Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
We may earn a commission from links on this page

Seinfeld ends, TRL begins, Titanic goes on and on: 17 pop culture windows into 1998

<i>Seinfeld</i> ends,<i> TRL </i>begins, <i>Titanic</i> goes on and on: 17 pop culture windows into 1998
Image: Natalie Peeples
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

1. Live, from the Oval Office, it’s Saturday Night

To those who would call its political satire toothless, Saturday Night Live’s March 14, 1998 episode presented an animated rejoinder in the form of “Conspiracy Theory Rock,” a pointed, tinfoil-hat treatise on media consolidation in the style of Schoolhouse Rock. Maybe SNL’s reputation for speaking truth to power might be a little more superlative if a) “Conspiracy Theory Rock” hadn’t been excised from re-airings of the episode (launching a whole new conspiracy theory in the process), and b) the show hadn’t devoted so many other sketches to the year’s most lurid headline: President Bill Clinton, former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, and what the meaning of the word “is” is.

At the beginning of the year, Darrell Hammond’s impression of Clinton was still in lip-biting smoothie mode, opening the first SNL of 1998 with a softball cold open about trying to figure out how to spend the budget surplus. A week later, news of the president’s affair broke wide on The Drudge Report; by the end of the year, the president was on trial in the real world and on SNL. There were highs in a Wag The Dog three-way call between Clinton, Lewinsky (Molly Shannon), and a UN-inspection-dodging Saddam Hussein (Will Ferrell) and the microphone-feedback-laden lunch between Lewinsky and Linda Tripp (John Goodman); there were lows in nearly every other aspect of the show’s depiction of Lewinsky and Tripp. For a big-picture view, a Larry King Live parody from Norm Macdonald’s penultimate episode enlisted most of the cast and some of the writing staff to illustrate the breadth of improprieties the president stood accused of circa March ’98. Impeachment carried the story and the sketches through the fall and into SNL’s 24th season, but eventual acquittal left all that Clinton-Lewinsky material feeling as fleeting as the then-popular Gap campaign spoofed in the premiere. The year’s truly lasting contribution to the SNL canon had to do with the innuendo of an embattled president from the show’s future: Alec Baldwin and his Schweddy balls. [Erik Adams]

2. WB becomes the go-to destination for high-vocabulary teen shows

In the mid-to-late ’90s, The WB was still trying to find its voice, a struggle which, fittingly enough, it shared with the garrulous teens who populated the shows that helped the network stake its claim as the destination for earnest and angsty teens alike. The bid for teenage viewers began in 1997 with Buffy The Vampire Slayer, easily the most influential of the shows to emerge from this era. Then in 1998, the success of Joss Whedon’s subversive drama led to the premieres of Dawson’s Creek and Felicity, which had decidedly lower stakes but even more talkative adolescents. Once the family-oriented supernatural drama of Charmed entered the mix in October of the same year, there was something on the WB for anyone aged 15-25, with established series like 7th Heaven covering any overlap.

Elsewhere on TV, teens who weren’t into scripted content could still swoon over sexy stars sporting jelly sandals and frosted tips on MTV’s Total Request Live. They were hardly the only demographic being courted in 1998, though—Cartoon Network debuted the adorable animated trio of The Powerpuff Girls, while NBC introduced us to Will & Grace, which the network revived last year. [Danette Chavez]

3. Pop music and former Mouseketeers take over, boosted by the new Total Request Live

By the time Geri Halliwell announced she would be leaving the Spice Girls in May of 1998, just two years after Spice Mania took the world by storm in platform shoes, the best-selling girl group of all time had already irreversibly altered the pop landscape. It made room for bands like Backstreet Boys and ’N Sync to hit big in 1997, and primed the charts for “pop princesses” and former Mouseketeers Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera to arrive in 1998. When MTV premiered the Carson Daly-hosted Total Request Live in the fall that year, it gave these acts—and their screaming, crying fans—a whole new platform and metric for success that, as its many attempted revivals have proven, simply could not have thrived in any other era. Part-live news cast, part-interactive countdown, TRL quickly became a sensation among teenyboppers and nü-metal fans alike, a must-watch after-school program and a site of pandemonium on Times Square during tapings. This was, after all, where Mariah Carey might show up unannounced pushing an ice-cream cart, and where Beyoncé and JAY-Z more or less went public. The original series, which aired its final episode in 2008, also stands as one of MTV’s last, most successful programs focused on music, before internet killed the video star and the network pivoted to reality TV. [Kelsey J. Waite]

