What You Need to Know (A Check List)
- MTV used to show videos.
- Pop punk used to be good, or at least okay. At any rate, considering the number of graduate degrees that members of bands like Offspring and Bad Religion had, we can at least say that science’s loss was snowboarding’s gain.
- The United Kingdom is an island country that—being northwest of the continent—is kind of the Seattle of Europe.
- Courtney Love was once as well-known for her music as for all the other stuff.
- The soundtrack to Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers was produced by Trent Reznor; no cultural aspect of the 1990s would ever again fear being “a bit too on the nose.”
- The zine Maximum Rock 'n' Roll instituted the critical equivalent of an “ask a punk” policy for album reviews. In response, Punk Planet is founded, unaware of the number of Jets to Brazil albums they’d have to cover some day.
- It’s the G-funk era, funked out with a gangsta twist.
- If you smoke like I smoke, then you’re high, like, every day.
- 1994 was a real mess.
Epochal Vibe Shifts
Kurt Cobain dies. By his own hand (probably). Even for the performatively jaded, it was very sad. On Nov. 1, seven months after Cobain’s death, Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York album is released and the template for a Cobain-o-mania cottage industry, one part art and one part necrophilia, is set.
On Sept. 8, at the MTV Music Awards, Adam Yauch rushes the stage to protest R.E.M.’s video for “Everybody Hurts” beating the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” video in the category of Best Direction. Strangely, this aggression did not result in the same societal tumult that would ensue 15 years later in the wake of Kanye West’s similar shenanigan. President Clinton didn’t even call Yauch a “jackass.” We assume that his failure to rush to Michael Stipe’s defense was because the R.E.M. video—which depicted a traffic jam, with the inner thoughts of all the drivers written out as subtitles—had a scene where a trucker contemplates how he’s going to take advantage of a young female hitchhiker. Clinton probably didn’t appreciate fellow Southerners blowing up his spot.
Pop punk: Green Day, Offspring, NOFX, Pennywise, etc. Nearly 20 years after the Ramones’ debut, roughly 15 after the Buzzcocks gifted us all Singles Going Steady, and about 10 years after the Descendents codified the genre as a safe place for incels, the world finally came around to bubblegum pop played fast and loose, coupled with an accent of indeterminate origin.
Britpop was the U.K.’s response to grunge. Despite Britpop being officially backed by both Kate Moss and Tony Blair, and some bold cross-ocean gains from bands like Pulp and Elastica, grunge won. Partially because grunge had the advantage of not needing to tout its “American-ness” in every write-up, partially because Blur—in the proud tradition of “he who fucks nuns will later join the church”—eventually turned traitor to the Britpop cause with “Song 2,” and partially because the Prodigy made the best U.K. album of the year by out-yahooing the most yahoo of Americans. The Brits would, however, have their revenge, 30 years later, when nearly every American grunge revival band sounds like Oasis.
“Not so much a product as an attitude,” Fruitopia, the Coca-Cola-produced fruit/sugar/synergy drink, rules the airwaves, thanks to ads featuring music by Cocteau Twins and nine(!) jingles written and performed by Kate Bush.
What You Need to Know
While Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill came out this year, and would go on to sell roughly a million trillion copies, the single “Ironic” didn’t come out till the following year. So, for the duration of 1995, all one could do, as one watched wave after wave of post–Nirvana/Green Day major-label signees crash and burn, is stare in slack-jawed silence, unable to conjure up the exact word to kind of inaccurately describe the misfortune raining down around us. Like rain on your wedding day, except the groom is Jawbreaker and the bride is DGC Records, and the rain is a combination of Bay Area punks and reasonable expectations. What the rain is not is record buyers. They skip the ceremony entirely. As they do for the unions between Truly and Capital Records, Sheer Terror and MCA Records, Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments and American Records, etc., etc. Plenty of broken hearts to go around for bands not in a throuple with Butch Vig.
