‘90s music trends were eclectic. It was the era of vibrant contrast, creative fusions between genres, and a delicate waltz between counterculture and the mainstream.
On the one hand, grunge: a movement of the disillusioned and cynical, best represented by the angst-ridden howls of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. On the other, pop: a carefree and fun explosion marked by The Spice Girls spreading a commercialised version of 'Girl Power' to the masses.
Perhaps stranger still, the almost category-less culture of the ‘90s allowed music fans to support Britpop, hip hop, alternative rock/metal, and contemporary R&B simultaneously, without a second thought. Let’s dive into the age of the open-minded music fan.
HOW COUNTERCULTURE OF THE ‘90S SHAPED THE MUSIC
In the posthumously released Journals, you'll find a scathing statement penned by the leader of the disillusioned, Kurt Cobain. He reflects upon the failure of a social movement and the subsequent apathy it bred in himself and his generation:
"I like to complain and do nothing to make things better. I like to blame my parent's generation for coming so close to social change then giving up after a few successful efforts by the media & government to deface the movement by using the Mansons and other Hippie representatives as propaganda examples on how they were nothing but unpatriotic, communist, satanic, inhuman diseases, and in turn the baby boomers became the ultimate, conforming, yuppie hypocrites a generation has ever produced."
A FAILED SOCIAL MOVEMENT
In Cobain's and many of his contemporaries' minds, the hippies were on the cusp of lasting social change. But instead of staying committed, they threw in their tie-dyed towels, kowtowed to the man and sold future generations out in their wake.
The ultimate betrayal sparked a movement full of outcasts unwilling to pretend they were anything other than apathetic, disillusioned, and troubled. And that cultural backlash was before Iggy Pop started appearing on car insurance adverts. Maybe we'd all become desensitised to iconic rebels working for the man by that point?
BEYOND FRIVOLITY: GRUNGE, THE 1990S MUSIC OF THE DISILLUSIONED
Against a backdrop of the hippie movement's perceived failure and extreme poverty in many cases (including Cobain's) a new, raw, angst-ridden, apathetic counterculture arose that expressed itself through clothing and music.
Where the hippies had a hopeful tie-dyed aesthetic, grunge was all about "...work clothes, thrift store truckers' hats, pawnshop guitars – all of that came out of a culture that was very poor'' reflected Sub Pop co-founder Bruce Pavitt.
Meanwhile, the music was heavy, introspective, angst-filled, and dealt with challenging themes – a sharp contrast to the bloated stadium cock-rock and hair metal bands of the 1980s.
THE MTV GENERATION: ‘90S YOUTH CULTURE, TELEVISED
Empowered by MTV, ‘90s youth culture rejected flamboyance and frivolity in exchange for not just raw cynicism but eclecticism. While grunge had a distinct sound, it was a cacophony of preexisting genres like country, blues, indie, garage, and punk.
Notable tracks like "Smells Like Teen Spirit" from Nirvana's 1991 album Nevermind led many to discover Cobain's fellow Seattle musicians Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains. These bands had more of a metal leaning with songs like "Alive," "Jesus Christ Pose," and "We Die Young", respectively. But each encapsulated the youth culture of the time in their own way.
FURTHER DOWN THE COUNTERCULTURE RABBIT HOLE
Further down the counterculture rabbit hole still were notable Nirvana predecessors-come-contemporaries such as The Pixies and Sonic Youth. Music fans exposed to tracks like "Where Is My Mind?" by the Pixies, and Sonic Youth's "Teen Age Riot" discovered the influence these underground bands had on the signature grunge sound.
The likes of Nirvana gaining commercial success paved the way for other counterculture music movements like Brit Pop, Alternative rock/metal, and industrial to hit the mainstream. Bands like The Red Hot Chili Peppers, NIN, Tool, The Smashing Pumpkins, Blur, Jane's Addiction, and Rage Against the Machine rapidly traversed from underground to somewhat mainstream.
AMERICA’S FEMALE-FRONTED MUSIC OF THE 1990S
Grunge, punk, and alternative rock/metal were male-dominated, but in the early ‘90s, there was a female-led backlash in the form of the riot grrrl movement. According to the first riot grrrl manifesto released in the second edition of the Bikini Kill zine, girls craved:
"...records and books and fanzines that speak to US that WE feel included in and can understand in our own ways…" the scathing manifesto continued, "We are angry at a society that tells us Girl = Dumb, Girl = Bad, Girl = Weak."
Continuing the legacy of all-female punk predecessors like The Slits, American bands like Bikini Kill, Calamity Jane, and Babes in Toyland began to form a cohesive female-led punk scene. At the same time, other all-female bands like L7 bridged the gap between grunge, alt-rock, and riot grrrl subcultures. The music of the riot grrrl was heavy, raw, and powerful, singing about sexism, female anger, and sexuality. Think L7's "Pretend We're Dead" and "Bruise Violet" by Babes in Toyland.
