Properties of Early-90's Rock Music by Cory Kibler

Cory wrote the following post; I’ll be continuing the conversation with questions and thoughts in the coming days.  -h

Recently, I was listening to Pocket Full Of Kryptonite by the Spin Doctors, who are from New York, interestingly enough.  I got to thinking about how there is a conjuction of properties of early- to mid-nineties pop music that isn’t really seen in any bands these days.  But in order to paint a better picture of what I mean, here is a short list of bands I have in mind:
Gin Blossoms
The Proclaimers
Blues Traveler
Collective Soul
Spin Doctors
Alanis Morissette
The Smashing Pumpkins
Goo Goo Dolls
Counting Crows

Keep in mind also that some of these bands proceeded to make music that doesn’t adhere to the properties I’m about to describe, so when thinking of these bands and their catalogue, try and think of songs from 1990-1995 or so.

The early nineties were a time of a collective cynicism, it felt like; every popular band at the time had at least a slight grunge-sound, and it reflected a community of dissatisfied Gen-Xers fresh of the heels of 80’s music.  The lyrics presented this attitude of “it sucks being in your teens/early 20’s, growing up blows, but we’re kind of all in this together.”  It felt really paradoxical, because the music behind these lyrics was usually warm and uplifting.

Take songs like “1979” from The Smashing Pumpkins, “Two Princes” by the Spin Doctors, and “1,000 Miles” by The Proclaimers.  All of these songs were anthems for kids in their late teens, trying to find a community to be a part of.  These songs were catchy, mass-marketable, and musically optimistic.  The lyrics, however, contradict everything about the music.  “1979” was about teenage apathy that led to delinquent behavior and a “it’s like whatever” outlook.  “Two Princes,” while slightly more uplifting, was a song about two men pining for the same woman, one of whom will inevitably be rejected.  “1,000 Miles” is even weirder; it’s one of the most energetic, inspiring songs I’ve ever heard, yet the lyrics are all about an intense desperation for a girl.

Another song that exemplifies the early 90’s music perfectly is “Dreams” by The Cranberries.  You know: “Oh my life, is changing every day, in every possible way.”

It’s interesting to figure out what led to this short but prolific musical period.  Before the early nineties, you had the beginnings of rap (gangsta rap in particular) and cheesy metal bands like Poison and Motley Crue.  After the early nineties, you still had grunge, but after the death of Kurt Cobain, the only “alternative” bands worth listening to were bands like Foo Fighters, Superdrag, and Green Day, and these bands that were grungy AND popular were few and far between.

I don’t think that early-nineties alternative music was easy to do; bands now that try to emulate the early nineties usually end up sound really trite and cheesy (Puddle Of Mudd, Nickelback, Creed), even though they might’ve fit right in with Stone Temple Pilots and Pearl Jam, aesthetically, even if without the same value.

10 thoughts on “Properties of Early-90's Rock Music by Cory Kibler”

  1. OMFG I totally meant to end this blog with a “What does everyone ELSE think it is that unites early-90’s rock????????

  2. :-) Have you forgotten your WordPress login again?! If you used that puppy, your posts would show up under your own damn name!

    So you ask the questions, we answer, eh Prof?!?!

    Early-90’s rock was united by:
    – Quite a bit of sucking. More than average, probably.

    – GenX navel-gazing. Eh. Causal factor towards #1.

    – BAD tones, especially guitar tones. Thin and buzzy. Also the beginning of the mastered-to-a-lacquered-shine sound that sucks the life out of mixes and wears our ears out to this day.

    – Poetic pretension. Effect of #2, additional causal factor to #1.

    Well, that’s a lot of negative. So here’s where I cop to listening to plenty of 90’s rock; it’s my coming-of-age music! So I can listen and enjoy without needing to call it particularly “good.” And there is actual good in specific cases – Foo Fighters and Soundgarden from your list, and singles by most every band you mention. But as an aesthetic movement… I can’t say anything in support of 90’s rock.

    This is mostly because the Nirvana-phenomenon was the rock music apocalypse. Not Nirvana’s fault; in fact, I think their music is pretty good, though I can’t hardly listen to it because of all the baggage it comes with. But Nirvana was to rock ‘n roll what the atom bomb was to human society; we are living in a post-apocalyptic pop music landscape.

    Rock music is in its late adulthood as an art form; fairly productive, highly polished and making bank equal or greater than any point in its life. Maybe we can think of Nirvana as a mid-life flirt with nihilism. But big statements don’t seem possible at this point (I’ll talk about this at length in my upcoming essay on The Killers’ Sam’s Town).

    But now I have to go to the bank and get groceries.

