Theories on Black Gen-Zers Attachment to 90’s Music
A few weeks ago, I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Switched on Pop. It’s hosted by musicologist Nate Sloan and songwriter Charlie Harding where they “pull back the curtain on how pop hits work magic on our ears and our culture.” In the episode, I was listening to “90s Music Canon” they were having a conversation with Matt Daniels, editor of the publication “The Pudding,” who had put together a study that tested song decay, which is basically if his favorite songs from the 90s had withstood the test of time.
To illustrate this point the hosts ran a little mini-study/game. The way the game worked was that one host was to name songs that the other played AND to guess if his niece (a Gen -Zer) would not know, recognize, or completely know the song. In my opinion, both the host and his niece did awfully. Both of their recognition was low, and the host couldn't accurately gauge what the other host’s niece knew and didn't know. Also, she didn't recognize songs I thought were givens. I mean they both missed Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy” AND “Motown Philly” by Boyz II Men. What I thought was just a sample size fluke was actually a very accurate representation of the data presented by Daniels in the podcast. According to his study by and large Gen-Z just had awful recognition of 90’s music.
I was shocked, and these results just did not seem right. Then he said the keywords that got my gears turning; the study had been race-blind. They had nearly a quarter-million people participate, and there was no differentiation of answers along lines of race. Now, this is not to imply this was a bad or faulty study at all. At first glance, a question like this might seem race-neutral, but I think examining by demographics would actually produce a treasure trove of interesting findings. When you consider that white people are the current majority in the United States and that races tend to live in very concentrated areas, by a very rough estimate, if you take an enormous sample size across the country and don’t note race or region your answers might come to be an over-representation of how white people responded. That isn't to suggest that there aren't any people of color who wouldn't respond in similar ways to white people, but any patterned nuances between white and nonwhite responses might be buried, and those nuances are always relevant and important, and oftentimes interesting demonstrations of subtle race dynamics.
So this all begged the question…are there racial differences in generational cultural carryover. Here is where I’d like to note, unlike Matt Daniels I am not able to launch a large scale study that proves my hunch is right. Really this paper is an extrapolation of my lived experiences into theories that may explain those experiences. This paper is operating under the assumption that my lived experience is both generalizable and provable. It’s important to me that I name that. I am not an authority on this nor am I actively challenging Daniel’s findings. I am merely proposing a line of questioning and hypothetically exploring a possible answer — hence “theory.” These are theories supported by my truths, but not proven facts. With those caveats in mind let’s explore.
II. THEORY ONE — CULTURAL SALIENCE
If you read my last piece “The Politics of TikTok Hits” then you’ve heard a little bit about how Billboard Charts’ racist history played a hand in the racialization of genres, especially pop/mainstream music. A point I stress to death is that pop music is not a transhistorical category. It is a racialized simulacrum — it exists only as a representation of popularity AND that representation is highly racialized due to the racial segregation early in chart history. In short pop music could be any sound and has been — rock, r&b, hip-hop — and the moment something becomes “pop” it becomes tied to whiteness in our social consciousness.
With whiteness functioning as the default, the mainstream, the popular it makes white Americans culture less salient to white individuals because it feels less like a part of a tangible racial identity. The layers of their identity are less visible and congeal together more seamlessly. For Black Americans, this is not the case. African-American needs a hyphen. We never use the term European-American for the average white American because guess what we see white as the default American. Subtly(or not so subtly) we have made a distinction between “true” Americans aka white, and those Americans who are other. Whiteness as the default causes white people to not consciously identify music as “white” or even “theirs” it just is. Black music on the other hand is forced to define itself in its relation to the default aka whiteness at all times.
Therefore with Black musicians, every commercial success was chipping away at a stone door that locked them out of mainstream America. These weren't just songs we liked as “Americans”; they were Black cultural artifacts and milestones too. Blackness sits as an antithesis or addendum to the “mainstream” since mainstream is closely associated with whiteness, BUT just because there is that definitional tension it has never stopped Black music from actually gaining popularity. The tension can produce cultural appropriation and theft, but it doesn’t stop people from just generally liking the sound, the look, or the vibe. Balancing double consciousness —a term coined to describe the juggling of psycho-socially disparate identities — the way Black Americans are forced to prevents our cultural salience from ever dipping too low. With all this in mind, Black Americans have the particular power to experience their music as both mainstreams and retain its cultural salience. It can move between occupying mainstream and cultural status or both contributing to greater cross-generational cultural carryover.
