2) Synth-heavy, youth-centric pop
3) Ballads of the glam-metal or synth-pop persuasion
Radio programming was all about what songs had in common. Basically, if you turned on pop radio, you knew what you were getting. You might have fun, but you weren’t being surprised. Not so in the 90’s.
By 1996, alternative, grunge, and indie rock had blended and mutated to such weird extremes that Top 40 radio had no format. You could do, say, play, or explore anything you wanted, as long as the melody was good. So it was no surprise when a completely bizarre and likable song like Deep Blue Something’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” showed up and stayed a while at 96X.
If you think you haven’t heard this song, hit play on ITunes and think again. You have heard this song. It’s three-chords and an acoustic cloud of dust, all bouncy harmonies and bizarre lyrics. It’s really not too far from being a Monkees derivative. Grunge, it was not.
Yet here it was, on steady rotation, with everyone from Alice in Chains, to the Butthole Surfers, Lisa Loeb, to Green Day, to the Gin Blossoms. And while it didn’t ostensibly share anything with the grungy alt-rock of the era, it had the two most important pre-requisites for a 96X hit:
That was the great thing about the 90’s. While some remember grunge as its defining aesthetic, there really wasn’t a sonic trademark of the decade. The only pre-requisites for writing a hit were Great Melody and Affinity for the Weird. “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” had both in spades.
To refresh your memory, here’s my synopsis of the song:
Guy talks to girl. Their relationship isn’t working. They have “nothing in common.” Then, in the chorus, he says, “hey, remember that movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s?” And she goes, “yeah.” And that’s the song.
I repeat: the chorus of the song is about remembering a movie exists. They both share a shrug and go, “yep, I remember the movie, it was alright,” and that is it. Deep Blue Something doesn’t even flirt with the idea of resolving this. There is no reconciliation between the lovers. There is no clarity in a bridge section. There isn’t even an explicit joke made. It’s incredible. And while much of GenX pop culture broke new ground by being about past pop culture, this song took it to a new (and I can only assume unintentional) level of offhand name-dropping and unresolved references. Aside from the melody being catchy and the words themselves being memorable, it breaks every conventional rule of pop lyricism. What’s more, it superficially has nothing in common with the prevailing aesthetic of the time: grunge.
In no other decade could “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”have survived radio programming. Or could Weezer’s breakthrough single be “Undone (The Sweater Song).” Or could the Butthole Surfers’ “Pepper” become a Top 40 hit. When I found out the single “I’m Going to Disneyland” was sung by a band named Dada, I should’ve guessed. Of course their name was Dada. The only consistency was inconsistency. Everything made sense, until you thought about it.
In the 80’s, radio programming was about defining what people liked and matching those aesthetics, and it’s largely the same today. If you liked Motley Crue, you’d like Guns N Roses; if you like Nickelback, you’ll like Buckcherry. But in the 90’s, that formula didn’t matter. Fans–and label execs, and radio programmers–didn’t have to know why they liked something…they just did. Go ahead, 96X, put “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” next to “Black Hole Sun” on the playlist.
Turns out they’ve got something in common.