The 1990s were a watershed decade when it came to rock and roll music. It was a period of time that saw the established musical order turned on its ear and then beaten until it was a shadow of its former self. Those who had performed the thrashing would soon find themselves co-opted into an even more powerful musical machine which would then commoditize their rebellion and package it into neat, easy to digest parcels that were quickly devoured by a ravenous teen populace. Anyone curious about the cyclical nature of the music industry and its trends would do well to study the 1990s.
In the beginning there was metal. And hard rock. And a whole lot of hair. The first
year of the final decade of the millennium were pretty much business as usual for the leather-clad rockers spawned from more traditional heavy metal artists like Black Sabbath and Motorhead. Metallica released their enormously successful ‘Black Album’ in 1990, which would produce the mega-hits ‘Enter Sandman‘ and ‘The Unforgiven.’ The following year Guns N’ Roses would drop the ‘Use Your Illusion I / II’ double album, a ponderous work of sprawling ego that would have teenagers slow-dancing in school gyms across the country to the nearly 9-minute make-out classic November Rain.’
Both of these bands and scores of their lesser-talented comrades in arms would slowly begin to see themselves displaced from the musical charts by a groundswell of equally hard music which almost seemed to be anti-metal in both its philosophy and execution. Dubbed ‘alternative rock’ by the media, this new movement was catalyzed by the phenomenal success of the album ‘Nevermind’ from Nirvana, which was released in 1991 and which would gather incredible steam over the course of the year to become an absolute sales monster. Nirvana’s legend would survive the death of lead singer Kurt Cobain in 1994 and be bolstered by the success of bands like Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and the Smashing Pumpkins. These bands espoused a do-it-yourself philosophy common to punk music in combination with a love for melody that elevated their music above the usual three chords and the truth songwriting style of that genre.
Of course, it wasn’t long before major labels took control of the alternative rock reigns and began to exert their incredible marketing influence over a booming trend that had caught them completely unawares. In 1994 Green Day would release ‘Dookie,’ a ‘punk’ album that would bear a remarkable sheen thanks to pop-focused production. Alternative rock and punk would continue to be sanitized and sold to the youth of the day, with bands such as the Goo Goo Dolls and Blink 182 eventually making the full transition from alternative to mainstream pop. Even Nirvana’s legacy was not immune to the lure of wider audience acceptance as former drummer for the band Dave Grohl would guide his new group the Foo Fighters towards tighter and tighter synchronization with the predominant sounds of the day.
By the end of the decade, the infusion of Britpop in the form of Oasis, Radiohead and Garbage would not be enough to stave off the homogenization of the alternative rock genre. Whereas once the label had applied to inventive music developed outside the dominant culture, it had now been claimed by bands like Bush, Creed and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who had morphed into swaggering arena rock radio gods not all that different from the pop metal bands that alternative rockers had set out to replace. Dubbed ‘modern rock,’ the format would go on to dominate radio playlists and record sales into the year 2000 until it was taken down a peg by the growing influence of hip hop.