(or How Peace, Prosperity and the Compact Disc Destroyed Popular Music and How George W., 9/11 and Internet File Sharing Saved It Again)
Just so we’re all clear, I don’t hate all 90’s music. There will always be a few genius artists in any generation that will push back the limitations of the day and make music that will stand the test of time. The 90’s did give us Beck, Bjork, Jay-Z, Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead and The Wu-Tang Clan, just to name a few.
But on the whole, I absolutely loath 90’s music.
Of every decade and genre of music–from the 60’s up until today–90’s music has to be the least represented genre/period on my iPod, which seems really odd in a way, because the 90’s were the decade that I really discovered music. At the start of the decade I was just hitting puberty and going into middle school and by the end I was graduating high school. (Literally the end. I graduated in 1999.) Basically my entire formative teenage years were crammed into this decade, and yet I can’t stand most of the music that came out of it.
It wasn’t until I went to college that music started getting better again and I finally discovered my personal taste in music.
So what happened? Where did the 90’s go wrong? And why do I hate them so much?
Let’s start with that last question, and with the music itself. What’s so wrong with 90’s music, Ben? Well, the 90’s were typified by hit songs that were so saccharinely sweet and infectiously catchy that you almost instantly hated them, at which point the radio programmers kicked it into high gear and never stopped playing them. You had two major styles that songs seemed to fit into–either the weird and quirky hit (which basically sounded like someone threw a bunch of music genres at the wall, saw what stuck, and made a song out of that) or the safe, pleasant, sissified and accessible hit.
It was a decade where anything that sounded different (or “alternative” to coin a term) was served up to the masses as if it were the second coming of pop music, when in reality there really wasn’t anything different about it. You had the same pop structure that had been working for years recycled over and over with different bells and whistles wrapped around it to make it seem edgy and unique. Which it wasn’t. Punk and New Wave had already opened up that door a decade earlier and everything since started to sound tired and recycled.
Of course we all remember how this decade of music started. There was one musical genius that showed all of us a possible ray of light of what was to come (not to be confused with Madonna’s Ray of Light). But all hope for a good decade of music died when Kurt Cobain took his own life in 1994. Maybe he saw where music was going and didn’t want to be a part of it.
The story of Nirvana and Kurt Cobain is a good place to start when looking at what went wrong in this decade, because I think their story really typifies what went wrong in music. When you really stop and think about it, Nirvana is one of those bands that never should have made it big, which is not to say that they weren’t geniuses or that they wouldn’t always have a place in the rock pantheon of greats. But if Nirvana followed the story laid out for them by earlier bands they should have turned out like The Velvet Underground, Big Star or Joy Division, i.e. incredibly influential bands, but really only known to the rock faithful and record store devotees.
But then Smells Like Teen Spirit came out.
Cobain had hit the motherload with an instantly catchy classic that seemed to sum up the entire Gen-X/ slacker/grunge movement. Cobain just wasn’t ready for that. They became too big, too fast. I think Cobain never thought they would become any bigger than some of his favorite bands of the time–The Pixies, The Meat Puppets–great bands yes, but hardly mainstream or recognizable to the man on the street. Nirvana suddenly shot from nobodies to icons in a matter of weeks.
This is a pattern that would happen again and again throughout the decade. No-name bands, originating far from the usual musical hot spots, that typically would never rise higher in popularity than being regionally known would magically come across a hook or a catchy chorus and suddenly that song would be played a billion times on every radio station across the nation.
And just as quickly that band would disappear off the face of the earth after having a #1 single on the charts for 13 straight weeks. It was madness! And yet for some odd reason it became a business model. You can see this best in how the decade ended, with the labels actually manufacturing hits by taking a group of talented songwriters, shoving them all in a room together until they came up with the next big thing, and then putting those words into the mouths of young boy bands or pop starlets raised and trained in the Mickey Mouse Club.
Everything on the radio was crazy catchy. You knew a song by the opening notes and could sing all the words by heart. (I still probably know more lyrics to songs I hate from the 90’s than I do songs I love from anywhere else.) But just as quickly as you grew to love something you grew to hate it, loath it even. When Hootie & The Blowfish’s first album came out everyone had to own it and you couldn’t go anywhere without hearing it. There was nothing bigger than Hootie.
18 months later no one cared anymore.
Let’s look at some of the outside factors that led to this phenomenon.
The 90’s are not unique in creating so many one-hit wonders. In fact they’re really no different from any other decade of music. So why does it feel so different?
