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A titanic, bittersweet symphony: 35 pop-culture windows into 1997

Surge, Spice Girls (Photo: Photoshot/Getty Images), Marilyn Manson (Photo: Mick Hutson/Getty Images), a DVD, Titanic (Screenshot: Titanic), and the first Harry Potter book. (Graphic: Natalie Peeples)
Surge, Spice Girls (Photo: Photoshot/Getty Images), Marilyn Manson (Photo: Mick Hutson/Getty Images), a DVD, Titanic (Screenshot: Titanic), and the first Harry Potter book. (Graphic: Natalie Peeples)

1. DVDs first go on sale in America

Photo: Evan Kafka/Getty Images

Two years after warring electronics companies competing to develop high-capacity CDs declared a truce, their compromise format, the DVD, first went on sale in the U.S. in March of 1997. (Twister, The Mask, GoodFellas, and The Road Warrior were among the first batch of titles.) DVDs didn’t hit major retail chains like Best Buy and Tower Records until August of that year, by which time consumers were well aware of their radical jump in audio and video quality and increased storage capacity. (Relatively speaking: Longer films still came on two-sided DVDs that had to be flipped over halfway through.) With major movie studios and manufacturers adopting the standard to prevent another VHS/Beta format war, DVDs took over the market quickly; an estimated 4 million U.S. households owned a DVD player by the end of the decade. Of course, the number of available titles was still only a fraction of VHS releases—a discrepancy that’s still not fully resolved—and (as early adopters discovered when their copy of Batman Forever kept getting stuck 15 minutes in), DVDs are far more fragile than their practically indestructible predecessors. Still, the DVD has endured for 20 years, even under new threats like the Blu-ray and VOD streaming. [Katie Rife]

2. Spice Girls take over the Spice World

It was a ubiquitous sound in 1997, flooding mall speakers and MTV: “I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really want.” The Spice Girls had already blown up in England, but in January of ’97, the group released “Wannabe” in America, beginning a dominance by a British musical act not seen since the heyday of Beatlemania. Both the Spice Girls’ massively popular Spice and Spiceworld came out within months of each other, a rare instance of a group holding two top 10 albums at the same time. The ride would be over quickly—fizzling shortly after the ’98 release of the campy Spice World movie—but the Spice Girls (and its marketing machine) absolutely dominated the year, cementing them as one of the best groups of all time, and even spawning a new generation of young feminists inspired by “Girl Power.” [Alex McLevy]

3. Viewer discretion, revised: TV content ratings debut

Dennis Franz in the episode “Sheedy Dealings.” (Photo: Michael Ginsberg/ABC via Getty Images)

As 1996 became 1997, the television audience met some new characters in the corners of their screens: TV-Y, TV-Y7, TV-G, TV-PG, TV-14, and TV-M. Like their counterparts doled out by the Motion Picture Association Of America, these TV ratings (not those TV ratings) were intended to signal a show’s appropriateness to certain age groups. The move pleased parents’ groups and failed to cause TV executives much stress (CBS boss Leslie Moonves on whether it would impact the type of shows that get made: “Not at all. Not for a second.”), though it was still a vaguely defined work in progress. By year’s end, additional labels were added to explain that, say, an episode of NYPD Blue was rated TV-14 due to V (“violence”), L (“coarse language”), and S (Dennis Franz’s naked butt, or “sexual situations”). The first program to earn the for-mature-audiences-only tag turned out to be an NBC telecast of Schindler’s List; by the summer, Comedy Central could boast about having the first series to earn a TV-M week in and week out: South Park. [Erik Adams]

4. The PlayStation comes into its own

The PlayStation was a financial success from the moment it debuted in 1995, but 1997 was the year it established itself as a true boundary-pushing force. Starting with the industry-rocking Final Fantasy VII in January, the console hosted a string of diverse releases throughout the year. There were more visual marvels, like Gran Turismo, but technical showcases were no longer the only stars. Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night and Final Fantasy Tactics showed the lush results creators could achieve when applying the power of CD-ROMs to classic genres, and weirdos like Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee and PaRappa The Rapper helped usher in new understandings of what the medium could do. It’s one of the best years a console has ever had, and the defining period for a platform that would help redefine video games. [Matt Gerardi]

