If you’re a 90s kid, you may remember it as a time of incredible musical diversity.
As bands faced growing pressure to do something different to stay ‘relevant’, the genres began to branch out. Where heavier music in the 80s mostly consisted of classic rock’n’roll and punk, now grunge, alternative rock, industrial, and metal came to the fore.
The trend towards the ‘dark and gloomy’ that began in the 80s with gothic rock bands such as Depeche Mode, Joy Division, and Sisters Of Mercy, now took a more dramatic turn with the rise of more ‘extreme’ industrial metal, with artists like Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails arriving on the scene.
However, whereas in the 80s, rock, punk and metal had largely been a subculture built on indie labels that were supported by die-hard fans, in the 90s, heavier music became produced and consumed on a much wider scale.
Rock and heavy metal had become a big business, and it was no longer dismissed as simply ‘music for rebellious teens’. Rock and metal got a new, sophisticated, and up to date makeover, as record labels snapped them up and polished them into something more ‘consumable’.
At the same time, pop and experimental music was also on its way up, with electro still big on the scene since the 80s, and underground raves meaning big business.
At this point, rap and hip-hop started to become more mainstream, and developed into the distinctive genre we know today, with artists such as Snoop Dogg and Jay Z becoming iconic celebrity figures.
Reggae and R&B also continued to be popular in this era, and genres quickly fused together to expand into fascinating new musical worlds; from electro-swing to ska, there was something for everyone.
Soul especially took off in the 90s with soul superstar Whitney Houston, who quickly became one of the best-selling music artists of all time, shifting over 200 million records worldwide.
So what music continues to inspire us today? Let’s refresh our memories by going over some of the artists that have aged best in the last 30 years.
Tracy Chapman is instantly recognisable as one of the most talented political singers of our time.
Singer-songwriter and black and LGBTQIA+ rights activist Chapman has a classically simple, yet deeply expressive, quality to her voice and lyrics, and is exceptionally talented in creating memorable but meaningful blues music that ties in with her political activism.
Talkin’ About A Revolution, in particular, has become a modern-day anthem for Black and LGBTQIA+ activism, and she continues to be closely aligned with those political causes, while also volunteering for Amnesty International and AIDS/Lifecycle.
A limited amount is known to the public about Chapman’s private life, and she has always been somewhat of a recluse.
Her relationship with Alice Walker, author of Black LGBTQIA+ novel The Colour Purple, was kept a secret throughout the majority of her career, and Chapman preferred to draw attention to her cause instead of herself.
Tracy Chapman’s music was undoubtedly influential, but not always by her own choice. In 2018, Chapman sued Nikki Minaj for infringing the copyright of Baby Can I Hold You in her track Sorry, eventually being awarded $450,000.
A woman who truly puts the ‘art’ in ‘artist’, Icelandic singer, songwriter, and visual performer Björk has consistently broken down creative and cultural barriers in her music.
Unlike some of the heavier bands of the 90s, the gift of Björk’s music was being thought-provoking without being depressing, and had the wisdom of centuries while looking through the eyes of a child.
Her music throughout the 90s and beyond was memorable, quirky, and original, playing on dichotomies of technology versus nature, and war versus peace, to create complex music that was full of depth and experimental sounds.
Björk was instrumental in using a range of sounds from cultures across the world, with influences from her own Icelandic culture as well as elements of Westernised music, and tribal drumming styles.
While femininity was being reclaimed in the 90s, with the rise of outspokenly feminist ‘Riot Grrl’ bands, Björk’s music was perhaps ahead of her time in that it rejected the stereotypes of what it was to be masculine or feminine at all.
Songs such as ‘Venus As A Boy’ changed the narrative around traditional masculinity by rejecting conventional ideals of ‘strength’ or ‘toughness’ to emphasise the qualities of tenderness and selfless love in men.
Her approach to religion is similarly thoughtful, and many of her songs – including Human Behaviour and Earth Intruders – highlight her philosophical thoughts on human society. While some initially appear critical of the impact of humans on the earth, Björk’s complex view of life captures both sides of the coin.
In The Modern Things, she describes how ‘all the modern things… have always existed, they’ve just been waiting in a mountain’. Perhaps a suggestion that human nature is as natural as nature itself.
It’s hard to even think of the 90s without immediately thinking of Nirvana and their tragic frontman, Kurt Cobain.
Nirvana’s music was a complex and contradictory mix of depressing nihilism and impassioned social activism, and this summed up the social attitudes of the younger generation of the time.
Nirvana’s typical subject matter was often dark, with several songs about drug addiction, sexual violence, misogyny, racism, and homophobia, but at no point were these subjects played for shock value.
The band’s songs closely reflected Cobain’s social attitudes and belief in creating a better world that was brought to light when his journals were released following his death in 1994. Perhaps this makes Nirvana all the more relevant in today’s era of #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter.
Nirvana created a sound – and it was a wild, raw, guttural sound – that came to define the genre of grunge music. Marrying the ‘refinedness’ of commercial music with the unfiltered passion of punk, grunge appealed to a youth that had been disenfranchised and suppressed.
Many ‘edgier’ rock bands went on to attempt to recreate the ‘Nirvana’ sound, including Weezer, Oasis, and the Foo Fighters – the latter of whom were even committed enough to play at volumes that literally made the earth shake – but few had been truly groundbreaking in the subjects that their music addressed.
Nirvana were not afraid to address difficult subject matter, to pour their hearts out on stage, and to stay true to their music and their morals.