Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? On our new show 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla embarks on a quest to answer those questions, one track at a time. Follow and listen for free exclusively on Spotify. Below is an excerpt from Episode 34, which looks at Brandy and Monica’s “The Boy Is Mine” with help from Naima Cochrane.
Listen, in 2020, amid suffocating COVID-19 lockdowns—along with various political, cultural, and personal tragedies—we took our joy, we took our solace, we took our partially renewed faith in the resilience of the human spirit where we could find it. And so it was that on a Monday night—on August 31, 2020, 1.2 million of us or so took solace in the spectacle of the mononymous R&B singers Brandy and Monica first arguing about, and then harmonizing on, a song called “Sideline Ho.” Monica’s song “Sideline Ho.” Which, for your reference, starts like this.
I’m all in on “Sideline Ho” already, frankly. OK, so there we were, alone, together, glued to our respective smartphones on our respective groaning couches, munching on our respective sourdough starters on a Monday night at the ass end of summer 2020, which at the time felt like the ass end of world history. And we’re nearly two and a half hours into the Brandy and Monica Verzuz Beat Battle on Instagram Live. I hope that if you’re listening to this even like three months after I’m recording it here in early summer 2021, I genuinely hope that you either don’t know what a Verzuz Beat Battle is, or you’ve already forgotten. I don’t mean that ugly. It was a brilliant idea. We desperately needed it at the time. My assumption that you might not know what I’m talking about is aspirational. I wish you didn’t know, so for 10 seconds I’m gonna pretend like you don’t. So. Verzuz. Two major historical artists in rap or R&B trading classic songs, quick clips of classic songs, for three hours or so on Instagram Live. Timbaland versus Swizz Beatz. That was the first one. This whole concept was their idea. The RZA versus DJ Premier. Mannie Fresh versus Scott Storch. Gucci Mane versus Jeezy. (That was the wildest one.) Erykah Badu versus Jill Scott. (That was the best one.) Twenty rounds. Song for song. Lotsa stories, lotsa digressions, lotsa beefs squashed, lotsa awkwardness, lotsa charming technical difficulties. Hundreds of thousands of captive viewers, for starters. Eventually a million-plus.
The battle was never the point, obviously. The virtual camaraderie, the resilience of the human spirit: That was the point. The comments section was the point. The only comments section you should ever read. Celebrities, politicians, fellow superstar artists revealing themselves to be superfans, whatever. The Brandy and Monica Verzuz started with a video dedication from Kamala Harris, who’d been named as Joe Biden’s VP pick earlier that August, and who was wearing a Howard University T-shirt, and who was of the opinion that in a few months everyone watching should go out and vote. The comments section featured a heated argument between Solange Knowles and Tyler, the Creator as to whether Monica was wearing pants, or giant boots.
The overall vibe was so wholesome, so celebratory, so necessary given the scarcity of virtually any other form of human contact. We’re all in this together. We’re all riding out the awful tragedy of this present moment together, by submerging ourselves in the warm bubble bath of the past. Golden hits and near-hits of yesteryear. That was the Verzuz Beat Battle vibe in 2020. Revert to an idealized past. Not the noblest impulse, maybe: Tony Soprano once said that “Remember When is the lowest form of conversation,” but Tony Soprano never had to throw a Zoom birthday party for a 9-year-old. We all did the best we could. And many of us turned to unabashed nostalgia, in this bizarre and terrible moment, as a means of doing the best we could. At least one of us started a podcast about songs from the 1990s, in this bizarre and terrible moment.
However. Speaking to you now at the onset of summer 2021, we got vaccines, we got tentative social rebirth, we got indoor dining, we got parties, we got a new Lorde single coming, we got the cover of the new Lorde single, we got the horniest summer in world history on deck. We don’t need Verzuz anymore. We are grateful for its service. But now we should forget it ever happened. It’s better for the future if we confine Verzuz Beat Battles to a comically arduous stretch of the recent past.
OK. Sorry. Sorry. OK. So anyway, “Sideline Ho.” From Monica’s fifth album, The Makings of Me, released in 2006. First, during the Brandy and Monica Verzuz, the playful argument. Monica plays the song. Brandy wonders aloud if this song is too risqué for her young daughter, who is among the 1.2 million viewers on Instagram Live, and she further wonders aloud if Monica could just call it “Sideline” … blank, and Brandy chops the air with her hand to indicate where the pause would go, to suggest the offending word without saying it. Monica semi-playfully totally rejects this suggestion.
A valid point by Monica. Verzuz Beat Battles do not have an official coherent point structure, but we are awarding the point to Monica anyway. Monica keeps singing. And then, gloriously, Brandy starts harmonizing with her.
Genuinely I hope you have forgotten how badly the world needed this moment, in August 2020. How we reveled in the musical and metaphysical harmony of Brandy and Monica in the same room together for the first time in eight or nine years, by their own estimation. The shaky but sincere reconciliation of this moment, even if it was fleeting. They bonded over what unites them. They’re both multimillion-album-selling multihyphenate R&B stars who started out as precocious teenagers, as precocious preteenagers, in the ’90s. Their fathers both sang in a capella groups. Both of these women have sung, in the studio, while pregnant. It feels different. They’re both currently on independent record labels. That too. They’ve both been through some shit, to put it mildly. They’re both single, in this moment at least, basically. At one point they were both on the verge of trash-talking Usher, but then they didn’t. They’re both mystified by the fact that the words dope and lit are no longer cool. They both acknowledge, in their own ways, that a song sung by a 12-year-old girl of course sounds but also feels very different than that same song sung by a 40-year-old woman. It was all tremendously heartening. And what a huge payoff, two hours and 55 minutes into this revitalizing experience, when they finally got around to playing the one song they both knew 1.2 million people especially wanted to hear.
That is the Final Fantasy menu screen–ass harp riff to “The Boy Is Mine,” the 1998 duet between Brandy and Monica. That’s a compliment. The first no. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 for them both. A Grammy winner for Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group—I love the Grammys—for them both. The signature song for them both. And, unsurprisingly, a durable source of gossip and innuendo and Cold War superpower tension and outright hostility between them both. Because no matter how splendidly their voices might blend together, and no matter how huge this song still is, it’s clear that this town still ain’t big enough for the two of ’em.
To hear the full episode click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.