In retrospect, the ‘90s seem like a most-innocent decade. Before the Twin Towers fell and the economy crashed, Lisa Frank, Nickelodeon, and Tamagotchis filled our waking hours. Things seemed OK for a minute between the Reagan era and the Bush years, and the music on the charts at the time reinforced the carefree zeitgeist.
Only none of that really went down quite like we remember it. While we were busy being kids in a nascent techno-future, Generation X’s cultural icons were struggling with heroin addiction and the Bill Clinton administration was bombing the Middle East. We were just too fixated on our Game Boys to notice — and maybe our parents were a little better at hiding the hard truths from us.
Looking back now, even the music on the radio wasn’t as sunny as you remember it.
Savage Garden, "I Knew I Loved You"
Savage Garden singer Darren Hayes was going through a divorce at the time he was penning the lyrics to their second album, Affirmation, and most of the songs on the record ruminated on heartbreak. But the label wanted a ballad to follow up the Australian band’s 1997 hit, “Truly Madly Deeply,” so Hayes had to do something even harder than write a breakup song: dig back into the feelings he had for his first spouse although their marriage was now over.
“I Knew I Loved You” was that song, and it did exactly what it was supposed to on the charts. It’s simple and sweet enough that you’d probably never guess it came from the ruins of a marriage and at a time when Hayes was figuring out his sexuality and rebuilding his life. It’s also proof that even the most star-crossed romances don’t always pan out like you think.
Beck Hansen wasn’t always the bug-eyed troubadour you see closing out festivals. He survived homelessness and low-wage jobs while trying to make it as a freak-folk musician in the early ‘90s. After failing to leave a mark on New York City, Beck moved back to Los Angeles and soldiered on as an unknown, playing to indifferent crowds at bars and coffee shops. His breakthrough single, “Loser,” emerged from those thankless gigs, when Beck would make up surreal raps on the fly just to see if anyone was paying attention.
When Beck finally recorded “Loser,” he came up with the chorus after hearing just how bad he was at rapping. Sometimes a little self-deprecation can go a long way.
Gin Blossoms, "Hey Jealousy"
The Arizona band wrote catchy tunes, and about a year after their 1992 album, New Miserable Experience, came out, “Hey Jealousy” rocketed them into the Top 40 and onto the stereos of hand-me-down minivans all over the country.
The hook of “Hey Jealousy” suggests it’s about a couple of kids going out for a joyride. But like about half of Experience, the runaway hit was written from the depths of guitarist Doug Hopkins’s alcoholism and suicidal depression. The line “You can trust me not to think” was originally written as "You can trust me not to drink,” and the heart-strangling kicker comes when Hopkins hits the very bottom of his desperation to be loved again: “If you don’t expect too much from me / You might not be let down."
Hopkins was reportedly too drunk to stand during the New Miserable Experience sessions, and was kicked out of the band soon after they wrapped the record. He committed suicide weeks after “Hey Jealousy” went gold.
White Town, “Your Woman"
One of the most memorable and singular one-hit wonders of the ‘90s is also among the most mysterious. Who was this dude called White Town, and why was he singing about Marxism from the perspective of a woman?
White Town was (and still is!) Jyoti Mishra, who wrote “Your Woman” after a period in his life when he was simultaneously "a member of an orthodox Trotskyist/Marxist movement” and "a straight guy in love with a lesbian.” But he notes on his website that it’s about more than just his personal experience of unrequited love, and can really be about any kind of love that can’t be reciprocated by virtue of sexual preference and/or political leanings.
Oasis, "Champagne Supernova"
Loosely associative and vaguely psychedelic, “Champagne Supernova” counts among the ‘90s rock hits that don’t really make a lot of sense no matter how many times you replay them. According to guitarist Noel Gallagher, the seven-minute song is at least partly about growing disillusioned with the people you idolize as a kid.
"It's about when you're young and you see people in groups and you think about what they did for you and they did nothing,” he said in a 1995 interview. "As a kid, you always believed ... punk rock was supposed to be the revolution but what did it do? Fuck all.”
So there you have it: Everything you believe in as a teen will disappoint you and the real world is a crushing bummer. Might as well get high.
Matchbox Twenty, “3 a.m."
Played next to songs like “Meet Virginia” on the radio, “3 a.m.” sounded a lot like an ode to yet another manic pixie dream girl. Here’s a girl who only sleeps when it’s raining, has philosophical epiphanies at three in the morning, and who’s quirky enough to keep a welcome mat outside her studio apartment. Rob Thomas actually wrote the song about his mother, who endured treatment for cancer when he was a teen. She had to parent him while she was busy trying not to die herself, which means the song’s weird lyrics are about actual suffering and not, you know, a quirky girl trying to get you to love her for her faults. Oops.
