Key Moments In 90s Music

The 1990s was filled with trends that sharply steered us away from the era of Miami Vice, Wall Street, and the Brat Pack.

On the fashion side, women had begun to move from the “big hair” of the 80s and were enamored with The Rachel (from Friends), braids, headwraps, and messy buns. Men favored spiked hair, long hair, and hi-top fades. For both men and women, baggy jeans and Timberlands were in.

As for the music, there was a big shift from the synth-driven, neon-colored videos dominating MTV (which by this time was running almost anything BUT videos) to something a bit grittier and real. Here are some of the music trends that defined the 90s.


Seattle may be known as the original home of Starbucks, but the city also birthed the stripped-down “grunge” music scene. Grunge and alternative rock were some of the most influential trends thanks to bands like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and of course, Nirvana. It was more than a sound; it influenced fashion that included Converse, combat boots, plaid flannels, baby doll dresses, and ripped jeans. It was all about being way more “authentic” than the fashion and music excess of the 80s.

Gangsta Rap

Gangsta rap came into prominence after rappers like Snoop Dogg and N.W.A. addressed tough social issues and urban life through explicit lyrics. Not all hits were gangsta when it came to rap: Outkast shocked fans from the East and West coasts by letting it be known that the South had something to say.

This subgenre of hip-hop often led to beefs between artists, most notoriously the East Coast-West Coast rivalry which resulted in the violent deaths of Biggie and Tupac.

Girl and Boy Bands

Choreographed groups like The Supremes and The Temptations were hot in the 60s and to some degree, the 70s (see: The Osmonds, Jackson Five). That sort of classic “manufactured” lineup began making a comeback in the late 80s but exploded during the 90s. There was a literal onslaught with bands like Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, and 98 Degrees. On the female side, the Spice Girls, En Vogue, and TLC were everywhere. It wasn’t just the singing with these groups, the synchronized dance moves were an important part of their image.

R&B and New Jack Swing

R&B experienced a major renaissance during this time. Acts like Boyz II Men blended silky vocals and soulful grooves. New Jack Swing peaked in the early 90s after Teddy Riley fused R&B with hip-hop, funk, or jazz. His creative sound made him one of the most sought-after producers in the business, making superstars from artists like Keith Sweat and Montell Jordan.

Rock, Pop and Punk Mix

Despite the explosion of grunge, the 90s also brought a combination of punk mixed with pop melodies. Blink-182, Green Day, Goo Goo Dolls, and Foo Fighters appealed to fans of both genres and opened the door to a different sound in alternative rock. It proved an effective counterbalance to the highly produced 90s sounds of divas like Britney Spears, Mariah Carey, and Christina Aguilera.

Female singers like Fiona Apple, Sheryl Crow, and Alanis Morissette proved their worth on the rock side. Sarah McLachlan launched Lilith Fair, highlighting female artists of the day including Jewel, Shawn Colvin, and Natalie Merchant.

Lollapalooza was another showcase for the various genres of 90s music and still occurs annually.

Even country music tested the “poppier” waters with major acts like the Dixie Chicks, Garth Brooks, Tim McGraw, and Shania Twain.

No doubt that the 90s served as an effective musical “palate cleanser” between the colorful 80s scene and the cultural uncertainty of the early 00s.

-Sharon Oliver

Photo: Red Hot Chili Peppers, 1991 (Getty Images)

Other Posts You Might Like

2 comments on “Key Moments In 90s Music

  1. Robert Thompson

    “Female singers like Fiona Apple, Sheryl Crow, and Alanis Morissette proved their worth on the rock side.”

    Disappointing that you didn’t include Liz Phair. Her Exile in Guyville alone warrants her inclusion this group. She rocks hard. Her incisive lyrics tell you what she thinks in unvarnished, emotive language. And she knows how to make a song move with her rhythm guitar style.

    She swam in the shark infested misogyny of the Chicago indie scene and made one of the greatest albums in Rock history.

Leave a Reply (and please be kind!)