The 90s were fueled by grunge, gangsta rap, and boy bands…and “Achy Breaky Heart,” …but some things should be forgotten— or rather, MUST for society to move forward. That being said, other things should not be left in the hazy fog of half-remembered chart-toppers of decades past. The 90s were a time when singer-songwriters, who had been hushed by the sounds of the 80s, began to reemerge. These 90s crooners, like Alanis Morissette, Jewel, Tori Amos, and Paula Cole— who have a story of their own, gave way to the scene dominating performers like Nelly Furtado, Michelle Branch, and Vanessa Carlton— whose songs of the early 2000s seem to be undying mainstays of summertime road trips and sunlight-y commercials. But ten years or so after these artists’ almost unprecedented debuts, we’re left with a couple questions, mostly, “Whatever happened to, you know, what’s-her-name…”
Most of these artists have faded into obscurity— some unwillingly. As for the genre, with its distinctive subtle rock feel, upbeat tempo, and strumming acoustic guitar interludes, it tends to be revisited at least once a year, with a new song popping up and having moderate success on the charts. But the artists who solidified this pattern have moved forward in a couple different ways.
Singers like Michelle Branch and Vanessa Carlton had quite immediate and wide-reaching recognition and have continued to produce music with a similar flavor. Michelle Branch’s debut LP “The Spirit Room” (2001) produced a number of hits, from the stalker-ie, guitar driven, drum laden “Everywhere,” to the angstier “All You Wanted.” Branch has remained in the music industry, through getting married and having a child, to produce a couple more albums— one, “West Coast Time,” due out in 2013, but hasn’t been able to garner quite as much attention as she did earlier in her career. In fact, after her “Hotel Paper” album, she formed a band, The Wreckers, with country’s Jessica Harp to produce an RIAA Gold certified record containing the hit single “Leave the Pieces.” Still, the handful of songs that live on as femme-pop hallmarks are what Branch may, eternally, be known for. Similarly, Vanessa Carlton’s debut album, “Be Not Nobody,” was a Frankenstein’s-monster-of-an-album that probably did more harm for its creator than good. “A Thousand Miles,” originally “Interlude,” was released in February of 2002 to critical and popular acclaim— becoming one of the most played songs of the year— thoroughly annoying, yet permanently encoding itself within the minds of the masses. This track was followed by “Ordinary Day” and “Pretty Baby,” each less successful than the former. Carlton’s lead track, “Nolita Fairytale,” from 2007’s “Heroes & Thieves” pretty much sums up what happened; “I used to hover outside my truth/ Always worry of what I’d lose/ Take away my record deal/…Spent the last 2 years getting to what’s real/ And now I can see so clear…” So yeah, she and her record label, A&M, had some misunderstandings (concerning, prominently, “Harmonium,” her sophomore album) resulting in Carlton’s leaving. In listening to her other music, there was quite a discrepancy between the image produced by how the singles sounded and what Carlton might have actually been like. That being said, Carlton has continued to make music, with the ups and downs, maintaining a fan-base and writing guitar/piano driven pop music. Her best of album, “Icon: Best Of Vanessa Carlton,” coincided with the release of her most recent album “Rabbits on the Run,” both dropping in 2011. Her style, overall hasn’t changed too much, but her lyrics definitely continuously reflect her life. That being said, some artists don’t quite keep their music expression in such a similar vein.
Nelly Furtado’s “I’m Like a Bird,” exhibits all the genre defining characteristics of the era. It was lighthearted, yet somehow, far more dramatic than necessary— well, at least the heavy strings intro. She sings about love and flying away and metaphors and does it all with interesting rhythmic syncopation in the vocal melody as the the light drums tap away. The airy synths in the background give light to what would become of Furtado’s music— but let’s not get there just yet. The entire “Whoa, Nelly” (2000) album kind of casts a similar shade of half-hearted angst and overall contented okayness laid over soft drums and gentle electronic vibes. The platinum qualifying album rose to number 24 on the Billboard 200 chart. “I’m Like a Bird” paid the bills— Furtado even recognizing this, but the album had a couple other well received songs— “Turn Off the Lights,” had a good amount of success, but didn’t quite have the staying power of the former track. The other singles from this album performed even less dazzlingly— globally. Then, Furtado, disappeared. For a little while. “Folklore” dropped in 2003…then kept falling; and no one picked it up. But three years later, “Loose” burst onto the scene with immediate success (maybe because three singles were released before the album, but still…). This album was Nelly Furtado’s evolution from eclectic folk-girl with trippy influences into full-on college-aged floozy— complete with sex appeal and a delicious sordidness. Its man-eating promiscuity torpedoed the record to debut at number one on Billboard 200 chart. Musically, the album is more electronic, and less melodic. Furtado pulls heavily on some of the quasi-rap roots that she had used subtly in previous tracks. Further, she pretty much abandons singing on one of the album’s biggest hits, “Promiscuous”. The LP’s racy themes caused some controversy— which was probably all the better for sales; but the most interesting aspect of the album, perhaps, is the apparent dissociation by the general public of Furtado’s former persona. She was hot, again. But it wasn’t called a “comeback,” because everything was so different. But change is something Furtado’s apparently comfortable with. The album’s third [English] single did well, and has offered a lasting hook that, while it may fail tp garner the same singalong thoughts as “I’m Like a Bird,” will be recognizable for, perhaps, years to come. But alas, “Say It Right,” echoed along side “Maneater” and “Promiscuous” as Furtado, again, slid into ambiguity. After a Spanish album (“Mi Plan”) and a best of compilation, Furtado began to claw her way to the top, again. “The Spirit Indestructible” was released in September of 2012— the lead single “Big Hoops (Bigger the Better)” dropped half a year earlier. While the album hasn’t quite made the kind of impact that other singles had done earlier, the change in style from Furtado’s original EP is striking. “Big Hoops” is dynamic, relevant, and interesting. Plus, the music video is pretty cool. And while, again, it’s hasn’t charted great, development in an artist is always cool to see— especially when her contemporaries have been relatively stagnant.
With that being said, these three featured artists have one thing in common: their songs defined an era. And while the era may have been short, and a decade in the past, the songs were the type that cannot be forgotten by an entire generation of people— regardless of how many other annoying overplayed songs come into the world to assault our ear drums.