90s: The Golden Age of Music?

AKIE BERMISS: I should make it clear from the outset that it is not my position that the 90s was THE golden age of music.  Just perhaps one of many golden mini-eras that come and go with the tides.  And I should also make it clear that there is very little scientific evidence to back up the arguments I am going to presently make. What follows is, rather, a pseudo-scholarly attempt to draw up a basic outline of musical trends in the last half century or so.  Since the conclusion of World War II — what we might call the modern era.  While, like every other fraile human psyche I am prone to the foolish romanticism of my childhood days, I’m not so delusional as to think that I am the only to have felt that way.  Assuredly, every generation has to deal with a certain romanticism or demonization of their coming-of-age — but every generation does not stand alone.  We all flow into and out of one another.  And only in hindsight can we gauge certain trends that came to pass.  And perhaps help them to identify the things which puzzle us now.

I speak, of course, of music.  Of the last great golden age of music: the 90s.  But not as an isolated incident, rather, as a the most recent evidence of a decidedly unproven trend of artistic flowering under a Democratic presidency. It seems curious to me that we can so often think of artistic artifacts as being simply art’s domain when, in fact, we all know that outward influences are always at play.  That often art is a sign of the times.  Or art can act as a cultural and societal artifact as potently as an “artistic” one.  Certainly anthropologists look to art in order to gauge the tenor and timbre of a civilization.  Why shouldn’t we (albeit on a more micro-level)?

Could it be we are on the verge of our own first golden era of the new millenium?  Only time will tell, certainly, and there are a billion other factor in play but if the past is any indication, we very well may be!

I began with the 90s because they were a time of unprecedented musical thriving.  That is, nearly every genre across the board, old and new, experience a great boost in the 90s.  Record album sales, record singles at no. 1 on the charts, record music video watching.  Every element of the music which had been incubating somewhat awkwardly during the 80s came in to full bloom in the 90s.  Under the Bill Clinton presidency.  Then you see a sudden drop-off in quality as George W. Bush takes off.  We never want for quantity, but suddenly a great host of a reliable artist start putting out some awful music.  Thinking back on 2002 — 2009, it was a curiously underwhelming musical period.  All the recent “bests of the decade” lists have surely made that evident.  And, again, I want to stress that this is not merely romanticizing here.  I happily admit there are outliers and exceptions to my theory, but when you look at the mass musical movements you have to admit we hit the aughties with some residual momentum and it slowly ground to an irrevocable, funkless stagnation.

Let’s look at the end of the Reagan/Bush Sr. era ['81 - '93] admittedly there are some great things about the 80s.  But let’s face it people, it was an embarrassingly mediocre decade.  Again you have your outliers — people like Prince who managed to somehow be relevant and inspirational and make a splash that would have a lasting impact of music (not just a quick flash and then: nothing).  And you have the HipHop in its infancy and original Punk Rock starting to morph into… whatever you want to call the stuff that happened in the 80s.  And if you listen to much of the music in the early 90s its beginning to move out of the stagnation of the 80s and into whatever you want to call the 90s.  As I’ve said, there’s not real demarcation, so I think the flow of genius and innovation can come from one of these stagnant eras but it won’t reach its real potential til the Democrats take the WhiteHouse.  Clinton gets elected in 1992 and what do we get: New Jack Swing, Rap reaching its non-pop zenith with Wu-Tang, Biggie Smalls, De La Soul, Tribe Called Quest.  In pop you get New Kids On The Block giving way to Back Street Boys, NSynch, 98Degrees and the like.  You have the late 90s pop divas in Celine Dion, Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears.  You get R&B/NeoSoul (coming out of the New Jack Swing impetus) with BoyzIIMen, Jodeci, En Vogue, early Brandy, D’angelo, Gerald Lavert.  The rise of what would take us into the aughties and leave us high and dry with the likes of R. Kelly and Mr. Big, Nate Dogg.  And so forth.  Let us not forget it was the mid to late 90s that gave us the heyday of Dr. Dre as Dr. Dre; Timbaland; The Neptunes — all production entities that would be crucial in fueling what was to be much of the innovation during the dark Bush years.

