The ’90s: When even the bad songs were good

It was a humid day at my grade school and we were practicing for a field event. While the many of the horrid details from that day escape me, the most horrid of them all is seared into my brain forever — the dance steps that we were made to do, to the tune of Simply Red’s Stars. Years later, the song would be an anthem for the road. The Aurora Boulevard-Cogeo Antipolo road, that is, which I would brave daily on my way to my university. Stars seemed to be playing (i.e. bumabayo) from every jeepney’s stereo, along with Angelina and, the unofficial, unsolicited soundtrack of my youth, The Sign.

For a good number of months, I was obsessed with Ace of Base, this song in particular. It had no special meaning to me, and I didn’t appreciate it in the same way I did 1979 or even Gangsta’s Paradise. An emotional connection didn’t exist — it was all recall. Yet, whenever it was on the radio (a trusty Sony walk man that went with me everywhere), I would get this inexplicable surge of energy and excitement. Life is demanding without understanding…

In the ‘90s, no one tells you a song is bad. No one makes fun of you for listening to Barbie Girl or Chumbawumba. It was only later on that we made fun of Tumthumping. We were in a musical state of we’re-all-in-this-together. There was a recognition for good songs, cool songs, yes. During lunch break in high school, we would huddle in a corner of the classroom and play bad versions of Linger and Come As You Are on a guitar that belonged to nobody. It was public property, it went from classroom to classroom, and at the end of the day, somebody took it home and then brought it back the next morning. That guitar (and the class rabbit), it’s like those pop songs that we couldn’t get out of our heads, floating about, passed around, begging to be played.

This morning, I was making a ‘90s playlist for a project GIST is working on. I saw The Sign and added it to the growing list of old songs I didn’t even realize I knew by heart. Anyone can rap Gangsta’s Paradise, Ice Ice Baby and Lisa “Left Eye” Lopez’s part in Waterfalls — but if you just give yourself a chance, you’ll see that you can do Snow’s Informer and Ini Kamoze’s Here Comes the Hotstepper, too. I’m the lyrical gangster, murderer, Still love you like that, murderer. Nobody writes songs like that anymore.

Two ‘90s songs I hate most are C’est La Vie by B*witched and Are You Jimmy Ray? So annoying. But I know every word and they both ended up right up there with Pearl Jam and Mother Love Bone. That time was pop at its prime. It was like pop music was growing up with us and was a weird, uncool teenager the same time that we were. It was unpretentious and genuinely trying to find an identity — like me wearing elephant pants and a Penny Hardaway jersey in 1995. Athleisure was not a thing then, hell no. I just really, really liked basketball and found the Bulls super boring. Our version of “trying to fit in” was various versions “being ourselves and hoping we didn’t look that stupid.” There was no fighting for “likes,” just hoping for them, without really giving a rat’s ass about the outcome.

This is the kind of mental strength that results in artists like the Spice Girls, Christina Aguilera circa Genie in a Bottle, No Doubt and Alanis Morisette. Whether or not they think they’re cool by high school cafeteria standards is irrelevant. They do what they want anyway and have the audacity to think they’re empowering the weak, representing the unrepresented, and changing lives — which they, somewhat, have.

I remember first seeing the Spice Girls’ Wannabe. I had no idea whether I was Baby Spice, Ginger Spice, Scary Spice or Sporty Spice. I wasn’t Posh Spice, for sure. She was so unlikable then (look at her now….) I was a different Spice girl everytime they released a video. In Say You’ll Be There, I was really feeling Sporty’s outfit. In Mama, I felt like I really understood Emma Bunton. The Spice Girls were composed and marketed such that everyone was all of them all at once. They were fun and I miss them.

Gwen Stefani and Alanis had a different effect. They were not typical girls, and didn’t fall under any Spice Girl stereotype. While Don’t Speak was a big hit in 1995, Just a Girl was the anthem. The song made Gwen Stefani a strong female icon. With her platinum blonde hair and red lips, she had the looks of Marilyn Monroe and the moves of Jagger (still does), she was anti-establishment without being overtly so. And what is that she’s singing? What the heck is a ska? Alanis was a different creature altogether. Almost asexual (until she married Ryan Reynolds — whut!) She was who we wanted to be all the time. T-shirt, greasy hair, baggy jeans, vengeful heart, rockstar. She was everything that pop was not, and yet she co-existed in harmony with the rest of them. Awards shows were peaceful and fun.

Then the boy bands came along in multitudes, and then we had competition. N’Sync, Backstreet Boys, Boyzone, A1, 98 Degrees, Westlife, Five, Take That, Code Red, Blue, 3T…. MTV was all boy bands all day everyday. I don’t remember having a favorite, but I do recall being, for a brief period, all about the 3T song I Need You. Years later, when I hear TQ, KC and Jojo, and Next, I would remember 3T and think of them as ahead of their time.

Meanwhile, in the battle between Backstreet Boys and N’Sync, I couldn’t pick a side. I just did not care for any of their songs — but I ended up knowing every word anyway. Selfish is my favorite N’Sync song, but it’s not from the ‘90s. I think it was only in 2001 that Justin Timberlake realized he could transcend the boy band phase, and did so by going ever-so-slightly slightly RnB. Apart from Eminem, he’s one of the first white — and blonde! — dudes who were ridiculed for “trying to be black,” because he collaborated with Timbaland and Brian McKnight in his hit 2002 solo album “Justified.” The songs on that album were really good, probably because it wasn’t released in the ‘90s. Fast forward to the present, another Justin is trying to do the same by shifting from sugary pop to EDM. I just hope he has the same successful transition — otherwise, sorry.

In 1999, the pop music scene exploded when a Lolita-esque teen wearing pigtails and an abridged school-girl skirt broke records with a provocative song with a provocative title, …Baby One More Time. Britney Spears was a superstar from the start. The songs on her first album were okay, but they are part of my system. They laced the Kool-Aid and I drank it all.

And then there are those in-between songs that you hear when you switch channels and you reach the end — NU 107 — and think, “Huh, nice,” and then forget about. Google Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth and you’ll know what I mean.

Every generation says theirs is the best. I should be more aligned with the ‘80s because that’s my birthdecade, but I remember the ‘90s most and yearn for its freedom, creativity and lack of pretension so deeply. Friends who were born in the ‘70s share this sentiment and miss ‘90s grunge as badly. Our hunt for ‘90s records — Temple of the Dog, R.E.M., Soundgarden, Radiohead, Pearl Jam — has turned into some kind of competition of who finds the rarest ones. It’s a decade that’s at once almost like a myth that we tell kids about, and a fading memory (memoria…) that we’re desperately, happily, trying to keep alive.

It produced the best of songs; it produced the worst of songs. It was the age of wisdom and foolishness, the season of light and dark and hope and despair. A mixtape of bad haircuts and embarrassing music, with a magical B-side that we can’t stop listening to, and probably will keep listening to, until the tape gets jammed and can play no more. Unless there’s a pencil somewhere….


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