somewhere in time

What Songs Were Popular 23 Years Ago, When Nirvana’s Nevermind Debuted?

Somewhere in Time

Long ago, Tracy Chapman sang, “Don’t you know, we’re talkin’ ’bout a revolution / It sounds like a whisper,” and this week in 1991, we found out what she meant: Nirvana’s Nevermind, the album that changed the face of mainstream rock music in the 1990s, made a quiet debut on the Billboard 200 charts on October 12. Put on your overalls and tighten up your high-top fade; let’s hop in my DeLorean GIF and see how it sounded in the pop-culture Bastille the moment just before it got stormed.

40. Amy Grant, “That’s What Love Is For
This is a Nicholas Sparks book in song form, and the video is pretty basic: black-and-white shots of a white-and-white couple fretting in a desert. And then suddenly, at 1:10, Amy Grant becomes some kind of Christo and Jeanne-Claude Wonder Woman installation, and I am IN. But I think this video is what finished her off; you can go secular, you can break up two marriages and take up with Vince Gill, but do not force-feed America modern art.

39. Boyz II Men, “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday
I had always thought of this as more of a graduation/leaving-for-college kind of song, but I guess it’s about dead friends, as evidenced by the pouring-out of brown-bagged 40s and the black-and-white televisions playing footage of deceased Boyz II Men compatriots Sammy Davis Jr., Josephine Baker, Michael Landon, and, for reasons I cannot begin to comprehend, Miss Piggy.

38. Billy Falcon, “Power Windows
This song is “Pink Houses” with a head injury. If you don’t feel like clicking, it’s all about some guy who’s got a Mercedes with power windows (which, by 1991, were long past being some kind of status symbol) and power brakes (which seems like more of a safety concern than anything else), even a “power bed, push a button and it shakes” (which, no, he doesn’t, because he’s not a Motel 6), but is lonely because “he don’t have the power of love.” And then there’s some other poor guy who has to crank his windows down and sleep on a non-vibrating bed like some kind of animal, but see, he does have the power of love because of some reason that Mr. Falcon fails to explain. Anyway, in the video, the poor guy frolicks on the beach with his girlfriend, whom he loves because he is poor, at one point actually tackling her in the surf in a way that looks legitimately painful, while the rich guy commits suicide in his pool because the wealthy cannot love. For the last decade or so, Billy Falcon’s been writing songs for Bon Jovi, if you were wondering why you don’t like Bon Jovi anymore.

37. Scorpions, “Wind of Change
Even just seeing those four words in print gets that whistle hook stuck in my head, and now my day is ruined and so is yours.

36. Paula Abdul, “The Promise of a New Day
Most-slept-on Paula jam by a wide margin, and a much better choice for first single from “Spellbound” than “Rush Rush,” which I would argue slowed her career down just a bit, but then, if her career hadn’t slowed down, we never would have had “Hey, Paula,” so nevermind. Let’s just enjoy this video, in which she employs the Ann Wilson video trick of squeezing the frame to make her look slimmer but also 11 feet tall.

35. Salt-N-Pepa, “Let’s Talk About Sex
You could watch that video, or you could watch “Sex Tonight,” an SNL sketch from 1988 in which the irreplaceable Jan Hooks plays Jessica Hahn and single-handedly turns a mediocre sketch into a classic.

34. Curtis Stigers, “I Wonder Why
In 1991, we needed a cross between Michael Bolton and Kenny G. with Veronica Lake hair, and Curtis Stigers stepped right up.

33. Bob Seger, “The Real Love
Bob Seger and …

32. Roberta Flack & Maxi Priest, “Set the Night to Music
… Roberta Flack and …

31. Bad Company, “Walk Through Fire
… Bad Company. This many olds right in a row on the pop chart generally means something new is right around the corner. And indeed, it was; Nirvana’s “Nevermind” debuted on the Billboard 200 this week, way down at No. 144. Having been a college-radio DJ at the time (on good, old WCHC at Holy Cross in Massachusetts), I cannot tell you how thrilling and disorienting it was to have our music not just on mainstream radio, but all over it. Where once there had been Warrant, suddenly there was Pearl Jam. A generation in bootleg Simpsons T-shirts and high-waisted jeans was about to get its own soundtrack.

30. Tony Terry, “With You
The burnt-umber high-top fade is a lot of look.

29. Cathy Dennis, “Too Many Walls
Last week, a guy in a Hyundai Accent with ground effects cut me off in traffic and then merged aggressively into another lane, which ended up going more slowly than mine, so he ended up behind me, and then whipped around cut me off again, and I was already halfway to a road-rage blackout just from the regular L.A. driving, and I sincerely began to think about about smashing his windshield with a baseball bat (which, for safety purposes, is a thing I do not have in my car). We actually ended up next to one another at a red light and I gave him a dirty look, and maybe he gave me one, too, but I don’t know because his windows were tinted, but I do know that just as I was mentally preparing to get out of my car and fight this dude, I realized that the song that was playing on my stereo — which I had put on myself — was “Too Many Walls” by Cathy Dennis. So, long story short, that’s how I didn’t get stabbed last week.

