How was it a hit?! (90s)

This image really capture the 90s is so many ways

Many of you know that my commute to and from work is about 2 hours and 20 minutes (without traffic) per day. Usually, I listen to my many podcast subscriptions, but over the past few weeks, as shows have gone on hiatus or I have unsubscribed for some reason, I have been listening to more music. Instead of listening to the abysmal Bay Area radio selections, I found a bunch of Spotify playlists for the best of the 90s. After a few days of listening off and on I encountered some songs I had forgotten about and I had also forgotten were so weird! I went ahead and created my own list (linked below), and today we are going to discuss 30 of the most WTF hit (or in some cases “hit”) songs of the 90s.

I should mention, the 90s were weird musically, opening with grunge- which, I am a tried and true pop guy so that few years were particularly dark for me-and ending with boy bands and being inundated with club tunes and nu-folk in the middle. I tried to keep this list to only songs that were actually trying to be serious- no novelty songs and, with a couple exceptions I think I did a pretty good job of sticking to the cream of the 90s weirdness (which may include some content from 2000 due to decade bleed over).

“Lump” and “Peaches”- The Presidents of the United States of America

These songs are fascinatingly odd. I can only assume the dread “college rock” set caused these songs to chart so high,the latter literally about peaches (and love. Wait. Were peaches a metaphor?? Ew!) while the former… um… well per wikipedia: “Composer Chris Ballew said that the lyrics combined his own history of having a benign tumor in the head with a vision he had of a woman in a swamp, while employing the word ‘lump’ because Ballew was ‘fond of it.’”

“Flagpole Sitta”- Harvey Danger

I get that this song was basically a reaction to the Seattle grunge culture of the time, at least I assume so based on the bridge, but it is barely competent at that. It’s odd cadence mixed with all-too happy pop-punk music makes this song really jarring. Also, I’m fairly certain most people do not know the name of this song or the band behind it, but have head the song 1000000 times.

“The Way”- Fastball

The best song ever about going off the grid and literally walking into the sunset/abandoning your kids apparently, perhaps to die without ever seeing your loved ones again! Bleak! #90s

“Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm”- Crash Test Dummies

This song. It’s not just the singer’s too deep voice and the hummed “chorus”, but it’s also the verse content about 3 kids who all have bizarre circumstances that are normal in their lives. While it could be said that the the song is about empowerment and embracing your own differences, it doesn’t? It mostly just lists “problems” and then follows that these traits…exist. It doesn’t comment one way or the other- although before kid 3 the singer does kind of imply that his Pentecostal church makes his life worse than the previous 2 kids’ white hair and birthmarks respectively- and in fact the hummed chorus (which is super weird on it’s own!) elides the area where they could have commented on these kids and in fact sounds almost judgmental with it’s “mmm mmm”refrain.

“Breakfast at Tiffany’s”- Deep Blue Something

A song almost as vague and dismissive as the band’s name, it seems to be about 2 people with nothing in common save for this movie. Except, well the chorus

And I said, ‘What about Breakfast at Tiffany’s?’
She said, ‘I think I remember the film,
And as I recall, I think we both kinda liked it’
And I said, ‘Well, that’s the one thing we’ve got’”

At least with this one, I know how it became a hit because it is so damn catchy. It’s perfectly in that mid-90s generic pop vein (see The Rembrants of the Friends theme as an example). In fact, it’s like a few songs on this list in being perfectly bland. Speaking of…

“Counting Blue Cars”- Dishwalla

You guys, what the hell? The most interesting thing about this song is its usage of female pronouns when referring to God but all that exists in this college-rocky deeply boring song. And, what’s with the car counting? Is that a metaphor for…something? And, is it about homeless children? Becasue it kind of sounds like it might be and yet even if it were it doesn’t even really say anything about the plight of the homeless, so, like, why?

“Kiss Me”- Sixpence none the richer

This song is deeply terrible. The singer’s whiny high-pitched voice, the twee love story, “your flowered hat,” just pure garbage. It’s also smack in the middle of the 90s Lillith Fair phase where female-centered music came to the forefront. That, I am here for. But, it also spawned a sub genre of these awkward pseudo-hippie/folk story songs that were probably delightful while high and laying in a puddle of patchouli and reciting your favorite Byron cuts but as a mainstream radio tune it was enough to make you want to throw raw meat at a vegan.