Therein lies the first place of possible diversion. For white individuals, the music of their youth and young adulthood often passes through as a general fad. Today’s white teens grew up on trap music, their parents grew up on grunge, and their grandparents like classic rock, but there is usually not enough cultural salience to keep that music in rotation in a white home or community. They are touchstones of the general American popular music history but that is too vast for communities to grab hold to so genres, songs, and artists don't carry over from generation to generation as often. Distinct generational divides keep that music firmly locked into their respective time periods. When white parents play the music that was in their day, their kids may or may not enjoy it, and it may or may not become a song of familial reference for them individually, but will it speak to their larger identity as white American? That’s unlikely because we socialize whiteness to be less of a salient cultural identity. So if you put all this into say a “cultural carryover formula.” Mainstream + lack of cultural salience = negative carryover.
For Black teens, this is different because while we grew up on trap, and our parents experienced the golden age of hip hop and new jack swing, and our grandparents had funk music’s heyday. Those artists are heroes, and their songs are the soundtracks to a rich collective Black history. The music and those artists still hold cultural salience long after the genres or songs fall from grace. These are stronger touchstones for cross-generational cultural carryover. They become a part of what it means to be Black. When Black parents play their music, we may or may not like it; it may or may not become something of familial reference, but more likely than not it will prime our Black American identity. It will not only be a touchstone of American popular music history, but also a touchstone of Black culture. That touchstone is much easier for a community to hold on to. It speaks to who we are and sticks to our souls. It places us in the larger narrative of the Black experience. That’s why we play Marvin Gaye, Franky Beverly, Diana Ross, Earth, Wind, and Fire, Michael Jackson, 2pac, Biggie, New Edition, Juvenile, Drake, and Beyoncé at the cookout. That music says remember who you are, remember where you came from, and think about where you’re going together. Any music that speaks to you that way is harder to let go of. So if you put all of that into a cultural carryover formula. Mainstream + large cultural salience = positive carryover.
III. THEORY TWO — SONIC FOSSILS
My second theory has less to do with the audience and more to do with the DNA of the music itself. First and foremost, music and musicians call back to other artists, other genres, and other time periods in their production in general. Music, like history, has a way of repeating itself with a twist. Sounds and innovations from yesteryears have long had a habit of floating into our radios with modern touches. One thing my dad always says when we talk about music is that real musicians always borrow from their influences. This is to say that musicians and artists are often compelled to recreate and dabble in all sorts of sounds and genres, reaching back into their childhood or other artists’ repertoires and putting their own spin on it. It could be considered a part of the natural artistic spirit. Its what can separate just a singer from a “real” musician. I’d argue Bruno Mars is a phenomenal example of an artist who somehow plays perfectly in the middle of nostalgia and originality. This has a way of in a very general sense keeping old sounds fresh.
Speaking specifically about Black culture today, we inherited the influences of Hip-Hop’s golden age: sampling — the technique of incorporating other sound recordings — and interpolation — the re-recording of an original song with similar instrumentation. 90’s Hip-Hop juggernauts like Dr. Dre and RZA brought life into the West Coast Rap scene with their use of samples. Bad Boy Records by Sean “Diddy” Combs ran the East with their samples. LaFace (founded by LA Reid and Babyface), So So Def Recordings (founded by Jermaine Dupri), and Dallas Austin ran the southern hip hop scene with their use of samples. All of them and others established sampling and interpolation as cornerstones of hip-hop — and Black music in a more general sense — forevermore.
This really crystallized the phenomenon of musical callbacks. Following my previous theory with hip-hop music being socialized as such a Black genre, therefore maintaining its cultural salience, and its heavy use of sampling and interpolations of even older songs it creates something like a “sonic fossil”. Songs that within their production hold years and years of culturally relevant music delineating a sort of sonic history and thus remaining increasing cultural retention from generation to generation.