28. Guns N’ Roses, “Don’t Cry
This video is everything that is loathsome about Guns N’ Roses. It’s bloated, ponderous, and self-important, and the moment starting at 3:45 where Axl’s in a therapist’s office, glowing with fascination over his own trembling hands, is Axl in a nutshell: I’m a damaged, wounded bird; aren’t I great? (And of course the therapist is a model in a microskirt, because Axl gets final word in casting.)

27. Rythm Syndicate, “Hey Donna
Rythm Syndicate are the worst for a lot of reasons, starting with the fact that that’s how you spell their name. Also, they’re another one of those multi-ethnic late ‘80s/early ‘90s neither-R-nor-B groups where the lead singer sang through his nose. (See also: Kyper’s “Tic Tac Toe.” Actually, don’t.) They had a decent-size hit with “P.A.S.S.I.O.N.,” and then there was this one, and then they changed their name to Rhythm Syndicate, and then they went away.

26. C&C Music Factory, “Things That Make You Go Hmmm …
Moments after Cathy Dennis kept me from getting beaten up, I reached my house, stood on my front porch for a moment, laughed at my dumb gay self, took a deep breath, and said: “You’re home. It’s okay. Relax.” I opened my door, and since I had left the TV on for the dog, I was greeted by the voice of CCH Pounder: “The semen and blood found in the throat of the deceased is consistent with that of her father!” She was saying this line very loudly because they were loading the corpse onto a helicopter. NCIS: New Orleans. Catch it.

25. Michael Bolton, “Time, Love & Tenderness
Okay, fine, let’s look at Kyper’s “Tic Tac Toe” from 1990. This song posits that sex is like tic-tac-toe in that … well, I’m not sure, exactly. Sometimes you have sex, just like sometimes you are playing a game of tic-tac-toe? Or something? Specious reasoning and God-awful vocals. I’m sorry.

24. Siouxsie and the Banshees, “Kiss Them for Me
It’s hard to know what tickled me more in October 1991: that Siouxsie & The Banshees had a Top 40 single in the U.S., or that Siouxsie had some secret funk in her. That nonchalant disco shoulder at 1:58? Living for it.

23. Bryan Adams, “Everything I Do
This week, as Nirvana’s Nevermind made its debut way down at No. 144, Robyn Hitchcock’s “So You Think You’re in Love” was on top of the Modern Rock Tracks chart, giving us a brief taste of what we gave up once grunge took over. Other gems in that particular Top 20: Billy Bragg’s “Sexuality,” Northside’s “Take Five,” and the Ocean Blue’s “Cerulean.” An underground revolution was indeed brewing, and if things had gone slightly differently, it might have sounded less sludgy and more twee.

22. Vanessa Williams, “Running Back to You
Back on the pop chart, here’s Vanessa Williams playing herself in a RuPaul’s Drag Race video challenge.

21. Prince & the New Power Generation, “Gett Off
Prince has scrubbed YouTube clean of his videos, so you can only find them on weird German sites that ask you to add them to meine favoriten. Anyway, here he is in an Aunt Jemima headwrap at some kind of Caligula-style audition-orgy situation that might as well be security-camera footage for all I know about Prince.

20. Naughty by Nature, “OPP
The lines “It’s the longest, loveliest lean / I call it the Leanest,” stop me dead in my tracks every single time. Can you even imagine someone calling his own dick The Leanest? “Are you ready for The Leanest?” he’d whisper into your ear as he eased you onto his bed, which, let’s be honest, would have to be a waterbed, because what other kind of bed would a guy who describes his dick as “lovely” even have? Gross. Get out of that guy’s basement.

19. Chesney Hawkes, “The One and Only
Almost Teen Idol But Not Quite Alert! Here’s British dreamboat Chesney Hawkes with a song that was massive around the world and just barely made the Top 10 here. I blame the most distracting facial mole this side of Lemmy.

18. Luther Vandross, “Don’t Want to Be a Fool
Honest question: Would a 2014 Luther Vandross have to pretend to be straight?

17. Prince & the New Power Generation, “Cream
So “Diamond” and “Pearl” seem to have passed the audition and are now official Prince backup dancers, which is to say they are allowed to rub their bottoms on him while he violently pulls their hair. Problematic!

16. Metallica, “Enter Sandman
You guys, I think this might be my least-favorite song of all time. It’s so self-consciously spoo-oo-ooooky that it immediately becomes hilarious, and then immediately after that, it becomes tedious, and then it goes on for five and a half more minutes. And then, 13 years later, they stole that therapist scene from the Guns N’ Roses video and expanded it into the feature-length documentary Some Kind of Monster. The prominent rock guys in 1991 were the worst. Thank God for Kurt Cobain.

