When Guitars Made Us Feel: 90s Rock Gets Sensitive


English Emotion Invasion

From the syncopated lyrics to the Gallaghers’ infectious, nasal vocal accentuation, Oasis’s hit single "Wonderwall" charmed its way onto the charts in 1995. Noel Gallagher, the song’s lyricist, claims that the lyrics are about an invisible friend trying to save the narrator — a welcome divergence from the subject material for rock acts of the prior decade. "Wonderwall" reached #8 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #2 on the UK Singles chart.

Also from across the pond was alternative rock band Blur, with their touching, major-key ballad "Tender," released in 1999. "Tender" incorporated the the London Community Gospel Choir as well as interwoven vocal lines of the band members to create a dynamic and provocative soundscape. While the song skyrocketed to #2 in the UK, it was never officially released as a single in the United States.



Oasis   Blur

Not-So-Christian Rock

In 1995, one hit wonder Dishwalla released "Counting Blue Cars," the band’s only recognizable hit of the decade. It reached #15 on the Billboard Hot 100. In the lyrics, the narrator spends time with a child, wondering aloud about God and implying that either the narrator or the child is awaiting death. The single is also famous for very distinctly referring to God with female pronouns. Dishwalla singlehandedly made sure that thousands of 90s kids suddenly questioned their religious beliefs (or lack thereof) — all because of a rock song.

On the contrary, REM’s 1991 single "Losing My Religion" is one that’s iconic of the decade’s foray into sensitivity, but singer and lyricist Michael Stipe says that the song is actually written about unrequited love, with no theistic affiliation whatsoever. Fans, however, didn’t care what the song was about; "Losing My Religion" is still the highest-charting single in REM’s history, peaking at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Dishwalla   REM

Now That Was Intense

Collective Soul’s 1995 ballad "The World I Know" is probably more infamous because of its music video depicting an attempted suicide (and pigeon-based salvation — probably an affront to every New Yorker or Chicagoan alive). Though you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hadn’t screamed along to the lyrics of "The World I Know" in their ’92 Toyota after a nasty break up, the song peaked at #19 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Not a decade to shy away from intense emotional turmoil, in 1997 Ben Folds Five released their single "Brick," which also peaked at #19 in the U.S. Though many 90s kids took their own meaning out of the song–from suicide to heartbreak to terminal illness–Folds eventually explained to fans that the song was about his girlfriend having an abortion when they were teenagers.

Collective Soul   Ben Folds Five

You Can’t Say That on Television (in the UK)

The Smashing Pumpkins’ 1993 single "Disarm" is far from the band’s best-performing release; the song never reached the Billboard Hot 100 and was banned from Top of the Pops (BBC) for the lyric excerpt "cut that little child" in the first verse. However, the song’s orchestral instrumentation, introspective lyrical content, and incredibly passionate recorded performance still make it one for the depression record books, if not the charts.

The Smashing Pumpkins 

Sadness Makes the Chart Grow Fonder

In 1997, Tonic released "If You Could Only See." While its approach is a little grittier and more distorted than its sensitive rock peers, its lyrical content is justifiably emotive and frustrated: singer Emerson Hart has said that the song is about his family’s disapproval of his relationship with an older woman. The relationship may not have lasted, but their chart success did: "If You Could Only See" rested comfortably at #11 on the Billboard Hot 100 for 63 weeks straight.

Perhaps the epitome of emotional songwriting in the 90s was Goo Goo Dolls’ 1998 single "Iris." The lyrics center around a theme of self-doubt and internal conflict, even referencing self mutilation in one verse. As depressing as it was, the song blew the band’s career out of the water as a part of the City of Angels soundtrack, but was only released as a commercial single well after the fact, reaching #9 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Tonic   Goo Goo Dolls


Related Stories:

“If You Could Only See” Video
by Tonic
“Losing My Religion” Video
by REM

Billboard Number One Hits
10 Ways Nirvana Changed
Our Generation


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