I could go on and on about how this may or may not have been the case in the last quarter century or so that I’ve been aware of such things. I did a little research and analysis on earlier periods starting in the late 40s.  Of course we know music thrived in the late 40s and early 50s with jazz and big band coming into real pop mode.  Even the club scene was pretty huge at that time with Bebop and West Coast Jazz coming into their own (at the same time you’re getting the beginning of classic R&B and Motown).  Modal Jazz begins its ascent in the late 50s, under Eisenhower (with ’59s Kind of Blue being the call to arms) but arguable the early 60s is the zenith of jazz’s artistic achievements.  Under Kennedy and the LBJ you get the classic Miles Davis Quintet, you get John Coltrane and 1964′s A Love Supreme.  And, of course, rock makes a BIG surge in the 60s.  In the mid to late 60s its all about the great rock and roll bands.  Cap that off in ’67 with the summer of love and then we go down into the Nixon/Ford era.  There’s still some momentum, but a lot of the wind is out of the sails.  I love a lot of the 70s music, but it can be hard to find the good stuff. There was fusion — the lionshare of it horrible.  Disco — which was… well: Disco.  Rock hit some rough patches and became pretty unlistenable by and large — Lost a lot of its umph (of course this led to what would become the Punk Rock movement — which flowered briefly and recklessly in the mid to late 70s… Jimmy Carter, anybody?).

Which brings us to the long and awkward 80s.

Ok, so like I said, there’s no real evidence that I’m not just talking out of my ass here.  Except that I’m serious musical geek and snob, and I’m really into American politics and society.  I might posit this as the thesis statement for a more involved study of the effect of society on art and vice-versa in America in the Post-War era.  But that’s really just going waaaaay to far with it, I think.  If there were a graduate degree on the line, I might be persuaded.  But otherwise, random midnight musings on a lonely highway may have to do: until the real thing comes along.

And, if I’m right: that could be any minute now.

STEPHON JOHNSON: The common theme, especially in hip-hop circles, has been the parrot-like wails of nostalgia for the 1990′s claiming that this past decade of hip-hop couldn’t compare. While they might be right, part of that consensus has more to do with opining for an era where hip-hop culture and rap music weren’t completely mainstream than anything else. Outsider status was still a hallmark and a badge of honor for the culture of the 90s. Case in point: what’s the difference between the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s antics at the 1998 Grammy Awards and Kanye West’s actions at the 2009 MTV Video Music Award’s? Nothing. Music-journalist Alan Wright clarified such for MSNBC.com

“With Wu-Tang, there was a little bit of a sense of speaking truth to power. There was this hip-hop attitude of ‘We’re just gonna talk about what’s real,’” Light said. “But nowadays when urban artists are such mainstream pop stars, it’s kind of hard to feel like this is the voice of the underdog.”

But I digress.

The 90s, well most of it, were the last true golden age for music for a plehtora of reasons. Let’s start with hip-hop: Notorious B.I.G., 2Pac, De La Soul, GangStarr, A Tribe Called Quest, Redman, Wu-Tang, Boot Camp Clik, Pete Rock & CL Smooth, Big Pun, The Beatnuts, Rawkus Records’ catalog, Jeru tha Damaja, Brand Nubian, Heavy D (throw in some Death Row if you want, but personally, I wasn’t a fan). Moving on to rock/pop: Nirvana, Pavement, Weezer, Suede, Blur, Beck, The Breeders, PJ Harvey, Soundgarden, Rage Against The Machine, Alice in Chains, Tool, Smashing Pumpkins, Radiohead, early Liz Phair, Fiona Apple, Alanis Morissette, L7, Green Day, Oasis, Nine Inch Nails and others helped propel rock into a new direction on various fronts.

