It was an era when…hmmm… What happened in the ’90s, anyway? I mean, apart from Bill and Hill and Newt and Monica and all that? Isn’t there a VH1 show somewhere that can remind me why this decade is worth discussing? Oh, of course – and the I Love the ’90s web page lists the decade’s pop-culture “highlights” primarily as a series of rivalries: Tonya and Nancy… Amy Fisher and the Buttafuocos… Pee-Wee and his wee-wee… Sharon Stone and her cooter…
Bleah. Of course, the recording industry in the ’90s had its own share of rivalries – Mariah vs. Whitney, Hammer vs. Vanilla Ice, Garth vs. Billy Ray, Biggie vs. 2Pac, Puff Daddy vs. P. Diddy, Britney vs. Xtina, Backstreet vs. N’Sync, Kurt vs. the shotg… sorry. Too soon? (Speaking of “too soon,” it’s worthwhile to note that while ’80s nostalgia was already rampant by the mid-’90s, no such yearning for the halcyon days of Showgirls and 90210 has yet emerged nearly a decade post-millennium.)
For the purposes of this column, at least, the biggest music-biz rivalries of the decade featured Top-40 radio formats diverging and competing for listeners, and major record companies declaring war on… their customers. I’ll go into more detail on these phenomena next week in this space; for now, here’s a brief rundown. On the radio side, a trend toward narrowcasting divided Top 40 radio into multiple mini-formats, with the result that by the late 1990s songs could reach #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 while receiving airplay on only a fraction of the format’s stations. Meanwhile, radio playlists shrank through the early ’90s at the same time that Billboard began tracking airplay electronically rather than relying on radio stations’ own reports; as a result, the biggest hits sat atop the chart for months at a time.
At retail, panicky record labels responded to a sales slowdown by ending the production of singles for many of their biggest rock-oriented acts. Because Billboard was slow to change its Hot 100 eligibility policies to include radio hits that hadn’t been released as commercial singles, the charts of the 1990s failed to properly recognize some of the era’s biggest hits – including the two biggest pop-radio hits of the rock era, the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris” and No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak.” Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles books, in their most recent vintages, list those and other radio-only chart-toppers of the ’90s as Number Ones; Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book of Number One Hits, on the other hand, continues to focus solely on the Hot 100. Contradicting my own policy, established in my column on the ’50s, I’ve chosen this time to favor Bronson and remain Hot 100-centric. So sue me.
On that note… as Casey Kasem used to say after one of those wretched Long Distance Dedications: On with the countdown!
10. (tie) “I’ll Be Your Everything,” Tommy Page; “Because I Love You (The Postman Song),” Stevie B; “The First Time,” Surface; “One More Try,” Timmy T; “I Like the Way (The Kissing Game),” Hi-Five. Cue the baying wolves! This spate of utterly insipid ballads, all from 1990-91, illustrated pop music’s desperate need for a device like the auto-tune, which unfortunately wouldn’t be introduced until 1997. OK, that guy from Surface can actually sing – but he looks like Urkel. One more note before we move on: Has anyone else ever noticed that “One More Try” and “The Lady in Red” are essentially the same song? Mashup mavens, get busy! – but please, for god’s sake, don’t send me the results.
9. “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” UB40. UB40 went to the oldies-remade-as-reggae well one time too many with this Elvis cover, which flops around like a fresh-caught trout on the floor of a canoe. Rejected from the Honeymoon in Vegas soundtrack in favor of Bono’s brilliant re-imagining of the song, UB40’s version nonetheless became a massive hit. Inexplicably. By the way, why did so many crap reggae songs become huge hits in the mid-’90s? First “Informer,” then this, and then…see #6 below.
8. “I’m Too Sexy,” Right Said Fred. You knew this was going to be here somewhere. Here it is. I don’t particularly feel the need to go into detail. Let’s press forward, shall we?
7. “Hero,” Mariah Carey. Tommy Mottola’s brand-new bride used this treacly ode to self-empowerment to offer herself as a pop-princess role model for Chelsea Clinton’s generation – and to rip the America’s-Top-Diva tiara right off the head of Whitney “Greatest Love of All” Houston. Carey’s previous singles – seven of which had topped the charts in just three years – had established her as a fine tunesmith (“Vision of Love”), a talented purveyor of light R&B (“Someday,” “Dreamlover”), and as part of a lineage of successful crossover artists (her cover of “I’ll Be There” and her nifty heist from the Emotions on, yes, “Emotions”). Why, then, did I already hate her so, even as I grudgingly recognized the quality of her songs? Maybe it was because of her vocal histrionics – or maybe it was because I knew “Hero” was coming: a bland, gormless ballad whose girl-power surface barely masked a blatant stab at World Domination. The little girls ate it up, of course. They would. Things soon got worse with Mariah, as we’ll soon see.
6. “Here Comes the Hotstepper,” Ini Kamoze. “I know what Bo don’t know,” Kamoze says somewhere in this supremely annoying mess. Bo knew baseball, football and debilitating hip injuries pretty well; I’m guessing he also knew shitty, name-dropping dancehall reggae when he heard it. Including this song was among a couple hundred crucial mistakes Robert Altman made in the creation of his very worst movie, the irredeemable Pret-a-Porter. Most people (smartly) avoided that movie like the plague; why couldn’t they have just ignored “Hotstepper” as well?
