1991: A Music Primer

I don’t write about music as often as I should, given its significance in my life. Although I have never used the Billboard charts as a measuring stick for determining the worth of one musician over another, I do recognize the usefulness of tabulating that kind of data in order to understand the trends that happen in pop culture. I like to think of 1991 as a watershed year, the turning point when the (not uniformly, mind you, but largely) self-confident, brightly colored styles of the 1980s began to turn inward and the kind of music that became popular was somehow more personal, sometimes more introspective.

This is not to say that there wasn’t plenty of 80s music with redeeming social import or which bore the mark of individual identity. (That statement would be especially hard to back up when you consider the staying power of U2.) Rather, the takeaway is that certain music gained popularity and there is perhaps something to be learned from why that music meant so much to the masses at that particular juncture in time.

Let’s take a look at ten songs (and their accompanying music videos), specifically in the rock genre. If there are songs here that you’re not familiar with, I hope my mentioning them serves as a springboard for you to get acquainted with those artists. P.S. Ads sometimes get in the way of watching videos, so if you want you can click the “YouTube” button in the bottom right corner of each video to watch it on that site instead.

Queen, “Innuendo” – 1991 was the last year of frontman Freddie Mercury’s life and therefore Queen’s final year. I don’t know if I can be more concise and articulate here than I was when I wrote this Freddie Mercury post back in September, so all I’ll say is that “Innuendo,” from the album of the same title, is a great song and it’s a worthy addition to Queen’s legacy. It started 1991 off with a bang, conveying a powerful message with the equally powerful impact of rock music, even “rockier” here than ever before.

R.E.M., “Losing My Religion” – I learned two years ago that this is one song that does not immediately translate to “enjoyment” at parties. At the end-of-semester party held for one of my film history classes, I was allowed to pick the music to be played from an iPod. My selection: the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” Nena’s “99 Luftballons” and this R.E.M. classic. The class didn’t really get into it, but I stand by my choice. It’s a beautiful song that hooks you from the moment it starts until its last fading mandolin note.

School of Fish, “3 Strange Days” – Perhaps a little obscure compared to most of these other artists, School of Fish occupies a special place in my heart. I discovered them when I was around 13 years old and I was lucky enough to see this music video for “3 Strange Days” on TV, playing on VH1 Classic. Lead singer Josh Clayton-Felt had such a pure, clear tone, one which can be heard on their eponymous debut album (brilliant, I promise you), on School of Fish’s 1993 single “Take Me Anywhere” and in Clayton-Felt’s brief solo career (on cuts like 1996’s “Window” and the lovely “Waiting to Be” from the posthumous album Spirit Touches Ground). Clayton-Felt passed away from cancer in 2000, but the School of Fish’s 1991 record remains on constant rotation for me.

Material Issue, “Diane” – Power pop had its heyday in the 1970s, but this Chicago trio brought it back in the first half of the 90s. Their 1991 debut album, International Pop Overthrow, updated power pop in an alternative rock mode and brought them some success on the Modern Rock charts, most notably with the not-quite-hit “Valerie Loves Me.” “Diane,” which was almost as (admittedly only slightly) popular, is short and joyful. It’s an uncomplicated love song that should have been an instant classic. The fickle public just never caught on in a big way. Like School of Fish, Material Issue cannot fully regroup; tragically, frontman Jim Ellison committed suicide in 1996. Still, the sweet simplicity in the band’s music continues to reverberate. Other tracks from their debut album (my personal favorite, “Very First Lie”) and later singles (“What Girls Want,” a cover of the Green Pajamas’ “Kim the Waitress”) prove how talented these guys were.

Metallica, “Enter Sandman” – Perhaps the first real game changer in terms of hard rock turning into hit records. Had there ever been a song quite so heavy as “Sandman” to do so well on the general music charts? It reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100, which is impressive for a heavy metal band. I think the success speaks as much to the general music interests of listeners at the time as it does to the high quality of the music.

Pearl Jam, “Alive” – Say what you will about Eddie Vedder’s almost laughably imitable voice, but you have to admit that this music video presents a band that doesn’t look or sound like Bon Jovi or Mötley Crüe. The clothing reminds me of a line from the novel The Underminer, during a chapter that takes place in the early 90s: “If you knew this scene you’d always really dress down.”

Nirvana, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – And now we arrive at the epic, the song that became iconic for a generation. Kurt Cobain’s chorus is a perfect morsel of postmodern thought: “With the lights off, it’s less dangerous/Here we are now, entertain us/I feel stupid and contagious/Here we are now, entertain us.” The immediacy of those lyrics has not dulled in the twenty-plus years since the song’s debut on radio in August 1991. Reaching as high as #1 on the Modern Rock chart and #6 on the Hot 100, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was the anthemic high note of Generation X.

Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Give It Away” – Filmed here in lustrous black-and-white by director Stéphane Sednaoui, the Chili Peppers never looked or sounded better. I’m biased as to my feelings for them since they’re my favorite functioning band (sorry to the Beatles and Who members currently living), but they’ve got staying power. Even now, with 3/4 of the band in their early fifties, they’re as awesome as ever. Fun fact: “Give It Away” actually beat “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and the Pearl Jam song “Jeremy” (easily my favorite Pearl Jam song of all time) for the 1993 Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance.

Guns N’ Roses, “Don’t Cry” – I wouldn’t say that this power ballad breaks any new musical ground, but it’s nice to hear Axl Rose hold back a little in the vocal department. The mega-hit album Appetite for Destruction (1987) proved that Rose can screech like nobody’s business, but “Don’t Cry” is admirable in how it allows him to balance both tender restraint and his trademark wild soaring into high registers. It’s bittersweet seeing the late Shannon Hoon as G N’ R’s backup singer, though, harmonizing so wonderfully with Rose. (In 1992-1993, Hoon’s band, Blind Melon, released a song and video that I consider among the best of the best, “No Rain.”) It’s really more of a duet than backup.

Michael Jackson, “Black or White” – This isn’t rock in the traditional sense, certainly not in the way that some other singles from the Dangerous album are (particularly “Give In to Me,” which features Guns N’ Roses’ own axeman, Slash). The song relies on a catchy guitar riff, though, a driving force that the song couldn’t exist without. You can see how rock music had influenced the King of Pop, making its way into the hits on the pop charts.

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