4. Titanic Oscars ceremony domination upended by a young man with a guitar

Oscar hawkers suspected that the 1998 ceremony would revolve around projected-bomb-turned-smash Titanic—and it definitely did, with a few notable exceptions. Titanic dominated the nominations (a record-breaking 14, winning 11 awards) and even the pre-show, with director James Cameron’s about-to-be-ex-wife Linda Hamilton replying when reporters asked if success would change her husband, “He was always a jerk, so there’s no way to tell.” Star Kate Winslet showed up in a gown that seemed to mimic her Titanic apparel, while Gloria Stuart was also in the Oscar crowd, the oldest actress nominee ever, playing the 100-year-old version of Winslet’s character. Cameron’s obnoxious “I’m the king of the world” acceptance-speech crowing only appeared to prove that Hamilton was correct. A welcome antidote to the Titanic tidal wave arrived when Elliott Smith strolled out on the stage armed only with an acoustic guitar to perform “Miss Misery” from Good Will Hunting, winning over a crowd worn out by blockbuster bombast with his humble sincerity. GWH also brought a Best Supporting Actor win for Robin Williams, whose emotional speech was as heartfelt and sweet as Cameron’s was full of bravado. [Gwen Ihnat]

5. America opens its heart to asteroids, ants, and the multiple movies about both

The concept of similar-concept blockbusters released within dueling proximity each other was not new in 1998; just the year before, it happened when two different volcano pictures came out within months of each other, and who could forget the body-switching boom of a decade earlier? What was new in 1998 was DreamWorks, the first new major film studio in ages, and one that seemed to be making a game out of beating similar-sounding Disney movies to screens whenever possible. That meant getting Deep Impact, in which Earth is threatened by an asteroid and rescued by brave astronauts, into theaters in early May, two months ahead of Disney’s Armageddon, in which Earth is threatened by an asteroid and rescued by brave oil men pretending to be astronauts (and also, in one case, performing weird animal-crackers-related foreplay). In the fall, DreamWorks Animation debuted Antz, the story of an outsider ant who makes a name for himself within his teeming colony, a little over a month before Disney and Pixar unveiled A Bug’s Life, the story of an outsider ant who, well, you get the picture. It’s difficult to say whether this was an intentional provocation or just another product of a Hollywood hive mind, but in both cases, DreamWorks scored a surprise hit, followed by an even bigger Disney-released hit. Maybe the studios were right: The public appetite for gigantic asteroids and tiny, comedian-voiced ants really was that vast. [Jesse Hassenger]

6. Just Google it: A new search engine is founded

Image for article titled Seinfeld ends, TRL begins, Titanic goes on and on: 17 pop culture windows into 1998

On September 4, two Stanford Ph.D students created a private company stemming from a research project that analyzed internet search engines. Mainstream internet use was in its early days and still dependent on staticky hiss and beeps of dial-up modems and AOL CDs, a product so ubiquitous that in 1998, AOL reportedly took up all the CD production capacity in the world for several weeks. Larry Page and Sergey Brin saw the limitations of early search engines—which ranged from Yahoo!’s human-maintained indices to clunky, inefficient robots—and came up with PageRank, a way of weighting searches. Built in their dorm rooms and initially named “Backrub,” a name that 20 years later we can be very grateful was changed, it attracted angel investments from the likes of Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos and Sun Microsystems co-founder Andy Bechtolsheim.