5. “When a Man Loves a Woman,” Michael Bolton. In my rundown of the ’60s’ worst chart-toppers, I mused that I might like this version of this song better than Percy Sledge’s. So why did I put Percy at #9 for that decade, and Shouty McShouty-Pants at #6 for this one? Well, let’s just consider this a lifetime-“achievement” award. It’s bad enough that Michael Bolton built his career as a latter-day Pat Boone; at least we can hope the authors of the soul classics he butchered received some hefty royalty checks. It’s the residuals the Isley Brothers didn’t receive (at least until they sued) for his barely re-written ripoff of “Love Is a Wonderful Thing” that truly sealed the long-tressed screamer’s infamy. His version of “When a Man Loves a Woman” came from the same album; to be fair, Percy himself said at the time that he considered Bolton a great vocalist and was “honored” that Shouty would sing his song. Then again, Percy’s version made my ’60s list in the first place because I Can’t. Stand. That. Man’s. Voice…either.
4. (tie) “Everything I Do (I Do It for You),” Bryan Adams; “All for Love,” Bryan Adams, Sting & Rod Stewart. You gotta give Kenny Loggins one thing: He proved during the ’80s that it’s possible to sell your soul to the film studios and become the Soundtrack King without surrendering your testicles. Apparently Bryan Adams didn’t get the memo. He sure does know how to write a flaccid ballad, though – or at least how to co-write one with “Mutt” Lange, who must have been a heaping bowl of post-coital mush when he worked on this stuff. One thing’s for sure: Mutt’s songs for his wife, Shania Twain, have more teeth than these limp jingles, and Shania definitely has more balls than fellow Canadian Adams. Not that either of those statements is really saying very much.
3. “Tha Crossroads,” Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. I don’t want to risk ending up on the business end of a Suge Knight balcony-dangle, but I don’t have tons of sympathy for the fates that have befallen a posse of ’hood boyz who made fortunes promoting the thug life to a generation of riled-up teenage boys both black and white. I’m sure the Bone boys were sincere in their mourning for N.W.A co-founder Eazy-E, who had recently died from AIDS-related illness shortly after losing his battle with Knight for Dr. Dre’s contract. But if they were trying to convince me that I should mourn him, too, then they should have argued more coherently. I’m fully aware that millions of people love this track – it won a Grammy, and VH1 named it the best rap song ever – but to me it’s complete gibberish, even when I read the lyrics. Anyway, this wasn’t the first lousy tribute to a dead compatriot that topped the charts in the ’90s, and it wouldn’t be the last. To wit…
2. “I’ll Be Missing You,” Puff Daddy & Faith Evans & 112. Of all the crimes committed with a sampler, this may be the most galling: a ham-fisted, completely unoriginal grave-robbing of one of rock’s greatest singles, rendered in tribute to a gangsta rapper who had been murdered in a drive-by. (I know, that’s a tad harsh – I’m a Biggie fan, actually. And a 2Pac fan. East Coast, West Coast: Can’t we all just get along?) Sean Combs – or whatever we’re calling him this week – is a talented producer, a successful apparel magnate and even a decent actor, I suppose, but he’s a god-awful rapper. He’d had a huge hit earlier in 1997 with the atrocious “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down,” which introduced future-Diddy’s questionable taste in samples by featuring a hook filched from Matthew Wilder’s “Break My Stride” (!). Then came this. Considering that Puffy was in the car when Biggie was killed, and considering that Evans was Biggie’s wife, you’d think they could have come up with something more interesting than this dumbed-down swindle.
1. “One Sweet Day,” Mariah Carey & Boyz II Men. Ladies and gentlemen, the biggest hit in the history of Billboard’s Hot 100! Mariah and the Boyz were, of course, the most notorious culprits in pop music’s early-’90s descent into melismania – as well as the two most ubiquitous acts of the decade – so it’s only fitting that their joint effort should spend 16 excruciating weeks at Number One. This maudlin tearjerker, largely devoid of melody, probably wouldn’t have sniffed the top of the charts had it been recorded by anyone else. In fact, I’m pretty sure that in the course of her obscene vocal pyrotechnics, Carey completely forgot the half-baked melody she was supposed to be singing – despite the fact that she wrote it herself. “One Sweet Day” represents the absolute nadir of contemporary R&B/pop singing…yet it also represents the canvas on which thousands of wannabes, male and female, have been painting-by-numbers ever since. If you lament the current state of American pop music – and particularly if you detest the caterwauling that permeates American Idol – you may lay the blame right here.
As always – and even though I cheated considerably with that clusterfuck at #10 – I was forced to leave a rogue’s gallery of miscreant tunes off this list. If you ache for the absence of “Step By Step,” “She Ain’t Worth It,” “Opposites Attract” (damn Scat Cat), “Justify My Love,” “Coming Out of the Dark,” “To Be with You,” “Jump,” “How Do You Talk to an Angel,” “I’ll Make Love to You,” “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” or “Wild Wild West,” I feel your pain. (Didn’t some vaguely polarizing ’90s figure say that?)
If, on the other hand, you think I’ve lost my mind for failing to include “Ice Ice Baby” or “Good Vibrations” or “Baby Got Back” or “Macarena” or “MMMBop” or “Wannabe,” you’ll have to use the comments section to make your case. Have at it. Meantime, I’ll see you back here in a couple weeks for our final session of primal-scream therapy – as we unlock our already-repressed memories of the worst songs of the Noughties!