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Noise of summer

Summer jams that show how the 1990s made us dumber

Photo: Justin Rose, License: N/A

Justin Rose

Illustration by Justin Rose

The millennial generation is lucky. When they go out, the earbuds go in. They don't have to listen to the radio, and even get to laugh at a dying recording industry that can't force-feed them "hits."

But it seems like just yesterday it was different. Walking around the city each summer, there would be that one song you couldn't avoid. It'd be pounding out of cars, out of apartment windows, playing in the store, on the car radio. Usually, you'd just let it wash over you, learning to like it. You wouldn't even know it was Rock Master Scott & the Dynamic Three, you'd just know "the roof is on fire" and keep on walking. The summer jam kind of reached its zenith in the late 1980s, with tracks like 1988's "It Takes Two" by Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock (see if you can listen and not start nodding) or 1989's "Pump Up the Jam" by Technotronic.

But by the 1990s, these songs of summer started getting so subnormal, so tweaked to appeal to below-average intellect, that they'd rightly earn their place as sports anthems or become culturally appropriated by Disney. Charting the 1990s musically, you get the sense of the national brain being gradually deprived of oxygen, going from thoughtful and experimental to 100-percent fool. By the end of the decade, you'd listen to summer hits in much the same way you'd stare at a Magic Eye image: trying to find what other people see in this jumble of nonsense. Follow the summer jam timeline.


1990: Black Box, 

"Everybody, Everybody" 

This international hit channeled disco in a good way, with warm synths worthy of a Rick-roll backing actual literate singing. The lyrics hark back to 1970s dance-oriented weepers about being left on your own. And the tension between the unhappy storyline ("Sad and free!") and the upbeat music makes this an interesting piece of music. The 1990s were off to a good start.


1991: C+C Music Factory, 

"Gonna Make You Sweat 

(Everybody Dance Now)"

By 1991, it was already clear things were going awry. Whereas at least C+C Music Factory had a lyrical message that was pure disco ("let the rhythm move you"), the music was going in a stripped-down, super-repetitive, pants-shakin' direction where there's never enough agogo bell. What's more, this track has some of the dumbest raps imaginable, courtesy of Freedom Williams, including: "It's your world and I'm just a squirrel, trying to get a nut to move your butt to the dance floor." Dude, really?