October 19, 2006

Stop Right Now, Thank You Very Much

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In the deepest recess of Cornell’s dark underbelly, perhaps in one of those charmingly run-down excuses for a house not ten feet away from your own, some well-meaning college kid is planning a ‘90’s-themed party. They want to do something different for their next get-together, something fresh, yet with that ironic twist characteristic of all college theme parties. They marvel at what they consider to be their own ingenuity – unbeknownst to them, they’ve actually been inspired by watching countless re-runs of I Love the ‘90’s during Fall Break, and now we all have to suffer for VH1’s decision to take a good idea too far.
Yes, one look at the events page on your Facebook will confirm that ’90s-themed dance parties truly are the new ’80’s-themed dance parties, and man, are they everywhere: fraternities, sororities, houses and even the lukewarm Ithaca club scene are sponsoring these dance retrospectives, leading me to question my earlier convictions regarding the sheer un-danceability of the previous decade. Is there something that I’m missing? Was there a genuine, salvageable dance scene easily overlooked by a careless eye?
Buckling down and scrutinizing the top hits of each year (yes, there was actual field work involved in this bit of journalism), I can safely boil the short answer down to a resoundingly pretentious “no”. American pop music in the ‘90’s can be separated into two distinct categories, the first being characterized by a major endorsement for the slow dance. Indeed, we began casting off the 30- and 40-something musician for a younger, slicker, more attractive pop idol. 1990 was really the last hurrah of these Billboard dinosaurs, with Bette Midler, Michael Bolton and Billy Idol still retaining spots at the top of the charts, but quickly losing ground to the moog-backed, smoo-o-o-oth sound of the R&B all-stars such as Whitney Houston, Monica, Toni Braxton, and Brandy, to name a few. These artists were nothing if not prolific, churning out album after album – sometimes one per year – and subsequently hit after hit, sometimes even teaming up to enact a reign of octave-defying terror. For example, Mariah Carey released her self-titled in 1990, and followed quickly with Emotions and Music Box, totaling twelve hits in less than three years; Boyz II Men put out two of their own substantial LPs, finally teaming up with Mariah in ’96 to release “One Sweet Day,” the high school graduation song of the century. America’s preteens ate it up, letting that smooth, buttery goodness melt us into quivering masses of hormones. We slow-danced with our crushes, not really understanding the lyrics to “I’ll Make Love To You” but knowing that playing it at a middle-school dance was somehow fundamentally wrong.
The second brand of ’90s pop literally commanded us to dance, sometimes providing intricate instructions for flawless synchronization. There was N’Sync and 98 Degrees, groups which we fixated on largely because of their ability to simultaneously dance and sing, but these gender-oriented industry creations are only half of a long, embarrassing story. How can we forget Lou Bega’s “Mambo #5,” or, dear God, the Brian Setzer Orchestra’s remake of “Jump Jive An’ Wail,” a song that single handedly brought about the second coming of both swing dance and Gap khakis. Oh, and we can thank Will Smith for making “jiggy” a legitimate part of the English language.
Of course, it wouldn’t be kosher to claim that pop music single-handedly killed dancing – rock had its fair share in the blame as well. Those of us who leaned towards this “alternative rock” – alternative because it wasn’t K-Ci & JoJo – were given two choices: heroin or pot. The first manifested itself in angry, dissatisfied hard rock, first of Nirvana and Pearl Jam, later Korn and Limp Bizkit; the second ranged from the reggae-infused hits of Sugar Ray to the simpering acoustics of the Dave Matthews Band or Third Eye Blind. Now, I’m not claiming that I don’t know all of the lyrics to “Walkin’ on the Sun,” but the options were clearly limited. One could either throw one’s body into a mass of angst-ridden teenagers, or else lie on the floor thinking about nature and colors.
So how did we recover from this dearth of respectable dance music? For next week: How Europe picked us up, dusted us off, and brought back the beat.