Indifferent to chart success and as the last refuge of punkers alienated from pop punk, hardcore, grunge, spiky jacket punk, twee, and indie, the garage rock revival was pretty consistently hopped up on goofballs throughout the decade. But 1995 is as good a year as any in which to slot it. As opposed to revival in the aughts, ’90s garage rock—as represented by bands like New Bomb Turks, The Oblivians, Red Aunts, Teengenerate, The Makers, The Gories, The Hentchmen, Dead Moon, etc.—was aggressively (and slightly delusionally) anti-hipster, at least so far as the term is commonly used. While terms like “hip,” “hep,” and “daddy-o” were tossed around in liner notes for any number of bands on Estrus, Get Hip, and Sympathy for the Record Industry, the music on those labels was (in theory, at least) aimed at an audience that was too crabby for mere alternative rock and too self-aware for Social Distortion. The garage rock idea of “hip” was punk ’n’ blues, ’60s car culture, and hyperreal—verging on camp—white-trash signifying; all performed by neo-greasers who looked like Dave Brubeck, drank like Delmore Schwartz, and dressed like gas station attendants. With all that meant as a compliment.
What You Need to Know (The Knowledge to Get Into College)
The halfway point! To paraphrase St. Nick: five good pussies down, and nothing but f(r)at boys’ assholes on the horizon.
It’s here that The Rockin’ ’90s begin the downward spiral into becoming a rock decade like any other. While pop music was still Day-Glo fun—and popular hip-hop was going from strength to strength—the indie-sphere largely retreated onto college campuses and gentrified neighborhoods, leaving the hit-making to bands like Bush, Stone Temple Pilots, the Verve Pipe, Matchbox 20, etc.—all dispensers of digestible rock nuggets, any of whom would have thrived touring either through or with Kansas in 1978. The rock outliers to a staid music industry reasserting itself (bands like Tool, Sublime, and Marilyn Manson) were less sonically staid. But they—through no, some, or plenty fault of their own—had aesthetics/fanbases that made clear that the groovy days of Kurt Cobain wearing a dress on Headbangers Ball weren’t coming back (or never much mattered in the first place).
There were bright spots. Post–Paul’s Boutique artists like Beck and Cibo Matto internalized hip-hop to produce oddball alt-pop that reflected the intertwining of culture and “the culture” (while largely avoiding “hey, kids, rap music!”). Rage Against the Machine released Evil Empire, their guitar-freakiest album. Belle and Sebastian induced everyone to bring their Cobain cardigans out of storage, and—thanks to Mark Morrison—the prodigal Mack returned, resulting in world sensual peace/women and children weeping and casting hosannas through the streets. (Also, the Fugees, Kool Keith, Eyehategod, Texas Is the Reason, OutKast, and Unwound all put out rock/rock-adjacent albums considered as classic now as anything by the Stones or Zeppelin. But you already know this.)
Significant Cultural Moments (Non-Grunge Related)
At the BRIT Awards, Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker crashed Michael Jackson’s performance, bared his own belly, and pointed at his own butt. Outrage followed. In fairness to those who furiously condemned Cocker’s fairly anodyne mocking of the King of Pop, it took a while before everyone got hip to the idea that maybe they shouldn’t leave their kids alone with the English monarchy, either.
At the 38th Grammys, KISS were introduced to the stage by Tupac Shakur. Wearing a Versace suit, Tupac said, “You know how the Grammys used to be all straight-looking folks, looking tired, no surprises? We need something new. We need to shock the people. So let’s shock the people.” He introduced a full-makeup KISS as his “homeboys.” Then he said, “Now I’ve seen everything.” The award, presented by Tupac and KISS, went to Tupac’s “other homeboys” Hootie and the Blowfish, who took to the stage dressed like they were there to sell KISS a reasonably priced home entertainment system.
Swing revival: indie rockers who knew too many notes to make viable indie rock, playing fake jazz for the rhythm-deficient children of draft dodgers, who dressed like they were shipping out to WWII tomorrow and whose only connection to the Depression was undiagnosed. Indie discovers “electronica.” Drum ’ n’ bass (and its various sub-genres/offshoots) was, for many rockers, the sriracha of the ’90s.
It’s time for 1997...