5. Batman & Robin and Alien: Resurrection (temporarily) kill off two of Hollywood’s biggest franchises

1997 was a disastrously bad year for fourth entries in big-budget action series, with Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien: Resurrection both managing to kill off their respective franchises for the better part of the next decade. For all its faults—most notably George Clooney’s stilted turn in the black rubber suit—Schumacher’s film still has defenders drawn in by its bright colors and campy tone. But the little-loved Resurrection managed to waste a talented cast on a tepid retread of the series’ basic story beats. Neither thrived at the box office, leading their respective studios to set both franchises aside, at least temporarily. When they finally returned, it was in two very different directions: 2004 saw Alien descend into full-blown schlock with Alien Vs. Predator, while 2005’s Batman Begins marked the beginning of a period of prestige for the Dark Knight, who was now free of Robin, ice puns, and his Bat-Credit Card. [William Hughes]

6. Ellen DeGeneres comes out on Ellen

Ellen DeGeneres spent the first few seasons of her eponymous sitcom hiding who she really was as her character dated various men. Her decision to come out in 1997’s “The Puppy Episode”—both DeGeneres and her character, the latter declaring it to guest star Laura Dern—garnered headlines and a Time cover story (with DeGeneres simply proclaiming “Yes, I Am”) before it even aired, such was the history being made by TV’s first homosexual lead. Accordingly, “The Puppy Episode” garnered Ellen’s highest-ever ratings and won a Peabody Award—though the show was canceled soon after, leading many to wonder whether DeGeneres had committed career suicide. Still, she had the last laugh, collecting multiple Emmys and ruling afternoons since 2003 with her daytime talk show. Meanwhile, Ellen’s impact was evident as soon as the ’98 TV season, with the debut of Will & Grace. [Gwen Ihnat]

7. The death of Britpop

After briefly convincing even kids in suburban Iowa to get mod shag haircuts and start saying, “Cheers,” Britpop entered rapid decline in ’97, on the heels of new releases from its rival titans: Oasis’ Be Here Now, an anticipated kingmaker that was, fatally, just okay; and Blur’s self-titled fifth album, which landed the group its biggest success in the U.S., largely because it abandoned its usual Britpop cheekiness in favor of a rougher, lo-fi sound. With smaller Britpop bands like Sleeper and Elastica also faltering in ’97, and many disbanding soon after, plus the Spice Girls taking up the mantle for “Cool Britannia”—and quickly turning it into exhausting kitsch—Britpop slowed considerably, soon yielding to the moodier, more introspective alternative rock groups like Radiohead that the brash genre was invented to rebuke. [Sean O’Neal]

8. Titanic becomes king of the world

As the production delays and budget increases—to a then-unheard-of $200 million—piled up on James Cameron’s Titanic, the iceberg jokes were plentiful. Critics and audiences alike looked forward to cackling at the next Waterworld. But Titanic became a blockbuster hit, bolstered by Cameron’s attention to detail and incredible effects (everyone really just wanted to see the boat rip apart), as well as the star power of Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. As DiCaprio became an international heartthrob overnight and Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go One” dominated radio and MTV, Titanic held the box office top spot for a likely never-to-be-equaled 15 weeks. It also cleaned up at the Oscars, garnering the most nominations since 1950’s All About Eve and walking away with 11 trophies, including Best Picture and Best Director. Today, it remains the second-highest grossing film of all time, bested only by Cameron’s own Avatar. Cameron’s memorable Oscars boast—“I’m the king of the world!”—may have been grating, but it was also true. [Gwen Ihnat]

9. TV comings and goings: Enter the Hellmouth, come on down to South Park, and bid farewell to the Conners, the Bundys, and “Damn, Gina”

On the basis of headlines and magazine covers alone, television in 1997 was defined by a plucky lawyer with an active imagination, four barely verbal humanoids with view-screen abs, and some elementary schoolers with filthy mouths. But Ally McBeal, Teletubbies, and South Park were hardly the year’s only notable debuts: 1997 also marked HBO’s foray into original drama, with the inmates of Oz testing the limits of permissive premium-cable standards while paving the way for Tony Soprano, Omar Little, et al. While Oz and “Cartman Gets An Anal Probe” ushered in a new era of envelope-pushing, past provocateurs Married… With Children and Roseanne finished their runs, the latter with a still-perplexing finale that revealed the previous season had all been a fantasy. Jarring, but a more comfortable transition than the one Martin went through, when Tisha Campbell sued Martin Lawrence for sexual harassment and the show went without its lead actress for much of season five.

