“Mainstream Pop Was Better in the ’00s than it Was in the ’90s. Hear Me out Here.”

I was born in 1983 so really, without question, I’m a little bit young to be commenting on this matter at all. One thing I have going for me is that I spend an obsessive amount of time listening to music and reading about it. 

Just today, actually, I was looking for this song that’s un-Google-able because the chorus just goes “Nah-nah-nah-nah-nah / Hah-hah”. There’s one parallel in the ’60s I’ve spent a considerable amount of time looking for, too, with a chorus that contains no words but just this kind of annoying keyboard riff that nonetheless is catchy enough so as to give it a certain luster. And I assert that catchy music is good because it’s like a mantra: it can save us from certain perils of our own consciousness, which unfortunately might be sometimes advantageous, if not completely necessary.

So I was looking in the old Billboard chart results. The first period I looked at was February 2, 1996, and the second one was the same time of year from 1995, because I thought the song came from around that time. I chose February because the song I’m looking for is sort of the opposite of a cheesy, stock summer hit: it doesn’t reference “summer” or “sunshine” and it’s got this sort of deliberate, silvery blend of renewal and melancholy that bespeaks the crudely functional rather than the seasonally idealistic [1].

And lo and behold I couldn’t find it: I think the closest near-match I encountered was a Vanessa Williams tune of which I forget the name. And Williams had a great voice: if memory serves correctly she had a rivalry with Whitney Houston for best singer of the early ’90s, much deserved in each case.

But I thought, well, exploration is never a bad thing, and so in listening to any number of songs and being disappointed to find them a mismatch, I figured there’s always a chance I’ll stumble across a long lost gem like “I Know” by Dionne Farris [2] [3]. Much to my surprise, I pretty much hated every single song I looked up and listened to, of which I hadn’t recognized the title or artist. 

What’s more, I think we’re zeroing in with the mid-’90s on what’s pretty much a sort of nadir of human expression — the mass-marketed carnal quest in full force as a cultural priority. It’s the type of thing that was probably suggested initially by “Groove is in the Heart (Bootsified to the Nth Degree)” by Deee-Lite in 1990, arguably the first “electronica” (programmed disco) hit of all time and arbiter of some pretty staunchly, or “blindly,” more accurately, sexual lyrics. It’s like, the girl just kinda won’t shut up about how she wants to screw this guy, at one point mentioning her “succotash wish”, whatever the he** that is. 

I’m not going to talk about TLC’s “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” because He** I kinda like it and it’s kinda funny. But let’s go to En Vogue. Now, this is is a girl group of the ’90s I don’t at all think is without talent. In fact, I’d even go so far as to call “Giving Him Something He Can Feel” one of the most important songs of the decade. On the same album, Funky Divas from 1992, they put out a song called “My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get it).” I actually remember seeing this video in really heavy rotation on TV at the time, on MTV and also VH1, which at that point was another option for taking in music videos both of the ’90s and ’80s. The song samples the guitar riff from James Brown’s “The Payback,” hence I guess ingratiating it somewhat to the “funky” masquerade to which it titularly stakes claim. 

I guess my main issue with this song is that they’re broaching the topic of sex in order to tell you you’re not going to get it. It’s like a ham salesman going up to a house he knows is full of Jews. What’s more, again, they absolutely refuse to shut up about it, and don’t even really seem to explain what the shortcoming of the man in question is. They just seem to say, to the world in general, you’re not worthy of me, and I think it’s understandable that people, especially maybe single or lonely people around this time, would have been pretty frustrated and disenchanted with such a discursive provision. 

