Ch. 10: Pop Artists in the ’90s20min, 0sec

Despite the wave of alternative sounds which exploded on the musical landscape in the early ’90s – grunge, thrash metal, alt-rock, or the female angst-filled indie sounds – the juggernaut that was pop-rock in the 1980s was too gigantic to be stopped by the turn of a decade.


In the first three years of the ’90s, the dominant pop artists of the previous decade still made their voices heard on the charts. Madonna held her own on the charts with ten Top Five singles, including #1 singles: “Justify My Love” (1991), “Vogue” (1990), and “This Used to Be My Playground” (1992). Prince saw “Cream” and “Diamonds and Pearls” on the charts in 1991 and 1992. Even Michael Jackson had a #1 single in 1991 with “Black or White.” 

Other ’80s pop artists also saw chart success in the early ’90s. Elton John duetted with George Michael to record the #1 single “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me” in 1992, then recorded a reworked version of “Candle in the Wind” in 1997 as a tribute to the tragic passing of Princess Diana. The updated release became one of the biggest selling singles of his career, selling over 11 million copies. Though Billy Joel‘s “River of Dreams” (1993) hit #1, it signified his last fully realized creative project in the pop-rock idiom. A 2002 Broadway jukebox musical brought the songs of Billy Joel onto the stage with extensive, award-winning choreography by Twila Tharp. 


In the ’90s, Jon Bon Jovi spent as much time acting in movies and television as he did in the studio and the concert stage, yet the band did see some success with “Blaze of Glory” (#1, 1990), “Always” (#4, 1994), and “Keep the Faith” (#5, 1992).

Stepping away from his blues-rock heritage, Eric Clapton performed in the MTV Unplugged series. The soundtrack album of his acoustic concert went to #2 in 1992. The following year, the song was written in the wake of his young son’s tragic death, “Tears In Heaven” went to #2 on the charts. Clapton saw his final song at the top of the charts four years later: “Change the World” was #1 on the Adult Contemporary Chart in 1996.  


George Michael, as a member of the group Wham! and as a solo artist, had eight #1 songs in the ’80s, but at the beginning of the new decade only saw the top of the chart with Elton John (“Don’t Let the Sun”) and with “Praying For Time” (#1, 1990). Gospel singer Amy Grant crossed over to the pop charts in the ’80s with her #1 duet with Peter Cetera, “Next Time I Fall” in 1986, and then again in 1991 with the #1 song, “Baby, Baby.”

In the three years from 1989 to 1991, the Swedish duo Roxette did achieve chart success. Following the glossy pop model of fellow Swedes, ABBA, Roxette had six #1 or #2 songs in 3 years but shifted their focus away from the United States and towards a more worldwide market by 1994.


During the same three years, 1989 to 1991, dance-pop diva Paula Abdul impacted the charts, also with six #1 songs in three years. 

With these few exceptions, the pop icons of the ’80s began to lose traction early in the new decade. Performances and new albums were compilations and concerts featuring the well-known songs of their earlier years. In the vacuum that was left, a new wave of pop artists arrived. 


While male bands dominated the grunge, metal, and alt sounds of the ’90s, a few of the pop singers of the decade were male. Soulful Michael Bolton began the ’90s decade with two #1 songs: “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You” and his cover of the ’60s song, “When A Man Loves A Woman.” Seal‘s 1995 song “Kiss From a Rose” also rose to the top of the charts. Bryan Adams had several #1 hits with theme songs from movies. His “Everything I Do” was from the film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), “Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman” was from Don Juan DeMarco (1995), and his “All For Love” was a trio, with Rod Stewart and Sting, from the 1993 film The Three Musketeers.

In contrast to the few male pop artists, ’90s pop music experienced a parallel to the wave of indie-rock/folk female artists like Tori Amos, Alanis Morissette, Sarah McLauchlan, and others. In the new decade, there appeared a wave of female pop artists who assumed the thrones of the new pop royalty.


If there were an exception to the fading wave of ’80s pop artists in the ’90s, it would be Janet Jackson. The youngest sibling of King of Pop, Michael Jackson, Janet ironically asserted her individuality as a solo artist in 1986 with her album Control, which yielded six Top Five singles, including “When I Think of You” (#1, 1986). With the dance-pop moves matching those of her famous brother and the production values, hook-filled melodies, and infectious beats, Janet Jackson was a constant presence in pop music through the entire decade, including hits such as “Escapade” (#1, 1990), “Black Cat” (#1, 1990), “Love Will Never Do” (#1, 1991), and “Together Again” (#1, 1998). 