With Married and Martin, Fox lost two of its signature comedies, but gained a new one in King Of The Hill, the low-key collaboration between Mike Judge and Greg Daniels. A slice of propane-fueled life as rich and satisfying as an apple brown betty, King Of The Hill was Judge’s follow-up to Beavis And Butt-Head, which “huh-huh”-ed no more a few months after it spawned Daria. Daria Morgendorffer’s deadpan bon mots made high school a little more tolerable, but the most important premiere of 1997 took the school-is-hell metaphor and ran with it. It’d be several years before it was grabbing covers and headlines of its own (and one more season before it was actually good), but Buffy The Vampire Slayer dusted its first bloodsuckers on The WB in March. [Erik Adams]

10. Twilight of the Great American Egoists

Philip Roth. (Photo: Julian Hibbard/Getty Images)

1997 was an important year for Great American Novels, and for Great American Novelists. Philip Roth published what’s widely considered to be his greatest book, American Pastoral; Don DeLillo dropped the phone-book-thick Underworld (you know, the one that starts, “He speaks in your voice, American…”); Toni Morrison concluded her historical trilogy with Paradise, her first new novel since winning the Nobel Prize; and Thomas Pynchon put out the wonderfully strange Mason & Dixon. (It was also this year that CNN managed to get footage of the famously reclusive novelist walking near his Manhattan home.) The tradition of literary titanhood seemed to be going strong, especially in the Old White Guy Who’s Never Gonna Win A Nobel category. But while John Updike and Norman Mailer were still alive and well, there was also a new, postmodernist generation emerging—one that shied away from the egoism and sex obsessions that had come define the red-blooded American man of letters, and more toward the neurotic self-investigation typified by David Foster Wallace. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

11. Mike Tyson bites Evander Holyfield’s ear

Warning: This video is obviously graphic, as it shows a man biting another man’s ear clean off.

Like most greats, Mike Tyson was given a lot of leeway in his personal behavior. After serving three years in prison for a rape charge, the former heavyweight champion of the world began aiming for a comeback, though his redemption story ended quickly with a grotesque display of brutality during his WBA title rematch fight against Evander Holyfield. The June 28 fight was stopped in the third round after Tyson bit Holyfield’s ear—not once but twice, the second time hard enough to rip off a piece that was later found on the floor of the ring. The rescinding of Tyson’s boxing license was temporary, however, and he periodically engaged in other high-profile pay-per-view fights until his retirement in 2005. But it marked the end of his acceptance by a populace that had previously looked the other way on his violent and unpredictable behavior—something that it continues to struggle with through every Hangover cameo and Adult Swim cartoon. [Alex McLevy]

12. The murder of Gianni Versace

Photo: Stephanie Maze/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

The fashion world was devastated in 1997 when Gianni Versace was murdered by Andrew Cunanan, a hustler who lived off wealthy gay men. In April, for still-unknown reasons, Cunanan kicked off a killing spree that would leave at least five men dead, from Minnesota to Chicago to New Jersey, before he hid out in Miami Beach and set his sights on Versace. After shooting the designer right outside his home, Cunanan evaded a manhunt for nine days before shooting himself on a houseboat. The fact that Versace’s killing seemed random was no solace to his family or a grieving fashion world; furthermore, it marked one of the few times a serial killer’s victim was famous, making the terror that much more palpable. After Versace’s death, his sister Donatella took over the Versace firm, becoming a celebrity in her own right. Meanwhile, his story has become the subject of a TV movie and the upcoming season of Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story. [Gwen Ihnat]

13. The CD-R market explodes, heralding a new dawn of stealing music

Photo: David McNew/Getty Images

While people had been using blank CDs to pirate software and music since the late ’80s—people with thousands of dollars and the space for washing machine-sized recording systems, anyway—in 1997, the CD-R market widened to everyone, effectively changing bootlegging forever (or at least until Napster came along). That year, Philips introduced the first affordable, stand-alone CD recorder to the consumer market; meanwhile, the first CD-R Audio discs specifically (though needlessly) designated for music were introduced alongside the rewritable CD-RW, which were designed for ripping multiple times. Stores were soon flooded by new lines of cheap blank CDs introduced by Memorex, Maxell, and TDK, and before long everyone’s “record collection” became a Case Logic full of cheap, Magic Marker-scrawled discs burned from a friend. [Sean O’Neal]