Let’s go, now, to my’ 95 and ’96 searches I did, and just unearth a couple artifacts, if we dare. Let’s see, there’s such moral benchmarks as “Short Di** Man” (1994) by 20 Fingers ft. Gilette, in which the bit** just keeps droning on about how she “don’t want to short di** man”. I came also at one point to a song called “Rodeo” by 95 South that was saying things like “Ride me”; “You can be my cowgirl”; etc. As of this current time it hasn’t been confirmed whether the group has season tickets to the Calgary Stampede or not. The next song was called “Where I Wanna Be Boy” by Missjones and I think by now we can pretty authoritatively draw some preemptive conclusions on what it’s about. And I don’t think I need to tell anybody at this point that this is almost invariably the work of corporate America — it’s not art but rather mass-produced music meant to appeal to the base, prurient impulses in us, as if we’re all so many hunks of meat, essentially. 

The Deltron 3030 self-titled album has this spoken-word interlude that contains the phrase “Crises precipitate change.” In the case of the late-’80s and early-’90s, though, I think it took the development of these crises happening on a large, media-drawing level for said changes to really start taking place. In particular, 1994 and 1995 were yeas significantly more filled with calamity than a lot of people probably realize, as even aside from the OJ Simpson murder we had an Oklahoma City bombing that killed around 150 people, an Olympic bombing in Atlanta that killed two and injured 111, and the attack on Nancy Kerrigan during the’ 94 winter olympics that injured her. Now, even more disturbing than the fact that someone would do this, to me, was the proclivity people seemed to have at the time for making fun of Kerrigan’s reaction to the attack: they’d cry out “Why me?” in mocking of her, imitating her pained cries that were her reaction to the incident. I’ve heard people refer to the ’90s as an “utopian” time or whatever, when everything was vital and it seemed like our culture were fresh, full of hope, etc., but I wouldn’t describe hearing “Don’t want no short di** man” during the beating of an innocent figure skater as particularly spiritually edifying. This is of course not to say that there wasn’t a lot of good music released within the decade, even within the pop realm, as I’ve diagrammed above. 

And then something gave me the idea to just for fun fast forward 10 years to 2005 and see what was going on. For my part, I’d remained pretty deaf to it, being in college at this time and favoring indie rock and DJ music like Nobody (that’s actually his stage name, “Nobody”) as my go-to template, and pretty much nothing mainstream. But just for fun I decided to check it out. 

There’s one song in particular that to me epitomizes the superiority of this decade and that is “Get back” by Ludacris. Ludacris burst onto the scene in 2000 with some pretty showy mainstream raps but always I think came across as having a certain character and that throaty, dude-next-door sort of delivery. “Get back,” I think, is where things really get real: confrontation is an integral, inescapable part of hip-hop, as we know, and this song is just about drawing a line in the sand and telling unwanted, pesky people to get out of your personal life and mind their own business, culminating in the mantra of “I came / I saw / I hit him right dead in the jaw”. I don’t think there’s any question that the entrance of genuine hip-hop music like this into the mainstream was good for the industry (the pop industry, I mean), because for once it represented a sort of ingenuous, real-life take on somebody’s part of their everyday reality. There was no ulterior corporate interest in mind or artificial impetus to make people want to fu** each other, or fu** each other better than they already did. 

I just happened to stumble on this Jennifer Lopez joint, too, “Get Right,” and sure even though it was about hooking up there seemed to be a certain depth to it, painting a humanistic picture beyond us all just being a bunch of fu**ing machines. Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” is an ode to independence and female strength and fortitude and sure, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” kind of sucks, but it’s not like everybody hasn’t sufficiently let them have it for that, by now. 


[1] I still don’t know what the He** the song is, for the record. Isn’t that ironic, in this day of technology, we’re conspicuously futile in the endeavor of retrieving and identifying old music? 


[2] Keep in mind that I was examining the “Billboard Hot 100” which would not be exclusive of grunge: it just happened that the pivotal movement in early-’90s rock was typically outmoded in the pop realm by synthy pop, dance and rap, in this time period. I did, though, come across “Daughter” by Pearl Jam and “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” by The Smashing Pumpkins, at some point in my search.


[3] I did come across this hummable masterpiece as well as “You Gotta Be” by Des’ree, another diamond in the general rough of spiritually devolved detritus.

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