Let’s look at an example. Take a listen to Megan Thee Stallions “B.I.T.C.H.” a single from her E.P. Suga that finds Megan confidently warning her man to shape up or ship out. Megan’s biting bravado floats over her autotuned vocals and a synthesized interpolation of 2pac’s hit “Rather Be Ya Nigga” from his critically acclaimed album All Eyez on Me from 1996. Even her lyrics are somewhat of a reimagining of the narrative of his track from a female perspective. 2pac’s “Rather Be Ya Nigga” actually contains a sample of Bootsy Collins’s “I’d Rather Be With You” from 1976. Do you know who else samples “I’d Rather Be With You”? Beyoncé in “Be With You” from her debut album “Dangerously in Love” in 2003 AND Childish Gambino in his 2016 smash hit “Redbone.”
With one sample, we’ve time traveled from 1976 all the way to 2020 with multiple stops along the way. This is not the only song I can do this with. I struggled to choose what track to use as an example! My generation is inundated with tracks that sample 90’s hits. Dj Khaled’s hit with Rihanna and Bryson Tiller “Wild Thoughts” samples “Maria, Maria” by Carlos Santana and The Project. “Ex” by Ty Dolla sign samples 112’s “Only You (Remix)” with Biggie and Mase (which also contains a sample of “Feel Good” by Tony! Toni! Tone!) Summer Walker samples Destiny’s Child’s hit “Say My Name” on “Playing Games.” Megan’s “Girls in The Hood” samples Eazy-E’s “Boyz-N-The- Hood.” Tory Lanez's entire career is practically built off of sampling and interpolations, most notably with his hit “Say It” which samples “If You Love Me” by the Brownstones or you know his entire Chixtape 5 release(seriously look at all the samples listed; it's borderline ridiculous). The list goes on and on and on.
Sampling sort of serves two functions. One, it can be profitable af. Nostalgia has always been a powerful selling tool. When you pluck a bassline from a hit my mom used to love and put an artist on it that I love today you get two listeners, me and my mom, expanding your audience. Sampling also can function as a hip hop cultural signal. First, the wealth it takes injecting tracks with expensive samples lets artists and their labels flex in true hip-hop fashion. Second, it establishes status in the hip-hop world. Whose tracks are worth paying for a sample to be on? Whose songs do we want to be sampled? Who has the cultural capital to be “worthy” of sampling Black culture’s greatest hits? Third, it signals that the artist knows their roots and the traditions of hip-hop.
When you couple these “sonic fossils” with the aforementioned cultural salience, we get culturally relevant musical timelines. At cookouts maybe my grandma wants to hear Bootsy Collins, but then my dad wants to hear 2pac, but now my mom wants Bey, and my siblings and I want to hear Childish Gambino and Megan Thee Stallion after that, delineating that sonic history and preserving a cultural timeline. It's almost like Black GenZs can’t get away from the ’90s if we wanted to.
IV. THEORY THREE- A NEW (BLACK) WORLD ORDER
My third theory has less to with the music itself and more to do with the cultural climate it was produced under. The ’90s were a watershed moment of Black cultural production. Tv, movies, and, yes, music changed the way Blackness as an identity was performed. If Blackness were a country, the ’90s would be a new leader and new style of government utterly changing what it meant to be Black forevermore.
The ‘90s music scene for Black people came on the heels of Motown and other hit Black acts breaking the color barrier of the Billboard charts in the late ’60s and early ‘70s. It follows the meteoric rise of Black pop stars like Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, and Prince in the 80s. Basically for the first time Blackness is primed to be one the most visible cultural currencies in America. Emphasis on visible popular culture has often been and still is driven by Black people, but finally, in the ’90s, we get to be the face, not just the undercurrent to be siphoned from. Our look, our sound, our vibe can’t be consumed fast enough. The first hip-hop song topped the Billboard Hot 100 in 1991. While that may seem like a small feat considering the demanding presence of hip-hop on the charts today, it’s this very moment that establishes hip-hop’s cultural dominance today. The day hip hop became crowned as a mainstream sound set in motion hip-hops permeation today. A pop princess with a rapper feature is almost a guaranteed hit these days, but that wouldn't have happened without the golden age of hip-hop wresting the laurels of popularity from other genres while retaining its ties to the Black community. Hip-hop is seen as so Black it became a stereotype for Black teens. “You’re Black; you must love hip-hop music.” And yet…hip-hop remains mainstream, palpably provoking the tension between the mainstream’s default whiteness and the way that Black culture has historically always moved the needle of American popular music from the shadows. That tension and the cultural milestones and relevancy that persisted in the 90s keep the 90s music scene as an artifact of Black excellence in the Black community's collective memory.
