Tamagotchis, dangerously low-rise pants, eyebrow rings and AutoTune – the ‘90s certainly spawned some questionable trends, but Bryget Chrisfield outlines the musical highs that elevated this genre-bending decade. 

#1 Grunge: Come As You Are 

From the moment Nirvana’s Nevermind knocked Michael Jackson’s Dangerous from the top of the US album chart in 1991, grunge spread like bedbugs in a backpackers’ hostel and absolutely everyone owned a flanno (Marc Jacobs even cashed in on this musical genre’s fashion staple, sending flanno-clad models down his catwalk). Rebelling against the sheen of ‘80s music, this scene – which originated in Seattle – celebrated raw, visceral, confrontational authenticity. And these bands typically looked like they’d just woken up on a mate’s couch, kicked the bong over on the way out the door and then hit the stage clad in the same slacker attire they’d crashed out in. 

More grunge heroes: Pearl Jam, Mudhoney, Alice In Chains, Soundgarden and 7 Year Bitch.

#2 Girl Power 

Spice Girls spiced up our lives throughout the ‘90s, TLC brought the CrazySexyCool and Beyoncé always scored the best outfits in Destiny’s Child (FYI: her mum Tina designed the group’s coordinated stage outfits). Sporting bedazzled double denim, B*Witched repped Ireland (‘C’est La Vie’). Stateside, the “love makin’, heartbreakin’, soul shakin’” American R&B/pop vocal group En Vogue showcased impeccable vocal harmonies on smash hits such as ‘My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It)’ and ‘Free Your Mind’. And Australia had Girlfriend, with their trademark headwear decorated by giant sunflowers. Remember their chart-topping 1992 single ‘Take It From Me’? 

But it was the Simon Fuller-managed Spice Girls, the most successful British band since The Beatles, who reigned supreme. The best-selling girl group of their time, Spice Girls embraced endorsements, influenced fashion (those signature platform sneakers!) and their merch range was insane! (eg. “Fantasy Ball” Chupa Chups – different packaging for each Spice Girl – with collectible stickers included). Who was your favourite Spice Girl? Was it Scary (Mel B), Posh (Victoria Beckham), Sporty (Mel C), Baby (Emma Bunton) or Ginger (Geri Halliwell)? All together now: “If you wanna be my lover, you gotta get with my friends…”

Coiner alert: “Girl power” (which became the Spice Girls catchphrase) features as lyrical content within ‘Girl’s Life’ (Girlfriend’s second single, released in 1992), but Spice Girls didn’t even form ‘til 1994!

#3 The Disney Movement

The fact Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera and Ryan Gosling all joined The All-New Mickey Mouse Club in 1993, for its sixth season on the Disney Channel, is nuts! All of these future global superstars became Mouseketeers aged 12, except for Britney who was just 11. 

In 1999, Britney’s ‘Baby One More Time’ revived the teen-pop genre and became a worldwide smash. The accompanying video, shot in a high school and featuring Britney – sporting a ‘customised’ uniform, her hair in braided pigtails – busting out the moves in locker-lined corridors. That same year, Christina’s poptastic ‘Genie In A Bottle’ topped the charts.

When *NSYNC formed in 1995, JT (with hair strongly resembling 2 Minute Noodles) was recruited as one of the group’s two lead vocalists (alongside fellow Mouseketeer J.C. Chasez). 

Here in Oz, we had Young Talent Time, with Dannii Minogue and the show’s longest-serving cast member Tina Arena going on to release hit records in the ‘90s. 

The almost-Mouseketeer: Nick Carter was selected to join The All-New Mickey Mouse Club, but got a better offer: Backstreet Boys. 

#4 Let’s Hear It For The Boy (Bands)

Not since Beatlemania had groups of unattainable blokes been greeted by such earsplitting tween/teen squeals. Friendship groups were formed in line with boy band allegiances and lunchtime bitch fights erupted if you dared to admit that your favourite boy band member was the same as that of your posse’s top dog. 

If you’re of a certain age, don’t pretend you didn’t blow all your pocket money on posters and import copies of Smash Hits to decorate your bedroom walls with your boy band/s of choice. Was it Take That (‘Back For Good’), *NSYNC (‘Tearin’ Up My Heart’), Backstreet Boys (‘I Want It That Way’), Boyz II Men (‘End Of The Road’), 5ive (the Joan Jett-sampling ‘Everybody Get Up’) Westlife (‘Flying Without Wings’), Boyzone (‘Picture Of You’), New Kids On The Block (‘Step By Step’’), Hanson (‘MMMBop’) or Australia’s-own Human Nature (‘Every Time You Cry’ feat. Farnsy)?

Boy band wannabes: Russell Brand was one of the 3000 hopefuls who auditioned for 5ive and Colin Farrell was invited to audition for Boyzone after he was clocked strutting his stuff on a nightclub dancefloor. 