14. The Full Monty’s surprise success revitalizes the British film industry—for better and worse

Call it the underdog story of an underdog story: The Full Monty, the modest British tale of six unemployed, working-class blokes who take up stripping to pay the bills, ended up stealing the hearts of critics, audiences, and award-voters alike. A slightly troubled production that 20th Century Fox nearly released straight to video, the film earned rave reviews upon its U.K. and U.S. theatrical releases, then parlayed that praise into monster box-office earnings of $257 million worldwide on a $3.5 million budget. It even took award season by storm, scoring four Oscar nominations (including Best Picture) and upsetting Titanic at the British Academy Awards. The Full Monty would later be adapted into a hit Broadway musical, but its true legacy is the boomlet of British crowd-pleasers that followed—a brief craze for quaint, frothy, sometimes unbearably cutesy comedies like Little Voice, Saving Grace, and Waking Ned Devine, though few could replicate that critical or commercial triumph. Bean-counters might disagree with cinephiles on whether this was ultimately good or bad for the British film industry, though—like those plucky nude blokes—it did briefly get everyone excited. [A.A. Dowd]

15. Bryant Gumbel leaves Today, ushering in the age of Matt Lauer

In 1982, Tom Brokaw joined NBC’s Nightly News, creating a soft-spoken anchor vacuum at the Today show. The search for his replacement went far and wide, but NBC ultimately landed on a young, personable reporter with recurring gigs throughout its sports coverage: Bryant Gumbel. Though known for his strong management skills, Gumbel never quite gelled with his earliest co-anchors, including Deborah Norville; it wasn’t until Katie Couric joined in 1991 that Gumbel similarly hit it off with viewers. Their six years as NBC’s national morning news team garnered the show (and Gumbel) several Emmys, a 15-year reign that ended in 1997 with Gumbel’s departure—the third-longest tenure in Today show history. Gumbel’s exit made room for Matt Lauer, whose run has now outlasted both Gumbel’s and Couric’s, and who’s been responsible for some of the touchiest (Tom Cruise) and biggest softball (Ryan Lochte) interviews in talk show history. [Danette Chavez]

16. The first Harry Potter book is published

J.K. Rowling reads the book. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

In June of 1997, J.K. Rowling’s debut novel Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone was published with an initial print of just 500 copies in Britain. (It wouldn’t be published in the United States until the following year.) The tale is a rags-to-riches story of its own, with Rowling rejected by an agent, then a publisher who failed to see its potential. But an editor at Bloomsbury with a soft spot for fantasy recognized Rowling’s capable melding of traditional fantasy elements to a children’s story, changing the author’s name (Joanne Rowling) in hopes of making the book appealing to boys. The Philosopher’s Stone’s inauspicious start picked up steam with positive reviews from the British press. By March 1999, just over 300,000 U.K. editions had been sold; by August it sat atop The New York Times best-selling fiction list. The Harry Potter phenomenon had begun. [Caity PenzeyMoog]

17. Surge soda introduces EXTREME beverages

In the mid-’90s, Mountain Dew had never been more popular—especially among teenagers—and Coca-Cola was seeking to steal market share away from Dew’s parent company, archrival PepsiCo. Coca-Cola’s response was unveiled during Super Bowl XXXI, in the form of a 30-second commercial for Surge: A group of ravenous teens race through an obstacle course of dirty couches, all vying to score a bottle of the “fully loaded citrus soda with carbo!” Surge’s greatest impact was how it changed the marketing of soda from a family-friendly treat to something masculine and extreme, embodied in a design aesthetic—all sludgy Warped Tour band lettering, plus puke and explosions—that framed it as a hardcore soda to power through video gaming sessions. Surge would be discontinued in 2003 (though revived in parts of the country in 2015), and would go on to inspire other edgy sodas like DNL (a greener, more caffeinated version of 7 Up) and the inexhaustible line of Monster Energy drinks. [Kevin Pang]

