The 1990s were a decade of rehashing. Sometimes it was for good, creative purposes, but mostly it was for ill. Guitar-based music enjoyed a resurgence thanks to grunge, punk, indie and the “Britpop wars” (a manufactured sales battle between Oasis, Radiohead, Blur and others), but it petered out with tasteless, thoughtless garbage like mook rock by the end of the decade. Dance music was even more dire, as the new frontier of house and techno music culminated in boring R&B groups and ultra-repetitive DJs. The fabricated, synthesized and only vocally talented boy bands (and their solo female counterparts) started to take hold of pop in the late 90s, and all seemed lost.
However, there were still plenty of fringe musicians making solid music around the margins of this mess, and occasionally, there would be a revolutionary LP by some desperate heralds of experimentation and creativity. In some ways, the 90s were just a further decline from the 80s in many of the same respects. On the other hand, the latter decade had the advantage of rising from the self-satisfied, decadent mire of synths and adult contemporary and actually bringing back attitude and real emotion. It was a reboot of sorts.
The first herald of this semi-rebirth was grunge. Earnest bands were coming out of the Pacific Northwest, but they had a sense of history and self-awareness. Mixing the heaviness and darkness of metal with the rawness and simplicity of punk, a relatively new sound emerged, only to be made superfluous a few years later.
There was one breakthrough in expressing “alternative” identity and promoting this subculture: a highly eclectic, independent festival curated by Jane’s Addiction frontman Perry Farrell. It was initially conceived as a carnival of sorts, featuring vendors, businesses and performers all geared toward an underground, DIY ideology. Its ramshackle organization and list of indie acts eventually turned into a well-oiled machine which remains one of the premier music festivals in North America. Even as indie music became a most profitable subgenre, Lollapalooza evolved with the times and thrived well into the 2010s, inspiring dozens of other lucrative music festivals.
Parallel to grunge was the rise of rap. After it blazed onto the scene in the 80s, hip-hop came into its own. It transformed from the archetypal, rootsy sound of the last decade into a culture-dominating, industry-spawning juggernaut in the 90s, led by such pioneers as Ice Cube, Public Enemy, Dr. Dre, Jay-Z and NWA. By now, it was clearly a viable genre, and something somewhat new, even as it drew from old-school soul, R&B and rock. It encountered the same misunderstanding, stigmatization and parody that rock did in its infancy, but by the end of the decade, it had fully established itself.
The 90s were a decade of unfulfilled promise, false starts and general stasis. Nirvana, NWA and techno heralded a brave new era, rejecting the excess and vanity of the 80s for something rawer, only to burn out quickly with no greater overarching plan. More bands than ever started strong and flopped; great one-hit wonders emerged only to flounder into a life of lowest-common-denominator complacency. After the music industry boom of the 70s and 80s, the market was becoming saturated. It was a matter of providing a fleeting fix rather than surviving in a competitive climate, growing more niche-y by the day. The players who did last for the long run were underground post-punk bands that grew in stature over time. It really became clear how different the operating procedures, ideals and shelf life were between commercialized art and true art.
90s bands also suffered a temporal disadvantage: it was getting harder to cross-pollinate ideas and make something truly new, though it wasn’t for lack of trying. All sorts of experiments were encouraged, since there was an audience for basically everything at this point and the digital bubble had not yet burst. However, genres were becoming very set and homogenized. This resulted in there being a glut of merely good bands, but very few who were truly great and doing innovative things. This passive stagnation may have been a result of the comfortably stable economy.
The new age, futuristic “advancements” of 80s music had turned out to be, by and large, a façade and embarrassment (and not actually revolutionary at all). Up to that point, music and its culture had evolved in a forward-thinking, occasionally reactionary way, for better or worse. But musicians in the 90s had the historical precedent, the business acumen and the media-savvy self-awareness to go with what worked. Thus, a larger percentage of music than ever before was unabashedly, blatantly traditionalist. Artists repeated old formulas without changing much. This resulted in a modernized version of 60s and 70s rock that was admittedly pleasurable to listen to.
It seemed at that avenue to be the only viable route for guitar-based music to go. Well, one of two, actually. At some point in the 80s, some punk rockers got tired of their formula and turned to their heroes, the Clash, for guidance. It was then that funk-punk was born from the inspiration of their dub grooves (which also got a resurgence in popularity in the 90s). Mixing funk, reggae and folk grooves with punk (which was relatively unexplored, although it had certainly been done before by the Clash and others) was a novel idea, and was popularized by groups like Sublime and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. Their cardinal sin was that they never evolved beyond that, peddling the same idea over and over. Because of the laidback nature and cultic fandom of this musical niche, it would become popular with college students and nerdier types, for mostly arbitrary reasons.
