By WARREN PEDERSON
Blast San Francisco Bureau
The '90s have accomplished what I once thought was impossible: They made me
nostalgic for the music of the '80s.
What can you say about a decade that brought us MC Hammer's mega-success, the
proliferation of sampling, the Lambada, the birth of the Spice Girls and the death of Kurt Cobain?
How about "goodbye"?
Trendoids love to sneer at the '60s for its hippies and psychedelia, the '70s for its smiley faces and arena rock, the '80s for its synthesizers and Spandex. Well, I'd prefer any of these to the facelessness and regurgitation of this pathetic decade.
It seems that for every superstar in the '90s, you can find an antecedent in the last three decades. Isn't Tori Amos just Kate Bush minus a few octaves? What is Hanson other than the Jackson 5 minus Tito and Marlon? Isn't Marilyn Manson just Alice Cooper minus the humor - or Madonna with darker roots? What is Sarah McLachlan other than Joni Mitchell on a bad poetry day? Isn't Sublime just Madness plus a fatal dose of heroin? What is Phish but the Grateful Dead with cleaner T-shirts? Isn't Alanis Morissette just Pat Benatar in ripped jeans instead of leggings? Likewise, isn't Gwen Stefani of No Doubt just Benatar with a dot on her forehead? What are Green Day and Rancid other than the Clash minus all those chords? Isn't Jamiroquai just Stevie Wonder in an oversized hat? And isn't Beck just about every musical trend of the past 20 years? I know I'm supposed to like Beck - the critics keep telling me so - but all I hear is a prodigy who can't decide what kind of music to play.
We started this decade by aping the '70s, and we're closing it by rehashing the '80s. Unfortunately, the irony-laced '90s version is devoid of the free-spiritedness of its predecessors, substituting instead an angry cynicism that makes me fear for the future of rock 'n' roll. Is anyone having fun anymore?
Granted, this decade helped cast aside the superficiality of the '80s' image-obsessed pop stars. No longer are music videos filmed before the songs are written. In fact, nowadays MTV seems to show more reality soaps and game shows than music videos, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Music should be heard, not seen.
The grunge era provided a welcome return to the garage-band sound of the '60s, a stripped-down vitality that made superstars of such talents as Nirvana, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam. Unfortunately, Nirvana's Kurt Cobain committed suicide in 1994, Soundgarden broke up last year, and Pearl Jam seems a weak choice to carry the torch. It should come as no surprise that the "godfather of grunge," Neil Young, is outlasting any of his successors.
For all its angry words against capitalism and conformity, the Seattle sound sure produced its share of clones. Anti-fashion became its own fashion, with flannel and combat boots replacing the hair extensions and Spandex of the '80s. Bands began to emphasize "credibility" over musicianship, and the race to prove who was more "alternative" had no
Other hard rock acts went in some strange, and not entirely successful, directions in the '90s. Metallica abandoned its bone-crunching metal in favor of a more introspective, melodic sound. The harmonies of "Load" and "Reload" stand on their own, but it's hard to beat the band's eponymous black album for raw power. Aerosmith gets points for continuing to try, but loses them for releasing sub-par dreck like last year's "Nine Lives."
Leave it to power pop bands such as Weezer, the Caulfields, Semisonic and the now-defunct Gin Blossoms to turn down the testosterone level with albums high on energy but low on hype. Small wonder these successors of the Beatles and Beach Boys had trouble finding their audience in this era of overkill.
The "unplugged" movement of the early '90s provided a welcome return to rock's acoustic roots, but like all trends, performers ran it into the ground. Leave it to Bruce Springsteen to stop the inanity by appearing on "MTV Unplugged" - with an electric guitar. Still, artists such as Suzanne Vega and Shawn Colvin marked a welcome throwback to the troubadours of the '60s, if only their songwriting were as strong.
Probably the most inspiring trend as we end this decade is the "no depression" movement, which carries on the tradition of such countrified rockers as the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers. Acts such as Wilco, Son Volt, the Jayhawks and Whiskeytown move freely between acoustic folk, power pop and hard rock, and are as unclassifiable as they are
entertaining. These roots-based bands fill the void created by today's assembly-line country acts and lack the forced anger of grunge.
Similarly, the progressive rock tradition gained new momentum in the '90s with artists such as Radiohead and the Smashing Pumpkins, who picked up where Pink Floyd and King Crimson left off. Rather than blatantly recycling prog rock's synthesized meanderings on technology and alienation, Radiohead and the Pumpkins added an electric edge and spontaneity that assured that this music translated to the concert setting. Here are at least two artists that provide hope for the next millennium.
Many of the '80s' greatest talents were either retired or underseen in the '90s. Springsteen opted out of the spotlight and dumped the E Street Band to release several low-key - and not entirely fulfilling - solo albums. U2 jumped on the electronica bandwagon and parodied crass consumerism on the gimmicky "Pop" (at least I think it was a parody). Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart of Eurythmics released disappointing solo albums. Tears for Fears
shed a Tear and became essentially a Roland Orzabal solo outfit. Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles released two superb power pop albums, but radio and the rock press couldn't be bothered. Marshall Crenshaw and the Pretenders put out some decent albums, though not nearly enough.
Soul music (or do I have to call it "urban contemporary"?) took some disturbing turns in the '90s. Eclectic acts such as Arrested Development and Soul II Soul made impressive debuts, but quickly lost their spark. As the decade closes, the R&B producer has become the star. Between the schmaltz of Babyface and the rehash of Puff Daddy, it seems the performer is secondary. There was a time hip-hop bands such as P.M. Dawn would build their own songs around samples, but now musicians seem content just to play an old
song and rap over it. Is it that hard to write a new song these days?
The most prolific artist of the '80s, Prince, had a few memorable albums in the '90s -- most notably "The Gold Experience" and the ambitious three-disc "Emancipation" -- but he's better known these days as a prima donna with an unpronounceable name and an undying grudge against the label that made him a superstar, Warner Bros.
As for Michael Jackson - well, let's not even go there.
One of the most unwelcome residues of the '90s is the death of the hit single. You can still buy some singles - on CD - but more often than not, you'll pay an inflated price to get some disposable "alternate" track as a bonus. Billboard still carries its Hot 100 chart, but most of the rankings are based on air play, with some undecipherable formula that takes sales into account. So airplay weighs heavier than sales in making a "hit." That explains why Celine Dion and Garth Brooks are so popular. At least I try to convince myself radio is to blame.
Radio stations have become so segmented that diversity is a thing of the past. Gone are the days when you'd hear pop, funk, metal and country rock on the same station. Radio stations seem more interested in giving away prizes than in breaking new acts. If you have very narrow, mainstream tastes, you'll likely find satisfaction on your FM dial. For the rest of us, we'll retreat to our record collections.
It's hard to imagine anyone looking back on this decade fondly or even mining the '90s for pop-culture references, as recent films such as "Boogie Nights" and "The Wedding Singer" have for decades past. It's better to seek out the original source than the modern interpretation. Nineties nostalgia? In a word, nevermind.