I don’t use the Sirius XM radio on my own PC as much as I should, so today I thought I’d put it on. I chose the Lithium channel, primarily because the song playing at the time was Nine Inch Nails’ “Down In It”. And now I’ve been listening to the 90s all morning.
Yes, I know! Me, the guy who’s posted about 80s college rock for far too long, finally moving forward in time? Heh.
Seriously, the 90s was an interesting decade, looking back on it now. I tend to think of it as a decade where we crossed a lot of lines that had drawn in the sand for so long that we kind of forgot why they were there in the first place. A lot of interesting chances were taken in the creative world; some fell flat, but some were welcomed and became the norm. College radio became modern rock became alternative rock became chart-topping rock. It didn’t help that the 80s chart rock had become a sad caricature of itself, full of hair metal spandex and arpeggios, and bar bands with very few actual hits. Something had to take over eventually, and alt.rock had been waiting in the wings since the early 80s.
The music of the 90s for me felt sort of like a light was finally turned on. More to the point, it felt like I’d exited the dark cave of my bedroom and its 4AD/Cure gloom and entered the sunshine of the wider world beyond. I could easily say that Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was in fact the point of change, as it probably was for many others. It wasn’t the first alt.rock song that broke through to chart radio (I’d like to think that honor actually belongs to Love and Rockets’ “So Alive”, which hit #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart two years earlier), but it was the most important one. Rock radio wasn’t the same afterwards.
Yeah, sure, there were also the bands that weren’t grunge, weren’t Britpop, and didn’t quite fit into the already-standard ‘alternative’ format. In retrospect they were chart rock’s New Breed. They were melodic, catchy, and just mainstream enough to be played on pretty much any commercial rock station without scaring the parents. They were just edgy enough that the kids loved them anyway. You probably wouldn’t hear them on college radio (that avenue was being filled at that time with No Depression, math rock, slowcore, and the other decidedly noncommercial subgenres), but you’d hear them on the burgeoning Modern Rock and AOR stations.
These are the songs you’ll hear on Adult Alternative stations nowadays, tracks by Collective Soul and Tonic rubbing shoulders with James Bay and Elle King. The slightly harder stuff will pop up on the alt.rock stations that have survived this long, sneaking in as ‘classic tracks’ next to new tracks by other 90s bands that have miraculously stayed together this long (Weezer, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Blink-182).
I can pretty much divide the 90s into two distinct personal eras: the college/Boston years (1990-95) and the HMV years (1996-2000), with the yearlong entr’acte of ennui and deadend jobs of 1995-6. Despite the personal ups and downs I was contending with at the time, I rarely missed an opportunity to follow the latest trends. I may not have had the money to buy it all at the time, but that didn’t stop me from making radio tapes, dubbing cds from friends, or keeping my boombox set to the local alternative stations.
Or spending most of my hard-earned pay at the record store I worked at, for that matter.
Despite my personal and emotional ups and downs in that decade, I found it to be a lot more enjoyable than the previous decade when I was dealing with my gawkish teenage self. My twenties certainly had their extremely frustrating moments, and I did make a lot of really stupid decisions, but by the back end of that decade, I had my shit together and knew exactly what I wanted to do. That’s when I knew for a fact that I’d be a writer. It’s also when I knew that this infatuation with music was going to be a lifelong thing and I was perfectly fine with that.