1955, 1964, 1967, 1973, 1977, 1981, 1984, and 1987 were the years where popular music have an enormous impact around the world socially and musically. Since the dawn of rock n’ roll in 1955, the years saw new genres being formed and new stars arriving into the spectrum. When the 1980s became the 1990s, many were wondering what was about to change into the new decade. Particularly a decade that was known for decadence and the megastar. The 1980s was a decade where bigger was better as Michael Jackson sold more than 40 million copies of his 1982 album Thriller. In turn, megastars such as Madonna, Prince, Bruce Springsteen & the E-Street Band, Phil Collins, and George Michael were putting out hit after hit selling large amount of albums.
It was the decade where rap music finally emerged into the consciousness of the mainstream as it would become a much bigger phenomenon as it was to enter the new decade. Rock music meanwhile, became more polished and more grandiose as the hair bands such as Motley Crue, Poison, and Bon Jovi were dominating the charts. Even as rock veterans like Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Aerosmith, Paul McCartney, and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers were also keeping rock alive. Yet, there was something in the underground that was emerging as it headed towards the 1990s.
For years, a growing music scene from the underground was starting to creep up towards the mainstream as bands like U2 and R.E.M. were starting to gain mainstream success. Even as other underground acts like the Pixies, the Replacements, Husker Du, and many others were getting critical attention. In 1990, both U2 and R.E.M. were in the process of reinvention. Even as metal/hard rock bands such as Metallica and Guns N’ Roses were also in the process of moving forward with their music.
When 1990 began, it became clear that not much was changing though it was evident that some things were on their way out. Hair bands were still ruling the rock charts along with a few rock veterans while pop music was becoming more polished with new acts like Mariah Carey, Wilson Phillips, and New Kids on the Block. Hip-hop and rap music was also becoming bigger and more refined thanks to the huge chart success of M.C. Hammer whose album Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em dominated the U.S. album charts for 21 weeks that eventually sold more than 18 million copies.
While it was a big deal for those who listened to top 40 radio or any kind of mainstream radio program. Not everyone was into it. While there was some new hope in Southern blues-rockers in the Black Crowes and alternative rock bands like Jane’s Addiction and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It wasn’t enough as pop, rock, and hip-hop was seemingly becoming more corporate than ever. Even dance music was becoming more redundant as it helped pushed album sales as it would emerge into the Soundscan era which would track albums sales in March of 1991.
While the U.S. was seemingly becoming more of the same with its control of what was cool on the radio and MTV. Britain was in a state of transition with this clash of established acts such as Tina Turner, Phil Collins, and other major label artists were going up against acts from indie labels such as the Stone Roses, the Happy Mondays, and New Order. Manchester was the capital of cool in Britain with its vibrant Madchester music scene that was spurred by acts like the Stone Roses, the Happy Mondays, the Charlatans, and Inspiral Carpets. Yet, that scene would be co-opted by knock-off acts such as Jesus Jones and EMF where they would have greater chart success not just in Britain but also the U.S.
When the year ended, the top-selling albums of those final weeks of 1990 and heading into the New Year were a representation of what the public was listening to. In Britain, it was a greatest hits collection by Madonna while in America; it was the major label debut album by a white rapper named Vanilla Ice called To the Extreme. Ice’s album sold 11 million copies worldwide with 16-week dominance in the U.S. album charts. Despite that success, Ice was marginalized by critics over his background while rap purists saw him as a low point of what hip-hop and rap music was becoming.
It wasn’t just hip-hop that was in danger of losing its edge but rock music as well as it was to head into the new year. The hair bands were definitely overstaying their welcome as groups like Nelson and Extreme were making huge hits on the pop charts with ballads. Even something that was supposed to be as cutting edge as electronic music was becoming more condensed as it churned out dance songs that were too cheesy for some listeners. It was as if the new year was going to be more of the same.
Fortunately, that wasn’t going to happen as there was a young audience that wanted something very different. They wanted something that they can relate and call onto their own. Something were there were bands that didn’t have big hair or wore leather pants. Acts that didn’t wear shiny baggy pants with big jackets and sported crazy hairstyles. Acts that weren’t manufactured by some producer or record company. In many ways, it was something that was going to shake-up the foundation of what was happening in popular music. Something that people will remember 20 years later.