Alanis Morissette, “You Learn"
Alanis Morissette’s breakthrough album, Jagged Little Pill, is a roller coaster of emotions, from puppy love to raging heartbreak. “You Learn” balances somewhere between the two, rolling up all those life lessons you get from having your world blown apart over and over again.
“You live, you learn” sounds like something your grandmother might say upon learning you’ve been put on academic probation, but Morissette was just 19 when she penned Pill’s songs. By then she'd moved to Los Angeles to work on the record, where she was robbed at gunpoint — an attack that left her with PTSD so bad she was temporarily hospitalized. She’d also just gone through one heck of a breakup. Making the album helped her work through the trauma and come out the other end a little bit wiser than before.
The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, "The Impression That I Get"
Yes, this is that Boston ska band and yes, this is their happy-go-lucky hit single about never having to knock on wood. Except the origin of that single is a lot less sunny than it sounds.
"I was at the funeral of a close friend’s brother,” singer Dicky Barrett wrote on Genius. "The depth of sadness that my friend and his family were experiencing on that day made me think about how we are, at times, measured by our ability to handle pain, sadness, tragedy, and adversity. I came to the realization that my life at that point had been, for the most part, free of these sorts of life-altering challenges. I wondered (without wishing for them) if I had the inner strength to handle such things."
Fastball, "The Way"
Tony Scalzo wrote Fastball’s biggest hit “The Way” after reading a newspaper article about an elderly couple who had disappeared on their way to a festival. Two weeks later, Lela and Raymond Howard were found dead in their car at the bottom of a 25-foot ravine.
“The Way” still went on to top charts, spreading carefree, hooky vibes out from a story that ended with two old people driving off the road to their deaths. Somehow, Scalzo was able to put an optimistic spin on the whole affair; he even met the Howards’s children, who appreciated the rock radio afterlife Fastball had granted their parents.
With its easy tempo and funky guitar, the trio’s mega-hit “Waterfalls” sounds like the soundtrack to any number of summer afternoons from your childhood. Maybe you heard it at camp or at the mall.
But those rose-tinted glasses obscure how TLC processed the generational trauma that haunted young adults 20 years ago. Crime plagued urban neighborhoods, drug addiction ran unchecked, and the AIDS crisis was still claiming lives in large numbers. TLC’s condom imagery and safe sex ethos wasn’t just for show. “Waterfalls” addressed all that death and suffering in its verses while pleading with young listeners to stay safe however they could.
The Smashing Pumpkins, "Cherub Rock"
It’s hard to get away from that intro and that sparkling, crunchy guitar riff, and it’s tempting to think “Cherub Rock” originated somewhere as happy as it sounds. It’s about, like, honey and angels, right?
Not exactly. Billy Corgan actually wrote “Cherub Rock” as a way to complain about the ideological purity of the ‘90s indie scene, and he was in a pretty bad place when he put it together.
"I was suicidal, and I’d been plotting my own death for about two months,” he said in an interview almost two decades after “Cherub Rock” came out. "If you’ve ever read anything about the warning signs of suicide one of them is you give away all your stuff, and I’d given away all my stuff, I gave away all my records, I started giving away my guitars. I was fantasizing about my own death, I started thinking what my funeral would be like and what music would be played, I was at that level of insanity."
Thankfully, Corgan survived that dark patch and released Siamese Dream to acclaim. And he’s still busting out “Cherub Rock” at Pumpkins concerts.
Stone Temple Pilots, "Interstate Love Song"
As far as grunge goes, Stone Temple Pilots tended to offer the softer variety. Scott Weiland had a natural feel for hooks that lent a sweetness to his gruff-edged compositions, and the band’s twangy guitar tones made their songs go down smooth. That didn’t change the fact that Weiland wrote about his heroin addiction a whole lot, much like other pivotal grunge figures.
“Interstate Love Song” might be the most wrenching track from Weiland’s junk-ridden discography, if only because it’s about lying to someone you love so they don’t know you’re a drug addict. In his autobiography, Weiland wrote about hiding his habit from his girlfriend at the time: "I imagined what was going through her mind when I wrote, ‘Waiting on a Sunday afternoon for what I read between the lines, your lies.’"
No Doubt, “Spiderwebs"
No one really expected a ska-punk band to break into the pop mainstream, but it turned out the pop mainstream had room for exactly one ska-punk band. No Doubt’s songs were infectious and everywhere around the time they released their breakthrough album, Tragic Kingdom. While “Don’t Speak” might be the biggest bummer from that record, the up-tempo “Spiderwebs” had a dark origin story too.
Gwen Stefani wrote it after being harassed at all hours by a stalker who had her phone number and would call her up to read her his poetry. This was before the age of cell phones, so screening calls was a lot more stressful and resource-intensive than it is today. But sometimes you manage to wring a super-catchy tune out of a super-scary situation.