This is not so much a recommendation for these songs as it is an analysis or informational piece on them. As a teacher, I enjoy the hell out of teaching and that is what I am trying to provide here. Whether you like these tunes or not, my hope is that you learn something about them and their place in history as it pertains to the ’90s decade. My goal is to pick a song from each of these genres: Pop, hip hop/R&B, and rock. As these are broad subjects, I’ll include any alternative/metal songs in the rock category (don’t kill me).
The Biggest Pop Song of the Year (and the backlash)
Nothing Compares 2 U – Sinead O’Connor
As far as love songs go, “Nothing Compares 2 U” is difficult not to like. It is easy to sing along to and there are some lines that people just have to belt at the top of their lungs when they hear it. In terms of staying power, it has remained relevant since its release in 1990, when Billboard itself named it the #1 single in the world at the first ever Billboard Music Awards. Written and composed by the legendary Prince, O’Connor’s cover is beautifully sung. There is not a moment throughout the tune that you can not hear the heartbreak and pain in her voice.
The song itself is only half the tale. Due to an extremely controversial moment on Saturday Night Live in October 1992, many people wanted to forget the song altogether. O’Connor, a native of Ireland, went on SNL and tore a photo of then Pope John Paul II to pieces after her live performance. The audience, both in studio and at home, was shocked. Why would she do such a thing? O’Connor was protesting the abuse of children in Ireland by the Catholic Church, news that the rest of world would not find out about until more than twenty years later. It did not go over well with many people as NBC received several thousand calls complaining about O’Connor’s actions. Unfortunately, her career never recovered. Now almost thirty years later, many believe O’Connor is owed an enormous apology for revealing the truth more than twenty years before the rest of us found out.
*If you’re interested in seeing the full incident play out, watch below. It comes at the end of the performance.
The Hip to the Hop
I Left My Wallet in El Segundo – A Tribe Called Quest
The title itself made us do a double-take. Then there was the name of the group: A Tribe Called Quest. Their main rapper called himself Q-tip and his fellow MC was named Pfife Dawg. Who was this smooth, groovy, eclectic group and why did they sound so different from other rap? It turns out that “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo” would be our introduction to the iconic hip hop group from Queens that would go on to release three, some would argue four, phenomenal albums. I imagine if jazz had wanted to turn itself into hip hop, it would have become A Tribe Called Quest.
In 1990, hip hop was mostly known as Run DMC and N.W.A. along with two enormous pop rap singles on radio in the form of “U Can’t Touch This” and “Ice Ice Baby.” This is not to say fans of the genre were not keen to ’80s carryovers such as KRS-One, Big Daddy Kane, or Public Enemy. They were still popular, but mainly by true hip hop fans, not the public at large. A Tribe Called Quest presented America with a silky hip hop touch, one that felt as if it came from a stoop in Queens. If Nirvana was going to be alternative rock, A Tribe Called Quest helped set the foundation for what some would call alternative hip hop (although, to me, it’s just hip hop, but that’s a converation for a different post).
“I Left My Wallet in El Segundo” is nowhere near Tribe’s biggest or best, but it is the first song they released to the masses. It came off their astounding debut album, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths to Rhythm. The album presented a sophisticated side of hip hop that mainstream had begun warming up to thanks to De La Soul’s 1989 album, Three Feet High and Rising. While many in music labeled De La Soul’s quirky style as hippie rap, People’s Instinctive Travels showed that this laid back style of rap would not be a mere flash in the pan. In addition to “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo,” provided a number classic tracks including, “Bonita Applebum,” “Can I Kick It,” “Luck of Lucien,” and “Push it Along.” It is one of those rare albums that can be listened to from beginning to end without ever hitting the stop button.
Rock (The Jane’s Addiction way)
Been Caught Stealing (1990)
“Been Caught Stealing” is one of the only songs I know of that not only uses dog barks, but uses them effectively as hell. Spending four weeks at the #1 spot on Billboard’s 1990 chart, “Been Caught Stealing” is memorable for some of its great guitar riffs and, well, that barking. The bark comes from lead singer Perry Farrell’s dog who he just happened to have brought it to the studio that day. According to Farrell, the barks being added to the song were “pure coincidence” as the dog would bark every time Farrell started singing. That the song is about stealing almost makes you almost feel bad for liking it. Almost.
There is another reason the song was a hit aside from its hilarity: the music video. It is incredibly difficult to hear this song without seeing the video play along with it. The video, directed by Farrell’s girlfriend at the time, shows a number of different peculiar characters shoplifting at a local grocery store. It is completely over-the-top, but it remains one of the great music videos of all time simply for its crude uniqueness. Also, it is hard to forget the vivid image of the guy singing with pantyhose over his head. The video caught the eye of the industry as well, winning the 1991 MTV Video Music Award for Best Alternative Music Video. VH1 also ranked it #47 on their 100 Greatest Videos list.