I have nearly the same age of Steve Hyden, so his reminiscences are particularly resonant for me. His recollection of the music landscape in 1990 seems really spot-on. One just wonders what was actually worse. The music prior or after the grunge “revolution”.
Being a kid in 1990 wasn’t all that different from being a kid in 2010 save for one massive technological step forward for mankind: the Internet. It didn’t exist back then—or, rather, kids like me did not have access to it. I didn’t even have a computer, nor did a lot of my friends. I was 12-going-on-13 in 1990, and my burgeoning interest in music was nurtured by three institutions: local radio, MTV, and the public library, where I could listen to vinyl records for free (CDs weren’t available there yet) and peruse scotch tape-covered copies of Rolling Stone, which is where I first read about “alternative” bands like U2, R.E.M., and The Replacements. If I wanted to buy a tape, I had to either convince my mother to drive me to the mall—a tall order considering how money-conscious she was as a single parent—or make the one-hour bike ride (one way!) to the only independent record store in town, an oppressively cool place that frankly terrified me, as most things did back then.
Following music took real work if you happened to 1) be under 18, 2) live in a small town, 3) get paid a small allowance, 4) not have a driver’s license, and 5) have limited access to media that could tell you about the latest groups. Keeping up with underground music was practically impossible; you couldn’t just log on and dial up a million blogs offering up free music without leaving your bedroom. Underground music was actually underground; you had to venture out and look for it, and only after somebody let you in on the secret that it was actually there. Maybe I could’ve discovered Pixies’ Bossanova had I searched a little harder, but how could I look for something that I didn’t even know existed? For me, what I heard on the radio and saw on MTV was the only music there even was.
People have a tendency to romanticize the world as it existed when they were children. Looking back, things always seem simpler. I’m not going to paint you a picture of my childhood that looks like a heavily sanitized episode of Mad Men; the ’90s were a strange time of relative wealth and comfort, with a thick patina of self-defeat and wasted potential. Nevertheless, my memories of 1990 tend to be wrapped in sepia-tinged old-timiness. I spent a lot of time that year watching Paula Abdul sing one of my favorite songs, “Opposites Attract,” in a video that prominently featured a cartoon cat. How adorably red-cheeked and innocent is that? As far as I can tell, the video for “Opposites Attract” was not intended to be entertainment strictly for little kids. There was a very good chance that you’d see the video for “Unskinny Bop” immediately afterward. This gives you an idea of how, shall we say, unsophisticated we were as pop-music listeners back then. The video for “Opposites Attract” might not be “(How Much Is) That Doggie In The Window?” but like that cheerfully insipid, pre-rock ’n’ roll Patti Page hit of the early ’50s, it signaled that American culture desperately needed someone to wipe that stupid grin off of its face.
… Top 40 offered up a smorgasbord of options for my developing musical palate. I could dig deep into the blues with Alannah Myles’ “Black Velvet.” I could rail against the hypocrisy of our times with Poison’s “Something To Believe In.” I could delve into motivational pop psychology with Wilson Phillips’ “Hold On.” Or I could just dance to the ubiquitous grooves of Madonna’s “Vogue” and MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This.” I loved each and every one of these songs in the ’90, and dozens more: Faith No More’s “Epic,” Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” Damn Yankees’ “High Enough,” Deee-Lite’s “Groove Is In The Heart,” Nelson’s “(Can’t Live Without Your) Love And Affection” and so on.
Say what you will about that roster of songs today, but there’s no denying that the hit-makers of 1990 haven’t exactly proven enduring. Madonna aside, the major pop stars that had produced single albums spinning off five, six, even seven hit songs just a few years earlier were experiencing fallow periods. Prince was reduced to recording inconsequential background music for Tim Burton’s Batman. Michael Jackson was in hiding as he worked on Dangerous, a dubiously named opus that seemed as plausible as Boy George recording an album called Clean, Sober, And Casually Dressed. George Michael petulantly burned the iconic leather jacket from the cover of 1987’s Faith in the video for his new, unmistakably Faith-sounding single “Freedom.” Bruce Springsteen had moved out to Los Angeles to work with studio musicians, a decision that was successful only from the perspective of making fans desperately appreciative of the E Street Band.