18. The Notorious B.I.G. is murdered, effectively ending the East Coast/West Coast feud

In hindsight, there’s a sort of fabulist inevitability to Notorious B.I.G.’s murder, the sort of clean cause-and-effect narrative that later biopics (and conspiracy theories) would exploit. Even Biggie felt it: In an interview four days before his death, he discussed his increasing paranoia after Tupac Shakur’s murder in 1996, noting he’d increased security to guard against the swarm of enemies he’d made in his rise to the top, exacerbated by the media’s obsession over the East Coast/West Coast feud they represented. (When Biggie was was fatally shot by an unidentified man on March 9, it seemed preternatural that his widely acclaimed sophomore album, released two weeks later, was called Life After Death.) That same year, Death Row CEO Suge Knight was sentenced to nine years on a probation violation (he would serve four), effectively removing all the rivalry’s major players. With hip-hop’s gangsta golden years already fading, Puff Daddy was free to assume center stage along with Mase, a handful of archival Biggie verses, and the shiniest suits money could buy. The Biggie years had ended. Rap’s jiggy years had begun. [Clayton Purdom]

19. Boogie Nights makes stars of Paul Thomas Anderson and, unexpectedly, Mark Wahlberg

Three stars were born from the spotlight spectacle of Boogie Nights. When audiences went to see Paul Thomas Anderson’s ecstatic epic set in the 1970s heyday of hedonism, they weren’t just watching the rise and fall of Dirk Diggler, a young hustler getting his foot (and a slightly more outsized body part) in the door of the porn industry. They were also witnessing the career-propelling transformation of Mark Wahlberg, erstwhile underwear model and rapper shaking the “Marky Mark” jokes overnight with one supernova-bright performance. But what Boogie Nights really announced was the arrival of a new American master, one who’d synthesized his influences (the rock ’n’ roll magnetism of Martin Scorsese; the idiosyncratic ensemble sprawl of Robert Altman) into a confident style as intoxicating and addictive as heroin. Anderson wouldn’t truly find his own directorial voice for another decade, but Boogie Nights marked his big coming out party—remarkably, a mere eight months after his scrappy debut, Hard Eight, also crawled quietly into theaters. [A.A. Dowd]

20. Dungeons & Dragons is bought and revived

Photo: Simon Hayter/Toronto Star via Getty Images

By the mid-’90s, TSR, the company publishing Dungeons & Dragons since 1974, was falling behind the competition. Game creator Gary Gygax had been ousted years prior, and the new leadership bet it all on Spellfire, a collectible card game to rival Magic: The Gathering. It was a huge failure. In a moment of brutal cosmic irony, Wizards Of The Coast—which owned Magic, and had helped shrink the market for TSR’s tabletop RPGs overall—bought TSR and acquired D&D. With the new ownership came a renewed desire to see the influential game overhauled and streamlined. Dungeons & Dragons’ third edition would materialize in 2000 as the biggest reworking it had ever received, and it would also serve as the basis for Wizards’ d20 System, a ruleset other game-makers could borrow from (so long as they adhered to an open, royalty-free license). In yet another twist of fate, D&D’s biggest competition, Pathfinder, arose from the program and, for a time, even outsold its inspiration. Dungeons & Dragons was revived for another generation. [Matt Gerardi]

21. The world mourns Princess Diana

Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

Princess Diana’s divorce from Prince Charles was finalized in 1996, after years of rumored unhappiness and Charles’ alleged extramarital affairs. Barely a year later, she was riding in a Mercedes S280 that crashed into a pillar in a Parisian tunnel. Her driver, Henri Paul, and her boyfriend, Dodi Fayed, died at the scene; Princess Diana died hours later at the hospital. The death of “The People’s Princess” would have been shocking enough under ordinary circumstances, but the car was speeding to avoid paparazzi, and its driver was later proved to be drunk. Conspiracy theories swirled almost immediately, with unfounded accusations pointing toward the British royal family and even MI6. But ultimately, all of that was secondary to the global public mourning that dominated the year, beginning with her public funeral at Westminster Abbey (watched by 2 billion people) and carried on through every spin of Elton John’s reworked “Candle In The Wind 1997,” which reigned at No. 1 for 14 straight weeks. [Laura M. Browning]

