My regular rotation of music rests firmly planted somewhere in the 1990s, with pinches of the 1980s and beyond.
When I cue something up on Songza? “Essential ‘90s R&B,” “‘90s R&B Wake-Up Call,” or “This is How We Do It: R&B Dance Party,” are the playlists of choice.
I don’t deviate too much from a good thing; I like to stay within the realm of contemporary R&B. I watched the VMAs and wished for better days when the Soul Train Awards were still a thing. I watch the BET Awards to see which of our sacred cows are being honored, or to see who BET has managed to patch back together for two to three minutes for nostalgia’s sake.
Somewhere around 2005, I stopped checking for new music, and recommitted myself to the songs of my childhood and the things that came before. It’s not uncommon for me to answer my phone with an abrupt “hold on,” because Anita Baker’s "Rapture" is playing too loudly in the background or because I gotta finish singing along to the ad-libs on Toni Braxton’s debut album.
I don’t want to know a Janet Jackson album without Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis on production. While Mariah is rumored to have recently decided to stop collaborating with Jermaine Dupri (tragically undervalued producer, by the way) because nobody copped the last album, I am just happy for the greatness that is the "Fantasy," and for all of the Puff Daddy (yes, I’m a purist) remixes that have dotted the R&B landscape for years. Where might I be if it were not for the pitchiness that embeds Total’s three party harmonies, making me feel like I, too, could have a successful singing career? How else would I reconcile my adolescent awkwardness without the aid of Brandy’s “I Wanna Be Down”? SWV. Luther. En Vogue. Phyllis Hyman. Kenneth “Babyfae” Edmonds. And Whitney. Sweet Whitney.
So the other day I was organizing my iTunes and I came across the soundtrack portion of my collection. And I was jamming. In fact, I was jamming so hard that the music coming from my stereo knocked something off a shelf in my room. But I can’t help it, if wanted to; I wouldn’t help it, even if I could — my life’s mantra, first learned from classic R&B. So anyway, my iTunes catalog includes soundtracks to the following films: Boomerang (1992). Waiting to Exhale (1995). Soul Food (1997). Love Jones (1997). I looked at them, all lined up together and thought, “What a wonderful world.”
I won’t dare ask you to choose between them. (I might ask you to rank them, though.) But the better question is: How did we fall so far so fast?
For whatever reason, the internet has been sprinkled with a lot of 1990s nostalgia in the last couple of weeks. It was especially well-timed coming off the Unauthorized Saved By The Bell Story last weekend. New York magazine’s blog Vulture is reliving the 1994-95 seasons of network TV (think Friends, Party of Five, season 5 of Beverly Hills 90210. My So-Called Life, ER, etc.). Complex.com just did a retrospective on New York Undercover (R.I.P. Det. Eddie Torres.) Certainly, the pop culture landscape has changed a lot since then, especially with the advent of reality TV, and it’s no secret that Black folks are winning at a losing game with all of the shows that have been erected in our supposed likeness.
And of course, music culture has certainly changed considerably as well. Napster pushed single-based culture to the forefront; the "BEYONCE" album is probably the first time in a long time that any of us really had to consume an album in its totality, which is part of the reason why it was such a sensation. (Editor's note: You're forgetting about MBDTF. It's ok, though.) As the youth market become more powerful because of its buying power, we’ll probably on the receiving end of even more flash-in-the-pan creative output. That sucks.
And that’s the reason why Babyface isn’t charting like he used to. That’s why Toni Braxton is doing reality TV and duets with Trey Songz. It’s why Tamar, though she has a great voice, is as popular as she is. It’s why nobody cares about Mariah’s duet with Miguel. It’s why people are
trying to make Michael Jackson “relevant” by adding Justin Timberlake to tracks. A lot of people mistakenly believe that R&B is dead when it’s just quieter than it used to be, because marketers have stopped marketing to grown ups, and the grown ups in the game are having identity crises.
Times changes, people change, music changes. I’ve come to accept all of this, which is why my iTunes stands as a tribute to yesteryear, when K-Ci and Mary were soundtracking hood love that's kind of wonderful for all the wrong reasons, and kneepads were about fashion, not safety. I will continue to enjoy the classics, with album covers featuring the very best of color blocking, assorted plaid patterns, ripped high waist jeans, shoulder pads, and Fashion Fair makeup. Music with dance brakes, and horn solos, and the music videos that had elaborate, yet oddly compelling story lines (Aaron Hall’s “I Miss You,” comes to mind) or were merely testaments to the wonders of emerging CGI technologies.
I love the 90s. And I miss them.
Maya K. Francis is a culture writer and communications strategy consultant. When not holding down the Black Girl Beat for VSB, she is a weekly columnist for Philadelphia Magazine's 'The Philly Post' and contributes to other digital publications including xoJane, Esquire, and EBONY.com. Sometimes TV and radio producers are crazy enough to let her talk on-air, and she helped write a book once. She cites her mother and Whitley Gilbert as inspirations.