SOME (MUCH YOUNGER) PERSON here has put together a circa 1999 playlist at the café where I write. And so I am revisited by “How Bizarre” by OMC, “MMMBop” by Hanson, “You Get What You Give” by The New Radicals, and “Brimful of Asha” by Cornershop. Basically, what was playing in the music store where I worked in ’97 – ’99. We marked up those one-hit-wonder compact discs something mighty. I think OMC’s disc was selling for something ridiculous like $17.99. If it was really in demand, like KORN (but with a backwards R) it might be $18.99. The dream was that some local oligarch would walk in on Friday night half-drunk on whatever, stinking of cigar smoke, and buy out the whole lot. We sold a lot of that Elton John remake of “Candle in the Wind” after Princess Diana died, and, of course, all of the Notorious BIG and Tupac posthumous releases (DMX has now joined them). Hip hop was really gory then. I remember DMX’s album was called Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood. This was not Run-DMC or Public Enemy.
As I see it, the late ’90s were a time when pop music was just a bit more open to new sounds than it had been throughout the ’80s. I wasn’t around in the ’70s — well, for a few weeks — but ’80s pop was less DIY. Everything from Duran Duran to Bananarama to New Order and Depeche Mode seemed so overproduced, and most of the post-glam rock was the same. Even their hair was overproduced. It was the era of overproduction. The idea of some guy making songs in his basement and becoming a big star didn’t really happen until Nirvana broke down the gates, and all of those “alternative” acts came flooding in. Beck arrived with “Loser,” and it actually got played on the radio. That didn’t happen in 1989. In 1989, we had Phil Collins and Billy Joel, Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Cher and Rick Astley.
There was no “Loser.”
But afterward, you saw these pop groups start to bubble to the surface, and they brought with them guitar-driven, self-composed songs. Hanson were three brothers from Oklahoma. New Radicals was really one person, who wrote and produced all the material. Cornershop was an actual band, with a riff-driven pop song that vaguely resembled some of the material that came out in the very distant halcyon days of the late 1960s. Even Smash Mouth arrived and dared to do a farfisa solo on a record, and it sold amazingly well. They covered The Monkees (!) The doors were again open. You could basically do anything, and if you got lucky, you could be a success.
The late ’90s were a very funny time, I think, in retrospect. The music was ridiculous. The adoration and obsession with celebrities was overboard. The movies — Rushmore, Election, Eyes Wide Shut, Fight Club — were only getting better and more prescient. And there were all of these teenagers growing up, just a few years younger than me, who seemed much more potent as a collective force. You saw them on these shows like Total Request Live hosted by Carson Daly. It seemed like there were just billions of teenagers all of a sudden eager to buy Backstreet Boys and Eminem records. It was like Baby Boomers, Part II.
I remember talking to one kid at the music store who tried to convince me that Third Eye Blind were the second coming of the Beatles. This was in 1997, so he was maybe 14 or 15. I thought, “Are you joking?!” But he was dead serious. He was walking around with an acoustic guitar slung on his back and claimed to know how to play all of their songs.
PS. I was working with Max, a hippie traveler John Coltrane devotee who was 10 years older than me, in the shop, and we used to joke that Hanson was actually like the 1990s version of the Beatles. Max hit upon the idea that we should slip some LSD into Hanson’s fruit juice, and that they would subsequently produce the 1990s version of Sgt. Pepper’s. We schemed to produce tie-dye t-shirts showing Hanson swimming in trippy psychedelic colors with the slogan, “Dose Hanson.”
I still wish I had made those shirts.