22. The Verve loses “Bitter Sweet Symphony” to The Rolling Stones

Bouncing back from a break-up with its most successful album, 1997’s Urban Hymns, The Verve’s triumph was immediately tempered by legal troubles. The record’s breakout hit, “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” featured instrumental backing lifted from an orchestral version of the Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time.” And as the song began dominating MTV, the suits came calling, claiming The Verve had taken a larger sample than it had licensed. After a nasty back-and-forth, song credits were finally awarded to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, all the rights and royalties were handed over to the Stones’ former manager, and The Verve had to watch while its most popular, enduring song blew up and got sold to Nike, all while never receiving a penny for it—a cautionary tale of copyright infringement for the ages. [Sean O’Neal]

23. Air Bud launches one of the longest, unlikeliest series in film history

In the history of film’s most venerable franchises, Air Bud barely rates a footnote. Yet the 1997 family movie about a golden retriever who’s spurned by an alcoholic birthday clown, then goes on to become a basketball star, has so far spawned four direct sequels, seven Air Buddies spin-offs, and even two Santa Paws spin-offs of the spin-offs—all making for a series that ranks right up there with James Bond and Godzilla in prolificacy. Granted, all but one of these was released pretty much directly to Walmart’s $5 DVD bin. But Air Bud’s surprisingly lasting success proves that no amount of critical drubbing or modest commercial interest can stand in the way of one brilliant, endlessly marketable idea, such as a cute dog doing people stuff. [Sean O’Neal]

24. Steve Jobs returns to Apple

Photo: Daniel Sheehan/Liaison/Getty Images

The various rises and falls of Steve Jobs’ career are dramatic enough to form the basis of a movie (or several). But regardless of which recounting you choose, they all generally climax in 1997, when Jobs returned from his decade-plus stint in the wilderness to retake his Apple throne. Within weeks of Apple’s purchase of Next—the innovative tech company Jobs founded when Apple kicked him out in 1985—Jobs had ousted Apple’s upper management and reinstalled himself as its CEO. The next year, he introduced the world to the iMac, and from there, it’s all turtlenecked, candy-colored plastic history, as Jobs transformed a flailing also-ran into an aesthetic iJuggernaut that still dominates the marketplace years after his death. [William Hughes]

25. Lilith Fair and Ozzfest offer equal, opposite festival experiences

Victoria Williams on stage at Lilith Fair. (Photo: Ebet Roberts/Redferns/Getty Images)

With Lollapalooza falling apart in 1997 and Perry Farrell’s dream of an alt-rock Woodstock fading faster than a raver at sunrise, the market was wide open for another lifestyle-defining music festival. That summer, audiences got two Lolla alternatives, split into diametrically opposite aesthetic camps. Ozzfest, which began in 1996 as a two-day event in Arizona and California, went national in ’97, with attendees split between Ozzy-loving party dudes, spooky kids in Marilyn Manson shirts, and rabble-rousing Pantera fans throwing fireworks at the stage. Meanwhile, Sarah McLachlan’s passion project Lilith Fair offered a far gentler experience, with an all-female lineup dominated by white women strumming acoustic guitars. The fest diversified, both musically and ethnically, in its subsequent incarnations, and while it only lasted three years in its initial run, “Lilith Fair” practically became a genre designation unto itself. Ozzfest, buoyed into the new millennium by the nu-metal boom, faltered in 2007 amid money and legal troubles, but similarly remains one of the most recognizable hard rock brands in history. [Katie Rife]

26. Woolworth’s closes

A Woolworth store closes in New York in 1994. (Photo: Barbara Alper/Getty Images)

The original American retail giant, Woolworth’s (or, technically, Woolworth) developed from a wildly successful five-and-dime business into the world’s largest department store chain, only to be rendered obsolete by Walmart, Kmart, Target, and other big-box stores. The fact that the closure of the company’s last U.S. locations wasn’t that big of a story in 1997 spoke to the changes that consumer culture had already undergone; in a short span of time, low-cost, all-in-one retailers had become the norm, rather than the alternative. But the death of Woolworth’s—once a name synonymous with shopping—marked a symbolic, seismic shift. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsy]

