Numerologists must have gone into ’94 knowing it would be a weird year. After all, 9 + 4 = 13, and 13 is bad news. Speaking of bad news, the second year of the Clinton era was filled with it. On January 6, before the Times Square cleanup after Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve was even finished, a goon with a club took a swing at figure skater Nancy Kerrigan, busting her knee and setting the stage for a sick, sad media saga that would play out for the next few months.
While the Kerrigan drama unfolded, and cops investigated rival Tonya Harding’s role in the attack, Mariah Carey ruled the charts with “Hero.” It’s a saccharine piano ballad about reaching inside your heart and being the best darn person you can be, and as the glorious sport of figure skating transformed into an Ultimate Fighting reality soap opera, it was a funny song to see perched at No. 1.
And that’s how it went for the rest of ’94: The news got sicker and sadder, and the chart-topping hits got blander and more insipid. If there were only two or three examples, you could chalk it up to coincidence, but throughout ’94, no fewer than six cheeseballs rolled their way up to the tippity top of the Billboard Hot 100. Every year has its share of schmaltzy smashes, but compared to ’93 and ’95, ’94 brought an El Niño super storm of mega-selling pap. In hindsight, it makes total sense. The world was falling to pieces. The only safe place was pop radio.
On January 22, the day after a Virginia woman named Lorena Bobbitt was acquitted of cutting off her husband’s pilly-packer—to borrow the lovely euphemism used by Martin Lawrence in a memorable Saturday Night Live monologue—Mariah was unseated by the unstoppable power trio of Sting, Bryan Adams, and Rod Stewart. Their “All For Love,” the centerpiece of the Three Musketeers soundtrack, held Billboard’s top spot right up until February 12, when the Winter Olympics began in Lillehammer, Norway.
“I’ll be the wall that protects you / From the wind and the rain / From the hurt and pain,” sang the three middle-of-the-road-sketeers. It was just the message for a world where “Gillooly” and “Bobbitt” were becoming household words, and there was a whole lot of hurt and pain going around.
The rest of February belonged to Celine Dion and “The Power Of Love,” which unfortunately was not a Huey Lewis cover. It was another po-faced, chart-bait love song about overcoming adversity and harnessing the energy swirling around inside the heart. Maybe Nancy Kerrigan played it while shining that crummy silver medal she picked up on February 25.
March brought a reprieve, as Ace Of Base opened up everyone’s teary eyes with the shiny disco-ska anthem “The Sign,” but April showers brought soggy newspapers loaded with bummer headlines. On April 7, a disgruntled FedEx employee wielding a hammer hijacked one of his company’s flights from Memphis to San Jose and nearly pulled off a suicide attack. The next day, Kurt Cobain was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his home in Seattle. On April 19, an L.A. jury gave Rodney King $3.8 million, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, except that TV viewers were forced to once again watch footage of a man being beaten by officers of the peace.
“The Sign” didn’t exactly yield its peak placement to a crap ballad, but R. Kelly’s “Bump N’ Grind”—the biggest song in the land throughout April—was much slower and 100 percent less Euro-fabulous. Ace Of Base would reclaim the top spot for two weeks in May, but the tide was turning. In the aftermath of Cobain’s death, there was a strange sense of dread in the air. A wounded American populace needed aural ointment—something blander than R. Kelly and Ace Of Base. The stage was set for All-4-One to dominate the spring and summer, just as things really went bonkers.
The California boy band’s “I Swear” reached No. 1 on May 28 and was still top of the pops on July 29, when O.J. Simpson swore to an L.A. judge that he was “absolutely, 100 percent not guilty” of killing ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ron Goldman. That famous plea followed the even more famous low-speed freeway chase O.J. and his faithful pal Al Cowlings led police on in June, right after the murders. If at any point Cowlings switched on the radio in O.J.’s Ford Bronco’s radio, they probably heard All-4-One. Maybe they even sang along.
“I see the questions in your eyes,” Jamie Jones sings in the song’s first verse. “I know what’s weighing on your mind.”
Did Jones really know? In addition to pondering whether the likable dude from those Naked Gun movies could have really slaughtered two people with a giant knife, then traipsed their blood all over Brentwood in his Bruno Maglis, America spent the summer wondering whether there would really be a Major League Baseball strike. Throughout June and July, players and owners negotiated to no avail, and in early August, the boys of summer hung up their gloves and cleats for what turned out to be the remainder of the season.
For the first time in 90 years, there would be no World Series, and all that stuff James Earl Jones said in Field Of Dreams about baseball being “the one constant through all the years” was proved false. When All-4-One sang, “I’ll never break your heart,” shaking their heads and grimacing for emphasis, there was no reason to doubt them. The people behind America’s beloved pastime could make no such promise. It was the most despicable moment in sports since, well, January.
By the end of the summer, America had been through a lot. The year was only three-quarters finished, and already, there’d been a clubbing, a penile mutilation, a grisly shotgun suicide, and a pair of brutal homicides. There was no baseball to distract from the violence, and in September, American forces staged an invasion in Haiti and readied for another war in Iraq. Republicans hated Clinton with a fiery passion rare even for Washington, and on October 29, some lunatic took a couple of shots at the White House.
All the while, Boyz II Men’s “I’ll Make Love To You” ruled the airwaves. This was a goody-two-shoes lover-man jam—a cold shower compared to Kelly’s bumping and grinding—and amid all those lines about throwing clothes on the floor, the lyric that really resonated was “And I’ll hold you tight / Baby all through the night.”
“I’ll Make Love To You,” like “Hero,” “The Power Of Love,” “All For Love,” and “I Swear,” was built for comfort. So warm and fuzzy was the feeling created by Boyz II Men, in fact, that on December 3, American Top 40 listeners traded “I’ll Make Love to You” for “On Bended Knee,” handing the Philly foursome their second straight no. 1.
“On Bended Knee” was another by-the-book slow jam, and with all its head-shaking and earnest mugging, the video is basically All-4-One’s “I Swear” set in New Orleans. Boyz II Men take it a step further by standing in the rain, but again, this was a song meant to soothe the masses. It’s even got one of those amazing Michael McCary spoken-word pleas: “Baby, I’m sorry. Please forgive me for all the wrong I’ve done. Please come back home, girl. I know you put all of your trust in me. I’m sorry I let you down. Please forgive me. Come back home.”
If only we could have, Michael. It was too late. America was never going to see figure skating or baseball the same way. Without Kurt Cobain around, we had to make do with Bush, Candlebox, and Collective Soul. The following year, O.J. and all that blood he most likely spilled would be constant topics of conversation, and you could forget about watching Naked Gun ever again. Speaking of movies, John Wayne Bobbitt, the penile amputee, made one. A porno, of course. It was called Uncut.
“On Bended Knee” was No. 1 on December 31, when Dick Clark mercifully led us out of ’94. Among the performers on New Year’s Rockin’ Eve were R&B legends the O’Jays, of “Back Stabbers” fame, which suggests ABC’s talent bookers either had a wicked sense of humor or were totally oblivious to what was going on. If it’s the latter, they weren’t alone in their numbness. Anyone who’d been within earshot of a radio in the preceding 12 months was right there with ’em.