The Teenagers of the Early 1990's

by Andrew Hicks

We are the children of the 80's, but we are also the teenagers of the early 90's. We adopted some of the most embarrassing fads and songs to ever immerse from the pop culture heap. We were young, what did we know? Your judgment isn't fully developed at the age of 13. Why else would Vanilla Ice's To the Extreme have sold more than seven million copies? This was the whitest man in the history of time posing as a child of the streets. Word to your mother. His greatest claim to fame was a cameo in the nauseatingly bad Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: Secret of the Ooze, as if the original was any great work of art on its own. Any sequel with a subtitle can only be bad. Police Academy 6: City Under Siege, Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives. I rest my case.

The early 90's, under our warped guidance, produced the most pathetic crop of flash-in-the-pan artists the music industry has ever seen. Sure, we chased Vanilla Ice out of the realm of cool after two singles, but were his replacements any better? M.C. Hammer told us we couldn't touch this. God knows why we wanted to in the first place, but this man influenced our lives for at least a week in 1990. We even defended Hammer to adults. I once witnessed a debate in my private Christian school's Bible class about how the lyrics to the song "Pray" were Christian. This assertion coming from the same students who insisted George Michael's "Faith" was about God. The lyrics "I guess it would be nice if I could touch your body" don't refer to communion, kids.

I'm proud to say I never bought the album Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em... not because I didn't want to, mind you, but because my mom wouldn't let me. Hammer may be seen by the public as one of the most benign rappers ever, but not through the eyes of a mother who sees a song entitled "She's Soft and Wet" on the back cover. Of course, I then brought up the argument of the song "Pray" being Christian. She pointed out that it was co-written by the lacivious sex fiend Prince. I was too ignorant in the ways of sampling to be able to reply that Hammer merely stole the music from Prince's "When Doves Cry" and wrote the lyrics himself. Come to think of it, there was nothing original on the album. You know rap music's in trouble when Vanilla Ice and M.C. Hammer both steal The Jackson 5's "Dancin' Machine" at the same time and claim they wrote it themselves.

I may not have bought Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em, but I pounced on a used copy of Hammer's next album 2 Legit 2 Quit, which I played so many times my freshman year I still know the entire album by heart. I've tried repression hypnotism and even exorcism, but I still burst into a spontaneous rendering of "This is the Way We Roll" from time to time. And it's not the only embarrassing early 90's rap song I can do verbatim. Name me any song off of C+C Music Factory's Gonna Make You Sweat album and I can do the Freedom Williams rap parts ("Just a squirrel tryin' to get a nut... so move your butt"). That was one of those one-album groups that had a series of hits off the same album but couldn't get back on the charts the next time around.

And does anyone remember the C+C Music Factory lip-synching controversy? This news story broke at about the same time all us junior high kids had the flag at half-mast from finding out Milli Vanilli was fake. It seems Zelma Davis, the woman in the "Gonna Make You Sweat" video, was actually mouthing the lines sung by a woman named Martha Wash who was three times her size and wasn't allowed to be in the video. Just another case of weight discrimination, people, the same reason I was cut from my audition to be in Robert Palmer's "Addicted to Love" video.

Martha wasn't cool enough to be in the video, so they sent Zelma in to pinch-sing for her. Of course, suggesting anyone in that group was cool in the first place is pure heresy, but once the news got out, the MTV artist credit on the video went from "C+C Music Factory" to "C+C Music Factory Presents Freedom Williams Featuring The Vocal Stylings Of Martha Wash As Visualized By Zelma Davis." No one could read all that in the few seconds the title was on the screen, so MTV might as well have added things only people with freeze frame could read, like "This Group Seriously Sucks And Every One Of Their Songs Are Built On The Exact Same Riff."

I have to admit I actually did buy the C+C CD, but I never picked up any of their follow-up albums. They even came out with one a few months ago after one of the group's founders, Robert Cole, died. They had to rename the group C Music Factory. Speaking of the letter C, I also bought the album of another early 90's staple, Color Me Badd. No one could argue these guys were badd, but they had something like five actual hits, all from that debut album. I always wanted them to make a video for the song "Color Me Badd" so the MTV title card would read...