    Cory, call/email me soon and update me on your songwriting! -h

  3. I think the “coming-of-age” factor is a big reason why I thought to write this blog; it’s so definitive of the growth of my musical tastes. But I’m going to have to say that I think that Gin Blossoms, Counting Crows, Spin Doctors, R.E.M., Alanis Morissette, The Smashing Pumpkins and Live are all actually really good (if you’re looking at their work from the early 90’s). Really! Jagged Little Pill is super good, and so is Throwing Copper and August & Everything After and Mellon Collie and all of that! You don’t think so????

  4. I was a little harsh. REM, Alanis, early/mid Pumpkins are OK.

    You know I own some of that, but you haven’t convinced me Throwing Copper is good. It has 3 or 4 hits that combined decent, though fairly empty, hooks with an accessible take on the grunge sound. But as a person who nearly wore out my copy, I can’t tell you what the stories of any of those songs are or what meaning they might have beyond what I’ve imbued them with.

    Compare with U2’s “Mysterious Ways” (1992). Besides being more interesting musically and better sonically, it’s an incarnational story about A) a particular romantic interest, B) universal feminine intrigue, and C) the Holy Spirit (couched in broad enough terms to be accessible to non-Christians, or ignorable if you choose to self-edit out the backing vocals). To me that’s good pop music, and I think it leaves Counting Crows eating dust by somewhat objective criteria.

    “Rocket ships
    Are exciting
    But so are roses
    On a birthday

    Computers are exciting
    But so is a sunset”
    —From Warmed by Love, by Leonard Nimoy, 1983

  5. I agree with the U2 vs Counting Crows sentiments if you’re talking about message, but you know me; it’s a great song if the melody rules, even if the message is stupid and the production kind of sucks :) so while “Mysterious Ways” certainly says a lot more than Live or Counting Crows, “I Alone” and “Einstein On The Beach” are the acme of catchy 90’s alterna-rock.

    Would you say that U2 was ever a part of early 90’s alterna-rock, or would you say they kind of did their own thing throughout the period????

  6. Well, “message” is a bit of it, but that wasn’t all of my point. I think “Mysterious Ways” would be superior if sung in Mandarin Chinese (and therefore having no “message” I could grasp). My point is that I think the “value” of “early 90s rock” as a whole is pretty minimal, even in a pop music sense. Yes, there are gems, but precious few.

    Think of it this way; I’d rather listen to bad soul music, or bad folk music, or bad baroque music, than bad 90s rock.

    The reason is that what I consider the defining properties of 90s rock are negative in value. Some other musics have more positive general properties (like the inherently danceable rhythms of folk and African music, the endlessly fruitful harmonic structure of blues, the warm and funky tones of soul).

    In my own rock music I try to pull in those elements as much as possible, so even though I work in an aging medium my songs touch on values that transcend the properties of “rock.”

    Maybe we’re talking past each other – the title of your post indicated you wanted a serious discussion, but “it’s a great song if the melody rules” sounds like we’re here to reminisce. Maybe both? But that’s pretty hard to to. If “I Alone” is the acme, that doesn’t say much for early 90s rock. Again; I will sing that song with you, loud as you please, cruising down “O” street. But I don’t think much of its aesthetic properties, if that’s what we’re talking about.

    U2 is not “early 90s rock” to me, even Achtung Baby. Their career started in the late 70s and they don’t meet any of my halfway tongue-in-cheek unifying properties.

  7. Well, to interuppt the Howie and Cory party:

    Howie, I agree when you say it’s hard to listen to Nirvana these days because of all the baggage attached to it. As revolutionary as it was, it’s just too weighty anymore to have much sway with me.

    When you look at it from the coming-of-age aspect, think about this. Those of us born in the early eighties were born into the New Wave era. There were some great singles there, and some great albums, but how many bands that came out between 1980 and 1990 were really great bands? How many of those bands that did come out then didn’t hit it until the post-Nirvana era? THat’s because all there was in the late eighties was hair bands singing about parties, drugs, and alcohol. And sex. There’s not a whole lot of depth there. Why do you think that music diversified so much in the 90s?

    Suddenly, there was Nirvana, and we had the grunge era. We wanted something that we as a generation could grab hold of, that had meaning, and wasn’t hair bands. But we all got tired of that after a few years, and then we looked for what was next. That’s the cycle. It’s like every five years or so we get a different facet of music that’s popular because the new generation has gotten tired of what the slightly older generation was listening to, and they want something else.

    So we had some good music from the early 90s, and some from the mid 90s, and some from the late 90s. Gangsta rap (and all of it’s diversified offspring), country rock, alterna-rock, techno, bubble-gum pop, etc: these all came after we all got tired of grunge because there’s only so much of that we could take. (Becuase, really, wasn’t it all about depression and drugs, anyway?)

