We have only a month left in 2014, and if this year will be remembered for one thing, it’s how much time we spent marking the 20th anniversary of 1994. For those of you who’ve turned on your browser’s nostalgia-blocker, you’ve missed piece after piece about Nas’s Illmatic turning 20 and Kurt Cobain’s suicide.
It’s interesting that 1994 was such a touchstone year for people to reference and reminisce about. To make some sense of this, we revisited MTV’s Year in Rock ’94 special to find out, from the people of 1994 themselves, what made it such a major year.
We begin our journey with hosts Kurt Loder and Tabitha Soren, the way it should be. But before we jump into anything music-related, it’s time for a look back at “media run amok.” For as much flak as MTV gets today for “not playing videos,” we’re starting a “Year in Rock” special with barely anything musical. Still, if there was a year for media overload in terms of sensationalist journalism, it was 1994. In the same 12-month span we had Michael Jackson marrying Lisa Marie Presley, Lorena Bobbitt being acquitted of cutting off her husband’s penis, Tonya Harding’s attack on Nancy Kerrigan and subsequent sex tape, and the O.J. Simpson car chase. Folks, this was all THE SAME YEAR.
Music-wise, in this mess we had the start of George Michael’s and Prince’s public feud with their record labels, leading both to refer to their relationships as “slavery.” We then get to the music, starting with the breakthrough artists. All things considered, I don’t think you can find a single year with a greater variety of genres on the charts. With the lounge sounds of Tony Bennett, the Chant fad of the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos, and the Swedish pop of Ace of Base making up the unique outliers, the popular-music staple genres all had big years. Punk re-emerged heavy with the Offspring and Hole (Green Day were conspicuously not mentioned). Singer-songwriters like Sheryl Crow, Lisa Loeb, and Counting Crows found an audience. There’s also R. Kelly setting a new record for his 16 consecutive weeks atop the r&b charts with “Bump ‘n’ Grind” and Beck beginning our nation’s obsession with whatever Beck was/is. Alongside this new blood were the successes of longtime dependable artists like Tom Petty, Aerosmith, and the after-14-years reunited Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, who attribute their delayed reunion to losing each other’s number. These all were in the wake of the year’s absolute biggest hit, Boyz II Men’s “I’ll Make Love to You.”
Probably the biggest difference between 1994 and 2014 came in the form of artists and events we’ve redefined in the two decades since. While “Woodstock” now either calls to mind the peace and love of the 1969 festival or the tragic brutality of the 1999 incarnation, the 1994 middle child has gone largely overlooked in terms of being a success musically and culturally. While, yes, there were kids covered in and eating mud (footage I’m sure they’re thrilled exists today), Woodstock ’94 was ultimately a successful celebration of peace and music.
But the most surreal element of Year in Rock ’94 is hearing Tupac Shakur referred to in the present tense. While Pac is a hip-hop legend and pop-culture icon who never really left the public’s consciousness, he’s been dead a long time. To put it in perspective, this year’s college freshmen and Tupac weren’t at any point alive at the same time. But while Pac was alive in ’94, and was starting to pick up more major acting roles, he spent the year going to court in four different states, the last of which (New York) fell the day after being shot in an attempted robbery.
It was an unfortunate year for rappers, according to the special, with the bulk of the rap section devoted to artists like Snoop, Dr. Dre, and TLC’s Left Eye, who were either on trial, sentenced, or arrested for various offenses, or even to a Senate hearing featuring Dionne Warwick and C. Delores Tucker you motherfucker on the dangers that rap music posed for the youth. Balancing this out were rappers like Common Sense, Ahmed, and Da Youngstas bringing the first wave of nostalgia-rap for a less-gangsta time. Between all this is a brief mention of the breakthrough talents of the year, citing Nas, Wu-Tang Clan, and Craig Mack. While we acknowledge “Flava in Ya Ear” as a classic, it’s easy to forget just how big Craig Mack really was.
News-wise, 1994 could have just as easily been swapped out with 2014 and no one would notice. After a year paralyzed by a lack of bipartisanship, the Republicans regained control of Congress for the first time in 40 years as the president’s approval rating plummeted, despite Clinton successfully passing more legislation than Kennedy, Carter, Ford, and Bush-I combined. The failure of health care reform and the Whitewater scandal largely overshadowed his accomplishments in national student loan reform, the crime bill, the education bill, government-size reduction, and a ban on 19 different types of assault weapon. Lest we forget, the press really did not like the president.
Also echoing the stories of today was the rise of festivals, or, as a full-head-of-hair Billy Corgan put it, the fact that “kids are still excited about seeing a lot of bands for a relatively low amount of money.” While Pearl Jam took legal action against Ticketmaster and festivals like Lollapalooza raged on, 1994 became the new record year of ticket sales thanks to the Rolling Stones, Elton John and Billy Joel, and Pink Floyd charging more than ever for wildly elaborate stage shows.
But the special closes with the year’s biggest story, the death of Kurt Cobain. Starting with the clip of Kurt Loder (his hands visibly, uncharacteristically shaking) as he reads directly from a prepared announcement, the saga of the last four months of Cobain’s life unfolded. Dying at the height of Nirvana’s popularity, the public mourning for Cobain was a landmark moment that revisiting all the images brings rushing right back. Other deaths in the year included beloved Real World cast member and AIDS activist Pedro Zamora, Cesar Romero, Cab Calloway, Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff, and Raul Julia.
Looking back at the special as a whole, it becomes clear exactly why people love 1994 so much: because 1994 had so much to love. With such a diverse cross-section of music at the top and more pre-internet ways than ever to see them, it was 12 months where there truly was something for everyone. The year’s music provided the soundtrack to some of the biggest news stories of the entire decade, effectively making 1994 perhaps the most definitively ” ’90s” year of the whole 10 years. While we’ve made some tremendous progress in the decade between — in 1994, there were still students being suspended for promoting safe sex on campus and principals threatening to cancel proms due to interracial couples — the better elements of ’94 strike vivid memories that we as a pop-culture-consuming society all shared.
For Kurt Loder and Tabitha Soren, I’m Chaz Kangas. Stay tuned for 120 Minutes.