The History of Rock Music in the 1990s

Kurt Cobain Nirvana 1993

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Rock music from the Clinton era was diverse— loud, quiet and loud again. And the personalities were even louder. With a bit of suburban angst and self-effacing wit, the top rockers of the 1990s etched their places in history. How did we get from hair metal to heroin chic, Nirvana to "Nookie" and then end up with the “Higher” consciousness of Creed? We tell the tale here.

Off to Never Never Land

The 1990s began musically as ’80s lite. Popular holdovers from the era of Aqua Net and cocaine such as Guns N’ Roses, INXS and ZZ Top still had a chokehold on the charts. Cocksure front men and showy guitar slingers were kings.

Enter the “Sandman” in 1991

Metallica were already veterans of the heavy rock scene once the ’90s dawned, but their nightmarish single “Enter Sandman” gave the Bay Area foursome mass appeal. Kirk Hammett’s menacing riff and James Hetfield’s barking order to “Sleep with one eye open,” set radio and MTV ablaze in July 1991. The eponymous album that spawned “Enter Sandman” would eventually go on to sell more than 20 million copies worldwide.

Lollapalooza and the Alternative Nation

While these dark lords of metal were igniting the airwaves, mystic rocker Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction was conjuring up magic of his own. Inspired by the inclusive spirit of European music festivals, Ferrell created Lollapalooza, a roving extravaganza of sound that introduced the masses to underground genres.

Among the first Lolla performers were industrial outfit Nine Inch Nails, funk rockers Living Colour and goth royals Siouxsie and the Banshees. Backed by a traveling freak show and an array of charitable causes, Lollapalooza gave birth to what Farrell called the Alternative Nation. Here was a near-utopia of oddball artists entertaining disaffected youth from Seattle to suburban Florida, crowd-surfing away the worry of Bush (41)’s rule.

An MTV program dubbed Alternative Nation would debut in 1992, highlighting bands such as star-trippers Smashing Pumpkins, Brit-pop pioneers Oasis and an outspoken trio from Washington called Nirvana.

Nevermind the Bollocks, Here’s Nirvana

Look at any rock history retrospective, and it will list at number one Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as the most important song of the 1990s. As the nation was awash in New Jack Swing and the last gasps of hair metal, the three-chord distortion of “Teen Spirit” blew it all to smithereens.

Singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain quickly became the poster boy for the grunge movement—which was a no-frills music and fashion statement that came to embody much of ’90s rock. “Here we are now, entertain us,” Cobain screeched, letting his natty hair fly in the face of conservatives.

Nirvana’s contribution to radio was extra punk in that the mainstream came to it, not the other way around. With Butch Vig’s crunchy production and Cobain’s lyrics that defied the usual love songs on the airwaves, Nirvana and kin redefined the rock star.

Grunge musicians owed more to the freewheeling writing of Pixies than to the virtuoso excess of Led Zeppelin. Films like Cameron Crowe’s celebrated grunge couples and the artists that shaped their relationships (Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, and more). Suddenly, this group of supposed slackers became kings.

In the wake of grunge’s success, a second wave of similar acts emerged: Stone Temple Pilots from San Diego, teenage trio Silverchair from Australia, alt-rock balladeers Live from Pennsylvania, among others. The detuned guitars, fiery drumming and husky vocals of these artists were omnipresent until about 1998 when a peppier vibe infiltrated rock music.

The Grrrls With the Most Cake

Just as rock music seemed to get manlier, women began to command a large faction. From Washington state to Washington, D.C., punk rock femmes calling themselves riot grrrls were challenging the male status quo. Trailblazers like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile strapped on guitars, scrawled “bitch” and “whore” on their bodies to reclaim the pejorative words and took over the mosh pits.

Mainstream rock got a heavy kick of estrogen in the mid-’90s when a former Canadian pop star shed her good-girl image and got feisty. Alanis Morissette made audiences swallow a Jagged Little Pill with her 1995 breakout album, which was full of pith (“You Oughta Know”) and sentimentality (“Head Over Feet”).

Another performer who effortlessly combined angst and vulnerability was Kurt Cobain’s wife, Courtney Love, in her band, Hole. (The line “I want to be the girl with the most cake” from “Doll Parts” captured that very ’90s notion that women could have careers and children.) Scottish firebrand Shirley Manson of Garbage, guitar-slinging mavens Veruca Salt and secular yet spiritual writer Joan Osborne also made waves.

The pool of female rockers became so saturated that an entire festival, the Lilith Fair, was dedicated to women artists from 1997-1999 and again in 2010. Pop-rock singer Sarah McLachlan created the roving fest, which over the years featured Sheryl Crow, Luscious Jackson, and the Cardigans.

Punk Goes Pop

Another festival with a particular brand of energy was born in the 1990s: the Vans Warped Tour. Entrepreneur Kevin Lyman envisioned in 1994 bringing the skate punk lifestyle to the masses via song. This summertime essential has hosted ’90s punk-pop notables Green Day, the Offspring and Blink-182, as well as subgenre heroes Mighty Mighty Bosstones (ska), Swingin’ Utters (cow-punk) and Royal Crown Revue (swing revival).

What was once a genre derided for its simplicity and loudness had suddenly taken over terrestrial radio. Green Day’s 10-million-plus-selling 1994 release, was punk’s major foray into the mainstream. Frontman Billie Joe Armstrong had a snot-nosed drawl that made boredom sound cool (see the omnipresent hit “Longview”). Over the years, Green Day would evolve from three-chord maestros to operatic Broadway-bound favorites, but it was the trio’s adolescent fervor that solidified their place in rock history.

Other groups that successfully made the transition from underground warriors to household names were politically minded Bad Religion, NorCal renegades Rancid and groovy reggae-tinged rockers Sublime.

Goo Goo, Growl Growl

The latter part of the ’90s was all over the map when it came to rock music. Hip-hop and dance started to trickle in between guitar riffs. Sugar Ray excelled in carefree party anthems (1997’s “Fly”), thanks to a combo of singer Mark McGrath’s frat-boy good looks and DJ Homicide’s crackling beats. Goo Goo Dolls, once a grittier blues-punk band, went the adult contemporary route with its 1998 mega-hit, “Iris.” And nice-guy group Matchbox Twenty made it OK for rockers to wear their hearts on their sleeves. (It helped in getting the girl.)

Conversely, a brash noise was arising thanks to the rap-rock and nu-metal genres. Braggadocio and drop-C guitars reigned supreme for bigwigs like Limp Bizkit, Korn and Kid Rock. This infusion of machismo may have been to blame for the mayhem at Woodstock 1999, essentially putting the nail in the coffin of the decade that smelled like teen spirit.