Styles & Forms | Nineties | Rock

West-coast city Seattle was the unanticipated epicentre of 1990s music as grunge, the biggest ‘back to basics’ movement since punk, shook traditional American rock – Nirvana was to enjoy iconic status for a spell until Kurt Cobain’s death.

In the UK, the dance-rock of The Stone Roses, a holdover from the late 1980s, put Manchester briefly in the picture, but it was American bands like Metallica, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and R.E.M., who had put in nearly a decade of hard graft apiece, whose influential but very different rock sounds gained commercial acceptance at last.

The now dominant influence of MTV made sure the emphasis remained on the visual, while the Britpop ‘war’ in the mid-1990s saw Blur and Oasis deliver a much-needed kiss of life to a British music business already in a torpor. After that excitement came The Spice Girls, whose The Shangri-Las meets The Monkees act appealed to both sexes and proved you could still manufacture a pop phenomenon. They were, perhaps, the ultimate extension of the karaoke craze.

1990s acts were not known for their staying power, but the sheer variety of sounds and styles on offer reflected a society where diversity and tolerance were the buzzwords.

Sources & Sounds

The 1990s was a decade of rapid change – few of the names that dominated the early part of the decade would be conspicuous at its end. One such was Sinéad O’Connor whose take on the Prince classic ‘Nothing Compares 2U’ was the UK chart-topper for the whole of February 1990 and, however briefly, one of the fastest-selling singles in worldwide chart history.

Equally, a pair of rap artists, one black (MC Hammer) and one white (Vanilla Ice) took the first year of the decade by storm only to subside as rapidly – no pun intended – as they had risen. Both ‘U Can’t Touch This’ and ‘Ice Ice Baby’ (both 1990) purloined riffs from Rick James and Queen respectively for their hits, and sampling would now become an ever-growing ingredient of music due to advanced and ever more affordable studio technology.

Keeping It Real

But technology was about to spawn a powerful rival to music in the affection of the younger generation. The first popular handheld console was launched by Nintendo in 1989, and computer games quickly became the status symbol for anyone under 20. New initiatives were necessary to prevent music from becoming just another teen lifestyle choice like Gameboys, Sega Megadrive and their ilk.

These came in many shapes and from many sources. The Lollapalooza travelling festival kicked off in July 1991 and, staged annually thereafter, would launch many an alt-rocker’s career – Nine Inch Nails the first beneficiary. Unusually it was the idea of a musician, Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction.

MTV, keen to capture the ‘mature’ rock audience, kicked the Unplugged series into gear in January 1990, inviting established acts to bring their acoustic guitars and present their hits in...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, general editor Michael Heatley


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