This week’s question is in honor of 1998 Week here at The A.V. Club:
What’s your most significant pop culture memory from 1998?
1998 was the first time my understanding of pop culture expanded to include the people making it. Seeing trailers for DreamWorks’ Antz and Pixar’s A Bug’s Life back-to-back made 9-year-old me wonder out loud to my mom, “Why are they so similar?” To which she responded—more or less accurately, it turns out—that Pixar had been working on A Bug’s Life for a long time, and someone else had heard about it and created a competitive product, working faster to release it earlier. It was a step in my pop culture education to learn about film studios, feuding over personnel, content, and release dates. The public rivalry between DreamWorks’ co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steve Jobs and John Lasseter at Pixar goes beyond the insect films with nearly identical log lines released within two months of each other, but this very obvious comparison opened my eyes to the whole industry behind the animated films I loved. I don’t remember comparing the actual films—an awakening as a pop culture critic was a few years in the future—but 20 years later, it’s clear A Bug’s Life is better in every way.
There is a lot of fantastic pop culture from 1998 that I still enjoy regularly. But of all the movies, shows, albums, and complete works of entertainment, nothing held my attention more than the preview for Star Wars: Episode 1—The Phantom Menace—a movie that wouldn’t be out for another year, and also be disappointing. But I didn’t know that then! All I knew was that it was the first glimpse of a new Star Wars in 15 years, and I was obsessed with it. I first went to see the trailer at Milwaukee’s Oriental Theatre, which is a beautiful old golden-age building with walls lined with plaster Buddhas to provide an appropriately spiritually transcendent experience. I then taped the preview off of TV and began inexplicably watching the preview constantly with the sound off while listening to Butthole Surfers guitarist Paul Leary’s solo album, A History Of Dogs. So frequently in fact, when I finally listened to the album again after a very long hiatus, my Pavlovian mind instantly began replaying the trailer’s opening scene of Gungans emerging from the mists of Naboo.
I don’t think I will ever be as shocked or saddened by a celebrity death as I was by the news about Phil Hartman on May 28, 1998. It just didn’t, and doesn’t, seem real. Hartman was one of those people who was so good in everything he did—every Saturday Night Live bit role, every Simpsons guest spot, every movie part, no matter how small—it is a tragedy beyond comprehension that he was killed. By all accounts he was a great guy off-camera as well, who transitioned from a successful graphic design career into comedy, becoming so vital to the SNL cast during his eight-year reign that his nickname was “The Glue.” Even 20 years later, I’ve never been able to watch those post-Hartman Jon Lovitz episodes of NewsRadio, and I even tear up when Troy McClure shows up on a Simpsons rerun. But I can still get through “The Sinatra Group” (and have, innumerable times), to me the peak of Hartman’s considerable and never-to-be-equaled comic genius—his combination of hilarious impersonation with irresistible swagger and bravado.
I’ve never actually seen The Rugrats Movie, but—even as a young kid in 1998—I recognized that it was the point where I no longer cared about the wacky cartoon babies as much as I once did. The movie added a new baby to the show’s core lineup, Tommy’s younger brother, Dil, and I immediately recognized that it was a cheap attempt to revitalize interest in the show. That makes me sound a bit like a Rugrats snob, but if you can’t be a snob about Nicktoons when you’re 10, when can you? I don’t think my turn away from the Rugrats kicked off any kind of larger rejection of the stuff I used to like when I was younger, but that movie coming out is the first time I remember being frustrated that the thing I enjoyed wasn’t really for me anymore. I’m glad I didn’t have Twitter back then, or else I’d be just like the 10-year-olds complaining about The Last Jedi now.
1998 was a famously fantastic year for games, but no moment stands out for me more than the tram ride from the original Half-Life. Twenty years later, it’s hard to explain how revolutionary it was for my 14-year-old brain to see a first-person shooter devote its opening minutes, not to the basics of running and gunning, but to the slow build of a sense of cinematic stillness, as mute physicist Gordon Freeman rides the train to his first day at work. As the PA blares out bland announcements, the player (looking out through Gordon’s eyes) catches glimpses of bumbling security guards, mysterious government agents, and the sheer scale of the underground complex they’ll soon be scrambling through. But even more important than those small details is the dawning realization that Black Mesa isn’t just some set of artificially constructed Doom levels, slapped together to form a murderous obstacle course; it’s meant to be a real-world space, one that gaming had never really tackled until this point.
As the winter of 1998 was coming to an end, North American Nintendo 64 owners were presented with the choice between two distinctly different downhill racing games: 1080º Snowboarding and Snowboard Kids. My friends, my brother, and I were much more excited for the former than the latter—I think it had to do with a perceived realism, and blind eyes turned toward its two-player maximum—and it was with disappointment that we arrived at our local Blockbuster one night to discover that 1080 was not yet in stock. So we settled for renting the cartoonish Mario Kart-in-bindings backup, a concession that felt a lot more like a victory after eight hours, a few dozen pizza rolls, and at least one Mystery Science Theater 3000 intermission. Forget the stiffly grounded competition: Snowboard Kids was an absolute blast in multiplayer. It was colorfully designed, spastically scored, and it boasted an absurd arsenal of weapons and power-ups, from fans that attached to your board for a quick speed boost to pans that dropped from the sky and temporarily flattened the competition. All these years later, I can still hear we suburban dorks chuckling through Hook quotes—“Welcome back to Neverland, Pan the man”—while raining metallic hell on our 64-bit extreme-sports avatars.
