What Is '90s Music?

Jim B.

'90s music was characterized by a wild variety of genres and styles of music surging in popularity at different times. Many genres that had fallen on hard times, like country music and contemporary R&B, began to dominate the popularity charts, while rap music continued the prominence it had begun to show at the end of the '80s. Mainstream rock and roll saw its popularity dwindle, while offshoots like alternative, grunge, and Britpop found strong followings. At the end of the decade, a resurgence in teen pop and bubblegum was a reaction to some of the edgier '90s music that had dominated the first half of the decade.

Alternative music was played on college radio stations.
Alternative music was played on college radio stations.

The '90s came on the heels of the '80s, a decade in music that was known for decadence. Artists in the '80s tended to provide strong visual components with their music, using light and costume design to make their shows into pageants. The rise of the music video genre had a great deal to do with this, but at the end of the '80s, music television's novelty had worn off. Many fans began yearning for music with more substance, and as a result, much of the '90s music scene was reactionary in nature.

The grunge band Pearl Jam became popular in the 1990s.
The grunge band Pearl Jam became popular in the 1990s.

No style of '90s music characterized this more than grunge. Emanating at first from the city of Seattle, Washington in the Unites States, this style of rock contained elements of hard rock and punk coupled with sober, often depressing lyrical themes. The band Nirvana and its lead singer songwriter Kurt Cobain were the leading lights of this genre, which featured bands dressed in muted jeans and flannel shirts combining quiet verses with loud, screeching choruses.

Rap music was popular in the '90s.
Rap music was popular in the '90s.

Rap music proved that it was no mere trend, as it continued to be a dominant force in '90s music. It easily transformed from urban culture to the mainstream, as artists like Jay Z and Tupac Shakur became some of music's biggest stars. On the other end of the spectrum, country music became a huge force again in the music industry, led by artists like Garth Brooks who combined songwriting integrity with thrilling stage shows. R&B got a huge boost from talented singers like Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, and bubblegum ruled the latter half of the decade thanks to the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears.

Flannel shirts were popular among 90s musicians.
Flannel shirts were popular among 90s musicians.

While rock music may have seemed to be one of the poorer-performing genres of '90s music, closer inspection reveals that it was prevalent in altered forms. In addition to grunge, alternative music became mainstream in the '90s. Bands that had previous only gotten airplay on college radio stations became household names. Britpop music was a huge force in Europe, as brash bands like Oasis and Blur brought traditional British sounds back to the fore and made headlines with their boorish behavior.

In the 1990s, country music became a huge force in the music industry.
In the 1990s, country music became a huge force in the music industry.
Many credit Seattle as the birthplace of grunge music that became popular in the 1990s.
Many credit Seattle as the birthplace of grunge music that became popular in the 1990s.

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Discussion Comments

Animandel

What I remember most about the '80s and '90s music scenes is that Rap not only survived, but thrived. It was like early rock in that so many people said it was a fad and would never survive. I wonder what all of those people are saying now.

Sporkasia

Drentel - You sound like a child of the '80s. Welcome to the club. I too loved the eclectic mix that comprised '80s popular music, and like you I liked the sound of the early '90s--for a while. Then I got to a point where I no longer found popular '90s music as insightful and thought provoking as I had initially. In fact, after a couple years or so, I found the lyrics depressing.

Of course, not all the music from the '90s was depressing, but that's the way I thought of it for a time. I think grunge rock was great for the music industry at the time. I soon tuned out grunge and rocked to Garth.

Drentel
When I read the title of this article (What is '90s Music?) the first word that came to mind was grunge, and the second word was rock. After reading the article, I realize there were other kinds of music being made during the '90s. Maybe, I wasn't paying close enough attention after the early part of the decade, and grunge rock definitely defined the early '90s.

The early '90s music hits were so different from the music of the '80s. I think that's why it stood out for me. I loved the '80s bands and songs and the grunge rock trend took some getting used to for me. However, I have to admit it was a nice change, music with a bit more depth than the popular music of the '80s.

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