Color Me Badd
"Color Me Badd"
Color Me Badd
Giant Records

Wouldn't that have been cool beyond words? People would think they were hallucinating. Of course, if a Color Me Badd video came on MTV today, they'd know they was hallucinating. Ditto for other early 90's artists like Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch, Technotronic ("Pump up the jam, pump it" and "Shake that body for me, shake it"), Seduction, Surface, Firehouse, Tommy Page (the apex of his career being a guest spot on "Full House"), Linear, Roxette, Bell Biv DeVoe, Johnny Gill, Jesus Jones (so that's his last name), Ralph Tresvant, Natural Selection, Digital Undergound, Snap, D.J. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, Calloway ("I want money, lots and lots of money." He ain't getting it now, that's for sure.), Maxi Priest, Nelson, Enigma, Damn Yankees, Stevie B, Timmy T, Deee-Lite, Londonbeat, 2 Unlimited (in the C+C identical songs tradition), Hi-Five, EMF, KLF, PM Dawn, KWS, Extreme, Snow, Positive K, Heavy D, Kris Kross, Another Bad Creation, Mr. Big and Right Said Fred. All those people had top five hits sometime in 1990 or 1991, quite fitting for a decade whose first number one song came from Michael Bolton.

The female artists of the early 90's weren't too much better. How many of you can name more than one song (or even one song) by Karyn White, Cathy Dennis, Sinead O'Connor, Celine Dion, Taylor Dayne, Cathy Dennis, Suzanne Vega ("Do-do do-do, do-do do-do, do-do do-do, do-do do-do, Batman!"), Crystal Waters, Jane Child, Tara Kemp, Tracie Spencer, Oleta Adams, Lisa Stansfield, Ce Ce Peniston, Jody Watley or Allanah Myles?

The 90's haven't produced any lasting girl groups either. The 60's had The Supremes and the 80's had The Go Go's. The 70's of course were a crap decade for music where all the laws off nature were rescinded and even John Denver could get four number-one hits, so they don't count. The best the 90's have done so far was En Vogue and their quintessential Funky Divas album which, whether they admit it or not, is owned by a good 83% of all college freshmen. But the four women in En Vogue have disappeared off the face of the earth, with the exception of a fifteen-second cameo in Batman Forever, where they were four street hookers. And I'm not sure they were acting. Then there were some dismal girl group failures like Sweet Sensation and The Divinyls, whose 1991 song "I Touch Myself" eventually brought about Pee Wee Herman's downfall.

And of course the discussion of 90's girl groups wouldn't be complete without mentioning the most embarrassing of them all--Wilson Phillips, embarrassing because I'm the not-so-proud owner of their debut CD. I don't know what it was about that group that appealed to the masses. It wasn't the profound lyrics ("You're in love, that's the way it should be," "Baby you've got to release me," "Hold on for one more day."), it wasn't the sex appeal factor (I still crack up when I think about the video where the two thin ones wore bikini tops and the fat one wore a full suit.), so what was it? The fact that every line of every song was sung by all three members of the group? I've been through that album dozens of times over the years and there isn't a single song with a solo by any of the three. They always sing together. What does this mean? What do you care?

Sure, the music of the early 90's was overwhelmingly bad--it seemed these artists only geared their music towards people my age who didn't know better--but the movies of the early 90's were better. We were able to hold onto our inner child with Disney cartoons like The Little Mermaid (laughing immaturely, of course, at the phallus on the video box--as I still do from time to time), Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. We got to see Patrick Swayze shirtless covering Demi Moore with wet clay in a love scene from Ghost and the subsequent parody scene in Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear.

Comedies like City Slickers, where Billy Crystal loses his watch in the birth canal of a cow, and Pretty Woman, where a hooker is rented for a week of sexual priveliges, entertained the whole family, along with remakes like Cape Fear and Father of the Bride, which marked the last time Steve Martin was actually entertaining. Then there was the movie people my age watched over and over until they were thoroughly sick of it and wanted to brutally murder Macaulay Culkin--Home Alone, which was screened more than once in my private school, with the appropriate gasps inserted after the phrase "I wouldn't sleep with you if you were growing on my ass." They also showed us a heavily-edited version of Glory that still managed to be poignant in the PG realm and cause junior high girls everywhere to smear their excess eye makeup.

