What pop culture screams 1997 to you?
Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week’s question is the conclusion to The A.V. Club’s 1997 Week:
What pop culture screams 1997 to you?
I’ve written at length about my appreciation of Daria, whose soundtrack alone would peg this as a piece of 1997, with 311 and Mazzy Star and all. It premiered during my last year of high school, but still spoke to me long after I’d left homeroom behind. I wasn’t quite as put off by my peers as Daria Morgendorffer was—and I’ve never worn combat boots—but there were so many things about the character and series that resonated with me. At that point, I was over high school and ready to start college, where every other piece of media had promised me I’d find myself. But as much as I shared Daria’s bemusement, watching all the high school hijinks play out was also bittersweet for me. I thought I had zero qualms about leaving home, but I got sadder the closer we got to fall, so watching that first season of Daria helped me say goodbye.
I remember seeing a poster for Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery at a theater at some point in early 1997, and feeling an immediate, pressing need to see it: I loved Mike Myers, whatever character he was playing looked preposterous, and the tagline, “Debonair. Defiant. Defrosted.” was perfectly baiting. (“’Defrosted’? What does that mean?”) I went on opening night with my college roommate and girlfriend, and left the theater to begin a much-too-long phase of quoting it incessantly. At the time, I remember thinking some of the writing was a little obvious, but the movie’s charms made up for it. I immediately recorded it to VHS when it landed on Pay-Per-View, which my roommate and I repeatedly watched. Austin Powers was inescapable in 1997, and my love affair with it would continue until 1999’s The Spy Who Shagged Me, which did an excellent job making me wonder what I found so funny in the first place.
Having transported my mom’s record player and vinyl collection into my bedroom a year or two before, I was deep into my love of classic rock in 1997. If it wasn’t 30 years old or shown on a loop on MTV (or Beck), I probably didn’t know it, which means only the most popular acts squeaked into rotation between my repeated listens of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and Led Zeppelin IV. I expanded my horizons around the publication of a “Women Of Rock” issue of Rolling Stone. Sidelining female musicians into a separate category is sexist and lame, but the issue did introduce teenage me to artists, like Liz Phair and Fiona Apple, not previously on my stereo (I’d attend Lilith Fair, my first concert, the following year). Sarah McLachlan’s “Building A Mystery” would get more play from me a few years later, on a mixtape in my car, where, driving to and from club volleyball a town over, my little sister, her friend, and I would pantomime the song’s lyrics (hammering motion + a hypnotizing wave in front of our chests). While that song doesn’t get much play from me today, it does represent a bigger step into my listening to music not solely made by dudes.
I was 8 years old in 1997, so the cartoons I was consuming at the time are the easiest emblem of the year. And The Angry Beavers is the cartoon that stands out the most among all the ones I was watching when my age ranged in the single digits. I remember watching others, but I’d be hard-pressed to recall a specific episode from Doug or stand-out moment from Johnny Bravo. The antics of beaver brothers Daggett and Norbert, on the other hand, are seared into my memory the same way Daggett seared Norbert’s promise onto his eyelids so he wouldn’t forget a year later. Thinking about it for this AVQ&A, I realize how much my siblings and I quote it, probably half the time without even realizing it. That’s all the more impressive for the fact that we just caught the episodes when they aired on Nickelodeon, and probably never saw one more than once.
Maybe it’s because I spend most of my day thinking about video games, but when I hear 1997 my mind goes straight to Final Fantasy VII, rather than some universal pop-culture monolith like Titanic. I didn’t even experience it firsthand at the time, but 20 years later, no game captures the spirit of this incredibly important transitional period for the industry quite like it. First and foremost, there’s the look of it, which exemplifies both the primitive blocky polygons of early 3-D gaming and the emergence of self-indulgent, mind-blowing CGI cut scenes. More importantly, FF7 represents a huge moment in gaming’s evolution as a popular storytelling medium. Thanks largely to the proliferation of the internet by the time it was out, its most famous scene—the assassination of Aeris Gainsborough by the pretty boy Sephiroth—is instantly one of the medium’s most lasting cultural touchstones. In retrospect, it might be a cheap, manipulative twist, but it’s fair to say this was the first time millions of people were brought together by their emotional reaction to a video game plot point.
In the quiet solace of a blurb, I will finally utter that, for me, ’97 equals Radiohead’s OK Computer. This is not because my taste is so impeccable that I spent all of that year puzzling over the record—I was 12 at the time, and while I had the record and loved it, my other contemporaneous musical interests included Less Than Jake and Filter—but because of how tall the album has stood since then. All of those remembrances of the record this year, and indeed 10 years ago and stretching on for every half-decade for the rest of our lives—have created a sort of mythic air to the summer afternoons I spent poring over its lyrics sheet. I equate the album not just with the broader pop culture landscape of 1997—the way it fit in with Britpop and electronica and so on, the narrative I’ve pieced together in hindsight—but also with the specifics of my own Midwestern milieu at the time. It reminds me just as much of old issues of Spin magazine, of a summer spent playing Final Fantasy VII, of the terrible week I spent with my grandparents, hiding in a room and watching MTV. The record’s cultural importance has built its personal importance to me; it’s like a totem for the entire era at this point, a shorthand for middle school itself.
When the video for Missy Elliott’s “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” dropped in the summer of 1997, it was like nothing I had ever seen or heard before. I asked my dad to add Supa Dupa Fly to one of his Columbia House orders, and spent the better part of the year listening to it in my bedroom—bopping around, laughing at Missy’s crazy verses, memorizing all the words. Timbaland’s influence shades a lot of ’90s hip-hop and R&B, but on Supa Dupa Fly, he and Missy meet on their very own plane of playful, offbeat swagger, and it marks the start of what would be a long, influential reign for Missy. Add in appearances by Lil’ Kim, Da Brat, Busta Rhymes, 702, and Aaliyah, and it’s a nearly perfect snapshot of the era, but one that has also stood the test of time.
