Just the other day, New Radicals’ 1998 one-hit wonder “You Get What You Give” came up in conversation, and it occurred to us that, over a decade into the new millennium, the music of the ’90s is starting to sound as dated as disco did when we were kids. From cultural references to Tonya Harding, Hanson, and white kids who desperately wanted to be gangstas to zeitgeist-y topics like Gen-X disaffection and sex education, there are just some songs that unmistakably evoke the decade. We’ve rounded up what we think of as the most ’90s songs of the ’90s after the jump; keep in mind that this isn’t a list of the best tracks of the era, just the ones that are clearly the products of its preoccupations. Let us know what you’d add in the comments.
“You Get What You Give” by New Radicals
Key lyrics: “Fashion shoots with Beck and Hanson / Courtney Love and Marilyn Manson / You’re all fakes, run to your mansions / Come around, we’ll kick your ass in”
Ah, the ’90s: a time when you could proudly proclaim yourself an anti-capitalist “radical” and somehow parlay that sentiment into a major-label record deal and eternal one-hit wonder name recognition. Chumbawamba did it with “Tubthumping,” although that song is literally about nothing more than drinking a lot of different kinds of beverages, getting knocked down, getting back up again, and “pissing the night away.” New Radicals’ “You Get What You Give” more fully embodies the ’90s because the song is actually about how the kids have to stay positive in the face of rampant commercialism and celebrity culture — and also because it shouts out a handful of ’90s musicians who all turned out to have far more longevity than New Radicals. Even Hanson!
“You Oughta Know” by Alanis Morissette
Key lyrics: “Did you forget about me, Mr. Duplicity? / I hate to bug you in the middle of dinner / It was a slap in the face / How quickly I was replaced / And are you thinking of me when you fuck her?”
But it isn’t just cultural references that make a song helplessly ’90s. Sometimes, it’s all about the zeitgeist. Released when Morissette was only 21, “You Oughta Know” was the battle cry of a woman scorned, and a wildly popular example of rock’s mid-’90s vogue for angry young women. Working the middle ground between the radical feminist anthems of riot grrrl and the crunchy Lilith Fair stuff that came later, it was as gloriously profane as radio rock got. Oh, and as you probably know, it’s about Morissette’s ex-boyfriend, Dave Coulier of Full House fame. It doesn’t get more ’90s than that.
“My Name Is” by Eminem
Key lyrics: “My brain’s dead weight, I’m trying to get my head straight / But I can’t figure out which Spice Girl I want to impregnate / And Dr. Dre said, ‘Slim Shady you a basehead!'”
Before we knew him as the most tortured man in hip hop (and that’s not a title you come by easily), Marshall Mathers introduced himself by way of “My Name Is.” The novelty rap hit of 1999, it calls out everyone from Nine Inch Nails to Kriss Kross to Pamela Anderson when she was still Pamela Lee. Then there’s the video, where he shows up as both Bill Clinton and Marilyn Manson. In case you’ve forgotten, people where thinking about Marilyn Manson a lot in the late ’90s.
“Headline News” by “Weird Al” Yankovic
Key lyrics: “Once there was this girl who / Swore that one day she would be a figure skating champion / And when she finally made it / She saw some other girl who was better / And so she hired some guy to / Club her in the knee cap” (see also: entire song)
Remember this one? It’s Weird Al’s 1994 parody of “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” — a Crash Test Dummies song that was also totally ’90s in its monotone treatment of childhood trauma. Al changed the lyrics so that they related the scandals of Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, the Bobbitts, and that American kid who got arrested in Singapore and was sentenced to caning. All very ’90s tabloid items, and a song that makes us wish TMZ would hire Weird Al to sing their headlines on a daily basis.
“Let’s Talk About Sex” by Salt-N-Pepa
Key lyrics: “Now we talk about sex on the radio and video shows / Many will know anything goes / Let’s tell it how it is, and how it could be / How it was, and of course, how it should be / Those who think it’s dirty have a choice / Pick up the needle, press pause, or turn the radio off”
Between the AIDS crisis and a nascent third-wave feminist movement that emphasized sex education and pleasure, we talked about sex a lot in the ’90s. This Salt-N-Pepa hit from 1991 is music’s best (and most literal) representation of that ethos, a call for women to make their needs and concerns in the bedroom known. S and P even recorded an alternate version called “Let’s Talk About AIDS” that educated listeners about HIV.
“Girls & Boys” by Blur
Key lyrics: “Love in the ’90s / Is paranoid / On sunny beaches / Take your chances, looking for / Girls who are boys / Who like boys to be girls / Who do boys like they’re girls / Who do girls like they’re boys”
Amid all the newfound openness about sex in the ’90s came a greater awareness of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities. In fact, the decade was almost as steeped in androgyny as the glam-rock early ’70s (think Madonna wearing men’s suits and getting up close and personal with other women in her music videos, as Kurt Cobain often performed and appeared on TV in dresses). Blur’s “Girls & Boys” captures the shifting norms and rainbow of preferences, while also managing to provide a snapshot of the pre-recession recreations of idle British youth.
“Firestarter” by The Prodigy
Key lyrics: irrelevant
In 2012, the kids have fallen hard for the dubstep, or so we hear from our corner of the nursing home. Back in our day (ca. 1996), the role of Skrillex was played by The Prodigy, whose aggressive big-beat music broke through to the mainstream in much the same way, and whose sneering, green-haired “singer” Keith Flint made our parents just as nervous. “Firestarter” is a song that will send you straight back to the cyberpunk ’90s (in fact, two tracks by The Prodigy appear on the soundtrack to the lovable 1995 exploitation flick Hackers) while also serving as a reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
“Gangsta’s Paradise” by Coolio
Key lyrics: “Look at the situation they got me facin’ / I can’t live a normal life, I was raised by the streets / So I gotta be down with the hood team / Too much television watching got me chasing dreams”
N.W.A. brought gangsta rap to the mainstream with 1988’s Straight Outta Compton, and by the ’90s, it had become a major social issue, with pundits and parents getting hysterical over its effects on impressionable young minds. Released in 1995 as on the soundtrack to Michelle Pfeiffer’s ’90s-tastic teacher drama Dangerous Minds, “Gangsta’s Paradise” wasn’t a gangsta-rap song — it was a meta-gangsta-rap song that incorporated many of the genre’s tropes in elucidating the impossible situation facing young people in poor, urban neighborhoods. Perhaps it got so overplayed precisely because it was so thoroughly of its time.
“Pretty Fly for a White Guy” by The Offspring
Key lyrics: “He needs some cool tunes, not just any will suffice / But they didn’t have Ice Cube, so he bought Vanilla Ice / Now cruising in his Pinto, he sees homies as he pass / But if he looks twice, they’re gonna kick his lily ass”
Of course, we didn’t just have gangstas in the ’90s; we also had middle-class white kids from the suburbs who desperately wanted to be gangstas but were totally clueless. (See also: Seth Green’s character in Can’t Hardly Wait, which came out the same year.) And, perhaps since we weren’t fighting any wars or dealing with a devastating economic downturn when The Offspring released “Pretty Fly for a White Guy” in 1998, they were the target of this inescapable bit of cultural criticism that turned the pop-punk band into something of a novelty act. Come on, admit it: even if you find this song unlistenable now, you chuckled the first time you heard it.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana
Key lyrics: “Here we are now, entertain us”
Obviously. This isn’t just the most ’90s song of the ’90s; it’s the song that created the ’90s.