The biggest and most widely accepted lie about ’90s teen culture is that everyone was disaffected, aloof, and cool. We were nothing of the sort. We were dreamers and bleeding hearts whose world was changing perhaps much faster than the generation before — digitizing at a rate we couldn’t understand — who dared to lurch forward and grab a measure of control of culture. Much of the art from that era doesn’t play well with the trademark ironic detachment of this one, even in a protracted ’90s nostalgia cycle that has revived sitcoms like Full House and Mad About You and reunited bands like Belly and Jawbreaker. A lot of totemic ’90s pop culture — see: loutish, feel-good stuff like Hootie and the Blowfish or Home Improvement and darkly philosophical work like NYPD Blue or Live’s Throwing Copper — exists as arcana in a modern landscape. The morality is too fussy and dated, and the intentions are too obvious and specific to enjoy the lasting cool of a band like Nirvana, whose searching intellectualism and inscrutable poetry saved it from the schmaltz that makes people hate Pearl Jam and the unbridled kookiness that lands Billy Corgan cat magazine covers, wrestling partnerships, and Infowars episodes.
It’s always disconcerting living to learn which works fall out of the popular consciousness after the decade in which they were created. I thought about this a month ago listening to Eminem’s “In Your Head,” a shaky Revival cut built around a sample of the chorus from the Cranberries’ “Zombie,” how the passage of time can flatten out context, how a song that, to me, has existed for nearly 25 years as a clarion call of youthful political outrage might, to a different set of ears, just be a mewling, half-remembered chorus. It feels like a misunderstanding of what the Cranberries and singer-songwriter Dolores O’Riordan did to the face of alternative music to remember them as grungy one-hitters. Even “Zombie” is bigger than just a clattering riff and a fluttering vocal. It’s a protest song about civilian death in the face of terroristic violence that all but name-checks the IRA and the Easter Rebellion. The Cranberries’ biggest single opened up awareness about overseas political strife while giving the alt-rock’s boys’ club a run for its money, and that’s saying nothing of the exhilarating, sometimes bizarre hit parade that was the Cranberries career in the ’90s.
The Cranberries were small-town folk, and you can hear it in the music. The records crafted after the band picked up O’Riordan as singer are insular mixes of C86 jangle, 4AD dream pop, traditional ’80s British guitar rock, and splashes of Celtic folk. “Dreams” sounds like the Cocteau Twins channeling the Psychedelic Furs; “Linger” carried a dash of Smiths. (Note that producer Stephen Street’s shimmering sound is the through line joining the Smiths, Blur, the Cranberries, the Furs, and countless others.) People immediately accused the band of ripping off the Sundays, but in retrospect, this was likely a case of the men running music criticism lacking the tools or the interest in appreciating the ways that women like Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval, My Bloody Valentine’s Bilinda Butcher, or Slowdive’s Rachel Goswell sired, mixed, and matched different characteristics of wistful late-’80s and early-’90s alt-rock to suit their own tastes. (A crucial scene in the L7 documentary L7: Pretend We’re Dead shows singer Donita Sparks grousing righteously over male critics repeatedly asking what it’s like to be a girl in a band. Kim Gordon’s 2015 autobiography repurposes the same question for its title. If you want to know how exhausting male interviewers got with O’Riordan, check this 1994 Rolling Stone profile that makes a big fuss about her being a “low talker” or watch this 1996 clip of the Cranberries on MTV Europe’s X-Ray Vision, where, instead of showing deference to a superstar guest, host Ray Cokes asks her whether “size matters” and how much she likes porn.)
The Cranberries weren’t infallible; they were a young band still discovering themselves even a few albums in. O’Riordan often wrote to a groove concocted by the band, singing spontaneously as words and melodies came to her and refining them later, but the finished product always seemed to center her emotion and perspective. Without vocals, No Need to Argue’s “Ode to My Family” is just a lilting, pleasant guitar, bass, and tambourine exercise; O’Riordan’s plaintive, warbling lead and warm backing vocal are the show. That song is a great example of the brutalist emotion of Dolores O’Riordan’s songwriting. The lyric is about retreating into childhood memories when life gets taxing, but the stark simplicity of the words being used to describe the feeling of a mother and father’s love makes the singer feel like an impossibly small voice describing something much larger than itself, like the lyric is being delivered by an actual child. This style of writing could be a gift or a curse. It yielded iconic lines like the yearning “Oh, my life is changing every day, in every possible way” couplet at the top of “Dreams.” But critics called it cloying as time passed, and the Cranberries’ material got more pointedly topical on cuts like “Free to Decide” and “Salvation,” which tackled depression and drug abuse with the subtlety of an after-school special.
Some of these complaints were spot-on; 1996’s “I Just Shot John Lennon” is as warm and astute as a high-schooler’s book report about Mark David Chapman. But message songs like “Free to Decide” and “Salvation” worked in spite of hammy lyrics because Dolores O’Riordan’s genius was not so much lyrical as emotional and performative. Her songs weren’t just enticing arrays of notes and words, they were obstacle courses designed to facilitate cool tricks with her voice. O’Riordan’s exploration of the breaks in her voice is as inventive as the practices of instrumentalists like saxophonist Colin Stetson, whose positioning of microphones allows him to pick up noises made in the process of playing his instrument that listeners never considered to be musical. O’Riordan cracking her voice to the beat of “Zombie” and “Hollywood” and yawping around octaves in “Dreams” is an aesthetic choice so distinct and offbeat you could call it a trademark. Go deeper than that, and it’s whip-smart repositioning of limitations as strengths.
This pairing of a disarming delivery and a bludgeoning directness powered the Cranberries to the top of the charts in their heyday, but it could be argued that these same qualities make their music feel archetypally and sometimes embarrassingly specific to the ’90s. Obscurity is the final destination of most good art, but it’s sad to see the Cranberries slip into the sands of time, and doubly disappointing that it should take Dolores O’Riordan’s passing for us to properly assess what her music meant to a generation. Her journey from the outskirts of a lesser Irish city into international renown gave proof to the endless possibilities of big dreams. She gave insecurity and uncertainty a powerful voice. Her songs made it clear that asking questions is the path to getting answers. To the faithful departed, you are missed, you are legend.