The 1990s and the Ignored Political Revolution in Mainstream Music: A New Research Project

I’m taking on a new project, one that I’m capable of finishing relatively quickly. Mostly, however, it’s something I’m passionate about. That is, I’m starting a research project into the 1990s protest music. I spent four years as an undergrad and five years in grad school studying protest movements (I focused on nuclear policy for my dissertation, however). So this should be a fun and exciting project! Here are my early thoughts.


I walk around my neighborhood daily, listening to music. While completing my 10,000+ daily steps, I listen to an album, maybe two. I often go through artists’ entire discographies (it took me two full months to get through James Browns’ discography back in early 2019. I hold a lot of resentment towards his 1980s stuff, but I digress). As a musician, I try to “deep listen.” That is, I try to hear each instrument individually. I listen to the lyrics. What is the singer trying to tell me? Every song has its syllogism, even if we struggle to discern it. The other day, I finished Rage Against the Machine’s discography—including live albums—and, although their syllogisms are explicit and highly political, I stumbled upon something that piqued my interest as a political scientist.

Namely: The 1990s was arguably the United States’ most stable decade in a century. But grievances boiled under the surface—rage that was often overlooked (however, evident fury reared its ugly head in far-right protest movements and terrorism). During our transition from the Cold War to the (unrealized) American Century, a middle class, primarily made up of whites and other happily enfranchised Americans, found satisfaction with the status quo. Because of this, they missed the signs of dissatisfaction. Despite protest movements coalescing around popular music, the message of revolution was lost in the post-Cold War, Clintonian suburban bliss.

The American 1990s was a period of revolutionary music, but the beat and the melody drowned out the revolution’s call to action.

I exemplify this first and foremost with a conservative phenomenon that pops up every now and then but became huge following George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police officers back in May.

That is, Rage Against the Machine is undisputedly one of the most politically active and progressive bands in American history. They sing lyrics like “Fight the war, fuck the norm,” and the anti-cop refrain, “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.” Despite Rage’s prominent left views, some conservatives took to Twitter and other social media platforms to disparage Rage guitarist Tom Morello’s public statements about George Floyd’s death and police brutality. The general message Tom faced from conservatives is: Stay out of politics. Stick to music.

The original Tweet has since been deleted.

I don’t mean to beat up on Mr. Castaneda here, nor am I here to take sides on liberal versus conservative policy (I do take sides against harmful policy, however, and harmful policy trends right). Instead, I observe a trait about 1990s protest music. Protest songs from the 1990s had little political salience despite defining an entire generation. 1990s songs of dissent are finding renewed attention precisely for their explicit progressive messages. But when they were initially burning up the charts, their calls to action against dirty politicians, white supremacy, and police brutality fell on deaf unsympathetic ears.

Rage Against the Machine’s message hasn’t changed at all since their 1990s superstardom. But their songs are finding new homes in the anti-Trump, anti-white supremacy, and anti-police brutality movements.

But it’s not merely Rage Against the Machine.

4 Non Blondes’ 1993 single “What’s Up?” has become a massive part of 1990s Americana, but few gave the song its proper accolades. Back in the early 1990s, the song was a girl-power, pro-LGBT+ anthem. So intense is singer Linda Perry’s disgust about the institutions that hold down large segments of our society, she screams for a revolution. Yet, the song became a meme, drunkenly sung by 20-year-olds at sorority parties. The revolution never happened, at least, not during the 1990s. I think we’re beginning to take a new look at Perry’s song, however.

The 1990s was also the decade of Riot Grrrl—stripped-down anti-rape, anti-racism, anti-domestic abuse, anti-androcentric power structures, and pro-femininity punk music. Bands like Bikini Kill, L7, Sleater-Kinney, and Hole found mainstream success, landing on the soundtracks for major Hollywood motion pictures. L7, for example, a band that sparked controversy after one of its members threw a used tampon into an unruly crowd, is featured in several 1990s blockbuster films, including Serial Mom and Natural Born Killers. Despite their crossover to the mainstream, L7’s feminist messages never resonated in the mainstream’s ears. Today, this might be changing.

Public Enemy, KRS-One, Le Tigre, the Fugees, Pennywise, Anti-Flag, and even industrial rockers Ministry wrote progressive and even revolutionary songs in the 1990s. And while many of these songs are much-beloved in white suburbia, white suburbanites missed their calls to action entirely, even though these same suburbanites display #BlackLivesMatter signs on their impeccably maintained lawns today.

The left does not monopolize protest music, however. For example, the British punk band, the Clash, wrote the 1982 megahit “Rock the Casbah.” The song is by Western standards hugely conservative. While singer Joe Strummer was a renowned liberal, the track maligns Islam and even throws in anti-Semitic and anti-Turkish jabs here and there. The song is a hymn for Western liberalism’s supremacy over Eastern values.

Additionally, Slayer’s 1994 thrash metal track, “Dittohead,” a song that landed Slayer one of its rare mainstream MTV music videos, lambasts lenient prison sentences for violent criminals. It should be noted that the song takes its name from The Rush Limbaugh Show’s DittoCam.

However, mostly, conservative artists, musicians, and lyricists of the 1990s didn’t have much to protest. The Cold War was over. Liberal democracy (i.e., the capitalist economic system) had won. Russia was on its knees, Europe was weak, and the President of the United States, while a Democrat, had just signed into law the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. While conservatives often jeer Clinton for the law’s federal ban on assault weapons, it is one of the most conservative pieces of legislature to come out of the 1990s (in my opinion). It basically finalized Ronald Reagan’s racist image for criminal justice reform and prison expansion. And despite conservative rages boiling over at times, such as the killings of abortion providers and the bombings of federal buildings and Olympic stadiums, the vast majority of conservative musicians joined the rest of America in denouncing these acts. No, there’s a reason why protest music of any era, particularly the 1990s, is most often associated with the left. And the fact that the middle class largely ignored the left’s message, despite loving the music, is probably a huge reason too why conservatives didn’t complain much.

Besides, liberals like Tipper Gore did conservatives’ work for them, going after Body Count and Cannibal Corpse. Why should conservatives lift a finger to fight in the culture wars when, as in the 1990s, liberals were more than happy to fight for American conservatism alone?

I better end this before I rant too much.


Anyway, these are my preliminary thoughts on the research I’m about to undertake. My research project on Jacksonian America is on hold for now. I’ve been working on it for two years—it isn’t going anywhere! Feel free, dear reader (I can’t believe you’ve made it this far into my post), to drop some song titles or YouTube videos of 1990s songs with political messages.

3 Comments

  1. Pearl Jam’s 2nd record, specifically the song W.M.A, also “Do The Evolution” from Yield (their 5th record) that came out in 1998.

    Madonna’s “Express Yourself” (arguably?)

    Bad Religion’s “Punk Rock Song.”

    Going outside of the mainstream category (which I presume you’ll define for the purpose the project), I would venture that Fugazi’s entire existence as a band was a mode of protest, but songs like “Smallpox Champion,” are worth checking out. And even though they aren’t an American band, Candian punk band “Propagandhi” are motivated politically. Check out songs like “….And We Thought Nation States Were a Bad Idea,” or “State Lottery.” Links to all songs below:

    Anyway, these might work for what you’re looking for. The project seems cool.

    Like

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