I turned 14 in 1998, which means I’m irretrievably hooked on the pop culture from that year. Aquemini’s my go-to pick for favorite album ever, and Metal Gear Solid’s the high point of a year of great games. But unquestionably my favorite piece of popular culture from 1998 in 1998 was Darren Aronofsky’s debut, Pi. This probably says more about me than I’d care to admit. On one hand, I still like my movies surreal, punchy, and well-soundtracked; on the other hand, I probably secretly thought I was a misunderstood mathematical genius in the ninth grade. I loved Pi enough that it was one of the first fandoms I ever explored online, and it even inspired a brief and ill-fated attempt to get into Go, the ancient board game treated as a microcosm for the universe in the movie. Ultimately, I was probably more interested in sci-fi of its particular, paranoid strain than I was in becoming an agent of mathematical revelation, but the movie hit me sort of like OK Computer had the previous year. I didn’t know exactly what it was or what it meant, but I knew I wanted more of it.
I would love to pretend my taste in 1998 was uber-sophisticated and that my favorite pop culture memory was watching The Thin Red Line or listening to The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill. But I was 8, and those things didn’t enter my life until later on. No, the thing taking up most of my time in 1998 was Power Rangers In Space. As a huge fan of the franchise, I was still reeling from the batshit events of the Turbo season finale, and I was hyped as hell for the new season to start. Somehow, it lived up to my impossibly high expectations. In Space was the low-budget Star Trek knockoff I never knew I needed. It consumed my life as an 8-year-old. Like many kids my age, I would eventually fall off the Power Rangers bandwagon as my attention shifted toward Pokémon (which came to the States later that year) and other, better action-adventure shows (Batman Beyond and Justice League were around the corner), but damned if In Space doesn’t hold a special place in my heart.
I remember because it was the evening of my high school’s annual academic awards. Pretty focused on school as a teenager, I often cleaned up at the ceremony, so suffice to say, this was already a big (dorky) night for me. When our civics teacher, Mr. Moon, welcomed everyone, he said he would keep the pace snappier than usual, because we all wanted to get home to watch the series finale of Seinfeld. What a feeling to sprint through something amazing so that we could get to something else even more amazing. What’s funny is I can barely remember what I even thought about the episode. I know I didn’t quite like it. What has stuck with me is the overwhelming feeling of it being an event, like a Super Bowl for sarcastic jerks. Seinfeld had been a way to connect with friends as a high school student, and to make new ones as an adult. While a show, a band, a book certainly can’t reveal everything about the individual who loves it, Seinfeld taught me that works of art can offer a window into a fan’s worldview. Are you a neurotic who frets the details? Do you make up juvenile nicknames for people you don’t like? Do you eat salads that are like regular salads but bigger and with more stuff in them? In short: Are you a Seinfeld person?
As I noted last summer, I spent the first half of 1997 dying with anticipation for The Lost World: Jurassic Park. One year later, I spent the second half of 1998 unable to get Saving Private Ryan, a very different Steven Spielberg blockbuster, out of my mind. I was 14, and the film was this massive box office/cultural phenomenon. “He can handle it,” my dad reassured my mom, who had heard about the film’s intense violence. Suffice to say, I felt very grown-up, sitting down to dinner with my father at the mall Ruby Tuesday’s, before nestling in for what I still consider maybe the most gripping movie-theater experience of my life. When the opening D-Day sequence finally reached its conclusion, after nearly a half hour of entrails-out carnage, a sense of relief rolled over the entire auditorium. Later, when one of the main grunts dies crying for his mother, a woman sitting directly behind us in the theater began uncontrollably sobbing—a moment from my moviegoing life that I will never, ever forget, and which seemed to fortify the film’s power as this history-comes-alive event. Spielberg’s work had loomed large over my childhood. In some way, seeing Saving Private Ryan on the big screen felt like a rite of passage into adult cinephilia, even if the film itself didn’t even qualify, in the end, as the most “mature” WWII epic of the year.
I was only 7 years old in 1998, so my pop culture knowledge during this time was limited to Rugrats, Hey Arnold!, and whatever was on Disney Channel at the time. Luckily for me, 1998 was a great year for Disney Channel Original Movies. My personal favorite of 1998 is Brink!, a story of anti-capitalist “Soul Skaters” battling the evil corporate sellouts at Team X-Bladz in Southern California while saying things like “rad” and “nunya.” Okay, “anti-capitalist” is too strong and definitely not how I saw it at 7 years old. But essentially, Andy “Brink” Brinker and his friends skate for fun, not for money—until Brink learns about his family’s financial troubles and wants to help. Enter Val, the leader of the sponsored Team X-Bladz who tells Brink that he can make $200 a week skating for the team. Brink reluctantly joins the corporate sellouts but, with the help of his friends and father, eventually realizes he should be a kid, have fun, and not just be another cog in the corporate machine. Ultimately, Brink defeats Val and turns down all of the big money Team X-Bladz offers him, knowing he’ll be much happier skating for fun with his friends. Soul Skaters for life, indeed. Plus, Erik von Detten had a killer ’90s haircut.
My teenage self had just moved to Minnesota the year before, and it’s hard to explain to people who weren’t living in the state at the time just how strange and full of oddball potential it felt to us when we elected Jesse “The Body” Ventura as governor. It wasn’t just that he was an outsized wrestling personality whose absurdist ad campaign seemed like the kind of thing that screams “protest vote” as opposed to serious contender. It was that he was a third-party candidate, with no institutional structure of support from the massive Republican or DFL (Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, it’s a thing there) systems in place to maintain the status quo. So when he surprised everyone and won, it felt like a pulling back of the curtain, a realization that the whole two-party stranglehold is a much more tenuous beast than everyone pretends it to be. Sure, as the results came in, some people wore a dazed expression of, “Oh, my god, what did we just do,” and while his single term as governor didn’t turn out so great (thanks a lot for killing car emissions standards, you libertarian weirdo), it was nonetheless galvanizing in the sense of exposing the political potential of citizens to simply reject everything we had been assured was the right and proper way of doing things.