Eventually these musically restless souls would take a cue from angsty grunge, merging it with certain traits of metal and hip-hop to form nu-metal. The genre had a few interesting things going on, like Rage Against the Machine, but for the most part, trash like Limp Bizkit made it a disgusting, derivative, insubstantial and tasteless abomination that ravaged the world in the late 90s. The moral and aesthetic vacuum of this style was best illustrated by the crime and filth-ridden debacle of Woodstock ’99, which effectively killed most enthusiasm for the genre. We have still not sufficiently recovered from that crap as a culture that we can view funk-punk the same way again. Because they were playing involved, “uncool” music, jam bands were lumped in to this general cultural dissatisfaction. Once a vital and steadfast institution, jam music is now disrespected and disregarded (though still going strong with their fans). From there, all these offshoots blended hopelessly together (a strong theme of 90s music), as 311, Tool, Dream Theater, Phish, Dave Matthews Band, et al. faded into the background or never got a chance to begin with. This may not be fair, but that’s how it is. Modern prog eventually folded in to this subgroup as well. They’ll never be mainstream but they’re okay with that.
It seems that there’s a distinction between these niche bands and famous alt-rock legends of the 90s like Radiohead, Bjork and Beck, and it seemed to me to be heavily biased and lacking any sort of rationale. But after some thought, the difference became clear: one group is more traditionalist (Phish, for example, being devoted Grateful Dead acolytes, and nu-prog like Dream Theater is indebted to 70s prog of all kinds) while the other uses more radical means to get across similar ideas. The former bands, while formally adventurous, are really following old templates in a very serious, unselfconscious and high-minded manner. The bands that have survived in popular memory and influenced others are those which grapple with irony and ambiguity directly, while navigating the multiple social selves that increasing media use has led us all to adopt.
They also share a trait that has always weeded out truly progressive, important bands: a willingness to change and adapt. For all of their weirdness and spectacle, Dream Theater will always be Dream Theater, and you have a good idea of what to expect from them. Even more traditional bands have felt pressure to change and offer new perspective (see Weezer’s transition from The Blue Album to Pinkerton). This isn’t just making songs in a new genre, it’s trying on new identities. Nobody ever could have predicted in 1995 that Radiohead would be where they are now. They’re essentially a totally different band; whereas Axl Rose got together with another bunch of guys 20 years after his peak, and released a pathetically weak simulacra of all the things he used to do (and all the fans were expecting/wanting him to do just that, albeit with better songs). In a media-saturated world, the successful entities were constantly modifying their personae and shifting with the times.
One other key factor in this old-school ideology is the sentimentality and earnestness involved: with the breaching of the fourth wall in 90s culture, everything from advertising to TV programming to architecture became more aware, self-effacing and quirky. It was the decade of irony. This sort of resulted in a dead-end: there was no going back to sentimentality after such a fad. How could fans be sure about anyone’s sincerity? And where was there left to go in rock and roll? After a brief glimmer of promise, alternative rock ultimately suffered the same demise that most cultural trends do (although it aged a bit better than its progenitor, hair metal). Post-1996, only the truly talented and fringe-y bands continued on with any success.
The musical and cultural splintering of the western world really began in the 1990s, and music reflected this. Music was increasingly present and successful, but with less universal appeal and shared culture. After a short-lived renaissance in the early 90s where its programming clued in teens to emerging musical styles and trends, MTV eventually started crashing into the ground, beholden to corporate profits and the new fad of “reality” TV programming. Even by this point, the old saw was established that they no longer played music videos. Despite that, as mentioned in the 80s overview, videos as an art form were still flourishing. For a time, MTV did function as the last communal resource for music, but eventually it was just an overpopulated trough filled with products for consumers.
Technology was mostly just being polished and streamlined in this era: the late 80s and early 90s saw a new format – the compact disc, a sleek and cleanly mastered piece of circuitry and plastic – and so old catalogues were re-released once more. The advent of the internet did a lot to boost publicity and community in musical subcultures. However, it also contained the seeds of the record industry’s doom. Files could be compressed, traded and downloaded with relative ease, and with the user base increasing exponentially, there was more and more of a market. Furthermore, copyright law was slow to establish what could and could not be traded in the online marketplace, and many people began to subvert these systems entirely, trading and releasing sound files for free.
Having no precedent for such a felony at the time, artists and labels began to adapt, suing people for stealing the creative product that belonged to them. Metallica notoriously did this to its fans once these scandals came to light after some web outlets were shut down. (The most famous one was Napster, which lasted surprisingly long.) Obviously, artists deserved the royalties from these songs; however, in some cases, they received virtually nothing anyway because of contract stipulations. Thus, some musicians would would shrug off or even support freeware in the decade to come. Because of the compartmentalization of certain genres while bubblegum pop and hip-hop reigned supreme, it was harder than ever to successfully market and profit from the physical product of music. Things would have to change or the normal business model was kaput.
The 90s were a tumultuous decade with a lot of promise that was squandered for one reason or another. Still, it was an interesting, refreshing time after the stagnation of the 80s. However, its successes showed that there was very little left to do in rock music (and its potential successor, hip-hop, was just exiting its golden age). The turn of the century left rock essentially where it was in 1990: washed out, and waiting for a savior.