On the same day in 1994, August 30, Boyz II Men released its 12-times platinum second album II, while Oasis released its first album, Definitely Maybe. The first was perfect throwback R&B. The second marked a new rise for Britpop. Both bands would hit staggering heights. And by the end of the '90s, both bands would largely be cast aside.
Together, these groups represent a time in music that no longer exists: An era when popular culture was narrow enough to support their existence and success, when bands that would play to small niches today would play to everyone who loved music. If only for a little while.
The rise of two genre-specific bands
Boyz II Men and Oasis entered a world where the biggest musical artists played to ultra-specific genres. Nirvana was grunge. Madonna was pop. Aerosmith was rock-and-roll. There were fewer of the kinds of crossovers that we see today, where hugely successful artists — from Kanye West to Lorde — fail to fit neatly into a single genre. Boyz II Men (R&B) and Oasis (Britpop) fit squarely within this framework.
Boyz II Men, with their tight four-part harmonies and a sound that harkened back to '60s and '70s R&B, achieved massive success from the very beginning. Cooleyhighharmony (1991), the group's first album, sold 9 million copies and won the group a Grammy for Best R&B Performance.
"That album doesn't sound 20 years old," said Steven Hyden, a music critic for Grantland. "It uses the roots of '70s R&B. It sounds like a much, much older album."
This version of R&B, featuring tight vocals and smooth harmonies, essentially no longer exists, at least as far as the radio is concerned.
"We came up at a time where there was an R&B group pretty much on every street corner, and every record company had one," Boyz II Men member Nathan Morris told NPR. "But now, it's dwindled down to solo artists, or the duets, or even bigger bands — where you have bands like The Roots that got seven or eight people — but the actual R&B group is a dinosaur."
The same can be said for Oasis. Though Britpop certainly existed before Oasis debuted Definitely Maybe in 1994, that album was "the capstone on the young, hungry, wildly ambitious first phase of Britpop," in the words of Ryan Leas at Stereogum.
Definitely Maybe invaded the consciousness of American radio with hit singles like "Live Forever." It's as straightforward a rock-and-roll album as Oasis ever produced, and it topped the U.K. charts within weeks of its debut. The band's second album, What's the Story, Morning Glory? (1995), would prove even bigger in both nations.
"Oasis dominated the music scene in the '90s," Hyden said. "Every time they had a new song, it was on MTV, and the release was an event. They were definitely the big British band at the time. Though Blur and Pulp get more media credit now, Oasis was so much more popular."
Oasis's genre domination extended into its personal behavior. Brothers Liam and Noel Gallagher fought constantly in public. They showed up drunk to events. They were rock stars in every sense of the word.
As its career progressed, Oasis's sound grew more pop, more like its major inspiration, The Beatles, but it maintained its fan base by continuing to create lyric-heavy songs on top of great guitar riffs.
The music industry of 1994 was built for their success
When both of these bands were making their mark 20 years ago, the music industry was a very different place. Getting signed to a major record label — as both Oasis and Boyz II Men did — often meant rock-star-level sales, packed concerts, and a consistent, present fanbase. That is no longer the case, to put it mildly.
Numbers can't tell the whole story, but they do show a stark comparison. Boyz II Men's "End of the Road" hit no. 1 on the Billboard charts in 1992 and stayed there comfortably for 13 weeks — taking the longest running no. 1 single record from Elvis. Boyz II Men would break its own record twice more in the course of its career with II's "I'll Make Love to You" (14 weeks) and "One Sweet Day," a collaboration with Mariah Carey that topped the charts for 16 weeks.
Though it didn't break the Billboard record, Oasis was certainly hugely successful in its own right. It had 22 top-10 hits in the U.K, the most in history.
Both bands sold more records and had more no. 1 singles than almost any star today. This past week, the highest selling album only sold 90,000 copies. When Oasis's Be Here Now sold 152,000 copies its first week in 1997, it was considered a mammoth disappointment.
Part of each band's massive sales can be attributed to the monoculture that existed in the early 90s. There were very few specialty radio stations and music videos were shown almost exclusively on MTV. In the early '90s MTV functioned as a televised boombox: A mixtape that all of America listened to together. That meant the nation as a whole watched Oasis make an entire music video in reference to The Beatles, and watched Boyz II Men synchronize together in cut off white t-shirts.
Now, that consistent fame doesn't exist in any format. There are more bands to listen to than there were in the '90s. But for that matter, there are more TV shows and movies than ever before. In the age of the internet and fragmented culture, it's difficult to come to a consensus on who is famous and who is not, like we did at the height of Boyz II Men and Oasis's fame.
"It's definitely harder in the last 10 years to come up with [bands] that seemed like obvious consensus choices either because they sold a lot of records or because they were a critical favorite," Hyden said. "That's true of pop culture in general. There are still hit TV shows, but they aren't pulling the kind of ratings that TV shows did in the '70s, '80s, and '90s. There are just more options now."
The legacy of two chart-giants
Nostalgia for bands like Boyz II Men and Oasis is easy to come by. "There just aren't these kinds of rock bands anymore," Leas writes about Oasis for Stereogum, "the kind that play music this way, and not only hope but expect and know that they will be superstars, and that live with all of the comical excess and decadence that come with all the myths they've been handed down." He's right.
Without MTV to dictate which bands America hears on repeat, and without solid genres for bands to replicate and succeed within, bands like these don't exist anymore. "It seemed like acts like that would dominate forever," Hyden said. "But by the year 2000, they were mostly afterthoughts."
These kinds of dominating bands are inconceivable today. There are plenty of industry giants creating music today, but very few of them are bands. Katy Perry may have plenty of no. 1 singles, but will people listen to "Teenage Dream" in 20 years? Maybe, but it's hard to imagine that song having the impact of "I'll Make Love to You" or "Wonderwall."
The end of the monoculture shouldn't be seen as a tragedy. Fragmented culture allows for more people to love music, to talk about music, and to care about specific artists and specific bands. It grants more entry points into a cultural conversation than ever before.
But the end of solid, genre-specific bands that created monster hit after monster hit, great songs that permeated American culture? That's a death worth mourning.