There were movies you got in trouble for talking about in school, like Silence of the Lambs and the ejaculation reference teenage boys everywhere pretended to understand completely. ("Wet dream? I never dream about wetting the bed. That's for babies.") And there was the instantly cult movie Wayne's World, which influenced the vernacular of every easily-impressionable and superficial junior high kid. I even used the word "excellent" from time to time around the school, but I would have been given lunch detention for usage of the phrase "monkeys might fly out of my butt." You probably won't believe this, but a friend of mine was once written up for putting the phrase "I'm too sexy" on a homework paper.

Speaking of the movie Wayne's World, it came from a time "Saturday Night Live" was still funny. I watch that show now and am in awe at how bad it is most of the time. The recurring characters this year are the worst batch in the show's history, even worse than Doug and Wendy Whiner. The obnoxious cheerleaders. The obnoxious little girl. The obnoxious old woman that steals kids' toys and says "I keep it now." The two obnoxious Victorian England perverts (What the hell kind of catchphrase is "bare-ass naked"?). They're all bland and unfunny--and you get sick of them after the first sketch, much less the eighth.

Whatever happened to the "SNL" characters we knew as the teenagers of the early 90's? Wayne and Garth. Pat. The copy guy. Nat X. The Super Fans. Sprockets. Stuart Smalley. Motivational speaker Matt Foley. Toonces the driving cat. Coffee Talk. Hollywood Minute. Yes, we got sick of them after the umpteenth repitition, but at least they were all funny at one point. I admit some of the recurring characters were uninspired to begin with. Jan Brady. The Gap girls. You lika da juice? Operaman. Ike Turner. Captain Jim and Pedro. They weren't pure comedy, but they were better than what we've got now. And "SNL," even in its current gasping, weakened state, is still better than its competition, "Mad TV," which was only funny once--with the "Gump Fiction" parody.

We as the teenagers of the early 90's were witness to the death of sketch comedy, but we can all remember when it was funny, when "In Living Color" and "The Kids in the Hall" could also be counted on to provide laughs every week. And so could the sitcoms we enjoyed week in and week out, most of which were 80's holdovers like "Cheers" and "Night Court" that now live on in the daytime syndication world of Sally Struthers and trucking academy commercials. There's even one for the Sally Struthers Trucking Academy.

And there were new sitcoms too, like "Seinfeld," which has always been touted as the show about nothing despite having what are the most intricate, tightly-woven plots in thirty-minute TV. There were sitcoms I watched at the beginning of their run and later abandoned, like "Home Improvement" and "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." Other half-hour shows just plain sucked, like "America's Funniest Home Videos" and its even-more-pathetic companion, "America's Funniest People." Despite the implication in the titles, there was nothing funny involved with either show.

The early 90's were in some ways a low point for the entertainment industry (After all, Kris Kross's "Jump" held the number-one slot on the singles chart for eight weeks), but for people my age, there was no alternative. We didn't have the Internet to entertain us. Video game technology was improving, yes, but there was only so much fun to be had with the Nintendo Power Pad. And going outside to enjoy nature and the real world instead of a two-dimensional backlit TV screen was out of the question.

So we took what was offered us without a second thought. We watched Bob Saget narrate the videos of grandparents getting hit in the crotch by babies while the sleeping cat fell off the TV. We bought the Wilson Phillips and Hammer CD's and played them to death. We saw Terminator 2 dozens of times in succession in mall theaters. And by God we liked it because we were still at that age where the artistic palate is only partially defined and refined.

Now we can look back and realize the folly of our ways as we burst into spontaneous renderings of "Things That Make You Go Hmmm" after a college T.A. who bears a striking resemblance to tennis player Martina Navritalova explains an uninteresting or insignificant fact about the origin of a particular Spanish term. We know it was an error in judgment to ever think Six from "Blossom" was higher than six on the beauty scale, but that's what puberty does to you. We can laugh at ourselves, knowing we've come a long way in what we like and don't like about movies, TV and music. We can now enjoy the antics of Ross and Rachel on "Friends" while listening to Green Day and looking at our Pamela Anderson posters, knowing full well none of those people will ever be looked upon as forgotten, gimmicky fads... Well, they probably will be, but that's a different essay, most likely to be written while I'm in my mid-20's and entitled "College Students of the Mid-90's."

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Last modified Sept 2002
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