For R&B: Babyface, D’Angelo, En Vogue, New Jack Swing, Maxwell, early Mariah Carey, TLC, Mary J. Blige, Jodeci, Toni Braxton, Boyz II Men, Brandy, R. Kelly (pre-crazy), the first Zhane album, the Brand New Heavies and more. This isn’t even taking into account the rise of electronic-based genres (like downtempo, jungle, drum-n-bass, big beat) and the mainstreaming of country (courtesy of artists like Garth Brooks). Records were being sold all over the place, people still listened to the radio and it was the last days of MTV playing videos before Singled-Out marathons took over the network. There was plenty to like about the 90s, but there was plenty to dislike about it too.

We tend to completely erase what was actually popular at a moment in time because we hold our young memories dear to our hearts. Considering that we’re the generation that defines itself through moments/innovations in pop culture, it’s understood. But let’s be honest with oursevles. The 90s were also responsible for Right Said Fred, Color Me Badd, Snow, Peabo Bryson, Bryan Adams, Michael Bolton, Extreme (the “More Than Words” guys), Paula Abdul, Blessid Union of Souls, Rap-Metal not made by Rage Against The Machine, Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, Tag Team, Ace of Base, etc. It wasn’t like great product was coming through on a daily basis. It’s the same mistake that those who grew up in the 1960′s and 1970′s make. There are always awful products and art available for our purchases.

But what keeps my generation so nostalgic about the 90s is that we’re the last generation to grow up around the way things “used to be.” We watched television on television. We listened to music on the radio and bought albums. We experienced pop culture moments at the exact same time. We all have a “where were you when you first heard/saw” story that not many people from the generational after ours can share.

Around the beginning of 2004 is where a good chunk of that shared experience began to change. The rise of iTunes, the eventual rise of YouTube, mp3′s, the music industry killing the single in the late 90s finally taking it’s toll, the music-buying public becoming somewhat smarter. With more music being consumed than ever before and the never-ending need to be the first to discover something, there isn’t the same joy to discovering new music for many. I’ll never get the same feeling I had when Angie Martinez first premiered Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Brooklyn Zoo” on Hot 97 while I was trying to study for my Sequential I Math Regents’ exam. I won’t be 13 again.

Having said that, I’ll defend this past decade’s music (overall) to anyone who’ll listen. The rise of indie-rock, which bubbled underground since the 90s, wouldn’t have been possible without the innovation of the mp3, music blogs and iTunes. Jill Scott, Amel Larrieux, Anthony Hamilton, Jon. B, Dwele, Floetry, Remy Shand, Steve Spacek and Raphael Saadiq all made quality R&B this decade (especially Shand, who made one of the best R&B records of the past 15-20 years in 2002 and promptly disappeared). Genre lines blurred more than ever with people no longer having to put things into distinct categories.

With all the complaints about hip-hop this decade (which became the new pop since every non-country artist had to address it in some way to sell records), you would think a 10-year period that included MF DOOM, Cannibal Ox, Murs, El-P, Aesop Rock, Definitive Jux Records, Outkast, Common, Jay-Z’s “The Blueprint” and “The Black Album”, Talib Kweli, Little Brother, Madlib/Quasimoto, Ghostface, Nas’ career resurrection, Scarface’s (arguably) best album in “The Fix,” Dilated Peoples, Sage Francis, Cee-Lo Green is the Soul Machine, The Roots getting tighter as a band, Eminem, Missy Elliott, Madvillain and Kanye “Jackass” West would be looked at in a more positive light.

Although one can rightly make the argument that nothing really lifted their respective genre’s to new heights, maybe we shouldn’t be expected to be lifted off our feet every time we hear a new piece. Should we demand more from recording artists? Yes. But let’s not follow the new century’s tendency to take things to the extreme. The 90s were an awesome decade for music. Let’s just keep things in perspective.

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