With the benefit of hindsight, 1991 was a watershed year for rock music. That was the year of Pearl Jam’s Ten and Nirvana’s Nevermind. A documentary released in 1992 even referred to it as The Year Punk Broke. The alternative revolution was just entering its golden age, as evidenced by the popularity of the inaugural Lollapalooza. But MTV’s Kurt Loder and Tabitha Soren did not have the benefit of hindsight when they made a recap special called The Year In Rock: 1991, a long-forgotten program that has resurfaced, thanks to Reddit. What did Loder and Soren see when they looked back over the previous 12 months? “A pretty bad year” of slumping album sales and half-empty concert tours. Pearl Jam is not mentioned in the special, and Nirvana is relegated to a spotlight on new artists, alongside Color Me Badd and Marky Mark. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is briefly used to accompany a segment about the Persian Gulf War.
The special, which originally ran an hour with commercials, is pretty far-ranging. In addition to covering the music scene, there are segments highlighting movies and politics, too. John Singleton, Spike Lee, and others are interviewed in a segment about the breakthrough of black filmmakers. (Lee’s most recent film at the time was Jungle Fever.) Then-current events included the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, the rise of political correctness on college campuses, the videotaped beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers, and the revelation that Magic Johnson was HIV positive. The music acts who get the most time here are Michael Jackson, Madonna, Guns N’ Roses, and R.E.M. The Athens, Georgia quartet, then still riding high on the success of Out Of Time, is deemed the band of the year. Some of the credit for their success is given to Tarsem Singh, who directed the video for the band’s “Losing My Religion.” Back then, it was considered a big deal that Michael Stipe had actually consented to lip-sync.