Diclaimer: I am not good at writing about music. I, like virtually every human being, like music. I like listening to music, and I know a fair bit about certain artists and musicians, but I don’t consider myself a huge music fan. I don’t really follow the career of any bands or artists. However, I feel like the Summer of 92 experience wouldn’t be complete if I only focused on the movies of the year I was born. I want to get somewhat of a cultural overview of what pop culture looked like in 1992, which means I couldn’t possibly leave music -which is the most omnipresent of the popular art-form- outside the conversation.
The big story of ’92, in terms of music, is probably the rise of grunge. Nirvana released Nevermind in 1991, and it reached the top of the albums charts in early ’92. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” became a pretty huge hit, and it was followed later that year with Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy”, which was also a pretty gigantic hit. The appeal of grunge -like so many trends in rock music- was that it felt so different to the kind of music that had been popular at the time. The late 80s were the time of what have been called “designer bands”, which mixed the sound of heavy metal with a pop sensibility (both in their music and their looks). It was the time of Aerosmith, Bon Jovi, and Guns N’ Roses. Grunge couldn’t have been further away from this mix of metal and glam rock. There was absolutely nothing glamorous about Nirvana or Pearl Jam, whose members wore cheap clothes and looked like they hadn’t showered in at least a couple of days. This grunge moment was also the last time rock music was incredibly popular. I mean, you might be a fan of The Strokes or The White Stripes, but rock music would never be as popular as it was in the early nineties again.
One of the reasons why I can’t seem to get too much into music is because I don’t really understand the concept of “cool”. At least not when it comes to music. I can understand cool in the movies. I know, for example, that Alain Delon in Le Samourai is the epitome of cool. He is a tough guy. He is quiet, and detached, and completely self-aware. That’s the kind of attitude I associate “cool” with. However, that is an attitude that goes completely against the very essence of pop music. Pop music is all about expressing your deepest feelings. Of lamenting a long-lost love, or moping about the injustices you are experiencing. It’s not that I think that people who express their feelings aren’t cool, I just don’t understand why some music artists are deemed cool when others are not. To me, there is no difference between Whitney Houston singing “I Will Always Love You” and Eddie Vedder singing about “Jeremy”, and yet, one of them is regarded as objectively cooler than the other.
If you want to read a more nuanced and informed article about what I’m talking about, then I recommend Judy Rosen’s piece on Vulture about “Shlock Music“. I’m on Rosen’s side when she says that she loves “schlock music”. I love singing my heart out to “Total Eclipse of the Heart”, and I just can’t get into music that is too detached or too pretentious. That but that’s just me. That’s why I’m not pretending to be a music critic, and that’s why I can’t get into Radiohead, and why my favorite song of theirs is “Creep”, which is both a pretty unpopular opinion among Radiohead fans and a song released in, you guessed it, 1992. Anyway, let’s take a look at what the kids were listening to twenty-two years ago.
The Biggest Hit
According to Wikipedia -the infallible expert on all topics known to man- the most successful song released in 1992 is Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You”, the lead single from the soundtrack to the Kevin Coster/Whitney Houston vehicle The Bodyguard. It was reached number one in late November and stayed there until late February. That’s why, technically, it is not the biggest hit of 1992, but of 1993. Anyway, I don’t care, it is definitely one of the biggest hits of the nineties, the kind of hit that is so big that people keep maligning it up to this date. As far as my opinion of the song goes, well, here I am, having written a long introduction about how I don’t like pretentious music, and now I’m going to say the most predictably contrarian thing you can say about “I Will Always Love You”, and that is that I like the original Dolly Parton version better than Whitney’s more popular cover. Listen, I like Whitney’s version, it’s just that while hers is a technically outstanding love ballad (there is no denying Houston’s voice was magnificent), but Dolly Parton’s version has a deep sadness and life-weariness to it that it’s almost impossible to replicate. It’s almost like she’s singing you the saddest lullaby in the world (well, not really, that would be “Feed the Birds“, but you get my point).
The MTV Video Music Awards
The biggest news that came out of the VMAs were related to the rise of grunge music, as Axl Rose from Guns N’ Roses got into a fight with the members of Nirvana, particularly Kurt Cobain. The details of the feud are not all that interesting, really, but it is a reminder of 1. the fact that Axl Rose is a jerk, and 2. the pressure the hair-metal bands were feeling regarding the rise of grunge music. As for Cobain, well, we know the tragic end to that story. Nirvana performed “Lithium” at the awards show, and the signs that Cobain wasn’t comfortable with his meteoric rise to fame were already showing. A few days ago the AV Club linked to this 1992 MTV News segment, which pretty much captures the fandom of the moment in which Nirvana was at the top of its popularity. It also includes a small interview with Cobain’s mom Wendy, who points out to his son’s struggles with fame.
