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Save today’s youth from the radio

Mary Squillace | Monday, November 14, 2005

When the clock struck midnight on Jan. 1, 2000, we didn’t all spontaneously combust, and our computers didn’t start spewing out death threats in binomial code. Nobody was raptured up to the North Star to live with Elvis, and it turned out there was no need to seek shelter among the cans of Hormel Chili stored in the basement. The lights didn’t as much as flicker. But as the ’90s expired and we entered the new millennium, something catastrophic did happen.

Popular music, as we knew and loved it, died.

While it’s difficult to imagine a time when music thrived in the absence of iPods, the 1990s supplied us with a veritable buffet of delectably catchy and memorable songs across genres. More importantly, the radio was an audio beacon of wisdom and solace for our generation, leading us out of childhood and safely into adolescence one hit song after another.

Upon first glance, the 1990s may seem like a wasteland for one-hit-wonders or a decade-long sugar high, fueled by the likes of Ace of Base and New Kids on the Block. And while it’s partially true – the ’90s remain unmatched in their selection of upbeat pop and dance tunes – they stand for a time when the problems of the world fell away to beguiling beats and lighthearted, ambiguous lyrics.

The music of the decade was riddled with enigmatic song premises and even made-up words. We may never understand why Whitetown (seemingly made up of a group of men) could never be “Your Woman” (and why they would want to be), or whether Ace of Base means that “All That She Wants” is another baby literally or figuratively. Likewise, we will probably never grasp the etymology behind phrases like “Tubthumping,” “Blu Da Ba Dee” and “Mmm Bop.” However, in spite of how cheesy and nonsensical these lyrics are, their inherent catchiness has immortalized songs like these.

When it comes to boy bands and teen queens, the ’90s represent an age of innocence. Reputations untarnished by rehab stints or relationships with notorious party girls, members of boy bands wore their matching ensembles like pristine boy-scout uniforms. Likewise, Britney and Christina were as pure and virginal as if they had shimmied right out of the womb and onto MTV. Little has to be said for what has become of these stars today.

However, the effects of the fluffy and bright mainstream pop and dance music were kept in check by the gritty sounds of alternative bands like Nirvana, Bush, Pearl Jam and the Smashing Pumpkins. With their torn jeans, greasy hair and, most of all, true musical talent, these artists provided us an outlet for our pent-up pre-teen angst.

Today, mall-punk bands try to tap into the same audience with their whiny lyrics and facial piercings and with insufficient musical fortitude. Within the Rock-Alternative genre, bands such as Nickleback and Three Doors Down continue to rasp different lyrics over the same tired song and as a result, still receive airplay that is inversely proportional to the amount of talent they possess. It’s no wonder kids these days struggle to express themselves.

Similarly, music today seriously lacks a strong female presence, unlike the ’90s. In our day, Alanis ruled as the queen of righteous rage, whereas today’s youth is left with Avril Lavigne and Ashlee Simpson, who have tried to take on the world with little more than a big fat stick of black eyeliner.

Though her recent efforts with “Hollaback Girl” ensure that she will either make the varsity cheerleading squad or win a first grade spelling bee, Gwen Stefani’s latest hits leave something to be desired with her original fan base.

While she and Garbage’s Shirley Manson once established credibility with their fierce lead vocals, today the Black-Eyed Peas’ Sarah Ferguson inspires by singing about her “lovely lady lumps.” How empowering.

In addition to experiencing a musically-mediated catharsis of frustration and anger via alternative artists of the 1990s, kids today may actually be completely devoid of emotion.

Boyz II Men stood alone in their ability to endow meaning to middle school romances and sweaty-palmed slow dances across the entire country. In fact, it’s difficult to fathom how 13-year-olds today will ever learn to love sans the Mo-Town Philly foursome. What’s more, ten years ago, tunes by Mariah, Whitney, and Phil Collins were readily available to the average smitten 16 year old via mainstream radio, whereas today such ballads can only be safely enjoyed secretly, usually after dark on adult contemporary specialty shows. Not that any of us would know about that.

And of course, no exploration of the ’90s would be complete without mentioning the force of the 1990s dance craze.

Together, we put our hands to our hips and dipped, took a walk with Will Smith and the Men in Black and of course, did the Macarena. Under the power of the Macarena, we united not only in our synchronized pelvic thrusts, but eventually in our mutual hatred for the song that played nearly every hour, on the hour. Regardless, no song in the 21st century has had even close to the effect of the god awful, but strangely addictive, Macarena.

Quality music exists today, but it’s certainly not readily accessible over the radio. In fact, it’s often couched within the folds of music-sharing sites. And, while a rich array of indie artists satisfy the musical appetites of co-eds, think about how many years Tammy Twelve-Year-Old will inevitably spend in therapy after coming of age to the tune of Death Cab for Cutie’s “Tiny Vessels” – that kind of music will only put the “emo” into her lifelong emotional baggage.

Then again, maybe what makes the music of the ’90s so good is that it is inextricably nestled among memories of playing pogs under the bleachers at recess, passing notes in Language Arts class and that post-first date awkward embrace (shared while Mom and Dad waited in the van, of course).

Contact Mary Squillace at msquilla@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.