That rant kind of got away from me. Probably caused my my totally rational hatred for this song.

“Feed the Tree”- Belly

See above. Add guitar. Still crap

“Pretty Fly (For a white guy)”- The Offspring

I am pretty sure that this song was serious. The mid-90s had this trend of established but not mainstream bands releasing more easily accessible material as a way of…selling out, to be honest. Not that there’s anything wrong with that mind you, but let’s face it, that trend as much as anything led to the scourge of fratrock that brought us Limp Bizkit and their ilk. This song is fine for what it is, and what it is is super annoying. It starts with a Jerry Lewis meets “Fiddler on the Roof” nonsense rhyme and bad counting in Spanish (“uno dos tres cuatro cinco cinco seis” which is 1 2 3 4 5 5 6, what?!) and and then goes down from there. It’s also (unintentionally?) meta with its lyric “if you don’t rate just overcompensate.” Give it to me baby, indeed.

“She’s so high”- Tal Bachman

Remember what I said earlier about “Kiss me”? Well a mutant spin off of the Lillith Fair music was this spate of white guy with guitar songs. Most of them were sappy, edgeless, impotent in all senses of the word and most of all deliriously terrible. I’m going to use “She’s so high” as a stand in for that entire genre as it’s aggressively awful. Which is weird as there is nothing aggressive about it. To steal a term from the alt-right, this is a cuck in song form.

“Faded”- SoulDecision

I did say “hit” earlier, didn’t I? You likely have never heard this song that was lost in the boyband era explosion but I am going use it here as stand in for all of the lost boy bands (5ive, Take That, Take 5, No Authority, Dream Street, et al) (Although, No Authority’s “Can I get your number” is possibly one of the worst songs I have ever heard) instead of using O-Town’s paean to nocturnal emissions “Liquid Dreams” because “Faded” is truly awful. It has a rap break from a rapper no one has ever heard of (Thrust. Apparently), it’s about drunken sex and/or possibly date rape, the video looks like someone just got Windows movie maker, They’re Canadian- it’s all bad.

“MMMBop”- Hanson

While Hanson has gone on to make some pretty great music, and even other songs on this first album are surprisingly good, “MMMBop” is just bad. It’s a metaphor that doesn’t work (“In an mmmbop they’re gone” is a stand in for a really short span of time. It’s tweens singing about fleeting relationships. Really), a video that is both amatuerish and accidentally presages the YouTube era’s editing tricks, and Hanson themselves managed to give a few people some really confused feelings unintentionally.

“Summer Girls”- LFO

LFO, or Lyte Funkie Ones, should not have had a hit especially when you remember that their 2nd hit, “Girl on TV” was basically just about watching Jennifer Love Hewitt while…well you know. Anyway, “Summer Girls” is terribly bad, barely a song so much as a commercial for Abercrombie & Fitch, and is also a leering mess. But, somehow its terrible stream-of-consciousness word salad style made people happy. Lead singer Rich Cronin has since passed away and and Brad Fischetti is now a pro-life activist. Neither of those facts has anything to do with the song, but they add to the general theme of tragedy and cringe that this song gives me.

“I wanna sex you up” and “I adore (mi amor)”- Color me Badd

Hoo boy. These songs are intensely bad: Nonsense cadence-y rhyme (“tick tock get up stop)? Check. United Colors of Benetton casting of the group? Check. Unmotivated language change? Big check. Sepia toned video? Yup! “Edgy” spelling? 10–4. Unfathomably ridiculous lyrics? Witness: “We can do it till we both wake up.” Unmotivated falsetto? For sure. These are twin tornadoes of garbage.

“Steal my Sunshine”- Len

This song radiates happiness. Like, it’s so upbeat. But upbeat moods are not enough to make a song work. But a teen love affair at a rave is just about as 90s as you can get.

“Sunny came home”- Shawn Colvin

This song is about arson. Specifically, revenge arson.

“The Freshmen”- The Verve Pipe

Even the song writer disagrees about what this song is actually about. He has said both suicide and abortion. I know when it came out I heard everything from gang rape to ritual cannibalism. It fits in with the bleak late 90s nihilism but the song always feels like a mixed metaphor and never really lands.

