Monday, July 27, 2009

the early 90's: where no one quite knew what to listen to...

Currently I am in the early 90’s love song zone. I’m not even going to try and defend myself.

They are, put quite simply, hilarious, but I love them. What’s not to love? The drama, the clichés riddled with anguish, the powerful build up to the instrumental, the use of the elements (wind, rain, thunder) to enhance the musical experience, the repetition of the main lines in the chorus by backing might instantly think of Celine Dion’s ‘It’s All Coming Back to me Now”, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg…

When these songs first came out, I think those who were Top 40 listeners in the world were desperate to have music that didn’t involve a synthesiser or a singer donning gold spandex and permed hair. Music needed to be ‘serious’ if it was going to compete with the emerging genres of alternative rock and grunge that seemed to be slowly moving into mainstream. The latter groups had something of note to say, no one could hide from Nirvana, or deny that the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Sonic Youth had established themselves.

We were about to be privy to Pearl Jam’s Ten, and Pixies were standing their ground alongside The Flaming Lips, Pavement, Pulp. Aerosmith and the Stones were having a resurgence, and while all wondered what U2 were up to with their new album Achtung Baby, they were still pumping out solid rock despite embracing a bit of ‘the future’ ('Mysterious Ways', 'Even Better than the Real Thing'). Green Day was bursting on to the scene after a few years of industrious garage practices, ‘When I come around’ was, well, around the corner.

Grunge was here. It was new, it was gritty, it was ‘real’: and it wasn’t just Neil Young promoting it solo with a sandwich board: an entire generation of teenage rockers and middle aged folk who had smoked the ganji at Woodstock did not want to hear Dead or Alive’s ‘You Spin Me Right Round’ anymore.

The 80’s jig was up. If only for a hiatus before the early 2000’s saw us reconnect with the ‘tragic 80’s’, dubbing them ‘fun’, ‘light’ even reneging on our claims that we NEVER wear lycra or shoulder pads again. Vogue, July 2009 issue. I ask you?!

If artists who had ridden on the new wave of the 80’s didn’t start making waves elsewhere, they were quickly going to be sinking into the wet sand of lycra and blue mascara.

Songs like Michael Bolton’s 1993 song ‘Said I loved you…but I lied’, Grayson Hugh’s 1989 hit ‘Talk it over’, Roxette’s ‘It must have been love’ (1990), Simply Red’s version (released in 1989) of ‘If you don’t know me by now’, and who could forget Richard Marx's 'Right Here Waiting' and 'Hazard'. Brilliant tracks! And all are examples of that short era before the ‘slow jams’ started infiltrating (Boyz II Men hit our charts in late 1992) and we all started to make our way towards either Keith Sweat and R. Kelly via the Tony Rich Project’s 'Nobody Knows'.

Many video clips from back then star the frustrated, lonely woman wandering around a homely apartment, giving up on the relationship as the singer sings about his side of the story (if you haven’t seen Ricky Gervais’ satire of such a situation, you must, here it is) in a beret and a white t-shirt, or sometimes, if it's needing a more 'natural' look, yoga pants.

Meatloaf’s ‘I would do anything for love’ reached into the inner core of everyone’s soul I’m sure as the two singers had to deal with their hopeless love, and oh as the windstorm gathered momentum around the castle, so did Meatloaf’s arms flail to exemplify just how hard this process was of saying ‘I’d do anything for you, but not that’. Did we ever find out what ‘that’ was? Cynicism suggests it could have been a delicate subject…

Early 90’s love songs got in and made a name for themselves before boy bands, before the Presidents of the USA rocked us with ‘Lump’ or Tupac somehow delivered his lines through the ghetto, past Los Angeles, across the world to NZ and into the mouths of 14 year old school girls.

The steamy hue surrounding Michael Bolton’s crimped mullet, his use of white and roses as he brings his fist towards his heart, trying to make his point while wearing some sort of sueded open shirt; women can be forgiven for having moments of weakness and fantasising about Bolton (oh come on, you know you did), but I reckon most fans of Bolton took his lyrics not with a grain of salt, but with a tonne of earnestness as he sang, telling us that you came to him like the dawn to the night. People no doubt would have listened to these songs and thought ‘oh my god, that is so the situation I’m in right now, I can so understand what he’s singing about’.

Whitney’s ‘I will always love you’ undoubtedly spoke to countless brides to be in the early 90’s ('that's our song, I'm walking up the aisle to Whitney'), torn between that and Celine Dion’s ‘The Power of Love’...such adversity!
It's not just women who succumbed to the charms of the love ballad: men still crumble at those intial drum beats of Springsteen's 'Streets of Philadelphia' and some may even have that emphatic 'good song!' moment with Bon Jovi's 'Always'. If it's husky, it's ok to like.

We recognise by listening to these songs that we’re not the first, nor the last to go through the events and situations that these singers discuss. I suppose those in the northern hemisphere listen to Coldplay songs and think ‘yes, it really was a long and dark December! Chris Martin is amazing, he’s nailed it again.’

What's slightly uncanny is that the aforementioned Achtung Baby by U2, received the following review from The Rolling Stone the year it was released (1991): ‘[U2 had] proven that they had the same penchant for epic musical and verbal gestures that leads many artists to self-parody can, in more inspired hands, fuel the unforgettable fire that defines great rock & roll’….

I suppose that’s what happened in the end though: pop met rock and that’s when ‘that 90’s sound’ came to fruition: Bryan Adams bursting through with ‘Waking Up the Neighbours’,Counting Crows, Oasis, Blur, Third Eye Blind, Black Crowes, later work by The Cure ('Friday, I’m in Love')..I could go on, and I may just do that in a future post.

The Rolling Stone review of U2’s album was the early 90’s wrapped up in a fortune cookie…while many ballads of the era may not be u'nforgettable fire', and most may have turned out to be more on the 'self-parodied' side of the fence, they still have their place in music history, and always a place on a party playlist. Whether it be a moment for everyone to come together in droves for a group hug full of nostalgia, or a chance to whip out the hairbrush and go gang busters in the bedroom, you can’t help for have a soft spot for that old 90's love ballad.

Until next time!

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