spread throughout the world, most agree that the loss of innocence and the beginning of the end occurred on April 5th, 1994 with the death of Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain. The aftermath of the untimely death of Kurt Cobain, though as tragic as it was, did leave a legacy and opened a unique door in the world of music that had never been opened before. 1994-1997 showed us a time that a band that made a living playing in coffee shops or a small clubs in Vancouver could score a major record deal writing stripped down and personal songs without big name producers like Rick Rubin on their album or over-done production. For example bands like Mazzy Star, as incredible as they were, would never have scored a record contract or received airplay at any other time in music history. At this time, the alternative rock radio format was continuing to grow in all markets, even the south. From what was accomplished by the Seattle bands in the early 1990s, the door opened for “post-grunge” bands such as Live, the Smashing Pumpkins, Bush, Silverchair, the Breeders, Matthew Sweet, Urge Overkill, Candlebox, and the Nixons. Although these bands will never be as respected as their earlier counterparts and “grandfathers” from Seattle, they in their own right continued to carry the torch that was lit years back in Seattle. It was the mid-point of the decade and a unique time that produced massive radio hits such as “Hold My Hand” by Hootie & the Blowfish and “You Oughta Know” by Alanis Morrisette that never would have made it at any other time. “Hey Jealousy” by the Gin Blossoms would never be a radio hit in 2011. The reason they did was because the people out there listening to music and radio wanted something to fill that void left by the absence of Nirvana and the reclusive nature of Pearl Jam, who purposely pulled themselves back from the spotlight. The “post-grunge” rock bands provided that last gasp of the return of straight to the point rock music in the mid 1990s. It evolved into a short popularity burst of horn-line driven ska music such as the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and No Doubt, and eventually began fade away. Kurt Cobain once said: “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.”
This even opened the door for bands outside of the United States with a different sound such as Radiohead. As much as Radiohead sounds like a Teddy Ruxpin bear being drowned in a vat of Nyquil, one must give respect where respect is due. Radiohead had one good album, maybe one decent album, and a bunch of toneless, experimental, high-concept political mish-mash that people bought because they seemed to like “OK Computer.” But they have maintained a core audience since this time that has remained loyal to their every move even though they refuse to play “Creep” ever again.
As musically amazing as 1990-1997 was, the remainder of the decade should be studied by a legion of the world’s greatest scientists to ensure that nothing like this happens ever, ever again. The late 90s gave the world an oil tanker full of easily forgettable music with the emergence of rock bands such as Korn and Limp Bizkit and god forbid the bubble gum pop explosion of the Spice Girls, Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, and N’Sync that has continued to linger into the next decade and beyond. In a decade where only 8 years earlier an entire generation found their voice, those kids who were a few years younger found joy in nothing more than anger and aggression. Where the early 90s were introspective, the late 90s musically expressed rage outward.
I’ve never been able to grasp the allure of Korn, although I’ve tried many times. However, I do get why Limp Bizkit was popular. Aggression has a place in history in rock music. Limp Bizkit eschewed any attempt at lyrical subtlety and stated feelings of anger in the most simplistic, in-your-face manner, possible: “If things keep going this way I might, break our f**king face tonight! Give me something to break! How about your f**king face!” Those lyrics were accompanied by droning, monotonous guitar riffs. Limp Bizkit encapsulated male, teenage (usually sexual) frustration. Limp Bizkit, for its time, delivered exactly what its audience wanted. No pretense, little complexity, & pure emotion. Sometimes, that’s all you want or need.
That being said, Limp Bizkit was simply sick musically. However, a “real” rapper could have destroyed a song like “Nookie.” I mean literally crushed it. That’s what Limp Bizkit was missing. However it’s really hard to feel sorry for kids from my generation for feeling “alienated” and turning to nu-metal for validation of all their filthy, regressive emotions. I hold no sympathy for troglodytes with entitlement issues.
What the late 90s also gave us was the “TRL” (Total Request Live) phenomenon on MTV. Every day after school, Carson Daly would crowd around a bunch of screaming teenagers and count down the same 10 videos every day and teenagers would scream like their grandparents did when they saw Elvis Presley. The TRL pop has held up a lot better than that of TRL rock. Divorced from its period of ubiquity, I don’t really see how you could get that worked up over a randomly selected early Christina Aguilera single, but couldn’t get worked up over a Korn video where Jonathan Davis most definitely is flapping his arms like a chicken while holding the microphone to scream.
“The TRL pop could hold up if you only hear them as songs and only songs. If you added everything that went along with it, it’s still pretty noxious. You had the boy bands with their ridiculous facial hair and clothes and a long series of barely legal blond girls scantily dressed yet pretending that they’re really not trying to attract a huge audience of pedophiles. It should also be said that that this time frame also gave us the bare midriff look which bequeathed us the muffin top and the whale’s tail thong (usually worn by people who shouldn’t wear one).”
It was a sad way to musically end a decade that started with so much emotion, artistic beauty, and inspiration. The legacy of Seattle, Kurt Cobain, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, and the Screaming Trees still lives today though. Some of these bands have persevered through mega-stardom and retreated to more personal and intimate gigs and settings. I look back on 90s culture in a very positive sense. I still think the most attractive thing in the world is the weird little coffee shop barista chick with glasses that probably has a master’s degree in eastern philosophy, but still pours coffee and is the reincarnate of Kay Hanley in the Letters to Cleo “Here & Now” video.
What we are reduced to in current times for mainstream rock music are bands like Godsmack, Hollywood Undead, Saving Abel, Nickelback, and the Sick Puppies. It’s music that you can only enjoy if you’re dead inside, on the sunset strip, and/or selling your body for a heroin fix. There is a lot of good music being made, but you have to search to find it. To explain more simply, if something is good, that won’t make it popular. Also, if something is popular, that won’t make it good.
The 1990’s, just like the 1970s was decade that started with amazing music and ended up being hijacked by emotionally devoid material at the end of the decade (disco=pop) that ushered in a following decade of over-produced bubble gum rock and pop. However, its spirit lives on and lies dormant just waiting to be resurrected.
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Dustin M Pardue