Memory  /  Visualization

Defining the ’90s Music Canon

Which songs will future generations use to characterize the decade?
chart depicting popular recognition of two famous songs from the 90s

Measuring music’s popularity has always been contained to a certain period of time: peak chart ranking, awards, opening-week sales—a song’s performance at its prime.

But for me, it’s equally important to quantify how music is passed down from generation to generation, parent to teen. In 2020, we’re amid that critical juncture for ’90s music—we can finally start asking today’s teens, “What music do you recognize from the ’90s?”

The answer will indicate how future generations will characterize the decade. I always believed “No Diggity”  by Blackstreet would be a ’90s standard, uniting the old and young crowds at weddings of the 2050s. And to test this belief, I used 3 million data points that I collected via a music quiz, which asked readers if they recognized thousands of songs that charted on the Billboard Hot 100.

Sinatra, Elvis, and Chuck Berry are emblematic of ’50s music, but what’s the ’90s equivalent? Using the recognition data we collected, we can begin to define the canon. These will be the artists and songs that Gen Z and beyond seem to recognize (and value) among all the musical output from the decade.

First, it’s important to understand the general trends in the data. “No Diggity” knowledge peaks among people born in 1983, who were 13 years old when the track debuted in 1996. We also see a slow drop off among people who were not fully sentient when “No Diggity” was in its prime, individuals who were 5 years old or younger (or not born yet) in 1996.

That drop-off rate between generations—in this case, Millennials to Gen Z—is one indicator for whether “No Diggity” is surviving the test of time.

To make this a bit easier to read, we’ll chart a person’s age at the time of a song’s release, rather than birth year. For songs to be passed to down, generation to generation, we’d expect a slower decay rate—evidence that they’re part of the collective memory.

Let’s look at another example from the mid-nineties: “The Sign” by Ace of Base.

Only half of readers currently in their teens recognized “The Sign.” The trend here is that music has a natural half-life. Find someone 10 to 15 years your junior, and the likelihood that they’ll know your childhood music references is lower than you think.