I feel like everyone here is naming things they liked from 1997, but—while there are lots of things I still love from 1997, from L.A. Confidential to Spiritualized’s Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space—if I had to sum it all up with one piece of pop culture, come on guys, it is clearly Sugar Ray’s “Fly.” Nothing better encapsulates the artistic malaise of the one of the worst years in popular music than a frosted-tipped Mark McGrath bobbing and dipping his goatee over some breezy, reggaeton fusion bullshit, “alternative rock” officially bottoming out with the aural equivalent of a frat bro’s balls swaying in his cargo shorts. Maybe some of you are just too young to recall how inescapable it was. But I was a college freshman that year, delivering pizza out in the Austin Hill Country in a car with a busted tape player, so let me tell you from experience that this song was played at the top of every hour that entire fucking year. Just hearing that little lilting guitar jangle that kicks it off is enough to transport me right back to the inside of my shitty Nissan Sentra, full of 19-year-old bitterness at how much the mainstream suuuucks, man. If I had to explain 1997 to aliens, I would play them this song. Then they would kill themselves, and boom—no more pushy aliens.
I could easily choose Titanic, which dominated American culture in a way very few movies had before or have since. But given that James Cameron’s surprise phenomenon opened in December, its record-breaking grosses and popularity spilling dramatically over into 1998, I think there’s a different giant, expensive, state-of-the-art tentpole entertainment that defined the year for me. Arriving at the beginning of a summer I basically wasted at the multiplex, watching anything and everything that opened, The Lost World: Jurassic Park is the first time I can really remember getting pulled into the blockbuster hype machine, that collective public salivating for the Big Event Movie that was going to make every movie before it look like a puny, screaming tourist getting stomped on by a rampaging reptile. Of course, the film couldn’t quite deliver, even (or perhaps especially) for someone who grew up loving dinosaurs, tore through Michael Crichton’s (lousy) source novel two years earlier, and held seeing the original Jurassic Park in theaters as a highlight of my young life. (The first film was my Star Wars, essentially.) But simply waiting for The Lost World is probably my dominant pop-culture memory from 1997; for five months of the year, it was basically all I thought about. And, hell, I still saw the damn movie two more times that summer. (For what it’s worth, the trailer going over the ravine remains one of Spielberg’s best set-pieces.)
The hallmark of this kind of year-defining pop is its sheer inescapability, and in 1997, there was no song harder to avoid than “MMMbop.” Radios would spontaneously tune themselves to Hanson’s breakout hit; avoid those, and someone near you would inevitably start scatting the song’s infectiously nonsensical lyrics. (Reports that isolated hermits were exposed to the ol’ “Ba duba dop” by woodland animals spontaneously bursting into song, Disney-style, remain apocryphal.) The sad part is, “MMMbop” is a really fun song—the first dozen times you hear it. It’s not the fault of the Hanson brothers (who continue to tour and play to this day, and who are reportedly some of the nicest guys working in music) that their weaponized ear worm ended up in the wrong hands.
I was fairly immersed in My Best Friend’s Wedding in 1997, even though Julia Roberts is usually the lemon juice to my paper cut. But I was won over by P.J. Hogan’s charming direction, a disarmingly naive performance by Cameron Diaz and a smoldering one by Dermot Mulroney, and most of all, the Burt Bacharach-laden soundtrack, which I purchased and listened to almost incessantly. My Best Friend’s Wedding was a positive indicator for the state of the rom-com in 1997: a main gay character (played by an out actor), and an ending in which Julia Roberts (finally) doesn’t get the guy. Unfortunately, not many movies from this genre picked up on My Best Friend’s Wedding’s considerable momentum, making it an even-more-appreciated anomaly. Still waiting on the sequel: My Best Friend’s Divorce, in which Jules gets Michael and Kimmy back together again. It practically writes itself!
1997 was many things to many people, but one thing it was to just about everyone on the planet was the year of the Spice Girls. I remember the first time I stumbled upon “Wannabe” on MTV, and couldn’t believe it was new—it looked and sounded like something at least a decade old, and I immediately assumed it was some sort of weird fluke, never to be seen again. (I was, and remain, very good at predicting what will become popular.) They were inescapable, and from January straight through to December, it felt like it was impossible to go a day without hearing one of their songs, seeing their faces on the cover of a magazine, or even just buying a damn candy bar from the store without catching a glimpse of some officially licensed branding opportunity. Cans of Pepsi, trading cards, hair products, snap bracelets, backpacks, Mercedes cars, deodorant, Cadbury chocolate... you name it, the group probably cashed a check and let their images be slapped onto some form of it. I’ve written about this before, but it was a truly awe-inspiring level of capitalist saturation, like earth had been diagnosed with a severe form of gout, and the only cure was as many applications as possible of those five women’s faces onto every conceivable surface. They were omnipresent in a way I’m not sure it’s even possible to achieve any more. Harry Styles wishes he had that much brand awareness. (Postscript: Four years later I briefly lived in Amsterdam, and got very, very into the short-lived solo career of Melanie C, a.k.a. Sporty Spice. She was the one who could actually sing, it turned out, and made a ridiculously infectious album of Euro pop. I encourage those curious to check out a couple of the better songs, like this absolute banger of a club track, or this adorably piano-addled slice of cheesy Britpop.)