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 40, which breaks down “End of the Road” and the biggest R&B group of the decade. [Ed. note: We’ll be taking the month of August off and returning in September for the final 20 episodes of the season.]
Boyz II Men, of course, named themselves after a New Edition song. New Edition, the Boston R&B group—the boy band—that formed in 1983 and consisted of five teenagers. In no particular order: Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins, Ronnie DeVoe, Ralph Tresvant, and Bobby Brown. Here’s what New Edition sounded like in 1983.
That’s Ralph Tresvant singing lead; all five of these kids combined could eat one full Philly steak in one sitting, max. New Edition put out four albums in their first four years; eventually kicked out Bobby Brown, who went solo; and then took a year off. In 1988, they put out the album Heart Break, two words. This would be the last New Edition record for eight years. The last song on the album is called “Boys to Men.” Nobody in New Edition is a kid anymore. This is a song, in fact, about how they never got to be kids at all.
We’ve given up our teenage years in the effort to pursue our career. That’s a pretty clunky line, if we’re honest, but it’s also raw as hell. The clunkiness helps sell the rawness, maybe. The point of “Boys to Men,” the song, is that even if you Make It as pop stars, even if one day BET makes a dishy three-part miniseries about you, even if you win, you still lose. You lose something extra. You lose your personal life. You lose your adolescence. You lose some essential, some youthful part of yourself. “Boys to Men” is a wild song to name your aspiring teenage R&B group after. You can add the Z, and the roman numeral II, you can add some silliness to it, but you’re still acknowledging the profound sacrifice you are prepared to make. You are staring into the abyss. The trick is to get bigger than Elvis without becoming Elvis.
So, after “Boys to Men,” the song, we got a lengthy hiatus for New Edition, three members of which form a new group called Bell Biv DeVoe. Some days I think the 1990s—the whole decade—peaked right there in February 1990.
No offense to your dad, whoever your dad is, but has your dad ever given you a single piece of advice as useful, as lasting as Never trust a big butt and a smile? “Poison” is one of the best songs of the ’90s; it’s New Jack Swing as a Trojan horse for without question the rawest line in a song that you’ve heard at least 50 times at a wedding:
So what you sayin’, huh?
She’s way into you but I know she’s a loser
(How do you know?)
Me and the crew used to do her
I am, in fact, willing to bet money that at some point in your life, you have locked eyes, accidentally, across a crowded wedding dance floor, with, like, one of your aunts, possibly a great aunt, at the precise moment when both of you were dancing while mouthing the words Me and the crew used to do her. What a moment that was for you. Just stupendously raw. It’s not even grammatically correct. It should be The crew and I used to do her. But that’s super clunky of course. The poor grammar helps sell the rawness. Michael Bivins, in this moment, is building himself an empire, as a manager, as a discoverer of talent. He is building, he is fathering, what you might call the East Coast Family. Michael Bivins discovers, for example, Another Bad Creation. ABC. A New Jack Swing group consisting of, emphatically, preteenagers. A new New Edition. How emphatically preteenaged are these preteenagers? ABC’s debut album in 1990 is called Coolin’ at the Playground, Ya Know? ABC’s hit song “Iesha,” cowritten by Michael Bivins, is like a Muppet Babies version of “Poison” and it kicks ass as well:
But Michael Bivins doesn’t qualify for the Discoverer of Talent Hall of Fame, until he meets these guys back in Philly. The Boyz II Men song “Motownphilly” is so meta in recounting the Boyz II Men origin story that Bivins himself appears halfway through the song to rap the story of Boyz II Men auditioning for him:
First of all, I’m pretty sure it was five guys who wanted to sing. Marc Nelson left the nascent Boyz II Men to start a solo career before the first Boyz II Men record. A little premature, as solo careers go. So the members of Boyz II Men met at Philadelphia’s High School for Creative and Performing Arts. Michael McCary in fact says he joined up after he started harmonizing with the other guys in the bathroom of Philadelphia’s High School for Creative and Performing Arts. Great acoustics in that bathroom, one presumes. I hope they had the circular trough, the hand-washing trough where you turned on the water with your foot. Specifically they were harmonizing to the New Edition hit “Can You Stand the Rain.” That song is on the Heart Break album, also, actually.
And so when Bell Biv DeVoe plays a show in Philly, and the dudes in Boyz II Men bluff their way backstage to meet Michael Bivins, to convince Michael Bivins to manage them, they end up doing an impromptu audition for Bivins in front of a backstage crowd that also includes, depending on what you read, Will Smith (a.k.a. the Fresh Prince), Kid ‘N Play, Keith Sweat, and Paula Abdul. This part of the anecdote is suspect, to me. You might as well put Rocky Balboa, Ben Franklin, Patti LaBelle, Charles Barkley, and the Phillie Phanatic in the room as well. But anyway—the song Boyz II Men auditioned with is “Can You Stand the Rain.” Putting a New Edition song in the middle of “Motownphilly” would be a little jarring, perhaps, so the “Motownphilly” version of Boyz II Men’s audition sounds like this:
You’re hired. Seriously. You’re hired. You may recall, at this point in the “Motownphilly” video, that Boyz II Men are harmonizing around a giant birthday cake, with a bunch of giant candles, and they’re wearing salmon-colored blazers over shirts and ties. All four of them are wearing eyeglasses. Boyz II Men, under Michael Bivins’s watchful eye, were styled to be preppy, to be collegiate, to be shrewd counterprogramming to the quote-unquote “streetwise” look of most early-’90s rap and R&B groups. That’s according to the Los Angeles Times in early ’92, where Shawn Stockman from Boyz II Men said, “At first I thought our management people were wrong to put this image on us, because the Black kids might not relate to it. But now I like it. I like being different.”
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.