The early 90s were not a happy time to be young. In between communism and Al-Qaeda, with a Clinton in the White House and the apparent End of History, there was little to be passionately for or against. Even the 80s had had a go at saving the world with Live Aid, which almost instantly broke off into many camps for causes closer to home and verging on self parody; Farm Aid, Ferry Aid, and various animal rights groups, rather than the starving millions in Africa.
While they were easily forgotten, the spokespeople for The Generation That Couldn’t Find Anything to Say turned to suicide (Kurt Cobain) or Scientology (Beck). Instead of “Feed the World,” we had anthems in the vein of:
“I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo
What the hell am I doing here?
I don’t belong here”
“I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now
or, to put it bluntly:
“I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill
While rock laid down its guns or turned them on itself, the cartoon became the most honest art form. Beavis and Butthead, Ren and Stimpy, and later South Park and Family Guy caught the mood. But none more so than the Simpsons, which simultaneously defined and derided the 90s. In their Homerpalooza episode, this brief exchange says it all:
Teen 1: Oh, here comes that cannonball guy. He’s cool.
Teen 2: Are you being sarcastic, dude?
Teen 1: I don’t even know anymore.
Sex, politics and Rodney King
But who says 90’s music was entirely devoid of meaning? The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Bloodsugarsexmagic pointed out that sex was nice, lest we forget. Ice-T’s Body Count wanted a kalashnikov in every home (“try to ban the AK, I got ten of them stashed with a case of handgrenades”), glorification of violence masquerading as social commentary in the wake of Rodney King. Both albums, though, to put it in 90’s lingo, rocked.
As did Rage Against the Machine, whom Icelanders got an early taste of, being the only “current” band, it seemed, to perform in Iceland in the early 90s. With their angry but eager political lyrics they sounded like a lone voice crying in the desert. They were not, let’s not forget The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. But precious few others.
The Last March of the Supergroups
The 90s started with the anticipation of new albums by U2 and Guns n’ Roses, the stadium- sized duel of the last of the supergroups, between Bono’s Beatles and Axl’s Stones.
In the late 80s, the bands had strangely mirrored each other. While Bono still believed that rock and roll could really change the world, Axl celebrated unrestrained hedonism. Both laid claim to global dominance with their 1987 offerings, The Joshua Tree and Appetite for Destruction. They were followed a year later with stopgap albums that recycled some earlier material, Rattle and Hum and GNR Lies. On “God pt. 2,” Bono flirted with self awareness and sarcasm: “Don’t believe in riches but you should see where I live.” Axl also opted for sarcasm, but without the self awareness: “Immigrants and faggots/ They make no sense to me/ They come to our country/ And think they’ll do as they please”
Supermodels, cigars and Sellafield
When both bands re-emerged in late ‘91 after long studio sessions, U2 had changed. They had by now apparently embraced cynicism wholesale, throwing off the messianic complex in favour of supermodels and cigars. But in fact they were still idealists masked as self-indulgent rock stars, as the landing at the Sellafield nuclear power plant proved. While so many self-indulgent rock stars pretended to be idealists, this was as postmodern as it got. As was the Zoo TV tour. Television and TV preachers, neo-Nazism and the EU, The First Gulf and the Bosnia Wars, remote controls and phone calls to world leaders: the early 90s in a nutshell. The companion album Achtung Baby remains one of the finest albums of the decade.
“Once there was this rock and roll band rolling on the streets…”
Guns n Roses, however, had not changed, barring Steven Adler being fired for his drug addiction and Izzy Stradlin leaving for lack of it. Two double albums may sound like overkill, but as Bono would put it, “Too much is not enough.” The mid-section of Use Your Illusion II should silence any voices claiming that Appetite was their only good album. From the country stylings of Breakdown to that rare moment of self-mockery on Pretty Tied Up to the relentless grind of Locomotive, the romance of So Fine and the soaring heights of Estranged, rock n’ roll doesn’t get much better than this. Until it all fizzles away at the end, as did the band.
In 1993, both bands released planned EP’s that grew to full length albums. U2 continued with their Europop experiments on Zooropa, a worthy successor to Achtung Baby, whereas Guns n Roses rehashed old punk songs on The Spaghetti Incident. By now, it was obvious which band would survive the 90s and which would not. The last shots in this supposed duel were in 1995, when U2 released the Batman Forever soundtrack single Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me, and Guns n’ Roses the Interview with the Vampire single Sympathy for the Devil. The Rolling Stones cover was to be their last release to date. No one would again lay claim to U2’s title of Biggest Band in the World.
While the battle of the supergroups raged, with bands such as REM and Metallica seemingly waiting to pick up the respective crowns of the fallen, Seattle somewhat unexpectedly emerged as the music capital of the world. A young man named Kurt Cobain, despite his apparent inability to find anything worth saying or doing, conquered the world. Nevermind, possibly bettered by In Utero, is a classic rock album of the sort that hasn’t really appeared since, every song anathematic, un-ignorable, life-changing. In his footsteps followed grunge which, apart from the odd Pearl Jam album, I motion be struck from the records.
At around the same time that King Kurt killed himself, the focus shifted to London during one of rock’s periodic swings between the US and the UK. With the onset of Britpop, I decided to tune out completely and bury myself in a haze of someone else’s nostalgia, working my way back through the Sex Pistols and the Clash, the real Beatles and the Stones, Elvis, Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie. Even if Pulp’s Different Class is in retrospect a great album, and Blur are at times worthwhile, genre kings Oasis had precious little new to say, which perhaps makes them the most 90’s band of them all.
Sarcasm came to an end on the 11th of September 2001. With the likes of Bush and Bin Laden devouring nations and Blair’s turn to the Dark Side, there is now most decidedly something to fight against, if still little to fight for. But, in a couple of years who knows? With another Clinton in the White House, we may be able to return to worrying about nothing much at all. And have a damn miserable time doing it.