As for the bands that were actual winners that night, Van Halen won Video of the Year for “Right Now“, which seems like an odd choice considering what the most popular bands of the moment were, except for the fact that the video is pretty flashy and has a bunch of inspirational quotes in it giving it the self-serious edge that is sometimes necessary to win awards. The other big winners were the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who had two big hits that year with “Give It Away” and “Under the Bridge“. They would go on to have a successful career making a bunch of albums that sound exactly the same as the one that came before.
The Grammy Awards
Meanwhile, the big winner at the Grammy Awards (the most prestigious, and yet, not-prestigious-at-all award in the music industry) was Eric Clapton, who had perhaps the biggest hit in his career with “Tears in Heaven”, a song that I’ve had very mixed feelings about ever since I learned about it. I mean, it’s an ok song (maybe a little too sentimental for my taste), I just feel a little weird knowing Clapton made millions on a song about his four-year-old deceased child. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t use music to express your feelings of loss and stuff, but he wrote this song for the soundtrack of the now-forgotten movie Rush. I just feel so uncomfortable writing about this song. Let’s just move on.
The Billboard Top 10
I guess this is as good a moment as any to take a quick look at the songs that were actually the most popular songs of 1992 according to Billboard. I’ve written some quick comments about them, but they’re probably dumb.
1. “End of the Road” by Boys II Men
I’m pretty sure this was the biggest hit in Boys II Men’s career, and it sounds very much like an R&B ballad of the nineties. Like the kind you would hear during the end credits of a Disney movie of the time. I wouldn’t have expected it to be as popular as it was, but it’s got a pretty sweet chorus, so I’ll give it that.
2. “Baby Got Back” by Sir Mix-a-Lot
“I like big butts and I cannot lie” is a line that probably everyone who was born between the late seventies and mid-nineties will recognize. I guess this is kind of a sexist song, but it’s also kind of fun. It is kind of a joke now, and I suppose it was a joke back then too, albeit an incredibly popular now. The “Gangnam Style” of its day, as it were.
3. “Jump” by Kriss Kross
Talk about novelty songs. Two cute little rappers who don’t know how to put their clothes on the correct way.
4. “Save the Best for Last” by Vanessa Williams
Listen, if you think “I Will Always Love You” or “End of the Rainbow” are boring songs, then you haven’t heard this Vanessa Williams hit, which is as archetypal as nineties R&B ballads get. Nothing against Williams, she was fun in the first season of Ugly Betty, but this song is a snooze.
5. “Baby-Baby-Baby” by TLC
I’m a little sad, since I’m a huge fan of “Waterfalls” and “No Scrubs”, that I must say that “Baby-Baby-Baby” doesn’t do much for me. I’m all for TLC, though.
6. “Tears in Heaven” by Eric Clapton
Yeah, we already established that I won’t be talking about this one anytime soon.
7. “My Lovin (You’re Never Gonna Get It)” by En Vogue
Is this a fun song or what? I like the flute in the background and everything.
8. “Under the Bridge” by Red Hot Chili Peppers
Listen, I know I crapped on the Chili Peppers a couple paragraphs ago, and I am by no means a fan of their music, but I must admit that “Under the Bridge” is among their best songs, which is to say that it is actually good.
9. “All 4 Love” by Color Me Badd
These are the guys that sing “I Wanna Sex You Up”, right? I thought they were a one hit wonder. They shouldn’t have gotten any hit if you ask me. I also resent the fact that they feel like they’re being cute misspelling so many words.
10. “Just Another Day” by Jon Secada
Fun fact about Jon Secada, back in the mid-2000s there was a Latin American version of American Idol called, yup, Latin American Idol and Jon Secada was one of the judges. That’s how I learned who Jon Secada was, and I certainly had no idea, until this very moment, that he, at one point in his career, had had a top ten hit.
My Favorite Music of 1992
Like I said, I’m not a huge music guy. However, after having talked shit about so many artists and songs in this article (I didn’t expect to, but there you go), I decided it was only fair that I reveal what music that came out in ’92 I actually like. I’m not going to be pretentious or contrarian here, since these are two pretty famous albums by pretty famous artists. The first one is R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People, which Wikipedia tells me was actually the best-selling album of ’92. This is the one album in which R.E.M. got very sad and melancholic, but they wrote some pretty cool songs, including my favorite R.E.M. song “Nightswimming”. The other ’92 album that I love is Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon”, which I hear being mentioned as the only great Neil Young album recorded between the 80s and the present by a lot of people. I am not a huge follower of Young’s career, but since I haven’t listened more than once to any of the albums he has released since, I guess they might be right.
Next Week: We’re back to our regular coverage. The double feature is Glengarry Glen Ross and A League of Their Own.