How rock ruled in 1991 — and why its dead 30 years later08/12/2021
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In 1991, rock was on such a roll that Nirvana’s “Nevermind,” the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Blood Sugar Sex Magik” and Soundgarden’s “Badmotorfinger” — now considered classic albums of the era — all came out on the very same day: Sept. 24.
The week before that, Guns N’ Roses dropped not one but two blockbuster LPs: “Use Your Illusion I” and “II.” And in the previous month, two monster rock albums arrived in Pearl Jam’s “Ten” and Metallica’s self-titler, known as “The Black Album,” which turns 30 on Thursday.
Add to that other seminal 1991 albums by the likes of R.E.M. (“Out of Time”) and U2 (“Achtung Baby”) — not to mention the first Lollapalooza 30 summers ago — and there’s no doubt that it was a golden age for the genre.
“Obviously, there was something in the water,” said Lyndsey Parker, host of SiriusXM’s “Volume West.” “I think MTV had a lot to do with it. They were still playing a lot of videos, and ‘120 Minutes’ and ‘Headbanger’s Ball’ were getting behind a lot of newer rock bands.”
“Unfortunately rock music kind of became known to Gen Z and millennials as their parents’ music. It’s the old people’s music now.”
Lyndsey Parker, host of SiriusXM’s “Volume West.”
That year was a perfect storm of metal, alternative rock and grunge that all came together to dominate the music industry. While today’s rock seems all but dead in a sea of pop and hip-hop, three decades ago it was the force of youthful rebellion and culture-moving creativity.
“Every 10 or 15 years, a new generation comes along, and it wants something for itself, and [rock] was really ripe in that particular year. The size of the songs were just indestructible,” added Ronen Givony, author of the 2020 book “Not For You: Pearl Jam and the Present Tense.” “All of these things crystallized that had been really bubbling up for a few years.”
Billboard deputy editor Andrew Unterberger told The Post that the year was a “crossroads in rock history.”
“You were coming off of the metal and hard-rock dominance of the late ’80s, with hair metal sort of being the dominant strain of rock music. But alternative rock is kind of mounting its charge. By 1992, it’s a done deal, and alternative is the thing for the rest of the decade.”
The big rock bang in 1991 began that March when R.E.M. released “Out of Time,” the group’s best-selling album, which also featured its biggest hit, the mandolin-laced “Losing My Religion.” Having made their major-label debut with “Green” in 1988 — after years of being the kings of college rock — R.E.M. fully leaned into its mass appeal for the first time.
“‘Out of Time’ was the hugest record, and I think that laid a lot of groundwork,” said Parker of R.E.M.’s Grammy-winning smash. “They probably were the most influential in terms of ushering in a post-hair metal world of being not flashy, not sexy, very nerdy, very collegiate. They were a harbinger of things to come.”
The enigmatic “Losing My Religion” video — which depicted camera-shy lead singer Michael Stipe clad with angel wings — would win Video of the Year at the VMAs later in 1991, catapulting the band to superstardom. “Throughout most of the ’80s, Michael Stipe was very steadfast that he wasn’t going to be appearing in music videos, that that wasn’t going to be a part of the R.E.M. experience,” said Unterberger. “He had sort of an innate underground distrust of MTV and the sort of things that it offered.”
But for R.E.M. and many other bands, MTV was the driving force in making 1991 such an unforgettable rock blitz. “MTV was still very much at the forefront of music culture and youth culture at that time,” said Parker.
Like R.E.M., Metallica had been reluctant to go hardcore with MTV before “The Black Album,” but that all changed with the “Enter Sandman” video that helped launch the LP into selling more than 16 million copies in the US alone.
“They didn’t do music videos for a long time. They were really resistant to it,” said Parker. “Then they got onboard with MTV in a way they absolutely hadn’t before. ‘Enter Sandman’ was on, like, constantly.”
From Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” iconic videos also played a major role in the successes of other rock bands in 1991. Certainly, that was the case for Guns N’ Roses. “They were sort of the first hard-rock band that dreamed on the same level of, like, a Michael Jackson or a Madonna in terms of these über-conceptual videos that a cost a million dollars each and lasted for seven or eight minutes,” said Unterberger, referring to classic clips such as “November Rain,” “Live and Let Die” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”
There was so much anticipation for Guns N’ Roses’ follow-up to their mega-selling debut, 1987’s “Appetite for Destruction,” that Axl Rose’s gang decided to release two “Use Your Illusion” albums separately and simultaneously.
“It was one of the first real event releases, where people were counting down the days until the albums came out,” said Unterberger. “People were lining up around the block at Tower Records at midnight.”
But with the releases of Pearl Jam’s “Ten,” Nirvana’s “Nevermind” and Soundgarden’s “Badmotorfinger,” grunge — which featured sulky, rather than preening, frontmen in oversized clothes, instead of skin-tight leather — began to shake up rock. In fact, “Nevermind” would go on to out-sell both of Guns N’ Roses’ “Use Your Illusion” albums and have far more cultural impact.
“All of a sudden you have working-class dudes in flannel and jeans who are talking about dysfunction and talking about family and talking about divorce,” said Givony. “By comparison to what was before it — Guns N’ Roses, Mötley Crüe and stuff — there was just a feeling of working-class authenticity that these guys had that was not common. And there was kind of a political element to it.”
Pearl Jam, whose “Ten” turns 30 on Aug. 27, won the battle of the Seattle bands commercially, going 13-times platinum.
“They were really the Cinderella story of that whole class,” said Givony. “They literally came together just months before [making ‘Ten’]. It was just one of those things where they got into a studio, and six days later ‘Ten’ was written.”
Then in November 1991, U2 — rock gods ever since 1987’s “The Joshua Tree” — went alternative with their other masterpiece, “Achtung Baby,” showing those grunge upstarts that they still had plenty of edge and that they weren’t going anywhere. “U2 had sort of gone over the top with ‘Joshua Tree,’” said Unterberger. “At a certain point, they kind of had to change the game up or else they were gonna become cartoon versions of themselves.”
Now, 30 years later, rock has gone quiet in a music landscape ruled by pop and hip-hop. “It has become a very retro-minded sort of genre at radio,” said Unterberger. “We don’t really see the breakout bands that we did in 1991.”
But Givony noted that it was a very different world in the music industry back then: “It was still a time when MTV, radio, retail — all of these things were in play that are just no longer [important] now.” Indeed, the very record-store culture that made hardcore rock fans flock to those must-buy 1991 classics — from all of the merchandise to the cool album covers that made you feel as if you could own a piece of your favorite bands — isn’t around today.
Parker said today’s takes on the genre feel too derivative. “I’m sorry — it’s gonna take more than Greta Van Fleet [who are often compared to Led Zeppelin] to save rock ‘n’ roll. I think they’re talented, but what they’re doing is so copyist. It’s not innovative. If rock ‘n’ roll is gonna come back, it’s gonna come back with something that sounds new.”
While rock used to be “the music that pisses your parents off,” Parker said that now the script has flipped. “Unfortunately rock music kind of became known to Gen Z and millennials as their parents’ music. It’s the old people’s music now.”
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