'90s Nostalgia Revisited: 6 Musicians We Miss

Sep 12, 2013
Originally published on September 13, 2013 3:11 am

At the audio link hear Ann Powers and Morning Edition host Renee Montagne on defining '90s music and the reasons the sounds and artists of that era are re-emerging now.

1990s nostalgia has been bubbling to the surface, like a mastodon in a tar pit, for a while now. We all know what's most often excavated: Nirvana's roar (this week, the band's third album In Utero gets a super-deluxe 20th anniversary reissue), Biggie's cool murmur, the futuristic sigh of Aaliyah. But there's more to the decade than those obvious landmarks. Here we remember six artists huge in the '90s, who don't always get their deserved props today.

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Well, let's talk about a decade in the United States, the '90s, a decade some think is best forgotten - the MC Hammer pants, the Macarena.


What's wrong with the Macarena?

MONTAGNE: The '90s are making something of comeback, including some of its big names in music. This summer saw new albums from the Backstreet Boys and Goo Goo Dolls; a biopic is being made about TLC. Their 1995 single "Creep" won a Grammy.


TLC: (singing) So I creep, yeah, just keep it on the down low. Said nobody is supposed to know...

MONTAGNE: And today is the 20th anniversary of Nirvana's "In Utero," which is being re-released with some new material. The resurgence of 90s music is reason enough to talk to Ann Powers, NPR music critic. Good morning.

ANN POWERS, BYLINE: How are you doing, Renee? I think I'm still living in the '90s this morning.

MONTAGNE: Well, good. That's absolutely perfect. The '90s, musically, seems to have been all over the place, actually. I mean, you had indie rock, R&B, hip-hop. Talk to us about the common thread.

POWERS: In truth, every musical era is all over the place. What's focused is the revival itself. When you look at the revival of the '50s, for example, that happened with the movie "American Graffitti" and then the television show "Happy Days," it really hit on some specific landmarks. And I think the difficulty with the '90s revival is that no one can agree on what the most important landmarks are.

MONTAGNE: You know, though, people talk about nostalgia - they say it comes in cycles. What do you think about the '90s? Is it possibly, simply, that decade's turn?

POWERS: It is absolutely the turn of the '90s. If you think about it, kids who maybe bought "The Chronic" by Dr. Dre as their first album or, you know, Nirvana's huge breakthrough "Nevermind," those kids are now running media companies, choosing the music for television shows. A lot of the artists from the '90s are still around or making huge comebacks. Nine Inch Nails is having a moment with a new album and a smash summer tour. Kathleen Hanna of the riot girl band Bikini Kill is back with her new band, the Julie Ruin. It's a combination of artists who hit in the '90s still being vital, and people who grew up with that music now taking charge of the culture.

MONTAGNE: Although how much of this is also being driven by the industry - sort of like movie sequels?

POWERS: Well, yes, definitely there's an opportunity in reviving something that was well proven. I think when you saw the big deal that MTV made about the very, very short 'N Sync reunion on the Video Music Awards this year, that's a good example of a revival that was guaranteed to bring eyes to the screen.

But at the same time, there's also another reason for the music industry to want to revive the '90s, which is that the '90s and then into the early 2000s, was the last gasp of the conventional music industry before the Web changed everything. So you know, there's a certain wishfulness about '90s revivalism in music. Why can't we have the monoculture back; this idea of mass culture that unites millions of people not only in terms of what they're consuming, but in what brings meaning to their cultural lives.

MONTAGNE: That would certainly apply to Nirvana and its fans.

POWERS: Yes. And it's arguable that Nirvana was the last rock band that fit in the mold of the Beatles. In other words, a band that came from slightly outside the mainstream and with its new, fresh ideas changed the mainstream, impacted the sound of the moment and the lives of its fans, in a way that your average hit single does not.

So that's one reason why I think we look at Nirvana with such idealism even though, of course, the story of Kurt Cobain is quite a tragic one and that band itself, you know, had its ups and downs.

MONTAGNE: So in a way, speaking about Nirvana, it shows that there is something quite classic that came out of the '90s.

POWERS: It's funny that you use the word classic, Renee, because of course that applies to classic rock of the '60s and early '70s, which a lot of artists of the '90s were rebelling against. But as we mature, we find what was classic about our own youth and what it produced. And I think what's really worth revisiting in the '90s revival - in music, at least - is the sound; the intensity of Nirvana's sound, and the beauty and lushness of '90s hip-hop and R&B. I love that side of the '90s revival. You're not going to catch me wearing flannel, Renee, but I will be listening to songs like Nirvana's "Heart-Shaped Box" for the rest of my life, whether or not there's an official revival.

MONTAGNE: Ann Powers is NPR's music critic. Take care and thanks.

POWERS: Thank you so much, Renee. Rock on.


MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

INSKEEP: And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.