1991 was the year everything changed dramatically. Not just popular music but rock music, electronic music, hip-hop, and even country music as well. It was as if, a new world had emerged and new artists were there to change the rules. Though not much has changed musically or socially in 2011, it would be a year where new rules were sets while artists and albums that emerged in that year would have a lasting legacy. If anything, 1991 was a watershed moment for popular music that would lead a new decade of exciting, vibrant art that would be remembered in the years to come.
Part 1: The Year in Pop & Dance
Pop music in 1991 was definitely a year in transition as such luminaries as Michael Jackson and Prince were set to return with new albums. Even as a mega-star like Madonna took time off that year to prepare for her next move as she released the documentary Truth or Dare about her 1990 Blond Ambition Tour. Another mega-star in George Michael was waging war with Sony Music over the lack of support for his 1990 album Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1 despite selling 8 million copies worldwide.
Still, pop music was about the new stars of that year as leading the way were acts like New Kids on the Block, Mariah Carey, and Wilson Phillips. Yet, with the exception of Mariah Carey, the time for the new pop acts were becoming shorter. Even as artists were accused of lip-syncing and not really singing thanks to the Milli Vanilli scandal in late 1990 when it was revealed that the German pop duo didn’t really sing any of the songs from their album. Artists such as Paula Abdul was accused of not really singing any of her songs as she was set to release her sophomore album Spellbound in May of 1991.
Meanwhile, other new acts were emerging such as Gerardo whose Latin-rap song Rico Suave was a big hit that year. Still, it didn’t really seem like pop music by 1991 was going forward as everyone looked like a manufactured act. Even Mariah Carey was someone that was considered to be a studio act since she was reluctant to tour at the time. While many of pop’s newcomers were starting to struggle with the pressures to perform and to meet expectations. Notably in the wake of the Soundscan tracking system that tracks albums and singles sales in March of 1991. It was up to the veterans of pop music that would help the genre move ahead.
The big star of that year was Bryan Adams whose single (Everything I Do) I Do It For You from the film soundtrack for Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and his own album Waking Up the Neighbours. The song went to number one in many countries including the U.S. for seven weeks along with a record-breaking 16-weeks in the U.K. where it would become the best-selling single ever until Elton John’s 1997 re-release of Candle In the Wind for Princess Diana of Wales. The song’s success was huge for the Canadian pop-rocker who found success with power ballads that would help remain successful worldwide in the 1990s.
Adams’ success also reached into the adult contemporary charts where he is joined by Sting, Simply Red, and Rod Stewart who all released successful albums that year. Notably Stewart who found his niche as an adult contemporary artist for the 1990s while Sting’s The Soul Cages album was a more personal record about the death of his father. Simply Red’s Stars became a massive hit in Europe and in its native Britain though the band’s U.S. success had already waned late in the 1980s. There was no artist bigger in that genre much to the disgust of critics in Michael Bolton.
Bolton who started off as a hard rock singer in the early 1980s switched gears to adult contemporary in re-creating soul classics. His 1991 album Time, Love, & Tenderness would become a huge seller that year selling 8 million in the U.S. and 16 million worldwide. Despite his huge success in singing soul classics to housewives all over the world, critics despised the singer for polishing songs made famous by Otis Redding, the Isley Brothers, and Percy Sledge. Though he would remain successful throughout the 1990s, his career would take a major blow thanks to a 1999 film called Office Space where a character with the same, unfortunate name decried him as a “no-talent ass-clown”.
One major pop artist who would make a return to the scene is Gloria Estefan. The Latin-singing star who headed the Miami Sound Machine in the 1980s went solo in 1989 as she was riding high on a wave of success. Then in March of 1990 on a cold, snowy day in Pennsylvania. Estefan was in a horrific accident that nearly paralyzed her as she had to have spinal surgery that took a year for her to recover and rehabilitate. Her return to the stage at the 1991 American Music Awards early that year proved to be a major comeback as her album Into the Light became a major hit.