In addition to this during the 90s, the Black middle class was growing. This caused identity anxieties in some — could you be Black and middle class? That’s not to imply that Black and poor are synonymous but rather that when large swaths of the Black community are working-class or poor due to institutional circumstances some class behaviors become conflated as race behaviors. What does it mean when you're no longer a part of that class and those behaviors aren't relevant to you anymore, but they've also become a part of how we perform Black identity? Questions like this were explored on countless Black 90’s shows that featured verifiably Black middle-class families. Above that still we have the creation of “Hip-hop moguls” artists and producers whose music became lifestyles like a pre-Instagram influencer. Introducing another way to define Blackness — through the lens of wealth, power, and swagger only gained from having come from the bottom.
All of this is just to demonstrate how much of the 90s was an identity project for Black Americans. The ’90s were America’s first go at what was supposed to be a “post-racial society.” Black Americans took that as a time to define ourselves through our lens. Our directors, our actors, our tv shows, our movies, and our music. We finally had been given the rope to explore the edges of Blackness. How many ways could we be? Were we crazy, sexy, cool like TLC? Maybe we had attitude like N.W.A.? Were we survivors like Destiny’s Child? Were we juicy like Biggie? Maybe we were divas like En Vogue? Were we as ambitious as 2pac?
How could you forget the people who gave us new ways of defining ourselves? Only if you’re not really one of us.
Outside of the ’90s changing what it meant to perform Black identity then it also changed what it means to perform Black identity now. Black culture was pushed forward so forcefully during the ‘90s, and so much was added to our cultural repertoire, new fashion, new hairstyles, and new dance moves. The music became staples of Historically Black Colleges and Universities’ marching band culture that persists today. These cultural additions and milestones and new ways of being became today’s markers of Blackness. For my generation of Black teens, a certain level of Black 90’s knowledge is expected for you to be “really Black,” especially music. You never heard TLC? You don't know TLC? You don’t know N.W.A. You don’t know Destiny’s Child? You don’t know Biggie, Janet, 2pac? Don’t recognize the song JSU, TSU, or Southern is playing? You’re not really Black. How could you forget the people who gave us new ways of defining ourselves? Only if you're not really one of us.
Of course, that doesn't actually make you not Black, but it can certainly make you feel like an outsider or like you're missing something that everyone else has got. So my generation stays tuned into the 90s to remember where our community was and stay connected to who we are now.
V. CONCLUDING THOUGHTS
Agree or disagree with this article’s viewpoints and theories, but what is inarguable is the demonstration of nuance. America’s cultural complexities are extremely nuanced, and the nuances change as you change your approach. There are shades to everything, and while it can be easier to paint with broad strokes you miss out on the richness of the full picture when you don't explore the subtleties. Nuance is needed in every facet of American academic work. So many things we consider “truths” about Americans from research and observation are based on the experience and perspective of straight white upper-class college men, which is such a narrow perspective. Then we try and force anyone who doesn't fit into those boxes into them, and if they won't go in we resort breaking them.
How much richer would the American mural be if we let each community paint their perspective and their experiences into it? Could we learn from each other if we simply turned to one another to ask more nuanced questions? How much better would we be if we asked people's experiences instead of prescribing them? Audre Lorde wrote that “it is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” When we’re scared to call out the nuances and subtleties of the human experience we misunderstand each other, and we leave the most marginalized out. Don’t be afraid to ask the question; be afraid of the person who tells you there is only one way to be.
VI. FUN BONUS: CURATED ACCOMPANYING PLAYLIST
I thought a fun somewhat interactive element to add to this would be to include a playlist of songs and artists that were either mentioned in the paper and or were examples of the phenomena I described. Here’s a link to listen as well as a list of the songs with an explanation for why I chose them. Enjoy!*
*note many of the “classics” also contain samples I chose to just note that with ones that were mentioned in the paper. If you check out Whosampled you can dig for your own sonic fossils! It’s a really fun process.