On September 18, just days after Google incorporated, the Internet Corporation For Assigned Names And Numbers (ICANN), an organization still used for things like determining the next top-level domain, was founded. In 1998, there were only seven: .com, .org, .int, .edu, .mil, .gov, and .net. [Laura M. Browning]

7. Apple releases the iMac, Microsoft weakly responds with Windows 98

Apple iMac from 1998
Apple iMac from 1998
Photo: Getty Images

It was the candy-colored product that changed people’s ideas about home computers. Steve Jobs had returned to the role of (interim) Apple CEO only a year before, but knew he wanted to reinvigorate and reinvent Apple’s main source of revenue with his first big release since rejoining the company he founded. The iMac was the first computer fully geared towards using the internet with ease, finally abandoning the prior I/O in favor of the USB standard and leaving behind the cruddy beige blandness of most computers. A famous ad from the time touted the simplicity of the machine by having a seven-year-old set it up and begin browsing. With its translucent plastic and relegation of floppy disks to the dustbin of history, it was a full-frontal assault on previous computers, and the birth of Apple’s now-iconic lowercase “i” prefix for all its wares. (And to think, were it not for a guy at an L.A. ad agency pitching that suggestion, we might’ve been cursed with Jobs’ original name for the computer: “MacMan.”) But it wasn’t all the year of Apple: Microsoft released its Windows 98 operating system, launched with much fanfare, despite being largely an upgrade to the wildly popular Windows 95, the new Active Desktop (which integrated web browsing) notwithstanding. Plus, many existing computers lacked the power to efficiently run the newer OS, creating a public reaction that was mixed at best—a perception probably not helped when Bill Gates held a press demonstration to show off his new operating system, only to have it crash when they plugged in a USB Scanner. [Alex McLevy]

8. First U.S. portable MP3 player is released

Diamond Multimedia’s Rio, which shipped in October 1998
Diamond Multimedia’s Rio, which shipped in October 1998
Photo: Getty Images

In 1997, MP3 files were still tethered to sites like MP3.com, Musicmatch Jukebox, and Winamp. But the success of the format eventually saw tech companies imagining a world in which we could take our files to go, Walkman style, and clamoring to be the first to make that dream a reality. Enter the MPMAN F10, a half-inch-thick brick about 3.5 inches tall, that would free MP3s from their PC confines and pave the way for the likes of the iPod and the Zune. In the summer of 1998, Eiger Labs graced U.S. gadget stores with this 32MB (enough for a whole CD!) device, which, for $250—plus an extra $69 + $7.95 shipping if you wanted to upgrade to 64MB— offered music lovers a teeny-tiny LCD display, parallel port connection, and rechargeable AA batteries. Customers could also choose between four exciting colors: gold, pink, skeleton black, and blue. The MPMAN was a commercial failure, having lost out to the Diamond Rio PMP300, which came out shortly after. Both MP3 players were later dragged into a lawsuit involving copyright infringement by the RIAA. Their court victory forever altered the way we consume music by making MP3 players officially legal, so that even as these trailblazing gadgets rot in obscurity, their legacy lives on through our iPhones. [Maggie Donahue]

9. Come on over to these wide open spaces: The Dixie Chicks and Shania Twain herald pop-country crossovers

The aforementioned rise of TRL and mainstream success of nü-metal had already stretched the definition of pop music in the late ’90s. At the same time, country music became increasingly unmoored from its Nashville roots, broadening its appeal. A handful of women were emblematic of these shifts: The three Dixie Chicks, who had been known in their hometown of Dallas as a bluegrass outfit, replaced their main singer with Natalie Maines, signed to Sony, and saw three No. 1 hits within a year. That major-label debut, Wide Open Spaces, abandoned the bluegrass sound and found an audience who loved the country roots and their joyously impertinent songs. And Shania Twain, whose first album was marketed to country audiences, released a second, less twangy record in 1997, Come On Over. With an unusually long album cycle by today’s standards, she had an incredible nine singles off that album over nearly two years, three of which charted on the pop-driven Billboard Hot 100.