The most significant representatives of the indie-rock-folk female artists were a trio: Tori Amos, Alanis Morissette, and Sarah McLauchlan. On a parallel track, the most significant representatives of ’90s pop were three dominant solo artists: Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, and Celine Dion.

The concept of a “power ballad,” the pop version of a dramatic, quasi-operatic vocal with a memorable hook, may have had its roots in the 1980s. Freddie Mercury, Elton John, or Steve Perry of Journey hinted at the full-blown power ballad. However, none created songs with a dramatic arch to the song. Power ballads would begin with an intimate, heartfelt thought of longing or love. This would continue to build over a series of verses, choruses, with their accompanying key changes. Finally, the power ballad would move through a series of ever-higher dynamic clouds until it finally breaks through the stratosphere into a soaring climax of sunlight.


Nevertheless, the ’90s brought the power ballad front and center in pop music. 

One of the most notable presenters of the ’90s power ballad was Canadian Celine Dion. After releasing a handful of albums and singles in Quebec (mainly in French), Dion and her manager (who would become her husband) moved to America and the start of a monumental career. Her second American album, Celine Dion in 1992, contained her first hit single, a duet with Peabo Bryson of “Beauty and the Beast” from the animated Disney film. Not only did the single see success on the pop charts, but it also won a Grammy. It was the beginning of a series of hit songs for Dion connected with films and stretched through the ’90s. 


Her renditions of “When I Fall in Love” (from Sleepless in Seattle, 1993), “Because You Loved Me” (from Up Close & Personal, 1996), and what would become her signature song, “My Heart Will Go On” (from Titanic, 1997) were megatonic hits. Added to the film theme songs, Dion had chart success with “The Power of Love” (1994), “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” (1996), and “I’m Your Angel” (with R. Kelly, 1998). 


Since her first American album in 1990, Dion has released twenty-four albums in both English and French. She remains an active live performer, with an extended concert residency in Las Vegas (three years, 600 shows), which grossed an estimated $383 million in ticket sales. Following the Las Vegas residency, Dion embarked on “Taking Chances,” a world tour that made her the most successful touring solo act of the 2000s, with almost $750 million from the live concerts. Together with over 200 million in gold and multi-platinum DVD and CD sales, these numbers make Dion one of the highest-grossing artists in pop music history.

Celine Dion 02 

Though she never incorporated the choreography or video production values of Madonna or Paula Abdul, Dion’s ability to choose the right songs, together with her incredible vocal control, from whispered notes to the unwavering power of the high, power notes and her emotional connection with the audience, places Celine Dion in a category unmatched by others. The slogan on her first eponymous album was more than prophetic. It acclaimed: “Remember the name because you’ll never forget the voice.” Few other solo artists have captured the attention of a worldwide fan base like Celine Dion, who has been dubbed the “Queen of Adult Contemporary.”

Though most pop artists of the 1980s faded early into the next decade, Whitney Houston‘s dominance on the charts gained even more strength. Though matching Celine Dion with her vocal power, Houston’s ability to blend elements of R&B vocals into the pop sound made her unique from the Canadian Dion.


Her first success was in the mid-’80s with songs like “Saving All My Love For You” (1985), “Greatest Love of All” (1986), and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” (1986). This series of successes broke the record for the most consecutive #1 songs (previously held by The Beatles in the early ’60s). Though never reaching the same level of consistent chart-toppers, Houston’s dominance on the charts comfortably extended into and through the ’90s.

Like Celine Dion, Whitney Houston reached popularity in the ’90s with recordings of theme songs from successful films. Prior to recording songs for the films Waiting to Exhale (1995) and The Preacher’s Wife (1996), Whitney Houston made her acting debut in the 1992 film The Bodyguard with Kevin Costner. Though her acting was not given high marks, the soundtrack for the film, which contained six Houston songs among others, was highly praised. Most notable was Houston’s rendition of a song written and previously recorded by Dolly Parton, “I Will Always Love You.” In Houston’s completely revamped power ballad, the song shakes loose of Parton’s gentle, acoustic, country original. It transforms into an unashamed testimony of fidelity, which takes heartache from a gentle sob at the beginning to a triumphant statement of unswerving faithfulness by the forceful ending. In the voice of Whitney Houston, the song blends pop, gospel, and R&B into one emotional confession. For many, Whitney Houston will be inextricably linked with “I Will Always Love You” and the sound of dramatic, unreserved musical statements of love.

At the time, “I Will Always Love You” set a record for most consecutive weeks at #1 (14 weeks), which Elvis Presley had previously held (“Hound Dog” 1956, 11 weeks).

