Glory of the '90s – A Decade-Long Odyssey in 10 Songs
At the start of 1990, I was 12 years old and waiting to begin the second semester of the 7th grade. When I think of “Close to You” by Maxi Priest, I think of my 13-year-old self that summer before I started the 8th grade. My daytime hours were occupied mainly by peddling my bicycle around the neighborhood, listening to my Walkman. (I bought it with my own money at the Osco drug store where my dad occasionally worked as a security guard when he wasn’t on duty with the police dept.) What I can’t remember was whether I’d taped this song off the radio – I still used cassette tape back in those days, since I wouldn’t acquire a CD player until 1993 – or if I heard it repeatedly on the radio, which I could also listen to on my Walkman.
1991 brought us “Sensitivity” by Ralph Tresvant. This song reminds me of a night spent with my middle school classmates – including best friends Therese and Jamie – at the YMCA, an overnight class trip chaperoned by our teachers. I had a tremendous amount of fun, and very little sleep, at these overnighters, which I did twice – perhaps once in 1990 and again in 1991, in 7th and 8th grades.
My friend Dennis – the one on whose recommendation we rooted for the Detroit Pistons (the“Bad Boys” at the time) in the NBA playoffs that year – remarked during the sleepover that Ralph Tresvant’s breakout single meant that all the members of New Edition were now bona fide solo artists. This was true – Bobby Brown was still known more for his music than for a propensity to use illegal substances, Bell Biv Devoe had already released “Poison,” and the previous year had Johnny Gill offering to rub the world the right way. I knew this even though my personal radio tastes were much more American Top 40 than the R&B station.
1992 gave us “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the first hit for Nirvana. I did not get the grunge aesthetic straight out of the gate. After all, people were wearing t-shirts under flannels that DID NOT MATCH WITH THEIR T-SHIRTS. If I’d tried such a thing in grade school, my mother wouldn’t have let me out of the house. A pink t-shirt could only be worn with a PINK flannel.
(I did own a pink flannel at one point – if memory serves, it was purchased at The Gap. This was after grunge went commercial, obviously.)
We saw the unenthusiastic-cheerleaders-bored-pep-rally video many a time on MTV, which we still watched religiously at that age. My brother bought the Nirvana album, Nevermind, at Tracks. (Back then, Tracks was a record store. I found myself bemused by the lyrics of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which seemed to mock those who thought “self-assured” was a dirty hyphenated word but otherwise didn’t make any literal sense. The snarky, rebellious esprit de corps that bonded ‘90s alterna-teens dawned on me slowly, beginning my childhood neighbor/friend/high school classmate Kristen introduced me to “Siva” by the Smashing Pumpkins.
Then in 1993 – when I was 15, then 16, and my junior year of high school started - Siamese Dream came out. Every hit single was a revelation – but the song that really characterizes 1993 for me is “A Whole New World” by Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle. It came from the soundtrack of the Disney film Aladdin, which I saw in the theater twice. The first time I went with my best friend Therese and her mom, to a special double feature that also included Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey. The second time was after I’d spent the night at the farm house belonging to the parents of my school best friend Sharon. Her mom baked us homemade bread and made us toast for breakfast, then took us to a matinee. I was in love with the movie and owned the soundtrack on tape, listening to it many more times than, I’m sure, my parents would have preferred.
When I was a freshman, the girl I most desperately wanted to be friends with was named Kirstin. She was a sophomore. We had AP Biology together. (That I had AP Biology with older, wiser, more disgusting sophomores is the source of several…interesting memories for me.) One highlight of my freshman year was a Bio trip to the cranberry bog and then the sand dunes. I didn’t think Kirstin came on the trip, but then we stopped at Burger King for lunch and she was there. My mood was lifted greatly, and when I climbed to the top of the sand dune (never minding the sophomore having his cigarette break up there. Was his name Cody?), I had a Transcendental-like moment of appreciation for the majesty of nature.
