It’s Weird ’90s Week on Stereogum. All week long we’re looking at the strangest musical moments and trends of the decade. Check out more here.
So there I was, in the middle of a horse-racing track in West Virginia, watching Shaolin monks do kung fu. I never thought to ask myself why I was there, whether this made any sense or not. Honestly, it made as much sense as anything else.
Months before Nevermind came along and changed a great many things, the first Lollapalooza tour sounded the warning drums. Things were going to be different. Representatives of all these underground tribes came together, across the country, to see Jane’s Addiction and Ice-T and Nine Inch Nails and the Rollins Band and Siouxsie And The Banshees share stages. As grunge and industrial and and rap-metal and pop-punk and gangsta rap altered the pop-music landscape, the Lollapalooza tour became an institution, showing the power that all these assembled undergrounds had. Things were bubbling up from beneath. Things were changing. Before Kurt Cobain killed himself, Nirvana were supposed to headline the 1994 Lolla tour. They would’ve topped a bill that included the Smashing Pumpkins and the Beastie Boys. It would’ve really been something.
Or that was the idea, anyway. When we, collectively, lionize the alternative-music era of the ’90s these days, we think of things like Nevermind and that first Lollapalooza. But the truth is that everything basically went nuts. Everyone lost the plot. We tore down the pillars of popular music, and we never really built up anything to replace them. So by 1996, that meant kung fu monks on the mainstage at Lollapalooza. That year, the main story was that the newly short-haired Metallica were relaunching themselves as something other than a metal band. Rancid and the Wu-Tang Clan and the Screaming Trees were there. Waylon Jennings played some dates. So did Devo. So did 311.
By the end of the ’90s, nobody even knew what the term “alternative music” meant anymore. Nickelback emerged. So did Creed. Before long, we’d be seeing Papa Roach on the cover of Spin (not to mention MTV’s teenybopper request show TRL). Before that, there were all these fads and fancies that absolutely resist explanation today. People started wearing goggles on their head. Swing-dancing got popular. Chanting monks (Benedictine, not Shaolin) went multi-platinum. MTV played Tony Bennett videos. The biggest country star that the world had ever seen invented an inexplicable rock-star alter-ego. Nothing made any fucking sense at all.
So with Weird ’90s Week at Stereogum, we’re leaping headlong into all the stuff that resists canonization, stuff that never made any sense in the first place. It was a strange time. Maybe you were there, and maybe you weren’t. Maybe you’ve already forgotten that any of this nonsense happened. But it did. It all happened. Let’s get into it.