15. Heavy D & the Boyz, “Now That We Found Love
Of course, it wasn’t just Nirvana that sparked the alternative-music revolution: Red Hot Chili Peppers also broke out in 1991. I think we fail to give them equal credit because they’re still together (and they turned into pop culture’s weird uncles right around Y2K).

14. REM, “Shiny Happy People
On TV right around this time, Home Improvement grunted its way onto ABC, the 90210 kids started their second junior year at Beverly Hills High, and one man’s emotions began to duke it out on Fox’s timeless Herman’s Head, soon to be turned into an animated film by Pixar.

13. Jesus Jones, “Real Real Real
If there’s a theme in this week’s countdown beyond “horrible, horrible mainstream rock music,” it’s “acts that I totally forgot had second hits.” “Real Real Real” was every bit as huge as “Right Here, Right Now,” but since it lends itself less well to being played alongside triumphant End of Gulf War/Apartheid-repeal footage, we’ve almost totally forgotten it! Remember it today! (Forget it later today.)

12. Bryan Adams, “Can’t Stop This Thing We Started
Mom Jeans: The Video.

11. Martika, “Love … Thy Will Be Done
This is a stone classic right here. Prince produced it, perhaps hoping to do for Martika what he’d done for Sheena Easton and Diamond and Pearl. It was less successful than it deserved to be, and the relationship ended. How do you think Prince ends these things? Does he just stop picking up the phone? Does Martika show up with some new lyric ideas and Prince just doesn’t answer the gate? Or is she still in the house somewhere, handling accounting or tending to the aviary like the old centerfolds do at the Playboy Mansion?

10. Aaron Neville, “Everybody Plays the Fool
Most distracting facial mole this side of Chesney Hawkes.

9. Boyz II Men, “Motownphilly
Remember Bands Reunited, where Aamer Haleem would travel the country collecting members of long-dissolved bands and begging them to reunite onstage to perform their hits? My friend Scott and I are determined to film a similar kind of a thing at some point in our careers, except the only band we want to reunite is Sudden Impact, and we just want them to re-create the point to the camera they do at 2:39.

8. Firehouse, “Love of a Lifetime
Firehouse and …

7. Extreme, “Hole Hearted
… Extreme. The two bands left at the hair-metal party at the dawn of Nevermind.

6. Bonnie Raitt, “Something to Talk About
They should remake Metallica’s “Some Kind of Monster” and have Iyanla Vanzant be all of their therapists. Are you watching Iyanla, Fix My Life on the Oprah Winfrey Network? If not, you need to start. Right now. I’m not kidding. Leave work. Change your cable tier if you must. Iyanla is a Sherlock Holmes of emotional damage who will zero right in on a problem with drone-strike accuracy. She is also bananapants. If she senses that you are lying — and she will always sense it — she will say things like: “If you give me half a loaf, I will give you half a loaf right back, because my name is not Jesus, my name is Iyanla.” It is the best show on television, and it should be watched in crowded bars the way sporting events are.

5. Karyn White, “Romantic
Karyn White! Whom I thought only had “Secret Rendezvous,” but whom I now recognize as one of my most-missed voices of the ’90s. (Kate Pierson is the other one; how can I hear her sing again without having to go to one of those B-52s revival shows where everyone wears a beehive wig and a boa like we’re in some shitty theme-park photo kiosk?)

4. Color Me Badd, “I Adore Mi Amor
Who’s your favorite Color Me Badd? Is it the Latin one, who looks like a perfect mix between 1985 George Michael and 2008 Ross Matthews? Screech with Kenny G. hair? Intersex Brandy? Or is it the lead guy, who, for some reason, is styled to look like an enormous toddler? Whoever it is, can we agree that they all look not so much like pop stars as hostages in some kind of fabulous Al Qaeda training video?

3. Natural Selection, “Do Anything
The yawn at the beginning of this video says it all. More soulless Rythm Syndicate–style pop, with a lead singer who makes Kyper sound like Chuck D. I just can get enough.

2. Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch, “Good Vibrations
In the 1990s, I was the proud owner of a VHS copy of Form, Focus, Fitness: The Marky Mark Workout. I think the results speak for themselves.

1. Mariah Carey, “Emotions
Did you guys see the Lea Michele/Jessica Lange red carpet moment from earlier this week? If not, please feast your eyes; it is vicious and malicious (and de-lovely and delicious). It sent me down a YouTube rabbit hole of diva shade — which is exactly as deep and wide as you would imagine — where I landed on this collection of classic Mariah Carey tea-spills. I know she’s trying to project strength here, but does anyone look more threatened than Mariah Carey attempting a read?

Right now, Vulture senior editor John Sellers has got me feeling emotions of sorrow and pride, as he moves on to exciting new pastures. John, these DeLorean rides down Memory Lane would simply not be possible without your enthusiasm, encouragement, and creativity, and I thank you and wish you the very best of luck. No shade.

What Songs Were Popular When Nevermind Debuted?