“Blue (Da ba dee)”- Eiffel 65

Ah, the innocent time when the 90s founded what we now call EDM, this song is utter nonsense and like the Mr. Men theme song.

“Mambo №5 (A little bit of…)”- Lou Bega

This song is a list of women’s names. And, unlike the charmingly weird “88 lines about 44 women” by The Nails, none of the women have personalities. Also, I think he is trying to teach you how to Mambo in the verses? An entire generation of white people now think the mambo is to jump up the down, move it all around and then list several woman at random. It’s the Hokey Pokey with a roll call. Thanks Lou Bega!

“The Thong Song”- Sisqo

She had dumps like a truck truck truck
Thighs like what what what
Baby move your butt butt butt

In order: What?! What? What?? Ugh, this song song song song song.

“Tubthumping”- Chumbawamba

Ahem, a confession: I saw Chumbawama live once. It was at the Fillmore, I was in high school, mistakes were made. That said, we all knew we were in for a shitty night within about 5 seconds of entering the building. And, this was before I realized that even though I’d spent money for an experience I was under no obligation to complete that experience if it sucked, so I stubbornly stayed through the whole thing. They played this song 3rd. There were 50 people on stage and this song is 6 minutes long. It has 2 verses IF I’M BEING GENEROUS. Oh, and this is a drinking song by anarchists.

“I’m too sexy”- Right Said Fred

No, this song wasn’t a joke, yes he was serious, no I don’t know why, yes really. Still not sure how a vapid silly song about vapid silly models is supposed to be a comment on the vapidness or silliness of models but here it is.

“Butterfly”- Crazy Town

Featuring the line “so sexy almost evil…” Crazy town is what would happen if a prison gang merged with a gay porn and wrote music. The singer, Shifty Shellshock (Yeah…) is a greasy tattooed muscle daddy who sing-talks sappy romance platitudes deemed too dumb for The WB and the video takes place in a Jackson Pollack hellscape.

“Where have all the cowboys gone?”- Paula Cole

At least this song makes me laugh. The angry whisper verses, the screechy pre-chorus, it’s really funny to me. But, it’s always read as really anti-feminist to me (especially as the lyrics of the song seem to place it in the 60s). Paula Cole was a Lillith Fair woman so it’s weird to me that her biggest hit (Besides “I don’t want to wait” which was propelled by Dawson’s Creek) is about a woman who laments that lack of a “cowboy” in her life to save her and pay all of her bills (she mentions that twice!) Like, why do you need a man to save you, Paula? Pack up your kids and your armpit hair at take care of business without a “cowboy” and his “shiny gun.”

“Lullaby”- Shawn Mullins

What in the Boogie Nights is this song? Why has Shawn Mullins always reminded me of this (if you grew up in the Bay Area in the 80s, maybe you too)? Why does this song feel so very creepy? Is it Mullins’ voice, his whisper, his narration, his everything? What the fuck is a rockabye?

“Informer”- Snow

See, his name is Snow because he is white and Canadian. And he raps like Jamaica had a nervous breakdown. And his song is about not getting ratted out for a stabbing? Maybe? And he says “a-licky-boom-boom-down” a lot. Oh, and his album title, “12 inches of Snow,” is an inelegant dick joke. Really, he was the poet laureate of our time. Fun fact: The lyrics of this song are so fast that MTV got complaints that Snow was swearing (the “Louie, Louie” paradox, if you can’t understand it, it must be offensive) so they re released the video with a lyric crawl. The lyrics scrolled so fast that they were as unreadable as they were inarticulate.

“How Bizarre”- OMC

I always associate this song with “Steal My Sunshine” because they are both happy but annoying but bland but stupid and are both bad songs. “How Bizarre” though seems to be about a group is people who go to a circus on a lazy day, I think. Look, the 90s were big on story songs, that the story was boring and stupid was irrelavant.

“Torn”- Natalie Imbruglia

This is a happy delightful peppy song that I do enjoy. What’s that? It’s about rape? And it’s still a happy, smiley, cheery pop confection? Well that is surprising. Although, I mean, listen to the lyrics. This song has always really made me uncomfortable when I think about it too much because it is so very cheery but the lyrics are so dark and upsetting.


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