After the second half of the 1980s had been dominated by commercial pop and cheap dance acts, the 1990s started highly promising. AC/DC’s The Razor’s Edge, Nirvana’s Nevermind, Metallica’s Black Album, Guns N’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion I & II, and U2’s Achtung Baby marked the return of great handmade music and greatly produced albums. But the positive momentum rapidly vanished, and the 1990s will finally be remembered for teen pop, dance, techno, boy bands and girl groups, as well as for vocal driven songs.
If we take a look at the numbers from the Rolling Stone Magazine’s Top 500 once more, then we’ll see another drop from 11.4% to only 4.4%, which means that music quality again went down, this time by a factor of about 2.6 within only 10 years, which is even worse than the previous drop in the 80s. But things are even worse, because not only the total number of insanely great songs went down, the 1990s also mostly lack the huge amount of simply “good songs” we still had a decade earlier.
By the end of the 1990s, music quality had dropped by a factor of 6.4 over 20 years, or even 9.3 over 30 years. Those are disastrous numbers for both music lovers and for the entire industry.
The most important innovative trends in the early 1990s were grunge and britpop, which lead to the mainstream success of alternative rock and indie music, plus Metallica’s Black Album, which allowed heavy metal to become widely popular. Indie music, alternative rock, and grunge achieved mainstream success, with artists such as Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Soul Asylum, R.E.M., Soundgarden, Rage Against the Machine, Green Day, The Smashing Pumpkins, Radiohead, Beck, Foo Fighters, Stone Temple Pilots, Blink-182, Garbage, Pearl Jam, and many others.
At the same time there was a revival of the singer-songwriter movement of the 1970s headed by Alanis Morissette, Tori Amos, Fiona Apple, and Sheryl Crow for example. In the UK britpop bands such as Oasis, Blur, Suede, Pulp, Manic Street Preachers, and The Verve became very successful.
But the positive trends quickly lost momentum in the second half of the 1990s.
One of the problems of alternative rock was that it didn’t produce a high number of radio compatible hits, which left an empty space in the charts that could quickly be filled up by teen pop, dance-pop, house, techno, eurodance, europop, and low end hip hop.
In the end entertainers such as Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, The Spice Girls, Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC, Hanson, Mariah Carey, Jennifer Lopez, and Destiny’s Child dominated the decade, following the trend to use professional producers writing songs for puppet artists.
The music industry finally managed to fill up the rest of the charts with cost-effective commercial acts – in Europe those were mostly clowns such as Alexia, Haddaway, Captain Jack, Captain Hollywood Project, Basic Element, Solid Base, Daze, Gigi D’Agostino, Vengaboys, 2 Unlimited, Cappella, Corona, Culture Beat, DJ Bobo, Dr. Alban, Ice MC, La Bouche, Twenty 4 Seven, Fun Factory, Masterboy, Mr. President, Pandora, Magic Affair, Maxx, Loft, Sash!, Snap!, Real McCoy, Scatman John, and Whigfield for example. The list is almost endless – if you’re old enough, then you will probably remember all of that cheap crap that was really hard to avoid. If you’re young and you don’t know all of those jerks listed above, then you’re probably quite lucky.
But not all electronic music was bad of course, and some very innovative electronic albums were released in the 1990s. Nine Inch Nails and The Prodigy experimented with new sounds and technologies, and in 1998 Madonna released Ray of Light, which has sold over 16 million copies worldwide. The hip hop trend of the late 1980s continued, with N.W.A., 2Pac, Jay Z, Notorious B.I.G., Wu-Tang Clan, Snoop Doggy Dogg, Cypress Hill, Eminem, Lauryn Hill, Outkast, and others being very successful and gangsta rap becoming mainstream compatible.
In the end we can say that in the 1990s record companies executed what they had learned in the late 1980s. The labels had learned that they could survive and remain profitable without having to rely on real artists, and it seemed that reducing quality and production costs on all levels would have no impact on sales numbers at all.
A huge mistake that would lead to a big collapse very soon.