Female Musicians of the 90s
The 90s for female singers was about much more than Celine Dion’s tragically epic Titanic theme. It’s hard to deny the explosion of successful women onto the music scene, particularly the influence of singer/songwriters. Even though many of them flounder in marginal obscurity today, at the time they inspired a generation of young women to pick up a guitar, learn a few chords and start emoting.
In a lot of ways, it seems like the classically trained pianist Tori Amos led the pack of empowered-but-sensitive female performers in the 90s. She built a career, a brand, and a very loyal fan base without much chart success, which is a feat on its own. 1992’s "Silent All These
Years" was one of those songs that made every 15-year-old girl want to learn piano, and 1994’s "Cornflake Girl" is arguably the most upbeat song ever written about female genital mutilation — but neither broke the Billboard 100.
Melissa Etheridge gave us 1993’s "I’m the Only One" an 1994’s "Come to My Window." The former made it into Billboard’s Top 10, but the latter peaked at #25. Etheridge’s blues-inspired vocals and ballsier-by-comparison performance style made a hefty impact on the singer/songwriter scene — not to mention the fact that she was an outspoken lesbian over 30 — a pretty big deviation from the norm for pop music in the 90s (or ever).
Lisa Loeb’s 1994 single "Stay (I Missed You)" gained incredible traction due to its placement in the movie Reality Bites. Her iconic glasses and charmingly nasal voice gave her a #1 hit with this particular tune, but she was never able to garner quite as much success with her follow up singles — 1997’s "I Do" was her highest charting single after "Stay," peaking at #17 on the U.S. charts.
Alanis Morissette defined angst for a generation of pubescent girls with her 1995 album Jagged Little Pill. Six singles were released off the record over the course of two years. The first, "You Oughta Know," made it to Billboard’s #4 spot in the U.S., but was succeeded by the more successful and vocabulary-challenged "Ironic" in ’96, which reached #3 in the States. Strangely enough, "You Oughta Know" barely scraped the Top 20 in the singer’s home country of Canada, whereas four of the six singles shot up to #1.
1996 gave us the launch of Fiona Apple, a stellar vocalist with piano skills to match. Her first studio album, Tidal, produced six singles, only one of which charted: "Criminal" (released in ’97). The video for "Criminal" was both iconic and controversial, featuring a scantily-clad Apple insinuating a love for ejaculate with dish soap. Her career wavered for the rest of the decade, producing little more than a cover of John Lennon’s "Across the Universe" for the Pleasantville soundtrack.
Continuing the Canadian invasion later in the decade was singer/songwriter Sarah McLachlan, best known today for making dog lovers change the channel. McLachlan bulldozed her way to her biggest chart success in ’97 with her fourth studio album, Surfacing, which reached #1 in Canada and #2 in the United States. The leadoff single, "Building a Mystery," invaded alternative rock radio as well as pop stations. McLachlan can be credited with helping to spotlight female singers towards the end of the 90s, due in no small part to founding the music festival Lilith Fair, which featured musicians who were women throughout its three-year, nationwide run (’97-’99).
Dozens of other performers made their mark with the "girl and a guitar (or piano)" statement by charting high and reaching commercial success in the 90s. Sophie B. Hawkins with "Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover" (1992); Tracy Chapman with "Give Me One Reason" (1995); Shawn Colvin with "Sunny Came Home" (1996); Sheryl Crow with "All I Wanna Do" and "Strong Enough" (1994); Meredith Brooks with "Bitch" (1997); and many, many more. These women of the 90s wrote their own material, played their own instruments, and commanded the spotlight like few before them had, opening the door for the next generation of confident, competent female musicians.
History of 90s Rock
90s Time Machine Playlist
She Drove the 90s ‘Crazy’
1990s Swing Movement