Music In The ’90s: Angst, Frustration, And Earnest Expression

Though the ’90s were a phenomenal decade for film, politics, TV, and flannel, those years are most fondly regarded for one defining featurethe music. Harboring the last bastion of true rock, the grunge era did more than standardize the use of unorthodox guitar riffs and brooding vocals. In the ’90s, rockers gave voice to concerns of a generation. Given a platform from which to speak, artists across the musical spectrum pointed out problems within the music industry and in the everyday lives of people. Shaped by the social climate, ’90s musicians struck a balance between the past and present, hybridizing the apathetic counterculturalism seen in the ’60s and the current age of information. They were different kinds of artists.

In this way they seemed to be more like the everyday person, imperfect, and real. They represented an earnestness which is absent from a lot of today’s music. They were organic, unabashed, and determined. They were unbounded by social media constraints, and unwavering in the eyes of criticism, because they just wanted to make music. For many, it lead to the end of careers or, in some cases, their lives, but the lingering effects of their artistic touch will always be remembered. In the ’90s at a concert, one may have felt that the musician on stage was really just a person like you, as thousands in the crowd and a few on the stage raised their hands in solidarity.

’90s music was born in Seattle. This is aptly so, as the somber weather patterns left many in their garage with little to do other than roll their thumbs and pick at guitar strings. Seattle fostered the creation of the giants like Soundgarden, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains. Though the area is home to over 30 bands who defined themselves as grunge, the nature of the movement was not a calculated event. In the four bands mentioned, the circumstances of their formation are drastically different. None of them came in to profit on the scene, which didn’t even exist, but to do one thingcreate music. They were spur-of-the-moment events, though they happened in the same geographic area. Some came together to commemorate a friend. Others to vent frustrations. And still others to simply jam. These bands had something to share, which made them more popular than could be imagined.

And those are just the grunge bands. In the latter part of the ’90s after the grunge movement self-immolated, the legacy of those artists lived on in the post-grunge and expanding alternative genres. The sentiments held by those pioneer bands still held true as music, or at least a sense of deeper expressivity, came up as the most important factor in their works. Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters are an overt example of this post-grunge transition. Stylistically, Nirvana and the Foo Fighters are very distinct entities, though the nature of the creative process, that is making art for art’s sake, is the same. He wanted to make music after Nirvana and in some way he probably needed to.

Artists in the ’90s sought to share something, whether that be a good time or a bad one. Sugar Ray brought you along for a ride “all around the world,” just as Oasis was to bring you down to a more contemplative state. Though the tones of these bands are quite different, their events surrounding  their creation echo the thoughts of the time. Passion and music. Sharing and connectedness.

Because the artists of the ’90s were more outwardly human, they were more susceptible to fall short and maybe even break. For the earlier bands a slew of problems plagued or destroyed their futures. Soundgarden broke up in 1998. Pearl Jam tore down its successes by fighting the corruption of TicketMaster. Kurt Cobain’s death ended Nirvana forever. Drugs claimed the lives of Blind Melon frontman Shannon Hoon, Layne Staley of Alice in Chains, and many more. Others fell too, like The Pixies in 1993, The Cranberries in 1996, and The Smashing Pumpkins in 2000.

Apart from being a little sad, the ephemeral nature of these bands simply represents the natural cycle of the music industry. These bands were radical in a lot of ways and often times facilitated their own destruction. In the current climate, bands need to conform to certain standards to be accessible to as many people as possible (aka selling out). The ’90s was the last decade where this was not the case. On the cusp of the digital age, these bands did not experience the level of scrutiny that current bands do and as such were able to scream their real frustrations and feelings in ways that modern bands cannot. Which is why their struggles resonate with so many people even after the band’s dissolution. The ’90s music scenes gave an unfiltered voice to frustrations and did not act like it had any answers. The cluttered lyric and sporadic guitar bridges represented the chaotic day-to-day ramblings that go on inside people’s heads. This sharply contrasts the engineered pop-rock that we hear today. Many of the earworms today stick with us because of how they sound as opposed to what they represent or speak about. Do we really feel connected to the words of these synthetic artists? Music from the ’90s feels not like music made for us, but music that is part of us.

dChris Cornell looks at his the following he has garnered and says, “At the end of the day it is the fans who make you who your are.”

And the reverse is also true, as down to earth artists often help us better understand ourselves.

Featured Image By DGC Records

About Caleb Griego 152 Articles
Caleb Griego is the arts & review editor of The Heights. He has put his earphones through the wash at least a dozen times and they still work. He still doesn't know who to thank, so he prays to all deities just to be safe.