This article is taken from Rolling Stone's new book The '90s: The Inside Stories From the Decade that Rocked (© 2010 by Collins Design, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers). Click here to order the book, go here to read more about it, or visit the HarperCollins web site to preview the pages.
The Nineties as a musical era started late and ended early — kicked in by the scritchy-scratch power chords of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," ushered out by the doomy piano intro of ". . . Baby One More Time." Anti-pop defeated by pop — full circle, all apologies. You've heard the story.
But the real Nineties were richer, funnier and weirder than that, with fake grunge bands writing better songs than some of the real ones, Eighties holdovers U2 and R.E.M. reaching creative peaks with Achtung Baby and Automatic for the People, Metallica and the Black Crowes co-existing on MTV, Phish tending to the Deadhead nation after Jerry's passing — and Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer ceding their pop thrones in a few short years to Dr. Dre, Snoop and Eminem. Not to mention a curiously widespread desire to zig-a-zig-ah.
That's the messy musical decade that comes back to life in the Rolling Stone articles collected in this book. Not since the Sixties had music mattered so much, or the stakes felt so high. Nirvana or Pearl Jam? Biggie or Tupac? Blues Traveler or Spin Doctors? The battles were on, and kids cared deeply about the outcomes. At the same time, the record industry was operating its starmaking machinery at peak efficiency — unaware that it was about to be melted down to make iPods.
In the glossy Eighties, the line between underground and mainstream was all but impermeable, R.E.M. aside — you were either Paul Westerberg or Bruce Springsteen, Madonna or Kate Bush. Later, in the 2000s, indie rockers stayed in their increasingly gilded ghetto, and liked it. But in that marvelous, all-too-brief post-Nirvana, post-Lollapalooza haze, no one at radio or MTV was sure what a pop star looked or sounded like anymore — so Kurt, Krist and Dave ended up opening the door for Fiona Apple as much as they did, say, Seven Mary Three. (Less poetically, the 1991 introduction of the computerized SoundScan system of measuring record sales was a huge boost to new artists, preventing labels from manipulating chart results to favor superstars.)
Inevitably, these artists had a lot to say — had secrets to reveal, even — and more often than not, they did so in the pages of Rolling Stone. Part of the fascination of these stories is watching personalities utterly unsuited to stardom attempt to deal with the indignities of mass acclaim. "I want everyone to understand me," Fiona Apple says in Chris Heath's profile. But as he writes, "humans are still to invent a quicker, more efficient method of being misunderstood by the greatest possible number of people than Becoming Famous in America."
If anyone actually took a shot at understanding the music and musicians of the Nineties, it was the writers featured here: whether it's Neil Strauss jumping into the hot tub with Marilyn Manson; Charles M. Young interrogating Beavis and Butt-Head; Cameron Crowe returning to journalism to watch the tumultuous recording of Pearl Jam's second album; David Fricke pushing Kurt Cobain to explain just what he liked about guns; Anthony Bozza watching Eminem gobble Ecstasy; or Kim Neely standing by as Soundgarden learn of Cobain's suicide.
It was a great time to be a music journalist. There were no shortage of tales to tell, from the ludicrous (Vanilla Ice fabricating a ghetto upbringing while claiming to be "100 percent original") to the tragic. The sudden and deadly prevalence of heroin in the rock scene haunts these pages (back in 1992, a source in the Seattle scene told Michael Azerrad that everyone felt the drug was a disaster waiting to happen). And yes, music mattered — maybe too much. Rock stardom was a curiously life-threatening profession — in the Nineties, the president got the groupies, and the musicians got shot. Drugs, firearms or some combination thereof took an unnerving number of stars' lives, including Kurt Cobain, the Notorious B.I.G., Tupac Shakur and Blind Melon's Shannon Hoon.
There was a sense of generational solidarity back then that now seems alien — the Gen-X stars were quick to make sweeping statements about their peers and to blast their elders in terms that now sound as quaint as "Don't trust anyone over thirty": Eddie Vedder condemns "old rockers" who make "dinner music"; Beck says, "My whole generation's mission is to destroy the cliché"; and Soundgarden's Kim Thayil unleashes a torrent of boomer-bashing, complaining, "They thought they had a monopoly on rock & roll, and all of a sudden they realize they don't. But they just won't let it go." Unexpectedly, Cobain is the most vocal classic-rock fan, praising John Lennon and noting how much respect he has for Eric Clapton.
But all of them — the novelty acts, the rappers, the Lilith Fair guitar strummers, the painfully earnest rock bands — were fighting on the same battlefield, meeting on the same pop charts, taking turns breaking through the noise. Cumulatively, these stories are a reminder of the power of a mainstream, of a center that matters, and the value of real artists pushing for — and against — pop stardom. As we enter a new decade, maybe there's one lesson to carry from the '90s: If everything's alternative, nothing is. And if not — Oh, well. Whatever. Nevermind.
Excerpted from The '90s: The Inside Stories from the Decade that Rocked by the Editors of Rolling Stone. © 2010 by Collins Design, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Click here to order the book, go here to read more about it, or visit the HarperCollins web site to preview the pages.