Tangent Sunset

The History of Conscious Music by Alex Cosper

In Search of Alternatives

The sound that became refreshing against the fading backdrop of hair bands was that of Faith No More, who in 1990 had the rock hit "Epic." With a washed out guitar sound that drew more from funk mixed with rappish vocals, the band was at the forefront of a new sound, that initially permeated from the Run DMC/Aerosmith collaboration. Other bands such as Red Hot Chili Peppers and Jane's Addiction were also mixing funk and rock. These bands were also not afraid to mix in lush pop sounds, whereas the hair bands tried to stay close to a power pop/metal sound that relied on heavy effects. Perhaps the most avantgarde effort to create a new funky rock sound was by Primus with songs such as "Jerry Was A Race Car Driver," which sounded comical as well as innovative with its dissonant choppy guitar riffs. While funk was fusing with rock, the industrial sound was spearheaded by Ministry and Nine Inch Nails. It was techno/rock built on elaborate studio sounds that fused electric guitar and electronic instruments.

R.E.M. had been building their catalogue and credibility throughout the eighties. "It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) probably broke the Bob Dylan record for most words crammed in a song. They wrapped up the decade with the album Green which featured mildly conscious songs that became hits such as the forward-thinking "Stand," "Pop Song '89" and "Orange Crush." Another song on the album, "World Leader Pretend" dove deeper into politics and blasted the rhetoric and secret agendas of politicians who say one thing and do another.
Out Of Time, which featured several songs that gained airplay and helped shaped the initial sound of the nineties alternative rock format. "Losing My Religion" was based on a southern phrase about despair and frustration and actually had nothing to do with religion. "Shiny Happy People" was an uncharacteristically optimistic song for the band while "Radio Song" became the first song to really come out and slam radio in general for playing the same songs over and over again. The band would have several more hits throughout the decade, although Out Of Time would turn out to be their most timeless collection.

Jesus Jones broke onto the scene in 1991 with "Right Here, Right Now" a techno/rock record which captured the world optimism that coincided with the fall of the Berlin Wall, a signal that the Cold War and Communism were being derailed. The band had another hit with "Welcome Back, Victoria," which sarcastically described the easing of fundamentalist Victorian Era (1800's) values back into the modern world. It seemed that a lot of the music in 1991 that fueled the development of alternative radio had some kind of social message. Ned's Atomic Dustbin had an environmentally conscious song called "Grey Cell Green" and an anti-brainwash song called "Kill Your Television."

It was unclear at this point if certain rock artists fit into the alternative scene because of their stature, such as Bruce Springsteen. But some of the rock-leaning alternative stations picked up on his song "57 Channels (And Nothin' On)," which was critical of how the transformation from three television networks to multiple cable tv channels just offered more ways to waste time. Sting picked apart religion from a historian's perspective in "All This Time." American self-indulgence was challenged by New Zealand's Crowded House in "Chocolate Cake." Gary Clail's "Human Nature" pointed out the flaws of humanity. The Happy Mondays saw through phony social behavior in "Step On." And the understated paranoia that love and money can sometimes be intertwined came out in "Get The Message" by Electronic. It seemed that conscious lyrics were back in a big way.

U2 entered the nineties as the leading artist in conceptual music. In 1991 they released the spectacular Achtung Baby, in which every track had a radio-friendly yet progressive sound. Of the dozen modern rock stations at the time, most of them played almost every track. The album had a theme of confronting the future as a spectator while letting go of fear. The opening track "Zoo Station" seemed to be about merging with chaos. The album's theme further pointed at letting technology and politics run their course while "The Fly" on the wall observed. Spiritualism was explored in "Mysterious Ways" while a pessimistic was painted in "Until The End Of The World." U2 would go on to have soundtrack hits and other albums throughout the decade, in which they began drifting from rock toward a more polished studio sound using more keyboards and effects. In the transition they seemed to be concerned more with style than substance.

A lot of the most conceptual music of the decade found a home on alternative radio but not the top 40. A song about global warming called "Saltwater" by Julian Lennon was actually a global hit but almost completely ignored in America except for minor airplay on alternative radio in 1992. Also that election year was a record that documented the contradictions of George Bush Sr. in a montage of actual contradictory Bush quotes over electronic music called "Read My Lips" by A Thousand Points Of Night, which was really the work of Producer Don Was. Crash Test Dummies from Canada attacked politicians by contrasting them with comic book characters in "Superman's Song." Morrissey captured the mood of the underground with "We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful."


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