But I digress. Kirstin and her boyfriend who went to a different school experienced an unintended pregnancy. Kirstin went to live with her aunt and uncle in Maryland for the duration of her pregnancy before giving her son up for adoption. I wondered if I’d ever see her again – but I did, in 1994, working at a Target store in a mall that no longer exists. That was the year of “Linger” by The Cranberries, which Kirstin sung to herself as she rang up my mom’s purchases. I hadn’t liked the song much until I heard it from her.
Perhaps my initial dislike of the Irish band The Cranberries was subliminally influenced by the fact that some plant in the cranberry bog gave me a rash all over my hands and forearms.
In 1995, I graduated from high school and went to St. Mary’s College of Notre Dame, Indiana. My first work-study job was working in the dining hall. Whenever I hear “Waterfalls” by TLC, I’m instantly reminded of my sweaty, smelly job sorting the clean silverware into baskets in the bowels of the dining hall. (All that steam was from the high-temperature, sanitary commercial dishwasher. And the room always smelled like old food.) My colleagues, most of whom were not students themselves, listened to the R&B station I’d been rather indifferent to as a middle schooler.
In 1996, when I started my sophomore year in college, I moved my dorm room from one half of H-shaped Regina Hall to the other. I had the second room from the end of the hall. The first room belonged to a junior named Blake, a girl who, at any hour of the day or night, was probably listening to “I Love You Always Forever” by Donna Lewis. I never have taken much of a liking to that song, and Blake is 82% the reason why.
1997, the year I turned 20, gave us “Something About the Way You Look Tonight/Candle in the Wind 1997” by Elton John. I thought “Something…” was a very romantic song, and I remember singing along with it on the radio on my way home from Meijer. But “Candle in the Wind” was the ubiquitous tribute to Princess Diana of Wales after her death. I was coming home – to my parents’ house – from a visit with Irish Granny when I heard the news on the radio that the Princess had been in a car accident. I didn’t imagine she’d been seriously injured, or at least I hoped she wasn’t. When I got home I found my mom on her bed, watching the news on her small TV. She was an admirer of the Princess and was quite upset, especially upon learning that she’d died. I tried to be optimistic. “Sometimes they’re wrong and they report that someone’s died when they’re injured but alive,” I said. Sadly, I was wrong.
I hope the daughter-in-law the Princess never got to meet, Katherine Duchess of Cambridge, is genuinely happy. I’d hate for her to suffer even a small portion of the misery Princess Diana was put through. I wish the Duke and Duchess and their two precious children long, happy lives together.
“Too Close” by Next transports me instantly back to the summer of 1998. In that year, the Indiana Pacers faced off against the Chicago Bulls in the men’s NBA Eastern Conference playoffs. This was Reggie Miller’s last year before retirement. Miller and the Pacers were cut off from their shot at the whole enchilada by a young Bulls forward named Toni Kukoc, but I still had fun watching Michael Jordan’s Bulls go up against Karl Malone’s Utah Jazz in the finals. Having turned 21, I was now allowed in sports bars. My friends Jamie and Therese got dragged along with me to watch Bulls games, when we weren’t playing putt-putt or arcade games. Every time we were in the car that summer, “Too Close” would inevitably be playing in the background.
In 1999 I completed my final semester of college and earned my bachelor’s degree. While still in school, I lived in the dorm next to the athletic center, and I enjoyed using the indoor jogging track. During one of my indoor race-walks, I heard “…Baby One More Time” by Britney Spears for the first time. I had mixed feelings about the song at first. Of course I knew that “hit me” was a contemporary slang term for call me/go out with me, but I still had some trouble adjusting to the sound of it. The video helped me warm up to the song, however, and I started to like Spears’ up-tempo songs. I never did care much for “From the Bottom of My Broken Heart” or anything else that was slow/sad. That’s just me.
Which songs remind you of the ‘90s?