Grunge Rock to Rap Ascendency

In many ways the ’80s sound keep right on going in 1990: Janet Jackson, Phil Collins, Billy Idol – these ’80s stalwarts didn’t seem to notice that the calendar had changed. But a long-brewing sound was becoming dominant. Enjoying huge hits was rapper M.C. Hammer, who scored with “Have You Seen Her” and “U Can’t Touch This.” Hammer would earn a cool $20 million (though end up bankrupt nonetheless), and the clean-cut rapper’s popularity signaled that the ’90s would be the decade of rap ascendancy. Children soon began carrying M.C. Hammer lunch-boxes to school.

Continuing a hot streak that began in 1988 was dance-pop queen Paula Abdul, who kept sizzling on into the mid ’90s. Also having a good year was middle-of-the-road rocker Bryan Adams, the lusciously-layered R&B vocals of Boyz II Men, and the dance music of Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch. Gangsta rap was becoming in vogue, but D.J. Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince’s brand of rap was light ‘n’ breezy, as on “Summertime.”

Grunge rockers Nirvana saw massive success with “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” from the group’s seminal Nevermind CD. The band eventually sold more than 50 million albums worldwide. The group’s brand of unshaven rock helped pave the way for other grunge groups, like Alice In Chains, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden, and this raw sound became dominant in the rock scene in the mid ’90s. Meanwhile, the heavy radio play of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s homage to full-bottomed women, “Baby Got Back,” demonstrated that rap was not just another genre, but the star of the show.

The sound of 1993 was a mix of soaring Big Emotion pop by Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston, the soft-edged rock of Bon Jovi and Tina Turner, some hits by perennial chart toppers like Madonna and Rod Stewart, and the edgy tracks of rap artists like Ice Cube, 2Pac and Dr. Dre. Dre in particular would be a hugely influential hip hop producer, helping create the gangsta rap sound and launching the careers of Eminem, Snoop Dogg, and 50 Cent.

Speaking of Big Emotion pop, Celine Dion, a songstress who never met an emotion she couldn’t inflate, enjoyed overblown sales this year. Her popularity would build steadily for the next few years, and her version of “My Heart Will Go On” – the theme song to Titanic – was one of the biggest hits of the ’90s. Also finding great success in 1994 – though short-lived – was Swedish dance-pop band Ace of Base. The group had one of the highest selling debut albums of all time, then disappeared not long after. Fame, in the ’90s as in all decades, could be fleeting.

Coolio’s wildly successful “Gansta’s Paradise” demonstrated that rap – street rap, not the light stuff of Jazzy Jeff or Hammer – had arrived. The song takes an ironic turn at the end. After spending several verses promoting the macho posturing of the gangsta lifestyle, in the last verse Coolio asks, “Tell me why are we so blind to see / That the ones we hurt are you and me.” On the other end of the musical spectrum, the success of Hootie & The Blowfish pointed to a rock era that favored an acoustic sound, as exemplified by Blues Traveler, the Dave Matthews Band, and Sheryl Crow.

The wildly expressive rock vocals of Alanis Morissette dominated the radio waves, as her song “Ironic” became stuck in heavy rotation. The Candian singer-songwriter won a slew of Grammys, including Best Female Rock Vocal and Best Album. Still more popular this year was Los Del Rio’s “Macarena,” which would be danced to by synchronized groups of slightly-drunk dancers at every wedding from now on.

When Elton John released “Candle In the Wind 1997,” a single to honor the recently-deceased Princess Diana, it was if every record buyer on the planet earth had been given orders to purchase it. And those orders were obeyed – the tune became the best selling single of all time. On a lighter note, the Spice Girls, a British all-girl dance-pop group, scored the year’s top selling album. The bubbly quintet went on to become the best selling girl group ever – even starring in their own movie, Spiceworld, which grossed $75 million – before they disbanded and were promptly forgotten.

Slickly produced R&B had been in vogue for many years, and several artists proved its staying power, including Usher, Janet Jackson, Brandy & Monica, and Destiny’s Child. On another front, hits by kiddie groups Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync pointed to a major phenomenon on the rise: Tween power. Groups whose music was aimed at the young teen crowd (14 years old or younger) enjoyed a spike in popularity not seen since the early ’60s. If the music wasn’t artistically significant, it certainly was profitable for the record labels. Ka-ching!

And in 1999 the biggest Tween Queen of all emerged, Britney Spears, who scored massively with “…Baby One More Time.” The onetime child performer on the Mickey Mouse Club TV show was now 17 years old, and set to launch a recording career that would sell 85 million albums worldwide (with most of those CD bought by people under 21 years old). Fueling her album sales was a major controversy over her image: Never before Spears had so young a female performer exuded such overt sexuality. Along with Spears, another former Mickey Mouse Club alum turned pop star, Christina Aguilera, would make 1999 the year of the Pop Tart.