By 1994, female artists like Tori Amos continued to tackle feminist issues with less heavy and more melodic tracks like "Cornflake Girl", which discussed FGM. And by 1995, Alanis Morissette released "You Oughta Know", the cutting lead single from the 1995 album Jagged Little Pill. The commercial success of Jagged Little Pill, an album primarily fueled by female anger, equated to over 33 million album copies sold worldwide.
THE UK’S FEMALE-FRONTED MUSIC OF THE 1990S
Elastica seemingly led the charge for the female-fronted punk/post-punk UK music movement – even doing the unthinkable and experiencing some success in America. Although Elastica frontwoman Justine Frischmann (who dated Blur's Damon Albarn between 1991 and 1998) later reflected:
"I think it was hard for Damon when Elastica started getting some success in America," said Frischmann. "It's funny because we both thought we were too evolved for classic gender roles, but looking back he thought his band was more important because he was the guy. And on some level I did, too."
UK singers like PJ Harvey and Shirley Manson led the alternative rock charge. Tracks like "C'mon Billy" (a song about a mother urging a man to meet the child he abandoned) and "Stupid Girl" (a satirical take on a society that encourages young women's ambivalence toward their inner gifts) approached rock from a uniquely female perspective.
By the mid ‘90s, Girl Power (formerly the name of a riot grrrl zine) had come full circle. From the riot grrrl movement of the US to the UK's biggest pop sensation, The Spice Girls, girl power reached its mainstream conclusion.
HIP-HOP RE-DEFINES AND DOMINATES THE BILLBOARD CHARTS
Standing on the shoulders of ‘80s hip-hop giants like Sugar Hill Gang, Grandmaster Flash, and Run-DMC, Public Enemy paved the way for the genre to go mainstream with their 1990 release Fear of a Black Planet. The album sold two million copies in the US and received critical acclaim.
The following year, Billboard announced that N.W.A's, Niggaz4life (which sold close to a million copies in the first seven days post-release) had become the most popular album in the US overtaking R.E.M's Out of Time.
It was the first time in 45 years that a rap/hip-hop album charted number one on the Billboard 200...truly a sign of things to come. A study conducted by British researchers concluded that by the early ‘90s, hip-hop and rap defined the Billboard charts and dominated it for nearly two decades.
MUSIC OF THE 1990S: EXPLORING ITS MAJOR GENRES
The music of the 1990s was vibrant, vast, and varied – and these five dynamic genres show just how broad the brushstrokes were.
The British counterculture movement arose as a direct response to the American-centric grunge domination of the early 1990s. While the music paid homage to the British scene of the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, the movements’ fashion played on both mod and rocker aesthetics. Britpop intentionally centred themes and issues synonymous with British life and culture.
Signature bands included Blur, Suede, Pulp, Ash, Elastica, Supergrass, The Verve, and Oasis. Notable Britpop tracks you may remember include Blur's "Parklife," "Common People" by Pulp, and "Wonderwall" by Oasis.
The heavy metal-punk grunge sound was inspired by underground alternative rock bands like The Pixies and Sonic Youth. At the same time, the counterculture element was a backlash to the perceived selling out of the hippie movement.
Grunge's success paved the way for alternative rock/metal bands to dominate the chart; Kurt Cobain became the voice of a disfranchised generation, and "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was their war cry.
RAP AND HIP-HOP
Rap and hip-hop rose from subculture status in the 1980s to world domination during the 1990s, and both genres' dynamism caused this success. It wasn't just Public Enemy and N.W.A that dominated the Billboard charts, but Snoop Dogg, Eminem, The Notorious B.I.G, 2Pac, and later on, Jay-Z.
Female rappers and hip-hop artists like Salt-N-Pepa, Queen Latifah, Missy Elliot, and TLC also led the way: Lauryn Hill's The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 and subsequently sold over 19 million copies globally.
The ‘90s is often referred to as the golden age of R&B – and while that’s a bold statement, it's hard to deny. It was the decade that cemented Whitney Houston as the best-selling female R&B artist of the 20th century and saw Billboard magazine name Mariah Carey ‘Artist of the Decade’ in the US.
We also saw R&B’s relationship with hip-hop grow ever closer throughout the decade, with new jack swing and classic soul-inspired vocal harmonies bridging the gap between the two genres. This welcome fusion was embodied by artists such as Janet Jackson, Boyz II Men, and Mary J Blige.
Mariah Carey and Ol' Dirty Bastard's 1995 collaboration "Fantasy" is synonymous with the vibe of the ‘90s hip-hop and R&B crossover.
