Styles & Forms | Nineties Pop Singer-Songwriters

After a decade that saw the art of the singer-songwriter being somewhat submerged by the demands of electronic over-production, disco crossover and relentless fashion horrors, the 1990s saw a rebirth of the solo artist with a genuinely individual style.

This proved to be of particular benefit to female artists who, while still having to conform to demands for feminine ‘sexiness’, were at least able to broaden the scope of what that could mean, both in terms of looks and attitude. There were some new men on the block, but it was female artists, five women in particular, who achieved major success in the 1990s without having to make the compromises usually involved in aiming at a specific type of audience.

The Strange And The Strident

The Dubliner Sinéad O’Connor continues to pursue one of pop’s most controversial careers. Emerging in the late 1980s with her angelic features hardened by a severe skinhead crop, her powerful, Celtic-influenced vocals became universally recognized in 1990 with her emotional, proto-trip hop cover of Prince’s ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’. The accompanying album, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, was a global smash, but the strength of her opinions may have stolen some of its musical thunder. O’Connor followed her outspoken criticisms of the history of the British in Ireland with attacks on the anti-abortion stance of the Catholic church. In 1992, she tore up a picture of the Pope on American TV and refused to play at an American show that began with the US national anthem. Her music developed from strident, subtly dance-influenced AOR to a more tranquil and intimate fusion of pop, Celtic folk and ambient stylings, contrasting with increasingly graphic and gruelling lyrics. Despite her commercial fall from grace, O’Connor’s yelping, yodelling vocal style and angry woman stance have had a profound influence on female solo artists throughout the 1990s and beyond.

The equally questioning, but far less controversial, North Carolina native Tori Amos (originally Myra Ellen Amos) became an overnight star with her 1992 debut album, Little Earthquakes. Although her rustic glamour, theatrical vocals and piano-led musical sophistication initially led to many comparisons with Kate Bush, Amos’s new age, therapy-speak lyrics and kooky persona made her entirely unique, and the pure pop of her tunes led to an unlikely club hit with Armand Van Helden’s hard-house reworking of ‘Professional Widow’ in 1996.

Also finding a place in dance music, and also kooky, Iceland’s Björk Gudmundsdottir split from the arty indie-goth band The Sugarcubes and released an astounding debut album (entitled Debut) in 1993. Unlike the previous decade’s dance-rock crossovers, Björk possessed a genuine love and understanding of cutting-edge dance music in the post-techno era. Her blendings of rumbling beats with ambient textures, flights of romantic fancy with abstract electronic noise, and Asian melodies and motifs with deep and restless basslines, is made all the more striking by her baby-faced features, flamboyant visual sense and skyscraping vocals.


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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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