Breakdown of the '90s: Decoding Decades of Iconic Music

By Hugo Mercer November 14, 2023

Dive into the '90s with music critic Rob Harvilla's podcast and book, exploring the era's defining songs and interrogating the trends, backstories, and humanity behind the hits.

As the world continues to navigate the choppy seas of the pandemic, music critic Rob Harvilla found solace and inspiration in the sounds of the past. His project, a podcast titled "60 Songs that Explain the '90s", is a heartwarming blend of comfort, nostalgia and music analytics.

"I decided I wanted to start a podcast around songs. I quickly locked onto the '90s. In my view, no other musical era compares to this one, primarily because it's the one I grew up in," Harvilla shared in an interview. "I mean, no disrespect to the Beatles, but for me, they've got nothing on the Stone Temple Pilots."

Harvilla's appreciation for the '90s shines through both his podcast and his book, also titled "60 Songs that Explain the '90s". Each episode and chapter delves into a song that encapsulates the decade using metrics such as style, genre, and influence.

Originally, Harvilla even had a Google document with a list of potential songs, which quickly surpassed its intended scope. With escalating popularity, the podcast's song coverage grew to a whopping 120 song discussions—twice the originally intended count—even though the podcast's title hasn't changed.

Harvilla explained, "I figured 60 would be plenty, but as I neared the finishing line, I realized I was gravely mistaken."

With the podcast's success also came an associated book. Set to release on Tuesday, it complements the podcast by delving even deeper into the hits of the decade, exploring everything from background stories to emerging trends and the human element behind each song.

Pop music has a prominent place in both the book and the podcast. While songs from Britney Spears to the Backstreet Boys seem superficial, Harvilla notes, "Pop may be frivolous by design, disposable by design, but its genius lies in its ability to hide all the work, the scheming behind it."

Simultaneously, the '90s marked significant growth in the hip-hop genre with more deliberate lyrics and sounds. Harvilla emphasized how crucial it is to remember that this music was originally written for Black kids and that White kids were actually "eavesdroppers". This perspective encourages broader cultural understanding and respect.

Over two decades of being a rock critic, Harvilla’s career spans roles at Deadspin and the Village Voice. Now, he cherishes his dream job, working from his home in Columbus, Ohio. He immerses himself in the discography of artists and songs featured on the podcast and in his book, sometimes even exploring between eight and 50 albums for a single song spotlight.

Even novelty songs like "Macarena" by Los Del Río have earned a chapter. Harvilla discovered the unexpected humanity within these tracks, showcasing how even the most fleeting successes reflect the human experience with fame and artistry.

Grunge, another pivotal genre from this era, is also examined in detail. Harvilla aims to dispel common stereotypes associated with bands such as Nirvana and Pearl Jam, citing that while they may not have wanted to be rockstars, their success was anything but accidental.

While understanding the decade's music at a deeper level, Harvilla shares his personal experiences and insights, creating a connection with his audience. As he lovingly describes his work, "I'm just some guy. The purpose of all this is for me to share my personal experiences in a way that inspires you to reflect on your own. To do this as my job is a profound blessing."