For one, the music business model had been changing with the introduction of the compact disc and the consolidation of independent radio stations into nationwide mega-chains. Music in the 90’s was just another business wrapped up in a string of financial greed like Enron, Wal-Mart, and the internet and housing bubbles that blew up in the 90’s and popped by decade’s end. Music executives were taking the path of least resistance to rake in money hand over fist and guess what? Like everything else in the 90’s that didn’t last forever.
On one hand you have the radio stations, taking these universal pop hits and overplaying them across the nation. It seemed like no matter what radio station you were listening to, no matter what city you were living in, you were hearing the same 50 songs that everyone else was hearing. Which meant that those bands blew up big, and blew up big fast, but few hardly had the built in fan base to sustain them for the long haul.
Then you had the compact disc, which totally changed how people got their music. On the positive side you had a new medium that was cheaper to produce, didn’t degrade as you played it like vinyl or cassette tapes and had a huge increase in play time. No longer were you limited to 22.5 minutes a side or 45 minutes an album. You could store up to 80 minutes of music on one disc that didn’t have to be flipped, had crystal clear audio, was smaller in size and relatively indestructible. (I know, I know. We all know people who have CDs that are scratched to hell and beyond playable, and yet, when’s the last time you saw a record laying on the floor of someone’s car? Think about it.)
Unfortunately all of these advantages came with hidden, unforeseen disadvantages. Artists had by this point perfected the 45 minute long album. It was just the right amount of time to give people what they wanted and yet leave them wanting more, and the fact that you had to flip a record to listen to the whole thing meant artists had to think about arranging the songs on their albums into cohesive sides, meaning you could go on one musical journey on one side and then change things up on the B-side.
Now, because you could put all the music you wanted on one compact disc, the art of crafting an album disappeared. Because you could put more music than ever before on one disc, a lot of filler that normally would have been (appropriately) edited out because of time restrictions could now make it onto the album. Because you didn’t have to flip the disc, a lot less time was put into the arrangement of songs. And instead of carefully arranging the the sequence of the songs to tell a story over the course of the album you ended up with a disorganized blob of music.
Albums were either tiring to listen to or completely devoid of any good music beyond the one or two hits that made it to the radio. And that leads us to our final problem–the death of the single. I started this section by asking why this decade’s one hit wonders were different from any other decades. The answer is that in any other decade you could buy a single for the one song you liked on the radio and you wouldn’t have to bother with the album filled with crap.
But because making a single suddenly cost the same as making an album and the finished product took up the same amount of space on the store shelves, record executives put two and two together and got their greed on. You could make a lot more money selling someone a whole album than you could selling just the one song. Remember when all CDs cost $18.99 and the only ones you could find cheaper were those belonging to the latest hits on the radio? Are you starting to see what I see here?
Because you could no longer find any singles in a record store (they just stopped making them) you now had to buy Chumbawumba’s full length album if you wanted to own Tubthumping. (I know, I know. Why? Just go with it.) And guess what? Once people listened to the whole album they realized that they got ripped off. Big time. And this happened again and again. I own so many albums from the 90’s that are gathering dust because there were only a few songs on them I actually cared to listen to. But the weird thing is that it seems like this was a common problem throughout the decade. Why?
Politics have a much bigger impact on pop culture than we’d like to admit. If it weren’t for all of the social upheaval and unrest of the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s there never would have been rock and roll as we know it. The 90’s were different. This was arguably the most peaceful, prosperous time in American history. The Cold War was finally over. Terrorists weren’t quite a bid deal yet. And there was money to be made just about anywhere you looked. Everyone was fat and happy and so in return you got a lot of happy-go-lucky, yet substance free songs that made it onto the radio.
The other phenomenon of the time was the Gen-X/slacker/grunge generation coming into its own. The baby boomer’s kids had finally grown up and taken their place as the rulers of pop culture. But unlike our parents who fought against the establishment, and had civil rights, unjust wars, sexual and intellectual freedom and scores of other issues to become politicized about, what did we have? There was just about nothing to be angry about. Hell, even our president was cool. He smoked dope and got BJ’s in the Oval Office. What the hell did a kid in the 90’s have to be angry about?
Turns out we were really pissed off about how boring everything was. How else to explain the lack of personal style and hygiene, the rise of school shootings and the increasing number of kids put on drugs like Ritalin. There was this real feeling of why does any of this even matter? Couple that with the rise of serial killers and doomsday cults (remember when Y2K actually meant something?) and there was this general feeling across the culture of let’s just live in the moment, because there probably won’t be a tomorrow anyway. You can just feel that in the music. No one’s trying to change the status quo. People are just trying fight off personal depression.
