It’s not hard to pinpoint the exact moment the ’90s began: Jan. 11, 1992, when Nirvana’s Nevermind knocked Michael Jackson’s Dangerous out of Billboard‘s No. 1 album spot. The resulting shift in popular tastes toppled pop poseurs from Gerardo to Poison. Even casual music fans knew the biz was changed forever.
Or was it? Tempting as it is to sum up the ’90s as the decade of alt-rock, the past 10 years have proved to be as diffuse, fragmented, and novelty ridden as any era in pop history. The month Nirvana entered Billboard‘s albums chart, the Top 40 included such strikingly diverse fare as Prince’s ”Cream,” Guns N’ Roses’ ”Don’t Cry,” and Michael Bolton’s ”When a Man Loves a Woman.” Five years later, little had changed, with BLACKStreet, Celine Dion, and ”Macarena” coexisting on the pop charts. So much for the alt-rock revolution.
Alternative music was the decade’s most obvious story, spawning many of the era’s best albums and biggest personalities. True, for every Nevermind there were 10 Sixteen Stones. Still, you’d prefer Winger?
Important albums and big personalities weren’t limited to the alternaverse. Metal thrived. Hip-hop built on 20 years of success, with clownish entertainers like Hammer giving way to artists like Snoop. Electronica created a buzz. And R&B underwent a late-’90s renaissance, heard on Babyface’s Waiting to Exhale soundtrack, Erykah’s Baduizm, and the hip-hop-soul masterwork, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.
Ultimately, though, the decade was about pop music: Right Said Fred, Ace of Base, Hootie. History might disagree, but flyweight artists defined the decade every bit as much as Pearl Jam. ”Here we are now,” sang the ’90s’ most famous frontman. ”Entertain us.”
MC Hammer samples ”Super Freak”: 4/25/90
When Stravinsky said, ”A good composer does not imitate; he steals,” he never meant it literally. But then, ol’ Igor never knew anyone quite like MC Hammer. Armed with a digital ”sampler,” Hammer became the first musician to turn someone else’s actual recording — in this case, Rick James’ 1981 ”Super Freak” — into a smash hit. ”I was on an airport runway,” Hammer says. ”I started humming ‘Super Freak’ and popped in ‘You can’t touch this.’ It was just like that!” The top 10 result profoundly influenced future generations of imagination-challenged hitmakers (see Puffy Combs), many of whom appropriated James Brown’s ”Funky Drummer (Part 1),” which hit the charts on March 21, 1970, making it the de facto building block of hip-hop. Rank 59
Milli Vanilli is exposed: 11/14/90
The rumor had circulated, but more than girls knew it was true when about a year after an onstage lip-synch slipup, producer Frank Farian confessed to the press that Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan were the world’s most sophisticated ventriloquist act. (”Sure, they have a voice, but that’s not really what I want to use on my records,” Farian said.) Some shock waves were immediate: The humiliated duo had to return their Best New Artist Grammy. Others — a backlash against dance pop that paved the way for the Unplugged fad — unfolded over time. Besides, where would Behind the Music be without Rob and Fab’s disgrace? Rank 89