The Nineties: Music’s Lost Decade

Rolling Stone magazine (where I get all my hard news) just posted a blog listing the Worst Songs of the 90s, as voted by their readers. Talk about your low-hanging fruit. Any music fan who knows his spit valve from his F-hole will tell you that, yeah, musically, the 90s were as ugly as a stripper at Kid Rock’s bachelor party. To be fair, there were a few bright spots like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Eminem, and, um…hmm.

Of course, the early 90s also marked the explosion in popularity of Pop Country, led by Garth Brooks and a stampede of Big Hat acts, which gave birth almost immediately to the Alt-Country backlash led by such artists as BR549 and Dale Watson. But I’ll play in that mud puddle some other day. Today I’ll be looking at the overall vacuum of good music during the Bill Clinton decade, with a couple of Where-Are-They-Now updates and some good hard questions that need answering, mister.

The RS list, ironically, could also be called “The Biggest Hits of the 90s.” It contains several monster smashes like “Ice Ice Baby,” “Achy Breaky Heart,” and ubiquitous earworms like “Macarena” and “Barbie Girl.” Hit songs are usually pretty polarizing: critical duds but popular favorites. Another common factor these 90s hits shared was their shallowness. Billy Ray Cyrus and Vanilla Ice both stole shamelessly for their songs, Vanilla Ice sampling the David Bowie/Queen hit “Under Pressure,” and Billy Ray ripping off George Jones’ “Achin’ Breakin’ Heart.” But the CD-buying public didn’t care about artistic integrity. They wanted to line dance and chase underage tenderoni. And wear mullets. Or shave and shape their ‘do like a dog groomer does a poodle’s ass.

Thanks to MTV and VH1 (There was no YouTube yet, so videos were still studio-made, with budgets bigger than a lot of indie movies), the visual component had eclipsed the music. Want proof? Two words: boy bands. You got your Backstreet Boys, your *NSYNC, and your New Kids On the Block. What they all had in common was the just-got-my-learner’s-permit age bracket, chiseled jawlines and vaguely androgynous good looks, and tight choreography that looked more like an aerobics class than a dance routine. These guys all capitalized on the fact that 12-year-old girls were buying most of the records in this country at that time. The music was so processed, bland and forgettable, it made Velveeta seem like a fine Gruyère by comparison. A few of these bands are currently doing reunion tours, mostly to remind the public that it wasn’t all Justin Timberlake.

The Canadian band Crash Test Dummies landed on the list, with “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm.” It was definitely a more mature song than stuff like Color Me Badd’s “I’m Gonna Sex You Up,” but the title makes you wonder if the band had used up all its creativity by coming up with their clever name. Or perhaps the song was written during the Great Canadian Lyric Shortage of 1991. Who knows.

Every decade since the Roaring Twenties has had its musical identity. The Dustbowl 30s (“I Can Only Afford One String On My Banjo”), the Big Band 40s (“Get Your Foot Off My Licorice Stick”), the Rock ‘n Roll 50s (“You’re Welcome, Whitey”), the Groovy 60s (“Eight Miles High and Two Weeks Late”), the Smokin’ 70s (“Trampled Under Disco”), and the New Wave 80s (“Pass the Aqua Net, Prince”) all had pretty identifiable musical styles. But the 90s put an end to all that. Music fragmented and flattened out, and celebrity became as important as talent. I’m looking at you, Spice Girls.

There were a few promising hits, but those artists dropped from sight for various reasons. Hey, Jamiroquai? Like your song, dude, but we already have a Stevie Wonder. Plus, everybody knows how to spell Stevie Wonder. The Cranberries crafted the perfect, haunting pop song with “Linger,” but then followed Dolores O’Riordan down the path to Overwrought Meadows.

A lot of bands seemed to have trouble with their names in the 90s. Take the aforementioned Color Me Badd, for instance. Not only did those guys look like a Benetton commercial populated with band geeks, but what’s the d-d-deal that extra D in Badd? Total Porky Pig move. One hit, and th-th-that’s all, folks.

The little dudes from Kriss Kross ignored the potential irony of being a flipside to soft-rock icon Christopher Cross, and their attempt to get the youth of America wearing their clothes backwards totally fizzled out. Besides, the Grateful Dead was able to achieve that effect with their fans, although unintentionally.

Some of these artists had names that made it pretty clear they never planned on making it past the local battle of the bands. Remember Chumbawamba? Me neither. How about Hootie and the Blowfish? (“Okay, boys, draw straws to see who has to be Hootie.”) There’s Right Said Fred, Milli Vanilli, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Archers of Loaf, Goo Goo Dolls, Deee-Lite, just to name a few. I’m still waiting for the dream tour, when Korn goes out on the road with Hole. The shear volume of photos depicting the two bands listed on marquees around the country will probably crash the internet.

This trend of ludicrous band names, which I call the Hoobastank Syndrome, led to a golden moment that brought the 90s to a close. I remember watching a clearly uncomfortable, 114-year-old Dick Clark on New Year’s Eve, struggling mightily to maintain his dignity while he introduced the double bill of Barenaked Ladies and the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies.

So I guess the decade wasn’t a total loss after all.

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