The 1990s saw The Spice Girls become the most commercially successful British group in North America since the Beatles – an achievement that spurred a resurgence of a genre that seemingly never fails to sell, American teen pop.
Pop stars like Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, 98 Degrees, Hanson, Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, Jessica Simpson, Mandy Moore, Jennifer Lopez, and Destiny's Child dominated the airwaves.
While it's hard not to cringe at some of the pop tracks released during this era, the classics like "...Baby One More Time" by Britney Spears, "Genie in a Bottle" by Christina Aguilera, and Cher's "Believe" still light up many a dance floor today.
MOST POPULAR TRACKS BY YEAR IN THE ‘90S
Ready for a trip down memory lane? We’re revisiting some of the most popular tracks of the 1990s according to Billboard Magazine's Year-End Hot 100 singles list.
1991: "(EVERYTHING I DO) I DO IT FOR YOU" BY BRYAN ADAMS
The power ballad "(Everything I Do) I Do It for You" written by Bryan Adams, Michael Kamen, and Robert John "Mutt" Lange, topped the charts in 19 countries. It was the lead single of the 1991 film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.
1992: "END OF THE ROAD" BY BOYZ II MEN
"End of the Road" by Boyz II Men spent 13 weeks at number one on the US Billboard Hot 100, a record-breaking feat. Their chart-topper cemented the rise in popularity of Contemporary R&B in the 1990s.
1993: "I WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOU" BY WHITNEY HOUSTON
Whitney Houston's cover of Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You" broke the US Billboard Hot 100 record by Boyz II Men in 1992, when it spent an impressive 14 weeks in the top spot. It also became the best-selling single by a woman, and the song remains a true R&B classic to this day.
1994: "THE SIGN" BY ACE OF BASE
Swedish group Ace of Base broke R&B's two-year stronghold on the US Billboard Hot 100 with their Europop-come-pop ballad song, "The Sign". The track spent six non-consecutive weeks on the US Billboard Hot 100 list.
1995: "GANGSTA'S PARADISE" BY COOLIO FEATURING L.V.
Coolio featuring L.V. represented rap on the US Billboard 100 list with "Gangsta's Paradise". The song was later named by NME one of the "100 Best Songs of the 1990s".
1996: "MACARENA (BAYSIDE BOYS MIX)" BY LOS DEL RÍO
It wouldn't be the 1990s without some cheesy pop. Let's admit it, "Macarena (Bayside Boys Mix)" is a guilty pleasure for many. It's no wonder VH1 ranked it the "No. 1 Greatest One-Hit Wonder of All Time," and now it just may be stuck in your head all day..."Hey Macarena, ay!"
1997: "CANDLE IN THE WIND 1997" / "SOMETHING ABOUT THE WAY YOU LOOK TONIGHT" BY ELTON JOHN
In 1997, Elton John and Bernie Taupin revisited their 1973 classic to honour the late Diana, Princess of Wales. "Candle in the Wind 1997" was number one on Billboard's Hot 100 for 14 weeks. In some countries, the track came as a double A-side, including "Something About the Way You Look Tonight".
1998: "TOO CLOSE" BY NEXT
Next brings R&B back into the US Billboard Hot 100 for the third time in the 1990s with their platinum/best-known hit "Too Close".
1999: "BELIEVE" BY CHER
"Believe" was Cher's instantly recognisable upbeat dance-pop anthem, which sold over 11 million copies globally. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Cher became the oldest female solo artist to be number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
‘90S MUSIC TRENDS: YOUR QUESTIONS ANSWERED
Discovering the music of the 1990s for the first time? We answer some of the most frequently asked questions regarding the music of the decade.
WHAT WAS THE MOST POPULAR STYLE OF MUSIC IN THE 90S?
The most popular style of music in the ‘90s was hip-hop, closely followed by rap and contemporary R&B. Hip-hop redefined the Billboard charts in the early ‘90s and continued to dominate for two decades.
WHAT INFLUENCED MUSIC IN THE ‘90S?
‘90s music like grunge and hip-hop were heavily influenced by social issues of the day and a feeling of disillusionment with previous generations and the establishment. However, other genres of ‘90s music like Britpop was inspired by British culture.
WHO SOLD THE MOST RECORDS IN THE 90S?
Céline Dion sold the most records in the ‘90s, followed by Mariah Carey, Garth Brooks, Whitney Houston, and Nirvana.
WHO WAS THE BIGGEST BAND IN THE 90S?
Nirvana was the biggest band in the ‘90s, followed by Metallica and the Backstreet Boys.
Love the 90s? Read more from the decade:
Cover Credit: Peregrine/Alamy Stock Photo
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Writer: Rachael Hope
Rachael Hope is a writer and visual artist. She loves to explore the connections between creativity in all its forms and broader culture. When not being creative herself, you’ll find her practising yoga or exploring nature.