You won’t be surprised to learn that this disc didn’t make Pitchfork’s best of the 90s list, but including Elton John’s pseudo-African opus in a retrospective of 90s music is no joke: this was the top-selling album of 1994, and it’s still the all-time bestseller among soundtracks for animated films.
In its own way, The Lion King is yet another example of how the 90s were a period of pop-culture transition. The 1994 film was the last real hurrah for blockbuster Disney animated features before the emergence, and eventual semi-assimilation, of Pixar. Disney’s gone on making conventionally animated films (with, doubtless, plenty of subtle computer assistance), but none have been nearly as successful as the boom-boom-boom-bingo sweep of The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991, the first animated feature ever to be nominated for a best-picture Oscar), Aladdin (1992), and The Lion King.
Mermaid and Beauty snapped Disney’s animation department out of the doldrums it had languished in for years, and their success was due in great part to the sharp songwriting duo of Howard Ashman (lyrics) and Alan Menken (music). Ashman died of AIDS in 1991, aged only 40, while he was still finishing the lyrics for Aladdin; Andrew Lloyd Webber lyricist Tim Rice stepped in to finish the job.
For Lion King, Rice stayed on to collaborate with John, who had not previously written anything significant in the musical-theater genre. The film’s success launched a spotty second career for the flamboyant pop star; Aida and Lestat: The Musical have their fans, but the 2005 musical adaptation of the film Billy Elliot is John’s only real slam-dunk popular and critical success since Lion King.
Wait, was Lion King a critical success? Does it matter? Hell, no. “Hakuna Matata” became a preschool stoners’ anthem, the Lion King stage adaptation became the jewel in Disney’s newfound Broadway crown, and the film became the highest-grossing non-digital animated movie of all time. (It’s been eclipsed by Shrek the Third, Finding Nemo, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, Shrek 2, and Toy Story 3. Sorry, Simba.)
Despite never having been a huge fan of The Lion King, I spent a lot of time with this music in the 90s—like millions of others, I never heard My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless but I heard The Lion King soundtrack about ten billion times. Since I worked at a Disney Store from 1994 to 1997, I spent a lot of time trying to pre-sell, post-sell, up-sell, and otherwise push Lion King tapes, discs, shirts, books, plush toys, and faux animation cells. One day I was standing at the store’s entrance wearing a big Simba puppet, and this little girl ran in and hugged it like it was real. “I love you, Simba!” she cried.
My most poignant Lion King memory, though, comes from a night when I was home in St. Paul on break from college. Caitlin, the infant daughter of a family I baby-sat for, had been diagnosed with a dangerous cancer and was undergoing treatment. I remember her dad holding her, rocking slowly, while Elton John sang “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” Music can be a balm—even music with cheesy lyrics by Tim Rice, and, yes, even in the godforsaken 1990s.
Caitlin, by the way, made a complete recovery—and has lived happily ever after.
The 1990s Project is my attempt to give the decade’s music a fair shot at disproving my offhand assessment that the 90s were the armpit of modern musical history. The project started on my Tumblr, and has now moved to The Tangential. My goal is to visit, or revisit, 100 of the decade’s most acclaimed, popular, and/or interesting albums. Here are the albums I’ve written about so far.
1. Radiohead, OK Computer (1997)
2. My Bloody Valentine, Loveless (1991)
3. The Flaming Lips, The Soft Bulletin (1999)
4. Moonshake, Eva Luna (1992)
5. Red Hot Chili Peppers, Blood Sugar Sex Magik (1991)
6. Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville (1993)
7. Erykah Badu, Baduizm (1997)
8. Neutral Milk Hotel, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (1998)
9. Fugazi, Red Machine (1995)
10. Matthew Sweet, 100% Fun (1995)
11. Pavement, Slanted and Enchanted (1992)
12. The Bodyguard soundtrack (1992)
13. Marcy Playground, Marcy Playground (1997)
14. 10,000 Maniacs, Our Time in Eden (1992)
15. Shania Twain, Come On Over (1997)
16. Dr. Dre, The Chronic (1992)
17. #1 singles of 1990
18. DJ Shadow, Endtroducing….. (1996)
19. Alanis Morissette, Jagged Little Pill (1995)
20. U2, Achtung Baby (1991)
21. #1 singles of 1991
22. Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s I See a Darkness (1999)