#5 The Battle Of Britpop 

Band/fan rivalries have never been as brutal as that of Blur versus Oasis, which the British music press beat-up as “The Battle Of Britpop”: posh Southern kids (Blur) taking on working-class Northerners (Oasis).  In 1994, Blur put out their outstanding Parklife record and Definitely Maybe by Oasis became the best-selling debut album ever. 

Spurred on by the media, Blur referred to their adversaries as “Oasis Quo” (comparing the band to Status Quo) and Oasis retaliated by describing Blur’s sound as “Chas & Dave chimney sweep music”. 

Then the biggest showdown in chart history went down when Blur and Oasis released new singles (‘Country House’ and ‘Roll With It’ respectively) on 20 August, 1995 – the same day – at the height of their fame. Cue the best week for UK singles sales in a decade, with ‘Country House’ selling 274,000 copies and ‘Roll With It’ coming up short with 216,000 copies sold. Blur’s ‘Country House’ was perhaps given a competitive edge thanks to the accompanying Benny Hill-indebted, Damien Hirst-directed music video. 

But they’ve since buried the hatchet, with Noel Gallagher featuring on ‘We Got The Power’ –a track by Gorillaz, another of Blur singer Damon Albarn’s ace musical projects. 

More Britpop royalty: Suede, Pulp, Elastica (fronted by Justine Frischmann, Albarn’s then gf) and Supergrass. 

#6 Novelty Hit Mayhem

‘Craptacular’ they may well be, but once one of these ‘90s novelty hits hijacks your internal jukebox … yeah, good luck with that! #sorrynotsorry in advance for this list:

  • ‘I’m Too Sexy’ (Right Said Fred, 1991);
  • ‘Macarena’ (Los Del Rio, 1993);
  • ‘Cotton Eye Joe’ (Rednex, 1994);
  • ‘Barbie Girl’ (Aqua, 1997);
  • ‘Tubthumping’, aka the “I get knocked down” song (Chumbawamba, 1997);
  • ‘Blue (Da Ba Dee)’ (Eiffel 65, 1998) – that oughta do it.

Actually, am I the only one out there still harbouring a grudge because my name didn’t make the ‘Mambo No. 5 (A Little Bit Of…)’ roll call?

#7 The Cher Effect

“Do you believe in life after love?” On her dance single ‘Believe’ (1998), which topped the charts in 23 countries, Cher pioneered the use of Auto-Tune – distorting her vocals to sound like a robot chiming in from outerspace (“It’s so sa-a-a-ad that you’re leaving…”).  Instead of just using Auto-Tune to correct pitch problems, this production innovation was used to create a futuristic special effect on ‘Believe’, the biggest hit of Cher’s career. 

Auto-Tune also revolutionised late-‘90s dance music (Daft Punk’s ‘Around The World’) before infiltrating pop, hip-hop and R&B tunes to this day. As such, many recording artists – including T-Pain, Kanye (‘Love Lockdown’), Black Eyed Peas (‘Boom Boom Pow’) and Bon Iver (‘Woods’) – owe Cher a debt of gratitude. 

#8 Hip-Hop Crossovers 

The remix for Mariah Carey’s ‘Fantasy’ (1995), featuring rap verses from Ol’ Dirty Bastard (“Me and Mariah/ Go back like babies with pacifiers…”), was a defining musical moment of the ‘90s. Also heavily sampling ‘Genius Of Love’ by Tom Tom Club, ‘Fantasy’ remains a dancefloor filler to this day. 

Hip-hop collaboration became increasingly popular throughout the ‘90s, entering pop culture, troubling the worldwide mainstream charts and adding extra urban flava (thanks, Craig David) to rock, pop and R&B tracks. 

Other hip-hop flavoured crossover pop hits of the ‘90s include the Fugees’ Grammy-winning ‘Killing Me Softly’ (1996), which samples the drum beat and sitar hook from A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘Bonita Applebum’, and Coolio’s ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ (1995), which borrows heavily from Stevie Wonder’s ‘Pastime Paradise’.  

#9 Superstar DJs Here We Go! 

With the rise of DJ culture in the ‘90s, turntables outsold guitars and punters raced to the nearest dancefloor, raised their hands in the air and waited for the drop. Underworld’s ‘Born Slippy .NUXX’ made us chant “lager lager lager!”, Chemical Brothers incited dancefloor mayhem with ‘Hey Boy Hey Girl’, Basement Jaxx signalled ‘Red Alert’, Fatboy Slim wanted to ‘Praise You’, Groove Armada announced ‘I See You Baby’, and Moby sampled the Twin Peaks soundtrack for his belter ‘Go!’.

The message was clear: electronic dance music, house and techno had officially percolated into the mainstream. And then suddenly choons such as Darude’s ‘Sandstorm’ and Da Hool’s ‘Meet Her At The Love Parade’ blasted from the subwoofers of souped-up cars everywhere.  

Double dropping…

To close out the ‘90s, superstar DJ Carl Cox rang in the New Year twice, hitting the decks to welcome a new millennium on Bondi Beach before crossing the international dateline to drop back-to-back bangers on Hawaii’s Kakaako Waterfront Beach.