An oddly entertaining collection of essays that covers more than 100 songs but doesn’t really explain the decade that created them—which may be beside the point.
A senior staff writer at the Ringer, Harvilla adapts this book from his podcast of the same name, in which he outlines the importance of a song from the 1990s and then discusses it with a guest. The adaptation can be clunky, as the author looks for writing conventions to group often disparate songs and artists together under themes like “Chaos Agents,” “Villains + Adversaries,” and “Romance + Sex + Immaturity.” The way he switches gears from rapturous praise of Celine Dion to the misheard lyrics of Hole’s “Doll Parts” is as jarring as riding with a teenager driving a stick shift for the first time. Harvilla deftly moves from explaining a song’s backstory to how it connects to him or the music of the time. However, he rarely connects a song to the outside world, which may be by design. He purposefully removes Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” from everything that came after its stunning success. “What I’m saying is that sometimes you gotta let the singer be the singer and let the song be the song, and not hold its former culture-throttling ubiquity against it, nor hold its long-term unbearable biographical baggage against it,” he writes. “Empty your mind of all unpleasant and unnecessary context.” That approach doesn’t help to explain the ’90s—musically or historically—despite what the title promises. It can be forgiven, though, because Harvilla successfully captures what the ’90s felt like through his personal stories’ intriguing observations—e.g., “paging through somebody’s CD book was…like drinking beer out of someone else’s mouth.”
A personal ’90s music overview that is far from definitive, but nevertheless instructive and often poignant.