Through the 2000s and into the 2010s, Houston continued to record and perform. However, the stories of her struggles in the tabloids, celebrity entertainment magazines, and television shows seemed to dominate the creative output. Widespread stories of a notorious diva attitude and personal conflicts in rehearsals and recording sessions abounded. Missed engagements, concerts, and Houston’s ongoing addiction to drugs and alcohol, as well as her well-publicized acrimonious, often violent, relationship with R&B artist Bobby Brown, were ongoing stories being played out before her fans and the public. Despite a series of visits to rehab, Whitney Houston finally succumbed on February 11, 2012. The cause of death was attributed to cocaine, marijuana, and additional prescription drugs. 

Whitney Houston 01Similar to Celine Dion, Whitney Houston’s voice alone was the key to her success. Her ability to take a song, which in some cases might have been less than spectacular, and elevate it to a superstar performance by just the sheer artistry of her voice is close to unmatched in pop-rock music history. Houston came by her passionate vocals legitimately. Through her gospel upbringing from the church (daughter of gospel singer Cissy Houston) and her soul and R&B heritage (cousin to Dionne Warwick, goddaughter to Darlene Love, and honorary niece to Aretha Franklin), Whitney had the gift to layer her personality onto a song, making it unique from any other interpretation. In doing so, Houston’s appeal since her breakout in the mid-’80s has bridged cultures, styles, races, and generations. Her songs remain as some of the finest examples of a golden era of pop power performances.

Mariah Carey 02Matching, and even exceeding, the impact of both Celine Dion and Whitney Houston is the reigning queen of the pop-single charts – Mariah Carey. No other artist has exploded on the music scene and dominated chart and critical success for an entire decade as Carey. From her debut album in 1990, she has owned the #1 spot on the Billboard chart more than any other artist in history. She is the only artist to have a #1 hit every year of a decade.


The daughter of an opera singer and voice coach, Mariah Carey, came by her five-octave range and vocal prowess legitimately. With unprecedented vocal gymnastics, her iconic whistle-register, and the ability to shift from dance-pop to soul-gospel to R&B ballad, Carey became the best-selling female artist of all time. Beginning with her 1990 debut album (which yielded two #1 singles, “Vision of Love” and “Love Takes Time”), Carey has charted twenty-eight songs in the Top 10, including a fantastic nineteen #1 hits over the course of her career.

Carey’s work essentially falls into one of two categories: ballads or dance-pop, with both representing her chart success. From the beginning, Carey had a hand in either co-writing or co-producing many of her hit songs, following a pattern established by such icons as Prince, Paul McCartney, and Michael Jackson. Though the decades since the ’90s have not been as productive for Mariah Carey, with only a tiny handful of hit songs, her 2003 holiday song “All I Want For Christmas” has become as ingrained in the season as much as Bing Crosby’s version of “White Christmas.” It has been certified as 8x multi-platinum and has over 8 million digital units sold. 

Between the three pop divas of the ’90s, Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, and Mariah Carey, they had a total of twenty-three #1 songs in the decade, proving that the ’90s was the “Decade of the Pop Divas.” Though these three were the face of the pop sound in the ’90s, their success was the foundation for new female pop artists who appeared at the end of the 20th century. 1999 saw the chart appearance of three new pop voices: Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, and Jennifer Lopez. 

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An Overview

Ch. 1: Understanding Pitch

Ch. 2: Understanding Musical Pulse

Ch. 3: Understanding Volume

Ch. 4: Understanding Tone

Ch. 5: Understanding Melody

Ch. 6: Understanding Harmony

Ch. 7: Understanding Rhythm

Ch. 8: Understanding Bass

Ch. 9: Understanding Countermelody

Ch. 10: Understanding Structure

Ch. 11: Understanding Instrumentation

Ch. 12: Understanding Tempo

An Overview

Ch. 1: 19th Century: Pre-Foster

Ch. 2: Folk Music by the People

Ch. 3: Popular Music in its Infancy

Ch. 4: Stephen Foster – “Father of American Popular Music”

Ch. 5: The Importance of Stephen Foster

Ch. 6: Scott Joplin – “King of Ragtime”

Ch. 7: The Player Piano – Automated Music

Ch. 8: John Philip Sousa – “The March King”

Ch. 9: John Philip Sousa – Recording Artist and Activist

An Overview

Ch. 1: John Lomax – Recording American Roots Music

Ch. 2: Woody Guthrie – “Father of Modern American Folk Music”

Ch. 3: Leadbelly & Pete Seeger: End of the First Wave

Ch. 4: The Kingston Trio – Beginning of the Second Wave

Ch. 5: Joan Baez – “First Lady of Folk Music”

