Hear that? The crackle of jangly guitars and earnestly mumbled lyrics? It’s the sound of the ’90s — and if you squint hard and shotgun a Zima (or three), it looks and feels a whole lot like it did the first time. Already, 2012 has yielded new albums by stalwarts of the era like Fiona Apple, Garbage, Soul Asylum, the Offspring, and Everclear, with scheduled discs from No Doubt, Green Day, Alanis Morissette, Matchbox Twenty, Melissa Etheridge, and Brandy on the way. Just weeks ago, Hootie & the Blowfish, whose 1994 debut, Cracked Rear View, still ranks as the 18th-best-selling album of all time, announced an upcoming record and tour — nearly half a decade after frontman Darius Rucker departed for a successful run as a solo country star.
Yes, culture has always been cyclical. ”Seventies music was popular again in the early ’90s, ’80s music made a resurgence in the last decade,” says Gregg Steele, vice president of music programming at SiriusXM. ”And now you’re seeing the same thing happen with the ’90s…. [That music] is finding new audiences, as well as being exposed to the core audience that was 14, 15 years old back then.” Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that Britney Spears and Beyoncé, each impressionable teens when Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill came out in 1995, covered ”You Oughta Know” during recent world tours. (Taylor Swift, 22, has also sung Jagged‘s ”You Learn” live.) To Morissette herself, it all makes sense: ”These songs are about being human and being a woman and evolving,” she tells EW. ”I’ve always felt I’ve been on the crest of a wave, of a movement.”
But there’s more to this revival than the tides of history. There’s also economics: On the back of their fluke 1993 crossover hit ”Runaway Train,” Minneapolis alt-rockers Soul Asylum sold 3 million copies of Grave Dancers Union. In today’s drastically altered, singles-oriented industry, that’s a bona fide blockbuster. (Rihanna’s last three albums combined have barely topped that number.) So even if a band like that never moves another unit, they still have millions of albums in circulation — and, theoretically, millions of fans who remember them fondly enough to pay to hear them on record or on tour again.
That idea has certainly fueled the business philosophy of 429 Records, the label that released Soul Asylum’s Delayed Reaction this year, and has also put out new work by fellow ’90s journeymen Blues Traveler, Cracker, Gin Blossoms, Edwin McCain, and Tonic. ”We want to be able to walk up to sales and radio people and talk about artists they’ve heard of,” says Jared Levine, an A&R exec at the label. ”We don’t need to sell millions for this to make sense. These bands aren’t that far removed from significant sales history. But they don’t qualify to be on major labels, because major labels don’t work with rock bands anymore, and their prime is behind them as far as being able to cross [over] to pop radio.”
Angelica Cob-Baehler, an executive VP at Epic Records who helped nurture the careers of everyone from Sugar Ray and Stone Temple Pilots to Katy Perry and Karmin, agrees. ”In order for the artists from the ’90s to stay relevant, they have to do something relevant,” she says. ”Each one is taking a different approach. Korn did a collaboration with Skrillex last year, which put them in a new conversation. But a Sugar Ray [now on an indie label] tours and does what they do best: entertain people, make them smile, remind them of the fun they had back in the day.” But artists can’t live on nostalgia alone — or can they? These days, you don’t need to have worn a wallet chain or waited in line at Tower Records for the new Sophie B. Hawkins album to have an attachment to the ’90s. Because unlike the serious investment of both time and petty cash that music fandom once required, exploration today is easy. Anybody can get an entire education on YouTube or Spotify, absorbing the full catalog of STP, A Tribe Called Quest, or the Cardigans over the course of an afternoon. Call it ”discovered nostalgia” — as it’s been dubbed by MTV Music Group president Van Toffler, a man who’s helped dictate youth culture for years. ”Millennials have a warm, fuzzy feeling for stuff they didn’t grow up with, because they discovered it online,” he explains. ”They don’t look at it as an era, in terms of time or decades. It all lives side by side.”
Of course, it helps that so many of these songs, with their charging hooks and huge choruses, have held up surprisingly well. ”If you look at modern-rock radio playlists,” says Cob-Baehler, ”there’s definitely a lot of older ’90s music represented. A lot of these singles just keep coming back. And some never go away — if you think of a band like Sublime, they don’t ever get dropped off of those playlists.”
Everclear frontman Art Alexakis gives that credit where he believes it’s due: ”My philosophy in life as far as music goes is ‘It’s not about me, it’s about the song.’ The song is king,” says the man who’s spent the summer selling out venues on a joint tour with Sugar Ray, Gin Blossoms, Lit, and Marcy Playground.
But Alexakis may be underselling the continued power of personality. He first tasted fame in an era that necessitated narratives: If you wanted to be on the radio, you had to have a good story, and those details — the struggles with sobriety, the intra-band conflicts — gave the audience another thing to attach themselves to. (Counter that with 2012 acts like Gotye and fun., who’ve had huge chart smashes but whose success is almost entirely independent of personal biography.) ”The ’90s was artist-driven, and now it’s become more song-driven,” says Sirius XM’s Steele. ”Which is why I think ultimately this is a revival to go back toward ‘Wasn’t it great when you were fans? Wasn’t it great when you went out and bought T-shirts of bands?”’
Sometimes, of course, nostalgia can be toxic, tamping down the evolution of culture in favor of looking endlessly backward. And some returns can seem like coldhearted, hairline-challenged attempts to cash in. But the current crop of revivalists — from continuing superstars Green Day (who will release three albums over the next five months) to less flashy acts like the Wallflowers — carry on because they still have something to say, and hopefully an audience that still wants to hear it. Time may have grounded their dreams of private jets and Behind the Music excess, and they may never hit the peaks of a ”You Oughta Know” or ”3 AM” or ”One Headlight” again. But they’ll keep the fires burning for a time that was a little simpler, a little sweeter, and way more obsessed with cappuccino.