Another female artist that had a great year was Natalie Cole whose 1991 album Unforgettable… with Love would be her greatest success. The album had Cole sing the standards that her later father Nat King Cole sang during the 1950s/1960s including a duet of the song Unforgettable with her late father with the use of modern technology. The album proved to be a major seller while winning the Grammy for Album of the Year in early 1992.
Another female artist who went big in 1991 came from Christian music singer Amy Grant whose album Heart in Motion became a massive crossover hit in both the pop and Christian music charts. Yielding five hits from 1991 to 1992, the album proved to be accessible to a pop audience while her Christian music audience were well in tact. This feat proved that anything could happen in the world of pop music as Amy Grant, Natalie Cole, and Gloria Estefan helped broaden the spectrum of what pop music could do for female artists.
Pop music in 1991 was also given a boost by acts from Europe who took American pop and hip-hop elements to techno music. It was part of a wave of Eurodance music that forged acts like Snap!, Technotronic, and Black Box. The Eurodance scene moved dance music away from the days of early 1980s synth-pop as it brought the house music that was coming from Manchester and Ibizia to the world of American pop music. While it gave people something to dance to in clubs all over the world. Not everyone was happy about the emergence of Eurodance.
One of the biggest criticism that the Eurodance trend had was that it was all driven by producers who remain faceless as they would have female singers or a rapper do parts as they represented the group. There was an even bigger controversy in the U.S. thanks to groups like C + C Music Factory and Black Box as they used models to sing for the videos and promotional appearances. Yet, it would be revealed that the woman that was singing these hit singles was former Weather Girls vocalist Martha Wash wasn’t given proper credit for her vocal contributions. Wash would sue both groups as the attention helped revive her career.
The Martha Wash controversy did die down as Wash would get her royalties and credit as the dance-pop music scene became more diluted by its sound and visual presentation. Artists like Cathy Dennis, 2 Unlimited, Rozalla, Londonbeat, Crystal Waters, and CeCe Peniston were creating dance hits that were big in nightclubs. Yet, critics found the music cheesy and lacking in any real sense of artistry as a lot of the music sound the same. While the group Enigma added a new age element to the music, it still felt cheesy for people that wanted something different from the world of electronic music. Particularly as the dance music of this period helped move units and gave ideas for some of pop’s veterans.
Throughout all of the new stars and trends that were happening. The world of pop music was awaiting the return of its mega-stars in Prince and Michael Jackson. Prince was in desperate need of a major hit following the commercial failure of his 1990 film Graffiti Bridge, a sequel to his 1984 hit film Purple Rain. His 1991 album Diamonds and Pearls was a major hit as he was backed by a new band, the New Power Generation. The album gave Prince a chance to win back the African-American audience he seemed to have ignored as the record was also a return of sorts to R&B. Though it would help Prince maintain his status as a mega-star, it would only be brief as he would move further into different styles of music along with an eventual war with his label Warner Brothers.
Then, there’s the King of Pop in Michael Jackson. Jackson was the biggest star of the 1980s as anticipation ran high for his return with a new album. In March of 1991, Jackson signed a $65 million deal with Sony Music that was considered to be record-breaking at the time. Jackson went to work with renowned producer Teddy Riley whose creation of the new jack swing sound had made him successful with acts like Bobby Brown and Riley’s own group Blackstreet. Jackson collaborated with Riley, under the suggestion of his old producer Quincy Jones, where the result would be Dangerous.
At 77 minutes with 14 tracks, it was Jackson proclaiming his status as the King of Pop when the album was finally released on November 26, 1991 led by the single Black or White weeks earlier. The album would become Jackson’s most successful record of that decade as his career would later freefall due to child molestation allegations and an addiction to painkillers. The album would also be Jackson’s last major success as he struggled to maintain his status as a commercial force in the 1990s and 2000s until his death in 2009 weeks before he was to hold a major series of comeback concerts in London.
The year in pop ended with Michael Jackson reigning supreme that year as he would head into 1992 maintaining his hold as the king of the charts. Yet, on the second week of that new year. A change would emerge where Michael Jackson would not only be knocked off the top spot. It would mark an indication that the music scene was changing as it would affect pop music for good.
© thevoid99 2011