Pop-Rock in the Late 90s
By the end of the 1990s, alternative rock as a mainstream flash point had stretched itself out into a very, very thin umbrella term that covered a lot of different sounds. In terms of radio and the charts–both the Hot 100 and ‘Modern Rock’–the arena-sized aftermath of grunge was petering out by '96, but it would take a few more years before nu-metal really came to dominate radio and the garage rock fad led by The Strokes and The White Stripes took off. These were also the final years before Napster, a peak point in major label album sales (as well as some of the highest sales of singles since their peak in the early 80s), so there was a lot of financial room for labels to take on upstart bands with maybe a decent song or two and try to make something of them. Because 'alternative’ as an idea was so broad and ill-defined at this point, there was a fair amount of novelty, miniature fads, and free-flowing crossover between top hits on modern rock radio and the wider pop charts. There seemed to exist a certain brand of artist who fit into the cracks and glued these different worlds together. The term pop-rock has been used perennially to describe bands that do this, but from 1997-1999 there was a slippery yet distinct flavor that seemed to unite them even more.
We’re not talking about ascendant indie bands or, really, anyone with much connection at all to the underground. These were almost all bands with explicit pop ambitions, and as you can see from the above playlist, most of them were one-hit wonders. The songs were upbeat and generally sunny, even when they dealt with darker subjects (“Semi-Charmed Life” is about crystal meth addiction, “The Way” is about an elderly Texas couple who were found dead in a ravine, etc.). In terms of imagery and videos, it was very common for acts at this time to invoke a lot of mid-century suburban Americana: white picket fences, Airstream trailers, driving in convertibles (or, if you’re really young and hip, mopeds), dressing in thrift store bowling shirts or ironic matching suits, and going to pools, beaches, or amusement parks. There was supposed to be a little bit of snark to it—subtly skewering their parents’ generation to position themselves as young, edgy, and ‘alternative’—but it never really came off that way because there was nothing very rebellious or political about the music. Looking at it now, this imagery plays more like jokey homage and warped nostalgia, with a lot of young people having fun the same way young people in America have for decades. Think of it like the way The Simpsons at the time was both a loving mockery of middle America and a fairly straightforward sitcom that appealed directly to it.
Musically, this stuff exists in a kind of middle ground between different sounds that were prevalent at the time. They run the gamut from really simplistic guitar pop like Everclear or Semisonic to what was essentially dance pop from acts like Len or Fatboy Slim, who although he was part of the breakbeat thing that was exploding at this time, was played alongside these pop-rock bands with much higher frequency than, say, The Prodigy or The Chemical Brothers. There were a handful of pop punk bands making big waves on the modern rock and pop charts at this time, as well as a slate of mellower, more acoustic and ‘grown up’ acts that were also scoring hits. Today, a lot these sounds wouldn’t overlap or bleed into each other in the same way that they did on the radio and on MTV or VH1 in the late 90s somewhere under this vague canopy of ‘alternative.’ That’s one of the big reasons I tend to lump them together as a kind of stop-gap genre.
I was in middle school from ’97-’99, so while it’s true that FM radio played a much bigger role in most peoples lives than it does today, it was also my main personal gateway to pop music. At that point, I don’t think my sense of taste was developed enough to distinguish between what I actually liked and disliked and what was a function of social interaction and peer weight. None of this stuff was seen as particularly cool or uncool at my school, but it was more socially acceptable for boys to like Blink-182 and Green Day than, say, Sugar Ray, whose appeal was too close to boy band territory for the comfort of most of us. Besides, Mark McGrath was/is a huge tool and Sugar Ray had inflicted “Fly” on the world, still one of the stupidest and most annoying hits of my lifetime. Fatboy Slim, Semisonic, and Fastball were all OK, but when it came to one-hit wonders most of us preferred the novelty of “Tubthumping” or “One Week.” Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life” was all over TV and movies in those years, so everyone knew it and would hum the “do-do-do, do-dodo-doo” part, but I liked “Jumper” a little bit more because of the drumroll part, which appealed to me as a beginning percussionist. Everybody loved “Sex and Candy.” In the bigger picture, though, these bands weren’t touted as huge favorites. Britney Spears and N’Sync were happening, as well as Puff Daddy, Aaliyah, DMX, and the beginnings of Destiny’s Child, all of which carried far more weight among students at Discovery Middle School.
And hey, it turns out those acts still carry more weight in the history of pop than something like Everclear or Cake. This pop-rock stuff didn’t have a lot of value beyond its moment, not because it wasn’t particularly deep or artistic—though it wasn’t and isn’t—but because there were bigger and more culturally significant things happening elsewhere. The upside to the disposable nature of this music is that you can use it for your own ends as long as it holds up. For me, it evokes memories of the late 90s, but it doesn’t radiate them so brightly that I can’t appreciate these songs as simple, successful pop either. I’m surprised how well the songs on the above playlist still hang together. Some of that comes down to my own editorial picking and choosing—and some of these songs did indeed receive the Pitchfork stamp of approval when they put up their big 90s list a few years ago—but history isn’t going to and doesn’t need to celebrate or even vindicate these bands. They serve as an aesthetic marker for what was happening in music and how Americans were feeling at the end of the 20th century, through good songs and bad ones. Also, when sideburns and soul patches make a comeback in a few years, we can point to this and know why.
1. Third Eye Blind - “Semi-Charmed Life” - June 17, 1997
2. Everclear - “I Will Buy You A New Life” - September 27 ,1997
3. Marcy Playground - “Sex and Candy” - November 4, 1997
4. Fastball - “The Way” - February 24, 1998
5. Semisonic - “Closing Time” - March 10, 1998
6. Harvey Danger - “Flagpole Sitta” - April 21, 1998
7. Fatboy Slim - “The Rockafeller Skank” - September 22, 1998
8. Cake - “Never There” - October 13, 1998
9. New Radicals - “You Get What You Give” - November 10, 1998
10. Third Eye Blind - “Jumper” - November 24, 1998
11. Fatboy Slim - “Praise You” - February 16, 1999
12. Sugar Ray - “Someday” - June 15, 1999
13. Len - “Steal My Sunshine” - July 22, 1999