The 90’s Will Never Happen Again

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A few months ago, the only half-decent alternative rock station in Sacramento, KWOD 106.5, was shut down and replaced by a corporate-type “totally 90’s” station called “The Buzz.” KWOD was my “modern /alt rock” station of choice in the 90’s. Now it had officially been turned into a greatest hits station featuring the music I grew up with. It’s a strange feeling. Even though I hadn’t listened to KWOD regularly for about four years, I couldn’t help but go into a mini-nostalgic tailspin. I started thinking about how long ago the 90’s were and how drastically music and pop culture have changed since then. It’s unbelievable.

When you’re young it’s often hard to tell how significant the changes you observe in pop culture really are. Though the shifts may indeed be significant, the ever-changing sense of perspective that comes with being young tends to exaggerate them. I think about this a lot when I’m bored and try to objectively discern trends in pop culture from my own experiences. Were the 90’s really that great? Is this how Generation X felt when “totally 80’s” stations started popping up on their dial? Was the shift from 80’s to 90’s music as dramatic as the 90’s to 00’s? Does every generation think music was “totally different” when they were growing up? Does every generation experience essentially the same things as they get older in relation to the culture they grew up in?

It seems like every generation can cite a band, song or moment that defined the culture of their youth and created a clean break with the previous generation. The easiest example from the 90’s is “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” It’s famously the moment when 80’s Hair Metal died and Grunge essentially became the 90’s. I remember the first time I heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the radio. I knew it was a great song, but I had no connection to the 80’s or Hair Metal, nor was I “aware” of pop culture in the way I am now. In other words, I didn’t know it was a significant cultural event. Now that this decade is almost over, I finally have my first real chance to observe the shift in music from one decade to the next.

I don’t think the 00’s really had a “Smells Like Teen Spirit” moment. Arcade Fire probably came close, but Funeral didn’t really affect the rest of the decade in the same way  Nirvana and Grunge did. It may be impossible for another “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to happen now with the music industry crumbling and the Internet dividing everyone’s attention in ten different directions every week. In many ways the 00’s aren’t just a break from the 90’s, but from every previous decade of music. Here are some of the ways that the 00’s have changed music forever:

  • Music moves twice as fast –  The 00’s really feel like two entire decades. Ten years is like twenty Internet years. Without record companies in charge to incrementally add and subtract from the music scene within relatively neat periods of ten years, music evolves and trends shift as quickly as we want them to, which seems to be about twice as fast as the 90’s. The last time the pace of music consumption increased so dramatically must have been around the birth of the music industry. A few years ago Pitchfork released a list of the best albums of 2000-2004. Until recently I thought this was a rather obnoxiously uneven and inappropriate list to make, but now I feel like it totally makes sense. The amount of music consumed (without paying, of course) within those five years could easily fill a normal decade. I highly doubt there will ever be a “totally 00’s” or 10’s or 20’s station and not just because traditional radio is dying. The decade long movements in popular music no longer work. From here on out music will be bracketed and reviewed in much smaller intervals if we choose to bracket it at all.
  • Music is free – This is simultaneously the best and worst part about the end of the 90’s. The upside is obvious, but it does come with consequences. I often find it quite difficult to “sit” with an album I initially have only lukewarm interest in. It doesn’t cost me anything to pull the lever on the “free music slot machine” (aka the Internet) so why even bother?. In the 90’s, the cost of a CD was a substantial part of my “income” and choosing which album to buy was an arduous task that required exhaustive research and investigation, usually without the aid of the Internet. Occasionally my purchase would leave me feeling robbed (and occasionally I was right). On other occasions, I would gradually come to realization that my purchase was a hidden gem. Having only one new album for weeks or months at a time essentially required an exploration of every track for better or worse. Repeating this process time and time again shortened the time it took to recognize a true gem. These experiences grew to be extremely rewarding and crucial to the ways in which I listen to music now. I’m not sure teens today have the patience it requires to explore albums. I’m sure I wouldn’t if I were in high school today. Even as a child of the 90’s I find it difficult. Maybe I’m wrong though. Maybe teens aren’t missing out on much if anything at all. Maybe I’m just an old man complaining about how things used to be. I still love plenty of albums that didn’t require multiple listens to “get”. Instantly catchy isn’t necessarily the sign of a “junk food” album. Maybe it’s just a sign of the times. Who knows? The only thing I’m sure of is that free music has turned a “musical attention span” into a trait associated with those who grew up in the 90’s.
  • Music is no longer a “two-party system” – In the 90’s, Republicans and Democrats seemed like respectable enemies. Sort of like rival sports teams. It was acceptable to associate yourself with either side. Similarly, the 90’s had “mainstream music” and “indie music.” It was a musical two-party system. Us vs. Them. Both had their strong and weak points. Both were relevant. Today, there is no “Us vs. Them” and it’s hardly a discussion  even worth having. Yes, Top 40 is terrible. Yes, indie music is better. Yes, the Republican party is full of racist nutcases that scream at town hall meetings. Yes, Obama is way more popular than Bush. I miss the days when you could have serious discussions about indie vs. mainstream music. Top 40 music today has a lot in common with the current state of the Republican party. It seems more concerned with surviving than innovating. It clings to old ideas (and hits) and refuses to change it’s ways, even as it becomes more and more  obsolete. All its worst features define it. This stubborn and laughable attitude has allowed it’s rival to steadily gain popularity for so long that there is essentially no longer a dichotomy. Though music sales will tell you top 40 is of course still top 40, it’s hardly an accurate indication of the music young people are listening to. Get a top 40 list of the albums being pirated and you’ll have a more meaningful statistic. In short, traditional “top 40″ is dead and “indie music” is officially an inaccurate genre description. Maybe we should just call indie music “music” and top 40 music “a joke.”

I really do think that the musical shift into the new millennium was unique and I feel pretty lucky to have been young during the 90’s and the 00’s. Huge parts of the culture changed in ways most generations never get to experience. It also seems rather convenient and coincidental that such huge changes happened at the turn of the millennium. Like maybe those numbers really do mean something and the end of the 90’s wasn’t just something hyped up in a Prince song.

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