VH1 aired its first Divas Live in October, with established pop singers Celine Dion, Gloria Estefan, and Mariah Carey; queen of soul Aretha Franklin; and country singer Shania Twain. The crossover hits of 1998 and the next few years set the scene for future big crossover players like Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, and Taylor Swift. [Laura M. Browning]

10. Three-dimensional graphics usher in a new wave of video game classics

The fifth generation of video-game consoles—the original Playstation, Nintendo 64, and Sega Saturn—had all been out for a few years in 1998, giving designers time to grapple with the narrative and mechanical possibilities of higher resolutions, three-dimensional spaces, and full voice acting. Somehow, though, this triggered a revolution not just in how games look and play but in their very writing. A wave of classics—Final Fantasy Tactics, Panzer Dragoon Saga, Metal Gear Solid, Grim Fandango, Half-Life, Thief: The Dark Project, Resident Evil 2, and Xenogears—all paired polished and frequently unconventional game designs with narratives that were stratospherically wittier and more complicated than their predecessors just a few years prior. Other 1998 releases, like The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time, Sonic Adventure, and Star Wars: Rogue Squadron, transitioned established franchises into three-dimensional space, while games like Baldur’s Gate and Starcraft established the PC space as home to uniquely sprawling, intellectually demanding works. All of these together—plus, Christ, Suikoden 2, Banjo Kazooie, some damn Pokemons, it just keeps going—make the year a popular pick for the most stacked in the medium. That’s debatable, of course, but you have to mount a hell of an argument to beat it. [Clayton Purdom]

11. Titanic dominates the box office for months, before hitting a Matt Le Blanc-shaped iceberg

Though Titanic began its monumental box office run in late 1997, it didn’t really show its full strength until 1998, when it followed two December weeks at the top of the charts with a mind-boggling 13 additional weekends at number one, a run that recalled the biggest hits of the ’80s more than the comparably quick-burning hits of the ’90s (even something like Jurassic Park or The Fugitive would hover around a month at the top). This was a different time, mind, when studios were a bit more reluctant to program tentpoles during the first four months of the year, but even so check out the list of titles pummeled by Titanic, at least in terms of weekend ranking: one of the most legitimately beloved Adam Sandler comedies (The Wedding Singer), a Fugitive sequel (U.S. Marshals), another DiCaprio vehicle entirely (The Man In The Iron Mask), a thriller chock full of nudity (Wild Things), and even an action thriller starring former football person Howie Long (Firestorm). Finally, an equally titanic event emerged on the horizon: Matt LeBlanc’s long-anticipated follow-up to Ed. And lo, it was beauty that killed the box office beast, as LeBlanc emerged triumphant, a hero to all non-Paramount studios who did not have the domestic rights to Titanic. Or, more accurately, the country finally started running out of people who felt like watching or re-watching Titanic, and the ill-regarded, money-losing redo of Lost In Space was there for them. Despite its LeBlanc-issued humiliation, Titanic managed to hang in there and remain in hundreds theaters for the majority of the year, closing late the following September. [Jesse Hassenger]

12. Harry Potter lands on American soil, and W.G. Sebald goes for a walk: A few of Europe’s most notable books/authors get exported

J.K. Rowling reads the first Harry Potter book (2010)
J.K. Rowling reads the first Harry Potter book (2010)
Photo: Chip Somodevilla (Getty Images)

Although savvy American kids could get their hands on the book the year before, J.K. Rowling’s first installation in the Harry Potter series would make official U.S. landfall in 1998. Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone traded the “philosopher” for “sorcerer” while crossing the Atlantic, as Stateside publisher Scholastic assumed dimwitted Yankees wouldn’t read about anyone who does so much thinking. Regardless, the introduction to Hogwarts and its young wizards-in-training proved just as popular here as across the pond, topping the New York Times best-sellers’ list in 1999 and marking the global expansion of the indomitable fantasy series.

