Nostalgia is becoming a catchall term. Contrary to what people may think, It’s not just about reliving the past; it’s about looking at the past with a sort of sentimental wonder, a yearning for its customs and dead trends. Why have we glossed over the nineties? If we were to believe in a 30 year rule, consistent with the 50s morality-obsessed 1980s and the 1980s-loving 2010s, then nostalgia for the 1990s should be predominant now. Instead, both millennials and Gen Zs have opted for the vibrant, ditzy, and drag-loving Y2K years, far easier to relive since the internet was already very much a part of life.
But herein lies the key idea of what qualifies as nostalgia, the fact that we want to live it. One would believe the characteristics of nineties youth shared by teens today are not the ones you would want to see in yourself: they’re entitled, they’re ignorant, they pretend not to be conceited. Most of all, Generation X always seemed hyper aware of how they were perceived, which they branded as cool, an arrogance which makes them difficult to credit.
The nineties also hated the eighties which makes it difficult since not only does Gen Z love the eighties, they seem to share interest in one of its driving ideological forces: ambition. People in the nineties were not unambitious, but it certainly was not cool to brag about what inspires you to improve yourself like it is today. Further, ambition was widely associated with wealth, which was assumed to be influenced by materialism, things that Gen X found to be disingenuous. The stockbroker, perhaps the symbol for young success in America just the decade before, was rarely depicted as positive in the nineties. The synthesizer, which was the futuristic sound of assembly and productivity was now seen as inauthentic and reconsidered carefully.
The 90s have become a casualty to the growing trend of people only considering the worst parts of a legacy. To our detriment, we are glossing over an artistically lucrative period of culture. Every genre of popular music experienced a renaissance. The internet was too new to be fully understood which in many ways actually made the conversation on music better. People had to actually talk and read about it and spent more time at record stores in order to discover it. You had to wait longer for things; you had to appreciate it more. A lot of people still listened to the radio which seemed to hold the same control we now possess through a search bar. Music videos were watched on television, not laptop screens and they were essential to understanding the artistic basis of major singles. Budgets and directorial talent grew and more unconventional ideas were allowed to be explored.
Michael Jackson was still alive. Bowie was still alive. Prince was still alive. Johnny Cash was still alive. Joe Strummer was still alive. Jerry Garcia was still alive. Richard Pryor was still alive. Hunter S. Thompson was still alive.
Ethical lines were perhaps more blurred if there at all. The trial of the century let unrelated racial politics decide a murder verdict. Ken Burns Civil War, a ten-part documentary consisting of archival paintings and photographs that came out in 1990 posted unbelievable ratings and became one of the biggest resources of knowledge on the matter. The fact that it featured the musings of confederate-sympathising historian Shelby Foote was simply something that nobody bothered to bring up back then. The idea of the removal of Lincoln’s name from a public building would likely have been laughed out of the room.
Tupac Shakur was seen as a martyr, a once in a generation talent, a renegade for the Black working class, a violent troubled young man, a party essential, but very little of the contemporary literature mentioned his sexual assault charge without discussing these things first. Red Hot Chili Peppers played entire songs about their dicks and wild sex over slap funk bass in full nude. In the nineties they fit right in. Shock value seemed to be a prerequisite in order to do something meaningful. It was the decade of gangsta rap, stand up comedians, and violent movies.
Feminists looked at the nineties as medieval and based on even just a couple examples it is not hard to see why. Pamela Anderson’s explicit home video was stolen from her home and somehow this ended her career. Sinead O’Connor’s career was abruptly ended for something that would have advanced it today. Everyone on your television show could be White. Honestly, if you looked at the statistics, everyone on your television show almost had to be White if you wanted it to do well.
These conditions of low social policing led to unthinkable things, but also allowed for audiences and entertainers to operate with more creative liberty and more fruitfully. There was no war to protest, no casualties to mourn, and the economy was benefitting at such a high level that creators could actually create and content could actually be paid for. It would appear to be a time of substantial creative possibility, where big budgets and smaller independent projects could be enjoyed by the same people.
Perhaps the nineties and Generation X receive undue criticism for being pretentious as a whole since many of its linchpins would seem to signal otherwise. For example, it became very normal for just about anyone of any background to view the measure of greatness through Michael Jordan’s achievements in the NBA. This literally has not changed, not the idea per se, but the fact that this person is still Michael Jordan. U2 were still so popular in the early nineties that demand for one of their concerts crashed the Ticketmaster in Florida (which was still an office where people answered the phone). Most people under the age of 25 now consider themselves too cool to go anywhere near a U2 album, concert, or t-shirt. It was the last decade where audiences still considered rock music to be consequential. The guitar still mattered and alternative music with its sincerity, its dynamics, and its institutional disdain became the de facto sound of pop music. Its poster boys did not have to be conventionally good looking.
Our 40 Best Songs of the 90s are fairly obvious. They should be. This was an era where your largest idea could be and often was leveraged into your biggest moment. It’s actually kind of misleading to call this listicle The 40 Best Songs of the 90s since any official list bearing that title shouldn’t really exist. This is closer to the songs we thought best defined what we think the nineties represented. Of course we could not call it that and expect it to be read.
We had to consider that the nineties entered a new phase as it reached its close and that right around 1998 things got weird. Bill Clinton’s impeachment, Columbine, and the annexation of Hong Kong seemed to challenge the discourse and make people reconsider their politics. Most of all, the collective paranoia of a fatal computer bug at the dawn of the new millenia and a general mistrust in new tech seemed to influence all of pop culture. So, we didn’t rank anything after 1997 which will be saved for a separate list.
We will be releasing this in three parts: 40-21 on Monday, 20-11 on Wednesday, 10-1 on Thursday.
If you disagree with our choices, just pretend it’s the 90s and meet a friend at the coffee shop so you can discuss it…pretentiously.
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