Ch. 6: Peter, Paul & Mary – Balancing the Message

Ch. 7: Robert Zimmerman – The Beginning of an American Icon

Ch. 8: Dylan in New York City

Ch. 9: Dylan after Newport

Ch. 10: The Importance of Dylan

Ch. 11: Folk Music in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: The Roots of Country

Ch. 2: Bristol Beginnings

Ch. 3: The Grand Ole Opry

Ch. 4: Cowboys and the Movies

Ch. 5: Western Swing

Ch. 6: Bluegrass: Hillbilly on Caffeine

Ch. 7: Honky-tonk: Merging Two into One

Ch. 8: The Nashville Sound: Country-Pop

Ch. 9: Rockabilly – Country meets R&B

Ch. 10: Country Feminists Find Their Voice

Ch. 11: The Bakersfield Sound

Ch. 12: Austin “Outlaw” Country

Ch. 13: Neo-Traditionalists at the end of the 20th Century

Ch. 14: Mainstreaming Country in the ‘90s

Ch. 15: Redesigning Country in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: What is Jazz?

Ch. 2: Before It Was Jazz

Ch. 3: Jazz is Born!

Ch. 4: Early Jazz Musicians

Ch. 5: Louis Armstrong

Ch. 6: Chicago and Harlem – Hub of 1920s Jazz

Ch. 7: Big Band – Jazz Swing!

Ch. 8: Big Band Musicians and Singers

Ch. 9: Jump Blues and Bop

Ch. 10: Cool Jazz

Ch. 11: Hard Bop

Ch. 12: Free Jazz – Breaking the Rules

Ch. 13: Fusion – The Jazz-Rock-Funk Experience

Ch. 14: Third Stream and World Jazz

Ch. 15: New Age & Smooth Jazz

Ch. 16: Summary – Jazz Lives!

An Overview

Ch. 1: Blues – The Granddaddy of American Popular Music

Ch. 2: Where Did the Blues Come From?

Ch. 3: What Are the Blues?

Ch. 4: How to Build the Blues

Ch. 5: Classic Blues – The Early Years

Ch. 6: Delta Blues – Authentic Beginnings

Ch. 7: Blues in the City – Migration and Power

Ch. 8: Blues in Britain – Redefining the Masters

Ch. 9: Contemporary Blues – Maturity and Respect

Ch. 10: The Relevancy of the Blues Today

Ch. 1: Timelines, Cultures & Technology

Ch. 2: Pre-Rock Influences

Ch. 3: Rock is Born!

Ch. 4: Rock is Named

Ch. 5: Doo-Wop

Ch. 6: Independent Record Labels

Ch. 7: Technology Shapes Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 8: The Plan to Mainstream Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Payola – Rock ‘n’ Roll’s First Scandal

Ch. 1: Crafting Sound in the Studio/Producers and Hit Songs

Ch. 2: West Coast Sound: Beach, Surf, and Teens

Ch. 3: The British Invasion: Two Prongs – Pop & Blues

Ch. 4: Motown and the Development of a Black Pop-Rock Sound

Ch. 5: Soul Music: Gospel and R&B in the Deep South

Ch. 6: The Sounds of Bubble Gum Pop-Rock

Ch. 7: The Arrival of Folk-Rock

Ch. 8: Psychedelic Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Early Guitar Gods of Rock

Ch. 10: Rock Festivals: The Rise and Fall of Music, Peace, and Love

Ch. 11: Anti-Woodstock and Shock Rock Movements

Ch. 1: Technological Breakthroughs

Ch. 2: Electronic Dance Music

Ch. 3: Hip-Hop & Rap – An Introduction

Ch. 4: The Beginnings of Rap

Ch. 5: Old School Rap – Up From the Streets

Ch. 6: Rap’s Golden Age

Ch. 7: East Coast – Political Rap

Ch. 8: West Coast – Gangsta Rap

Ch. 9: The Fragmentation of Rap – Pop, Party & More

Ch. 10: Further Fragmentation – Different Directions

Ch. 11: The Importance of Rap

Ch. 1: Musical Stage Productions in America before the 1800s

Ch. 2: Minstrel Shows and Melodramas

Ch. 3: Stage Presentations in the Late 19th Century

Ch. 4: Early 20th Century: Revues and Operettas

Ch. 5: The Arrival of the Modern American Musical

Ch. 6: Great Partnerships in Book-Musicals

Ch. 7: Musical Theatre Composers in the mid-Century

Ch. 8: Fresh Voices on the Stage in the 1960s

Ch. 9: Two Dominant Forces at the End of the Century

Ch. 10: New Voices at the End of the Century

Ch. 11: New Voices, New Sounds in the New Century

Ch. 12: Musical Theatre Glossary

Ch. 13: Is it “Theatre” or “Theater”?

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