“Let Me See You Go Back” Accompanying Playlist:
“Back and Forth” — Aaliyah: Where my paper gets its title from!
“Fantasy” — Mariah Carey: Mentioned in Switched on Pop and in article
“Motown Philly” — Boyz II Men: Mentioned in Switched on Pop and in article
“Lil Ghetto Boy” — Dr. Dre: artist mentioned in article; sonic fossil example
“Little Ghetto Boy — Donny Hathaway: Sampled by Dr. Dre sonic fossil example
“Juicy” — Notorious B.I.G.: Produced by Bad Boy records. Both Biggie and Bad Boy are mentioned in article; sonic fossil example
“Juicy Fruit” — Mtume: sonic fossil example
“Thong Song” — Sisqo: Produced by So So Def Jam Recordings mentioned in article
“Eleanor Rigby” — Wes Montgomery: Sampled in “Thong Song” sonic fossil example
“B.I.T.C.H.” — Megan Thee Stallion: Mentioned in article; sonic fossil example
“Redbone” — Childish Gambino: Mentioned in article; sonic fossil example
“Be With You” — Beyoncé: Mentioned in article; sonic fossil example
“Rather Be Ya Nigga” — 2pac: Mentioned in article; sonic fossil example
“I’d Rather be with You” — Bootsy Collins: Mentioned in article; sonic fossil example
“Straight Outta Compton” — N.W.A.: Mentioned in article; sonic fossil example
“You’ll Like It Too” — Funkadelic: Sonic Fossil
“Wild Thoughts” — Dj Khaled ft Rihanna and Bryson Tiller: Mentioned in article; sonic fossil example
“Maria Maria” — Carlos Santana and The Project: Mentioned in article; sonic fossil example
“Ex” — Ty Dolla Sign ft YG: Mentioned in article; sonic fossil example
“Only You (Remix)” — 112 ft Biggie and Mase: Mentioned in article; sonic fossil example
“Feels Good” — Tony! Toni! Tone!: Mentioned in article; sonic fossil example
“Playing Games.” — Summer Walker samples: Mentioned in article; sonic fossil example
“Say My Name” Destiny’s Child’s: Mentioned in article; sonic fossil example
“Girls in The Hood” — Megan Thee Stallion: Mentioned in article; sonic fossil example
“Boyz-N-The- Hood.” — Eazy-E’s: Mentioned in article; sonic fossil example
“Say It” — Tory Lanez : Mentioned in article; sonic fossil example
“If You Love Me” — Brownstones: Mentioned in article; sonic fossil example
“No Scrubs” — T.L.C.: Classic Black 90’s
“Jump” — Kriss Kross: Classic Black 90’s
“Candy Rain” — Soul 4 Real ft Heavy D: Classic Black 90’s
“Remember the Time” — Michael Jackson: Classic Black 90’s
“California Love” — 2pac: Classic Black 90’s
“Doo Wop (That Thing)” — Lauryn Hill: Classic Black 90’s
“Can We Talk” — Tevin Cambell: Classic Black 90’s
“I Wanna Be Down” — Brandy ft MC Lyte, Yo-Yo, Queen Latifah: Classic Black 90’s
“Scream” — Micheal and Janet Jackson: Classic Black 90’s
“Regulate” — Warren G: Classic Black 90’s
“Back That Azz Up” — Juvenile: Classic Black 90’s
“Weak” — SWV: Classic Black 90’s
“Just Kickin’ It” — Xscape: Classic Black 90’s
“Always Be My Baby” — Mariah Carey: Classic Black 90’s
“You Make Me Wanna” — Usher: Classic Black 90’s
“Ambitionz as a Rider” — 2pac: Classic Black 90’s
“My Lovin (Never Gonna Get It) — En Vogue: Classic Black 90’s
“No Diggity” — Blackstreet: Classic Black 90’s
“Pony” — Genuine: Classic Black 90’s
“Hypnotize” — Notorius B.I.G.: Classic Black 90’s
“Posion” — Bell Biv Devoe: Classic Black 90’s