27. Fiona Apple declares, “This world is bullshit”

It seems rather quaint today, when our stars tweet mini-scandals on the hour, but Fiona Apple’s Maya Angelou-quoting, “This world is bullshit” speech at the ’97 MTV Music Video Awards sparked a surprising amount of backlash for its marginally profane message of empowerment. For decrying pop idolatry on the world’s then-biggest showcase for it, Apple was denounced in the global press and mocked by seemingly everyone (even by Janeane Garofalo) as pretentious, hypocritical, ungrateful, “ridiculous”—labels that would follow her for most of her career, along with repeated questions about those 90 impromptu seconds of her life. But judging by the number of think-pieces it’s spawned since, it also became a small rallying cry for young fans thrilled to hear something genuine amid so much plastic artifice. And her words only resonate louder in an Instagrammed, selfie-made-celebrity world that’s broadened the scope of its bullshit. [Sean O’Neal]

28. Tiger Woods changes the cultural perception of golf

Tiger Woods at the 1997 Masters. (Photo: Steve Munday/Allsport/Getty Images.)

In the mid-’90s, the popular perception of golf was best embodied by Adam Sandler’s assessment in Happy Gilmore: “Golf requires goofy pants and a fat ass. You should talk to my neighbor, the accountant. Probably a great golfer—huge ass.” That all changed (slightly) after the arrival of Tiger Woods, who by June 1997 had won three PGA tour events, claimed top spot at the ’97 Masters, and was ranked first in the world—and all within less than a year of going pro. In doing so, the 21-year-old multiracial Woods shattered the image of golf as an old-white-dorks-only pastime, with Nike launching its “I Am Tiger Woods” ad campaign featuring young black kids imitating the suddenly ubiquitous athlete. Woods singlehandedly rescued an entire sport from being a pop-culture punchline, an achievement that endures despite Woods’ own personal scandals since. [Alex McLevy]

29. Star Wars strikes back

Like the Jedi knights of old, Star Wars never truly went away—it just went into hiding. When George Lucas initially declined to make a sequel trilogy, the torch was carried by home-video releases, the Expanded Universe novels, and a slew of licensed games. But on the occasion of its 20th anniversary, Star Wars ended its seclusion. The “Special Edition” re-releases of the retitled A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return Of The Jedi gave many of the young faithful their first chance to see them on the big screen. Still, that opportunity came at a cost: The technical advancements that had reignited Lucas’ passions also gave him the chance to fully realize his original vision of things like altering a character’s moral code with a single blaster shot, or denying an entire generation the joys of “Ewok Celebration.” Fans rankled by that—but who made the re-releases a commercial smash anyway—were nonetheless optimistic about Star Wars’ future as shooting began that June on the first of a promised trilogy of prequels. In retrospect, the first scene Lucas filmed—a clandestine meeting between Darth Sidious and his apprentice, Darth Maul—seems like an omen: Star Wars was back, but darkness lay ahead. [Erik Adams]

30. Toyota introduces the Prius to a world that mocks it between coughing fits

The original Prius. (Photo: Bob Carey/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The world’s first mass-produced hybrid vehicle, the Toyota Prius was hailed in its home country of Japan as Car Of The Year, and everywhere else as an important step forward for the reduction of pollution and fossil fuel dependence. And almost immediately thereafter, the Prius was ridiculed as an emblem of liberal superiority—derided by conservative commentators as status symbols sought out by politically correct Hollywood-types, and lampooned by South Park and The Simpsons as the preferred vehicle of smug progressives who sniff their own farts and who are also probably gay. The Prius has persisted ever since as a sort of cultural shorthand for self-satisfied progressives who really get off on trying to lower carbon emissions, those narcissistic jerks. [Sean O’Neal]

31. Marilyn Manson and Insane Clown Posse gain instant notoriety by pissing off Christians

Marilyn Manson at the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards. (Photo: Ke.Mazur/WireImage/Getty Images)

