I was lying on the grass of Sunday morning of last week
Indulging in my self-defeat
My mind was thugged, all laced and bugged, all twisted, wrong and beat
A comfortable three feet deep
Now the fuzzy stare from not being there on a confusing morning week
Impaired my tribal lunar speak….
These were the opening words to LEN’s 1999 hit Steal My Sunshine – a song whose catchy melody and nonsensical lyrics were drenched in the sunny optimism of the 1990s. The song was a sleeper hit – gaining traction on college radio stations before exploding on the mainstream charts later that year.
Listening to pop songs from that era reminds us all of one thing – the 1990s were a very innocent decade. Almost naively innocent. Commercial air travel was relaxed and fairly unscrutinized, children could play outside till late in many areas, the Internet was still new and hadn’t taken over our lives yet. Looking back on that era evokes a feeling of incorruptibility that has never returned to our society.
There were darker, edgier themes in 90s music, sure. I’ve already covered the rise of grunge and how it permeated the minds of the young and disillusioned. However, pop culture, in general, was as its most wholesome in the 1990s. For many, the future seemed brighter and more peaceful. War seemed to be a thing of the past – communism was over, and the Berlin Wall was demolished. Furthermore, 24/7 news cycles weren’t around yet, so the public wasn’t bombarded with bad news every day. There certainly still bad things happening, but our ignorance gave us all bliss – and we seemed saner for it.
Music doesn’t exist in a bubble. No matter how nonsensical lyrics can get, songs and albums resonate with the public for a particular reason – a particular vibe, mood, and energy that is prevalent in the social climate. In the 1990s, both the United States and the United Kingdom had every right to be optimistic – Cool Britannia had risen with Blur and Oasis, football almost came home at Euro 96, and Things Can Only Get Better was a major hit on both sides of the pond. The U.S. economy grew 4% every year from 1992 to 1999, there were huge drops in violent crime, and unemployment rates plummeted.
It was perhaps the best decade ever in terms of entertainment. Cheesy family sitcoms were out, and more experimental offerings such as Seinfield and The Simpsons entered their golden years. Film was taking more chances with the likes of Wes Andersen, Richard Linklater, and Quentin Tarantino – the latter creating some of the best films of all time. Video games were entering the 16-bit, and later, 64-bit era – which excited audiences despite not knowing what ‘bits’ really meant. It just sounded futuristic.
We can’t talk about 90s music without mentioning pop-punk. Wheatus, Blink-182, Green Day, and The Offspring gave many young people an outlet for their angst – however, their songs could be appreciated by many due to their catchy melodies. Again, there was a naivety to the music that sums up the lives of young people so well – they had no idea what was in store in the first year of the New Millenium.
The fall of the Twin Towers brought an end to numerous things. The sense of optimism vanished, people became vulnerable, and the naivety gave way to harsh reality. Patriotic country music took centre stage initially, as it understandably gave relief and pride to a nation that was brought to its knees. In the UK, dreary post-Britop became prominent, with outfits such as Coldplay, Travis, and Keane becoming successful. Cool Britannia had disappeared as quickly as it had arrived, and the optimism that was felt in Britain had largely subsided due to collateral damage from 9/11. The following year, 2002, featured more material from bands such as Creed, Godsmack, and Nickelback – who were descended from the mega-popular Nu Metal movement in the late 90s. Audiences resonated with their more brooding view on the world and gave many an outlet to express their anger. Eminem’s Lose Yourself was a smash hit that year – one of the more abrasive songs in his catalog. Pop music in 2002 seemed much more jaded overall.
Whether or not music would’ve changed without 9/11 is impossible to say. However, I don’t think pop music has quite been the same since. Maybe it’s nostalgia talking, but there’s a certain quality in pop music that has been absent for the last twenty or so years. Perhaps we’re just wiser to the world – technology has lifted us out of the blissful ignorance we all once felt. War is a very real and everyday part of all of our lives – WikiLeaks has exposed surveillance laws we had no idea existed. Pop music is now much more adept at addressing difficult social issues. Perhaps we’re better off for it – but, for many, it’s never been quite the same. There is now a generation of pop artists who only know September 11th from documentaries – and 9/11 is no longer at the forefront of young artist’s minds. However, there were still several generations of artists who had to reset their musical radars and agendas – and it still affects them today.
I think September 11th did steal our sunshine – and we’re still trying to get it back.
Photo by mike gieson from FreeImages