Old People

Why Rock Never Really Got Over the Early '90s

Over the past few years, I've noticed a strange sort of nostalgia develop for the late-'80s hair-metal trend, which puzzles me. Sure, almost everything is cyclical, and musical trends come and go, but it boggles my mind to see young people romanticize an era when the radio and MTV bombarded us with musical abominations like Britny Fox and Bang Tango. Sure,  good bands like Junkyard and The Cult also got grouped in with that derivative scene, but they were exceptions.

When grunge came along a few short years later and made bands like Warrant unfashionably uncool almost overnight, it seemed like a breath of fresh air to many music fans who had grown weary of the increasingly generic spandex-clad bands that had dominated hard rock for years. It may be true that every rose has its thorn, but it's also true that there were a lot of shitty power ballads on the radio back then. Then the '90s rolled around, and within a couple of years, bands that I never thought would percolate into the mainstream were suddenly doing just that, and in a huge way.

And the '90s were a great decade for rock music, even though it was hard for some people to get accustomed to seeing bands they'd watched in small clubs go on to become huge stars in just a few years. In retrospect, the first half of that decade feels like it was the last era in which rock music was among the most important aspects of America's youth culture. The way previously marginalized musical styles suddenly exploded into the spotlight made it an especially exciting time, and suddenly there were a lot more musical options to choose from.

Unfortunately, as with every creative renaissance, there were only so many truly great bands. By the late '90s, the really good ones — most of whom had been perfecting their music for years before mainstream discovery — had started to dry up, and fewer original newer groups began filling the airwaves. With no more Red Hot Chili Peppers or L7s to choose from, record labels began to sign bands like Bush, Creed, Nickelback and Limp Bizkit. Smash Mouth was popular. Those were increasingly dark days for a decade that had seemed as if it had gotten off to such a refreshing start. Over the following decade, even less interesting rock bands began to gain widespread success, and it's no wonder young people weren't enthralled with that music.

The late '90s were also the birth of widespread file-sharing, and while some people had been illegally copying music on cassette tapes, or in much rarer circumstances actually sold vinyl bootlegs of albums in previous generations, Napster and other similar services definitely made it much easier. At the same time, more and more people began to use the Internet, quickly changing society and the way we enjoy music forever. Along the way, young people started growing up in a post-Internet world where music and movies were theirs for the taking, without much comprehension that downloading copyrighted content without paying for it is really stealing.

As my fellow writer Kristy Loye recently argued, the business of digital music, as well as a generation of fans who don't think it's wrong to pirate music, has created a really difficult environment for many musicians to thrive in. On one hand, digital tools and services have made it possible for more and more people to create and share their music, but for some reason that hasn't translated into a new wave of great rock bands that define their generation. I don't believe rock music is dying, although it certainly isn't the dominant musical force it once was.

It's tempting for some to take pot shots at popular pop and hip-hop performers, but they're doing something right, and are at least managing to excite their listeners in ways most newer rock acts seem incapable of.

The legacy of '90s rock is a mixed bag. It might have been the last decade that rock music really helped define a generation, but it also set us on a course that got us where we are now — where only a few old, well-established bands seem to make any real money, where pop and hip-hop stars fill the cultural space that rock stars used to, and where the deaths of stars like Prince, David Bowie and Lemmy feel especially bleak because it doesn't seem like there's anyone qualified to fill the void they left.

It's not all doom and gloom, though. Good rock music is still exciting, and there is no lack of great talent out there, even though it seems like it's harder than ever for those artists to become successful. Perhaps the best thing rock fans can do is step away from their computers and go out to support their local bands. Or better still, go form one of their own.
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Chris Lane is a contributing writer who enjoys covering art, music, pop culture, and social issues.