    But think about this (because I have been for a while): what bands would you put in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame whose career started after the Nirvana revolution.

    We had some good bands then, some already mentioned, some not. But all I can come up with right now is as a no doubter is Green Day. Sure, there are others you could make an arguement for, and some bands out now that show promise, but I don’t see many that have such a wide ranging appeal as bands that do end up there.

    That’s not to say the HOF is the be all, end all record of good music. It’s just an interesting way to gauge music from the past.

    I like a lot of early 90s music, but it’s not where I go to specifically pick a CD to listen to these days.

  8. THANK YOU for the “interruption”!!!!!1111 It’s good to know you’re out there. I’ll stop by your blog later to catch up on you :-)

    Good thoughts, good questions. I think you’re a little more new wave than I (and I’m jealous!) just because I got into pop music later than most of us. My parents were older, I guess, and before Nirvana I was listening to R&B stuff – mostly Boyz II Men.

    (I still do – no shame about that.)

    Hair bands were totally as empty as I’m claiming early 90s rock was, but the 80s were more diverse than that – you mention new wave, there was hardcore, punk, REM-style indie stuff…

    “Diversification” is an interesting concept. At one level, it’s there. On another level, we are running out of musics for pop to absorb. American pop has been absorbing African-Americans’ music since blues and gospel, along with the folk music of other people. But through globalization, almost everyone is getting in touch with global pop and having their impact – one level up from “diversification,” I see homogenization, and truth be told it worries me. Other than European art music, only poor and oppressed people have ever created fundamental musical forms. It’s *good* that there are fewer and fewer poor and oppressed people in the world… but I don’t know what it means for music.

    I think the cycle may be dying. This is a related subject for my Sam’s Town post.

    The most recent new Western musics are hip-hop and electronic music, both of which are pushing 30 years.

    Back to the topic at hand… post-Nirvana (post-apocalyptic) Hall of Fame bands. I agree about Green Day. …thinking… well, Dave Matthews Band I’d bet. Radiohead for sure, IF the Hall honors non-American bands. (Radiohead’s cultural location is definitely post-Nirvana, regardless of when the band formed.) Hoobastank, probably.

    I take this exercise to illustrate that the 90s are short on Great Pop Artists. Looking back on the day’s conversation (and hoping for more!), I don’t think Cory’s point is that the bands on his list are Great Pop Artists, so where I’ve seemed to argue against him I may have made a straw man out of his position. Part of my realization is also that the possibilities for Great Pop Artists are reduced in aging art forms; great work is done in smaller moves, not in the broad sweeping gestures that were available when a form was new.

    Tonight, I’ll be watching U2 “Live from Slane Castle.”

  9. Howie- I don’t know what’s going on here, exactly, and I appreciate your comments and JT’s comments, but I just wanted to spark a discussion regarding what it was that held early 90’s rock together; I’m not trying to say that it’s the best music ever or anything like that, but I do think that overall, I give the genre more credit than you.

    Maybe we’re looking for different values or something, because I, for one, have never really thought U2 was all that special (maybe Joshua Tree, but beyond that, I’ve never thought they were worth what a lot of people seem to think they’re worth; but that’s off-topic).

    I feel like maybe words or positions are being put in my mouth as far as how great certain songs are. Live were pretty good, I think, but when I say “acme,” I guess what I mean is, “I Alone” EPITOMIZES early 90’s rock the best. Not that it was the greatest statement from the era; sorry for the confusion. I do think that bands like Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana made GREAT music, much better than Counting Crows or Spin Doctors or Live.

    To sum up: I am FINE with a serious discussion; I was merely pointing out my potential bias by reminding you of the fact that oftentimes, I give a lot more weight to melody that most, so take my opinion of early 90’s rock with that in mind. So when I say “you know me; it’s a great song if the melody rules,” it really means “if I give a song a lot of credit because it’s catchy, it’s probably me over-estimating the value of it.”

    As far as my question about U2 is concerned, this is what I meant: every artist in any time period is influenced by the other music going on around them. I was wondering if you thought U2 ever adopted any of the aspects of early-90’s rock, or if they abstained from it completely. I know they started much earlier and are still around; that wasn’t what I meant.

    Anyway, I think this blog might have evoked something I didn’t mean for it to evoke. I am glad we’re talking about it, but I mostly meant to figure out what about the early-90’s produced the music that it did (and not just “bad” early-90’s rock, but ALL early-90’s rock, INCLUDING Weezer, Superdrag, Foo Fighters, Nirvana, etc.)and what it all had in common.

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