Music became boring, trite, and despite the fact that it drilled itself almost instantly into your brain it was also instantly forgettable. We lived through a pop culture apocalypse.
So what changed?
9/11 can definitely be looked at as a turning point in pop culture, but I actually believe that without George W’s complete ineptitude in handling everything post-9/11, that momentous event would have faded away as a blip on the pop culture map, like the first World Trade Center bombing or the Oklahoma City bombing. It was George W who made us realize, “Hey! There is a moron at the wheel of the Titanic, leading us headfirst into that iceberg. Maybe we better wake up and SAY SOMETHING.”
Political activism and a sense of purpose came back to music in a big way because of that. Finally artists had something to say with their music and boundaries to push. It was a good thing for everyone (even though we could probably all live without the things that brought it all about.)
There was another big change in pop culture that I think had an even bigger impact. While the huge music companies would have us believe that file-sharing, Napster and YouTube killed the music industry, I actually believe it saved the music industry, like burning down a dead old-growth forest to provide the nutrients necessary for growing a new one in its place.
Since the record companies no longer sold singles, the only way you could get that one song you love off the radio, without buying the worthless album it came from, was to go online and download it. Or you could download the whole album for free and delete from your hard drive everything you didn’t like. In a roundabout way this changed the music industry from a oligarchy in which a select few tell you what you should listen to, to a true democracy where you can listen to the music you actually like. This destroyed the multi-platinum record sales of the 90’s but spread the wealth out to a host of deserving indie bands who never would have gotten recognized otherwise. It’s hard to think of a single new artist today whose made it big who also DIDN’T have their first big song or album leaked onto the internet. That’s a good thing, because then bloggers can talk about it and people can try out new things with little risk to them financially.
YouTube also had a similar impact on music videos. In the 80’s MTV created the music video as we now know it and everything changed. MTV became the Wild West of music, where anyone could try anything to try and make it big. The old rules just didn’t apply anymore. Videos were weird and innovative and fun to watch. But then at some point MTV stopped playing videos and started making reality programing, and during those rare times when you could actually find a video to watch in the 90’s it wasn’t even worth it because the videos SUCKED. They all looked the same, had crap style, and had nothing to say. Chances are every great video you remember from the 90’s was made by one of small handful of directors actually pushing boundaries at the time.
YouTube gave us the viral video. If you wanted to have a big hit you had to make a video that stood out from the crowd. Show the people something that they’ve never seen before and more often than not they’ll start forwarding it to all of their friends. How else to explain the popularity of OK Go? Even though you still couldn’t see videos on TV there was now an outlet for music videos where creativity and originality was praised and blah was thrown into the gutter.
Music was brought back to the masses.
When I was a kid there was a common inside joke between me and my sister based on the Sunday Rewind on EQX. Every Sunday morning they would play the weirdest, shittiest 80’s hits right as we got in the car to drive back home from church, a time period when the extreme boredom of an hour of Mass demanded something stimulate us back to the land of the living. We just wanted to listen to some good music! So for a while, “I hate 80’s music!” was a mantra in my family (at least between me and my sister.)
While my sister still seems to hate 80’s music I realized in college that I actually liked the weirdness that the 80’s gave us. No, not crap like Rock Me Amadeus by Falco or The Flying Lizards’ Money (That’s What I Want), but I loved the synth sound of New Wave and that post-punk ethos to making music (as anyone who watches the videos I post on this blog can confirm). The 80’s were all about experimenting and trying to remake the essence of the classic rock sound for a new generation.
The 90’s were just blah. The album artwork was blah, the songs were blah, the style was blah and even the music videos were blah. Why should I like a decade that was exemplified by an attitude that the only thing I have to complain about is the lack of things to complain about? Everything about it just sucked.
And that’s why I HATE 90’s music.
[Author’s Note: Why did I write this (especially since I can barely be bothered to write up a description for all of the videos I post nowadays)? Well, I was watching VH1’s 100 Greatest Songs of the 90’s last night when I realized that I hated almost every song on their countdown. Then I started to think of the albums they came off of, and I hated them too. Then I tried to think of ANY 90’s albums that I loved, and well, it was a short list. Why was that? Well hopefully if you read through all 3,000 words of this rant you know why. But I’d love to have a discussion about it anyway! Agree or disagree with me? Let me know!]