In 1997, rock and hip-hop still had the power to terrify parents, so long as their threats to polite society came slathered in white greasepaint. That year, Marilyn Manson’s Dead To The World tour—featuring the Antichrist Superstar engaging in unholy thrashing before a stained-glass Jesus—was met with Christian picketers on nearly every date, while “family values” groups attempted to cancel shows with varying degrees of success, often derailed by the ACLU. (Manson, who loved the attention, prominently featured the protests in his Dead To The World concert documentary.) The hoopla was soon joined by the preemptive outcry over Insane Clown Posse, whose The Great Milenko album was pulled only hours after its release by the Disney-owned Hollywood Records, as Disney responded to a threatened boycott by the Southern Baptist Convention over the group’s violent bitches-and-murder lyrics. In both cases, the controversy gave the artists instant notoriety and only deepened their fans’ loyalty; without the latter protest, for example, today most of us might not have even heard of a Juggalo. [Katie Rife]

32. The New York Times publishes its first front-page color photo

Photo: Jon Levy/AFP/Getty Images

Though The New York Times had been using color sparingly, mostly on Sundays, since 1993, 1997 marked the first time that a color photograph had been used on the Grey Lady’s front page. The introduction of color came with “the broadest changes in weekday form and format since the mid-1970s,” according to the paper’s announcement in mid-September. And though subtle, it marked a significant moment for the nation’s leading newspaper—which now increasingly had to compete with the splash of online media. [Laura M. Browning]

33. Boy bands proliferate like bedbugs

98 Degrees. (Photo: Fotos International/Getty Images.)

Though boy bands predate 1997, that was the year that they became a dime a dozen (which would have made a great boy band name). The sudden ubiquity was intentional: Lou Pearlman, who had already founded Backstreet Boys and LFO, wanted to ratchet boy band fever back up to New Kids On The Block levels. Even after his falling-out with ’N Sync, Pearlman became the architect of the next wave of fresh-faced crooners, building a platform for his own Trans Continental label artists like Take 5 and C-Note, as well as other groups like 5ive, BBMak, and Another Level. Of course, the most notable thing about this latest crop of groups was how indistinguishable they were. All of them had serviceable harmonies, frosted tips, and a taste for bowling shirts, with members reliably broken down into categories of “softie,” “dad,” token “hottie,” etc. Their myriad components were so readily identifiable that, just three years later, a reality series even attempted to engineer the next big boy band, producing the Pearlman-managed O-Town. [Danette Chavez]

34. The Simpsons becomes the longest-running primetime animated series

Once in a great while, we are privileged to experience a television event so extraordinary, it becomes part of our shared heritage. So it was with “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show,” an uproarious critique of the entertainment industry and the people it entertains that counts among The Simpsons’ most quotable episodes. The 22 minutes that gave us “When are they going to get to the fireworks factory?” and “Rastify him by 10 percent or so” also ushered The Simpsons past a milestone, matching the record of TV’s longest-running primetime cartoon previously set by The Flintstones at 167 episodes. It’s also an honor that’s unlikely to be surpassed, considering The Simpsons has more than tripled that number, and is now on its way to becoming the longest-running scripted show, period. Sure, there were many “Worst. Episode. Ever”s to come, but “Poochie”—along with other eighth-season episodes like “Homer Vs. The Eighteenth Amendment” and “The Twisted World Of Marge Simpson”—cemented Springfield’s first family as one of our longest-running television institutions. [Erik Adams]

35. Heaven’s Gate reveals the dark underbelly of internet culture

For as long as the internet has existed, it’s been used to anonymously harass, threaten, and mislead. But when cult leader Marshall Applewhite convinced some 38 people to commit suicide, he revealed just how potent the internet could be. Applewhite’s cult, Heaven’s Gate, freely commingled science-fiction, self-help, and pre-Y2K anxiety, convincing his followers that the Earth was about to be “recycled,” so they needed to hitch a ride on a spaceship tailing the Hale-Boppe comet, beginning by killing themselves inside a sprawling California mansion using a mixture of phenobarbital, vodka, and plastic bags. What captured the public imagination—beyond the neatly ordered rows of corpses wearing identical Nike sneakers and “Heaven’s Gate Away Team” armbands—was the image of Applewhite peering out in his earnest, self-recorded manifestos that were then uploaded online. The original Heaven’s Gate site is still operating today, ostensibly maintained by a few surviving members, and it remains a classic example of ’90s graphic design full of Times New Roman, brightly colored fonts, and chintzy animations—as well as how insidious the internet can sometimes be. [Clayton Purdom]