Never accused of thinking too little, W.G. Sebald also made his mark in the U.S., with the English-language publication of his hybrid masterpiece The Rings Of Saturn. Centered around a nameless narrator’s walking tour of England, the novel is concerned with memory, decay, and, as with much of the German’s work, the Holocaust, and cemented his use of long, unbroken paragraphs. Meanwhile, José Saramago, an atheist who went into exile over political censorship, won the year’s Nobel Prize in literature for novels like The Year Of The Death Of Ricardo Reis and Blindness. Known for combining gritty realism with allegorical surrealism, Saramago was the first, and so far only, Portuguese writer to win the award. [Laura Adamczyk]

13. Gus Van Sant blows his career capital on a shot-for-shot remake of Psycho

Anne Heche in Psycho
Anne Heche in Psycho
Photo: Universal (Getty Images)

In 1997, Gus Van Sant scored what’s still the biggest popular success of his career, a critically acclaimed box-office smash that won two Oscars and rocketed the director onto Hollywood’s A-list. One year later, he set ablaze all the goodwill garnered by Good Will Hunting with a project that would earn widespread scorn from the minute it was announced. “Pointless” was one of the kinder words lobbed at his nearly shot-for-shot, full-color remake of Psycho, which found Van Sant meticulously recreating the plot and visual language of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic while also adding new touches—like a shot of Norman Bates (Vince Vaughn) masturbating while spying on Marion Crane (Anne Heche)—that everyone hated. Reviews were brutal and audiences largely stayed away; the Golden Raspberries, which can always be counted on to shoot fish in a barrel, cemented the movie’s status as a pop-culture punch line, handing Van Sant a Worst Director statuette one year after he earned his first Best Director nomination. In retrospect, it’s clear that the director saw Psycho as a filmmaking exercise, a kind of self-imposed challenge of homage that success afforded him. (”I guess I thought it would be fun,” he told Entertainment Weekly right before the film’s release.) His next project would be Finding Forrester, a blatant (and failed) stab at another Good Will Hunting; the director has spent most of the years since oscillating between mainstream-minded efforts and projects as radical, in their uncommercial aspiration, as Psycho was. [A.A. Dowd]

14. What was the deal with that Seinfeld finale?

Image for article titled Seinfeld ends, TRL begins, Titanic goes on and on: 17 pop culture windows into 1998
Photo: David Hume Kennerly (Getty Images)

Seinfeld topped Nielsen’s primetime ratings during its final season on the air, thanks in no small part to a series finale that drew 76.3 million viewers. With anticipation mounting and 30-second commercial slots selling for upward of $1 million, the entirety of NBC’s Must See Thursday lineup for May 14 was staked out for a 45-minute clip show and the 75-minute series closer, the plot of which episode writer and prodigal showrunner Larry David took great pains to protect. (“Jerry and Elaine get drunk and they decide to get married,” he joked in one pre-finale interview. “George and Kramer get invited to a yacht party.”) Maybe he should’ve stuck with the fake version, rather than the one that put the show’s protagonists on trial for the crimes against humanity that were also the core of the show’s humor. “Jerry! How could you let it end like this?” read the headline in The Atlanta Constitution; in the Chicago Tribune, Steve Johnson saw it as a sign of the times, writing “Going out with a whimper highlights, perhaps, that this was not a show for everyone, and few can be anymore.” Reaction among viewers was mixed: Nearly half of respondents to an online poll conducted after the finale were disappointed with the litany of past guest stars and the jailhouse ending—but they liked it better than Dan dying in the last Roseanne! At least they actually got to see it, unlike the Time Warner Cable subscribers in the Hudson Valley who, due to a tampered broadcast signal, tuned in for the last 10 minutes of the show about nothing, and got, appropriately, nothing. [Erik Adams]

15. Nü-metal bleeds into pop

Korn in September 1998
Korn in September 1998
Photo: Bob Berg (Getty Images)

From its rise to prominence in the ’70s and ’80s all the way through the poorly named “New Wave of American Heavy Metal” in the 2000s, heavy metal has had more than a few breakout moments. But it was in 1998 that metal became synonymous with pop music, thanks to the ubiquity of nü-metal. While purists can debate whether or not nü-metal is actually metal, at the time, it was an accepted subgenre, just like tech-death or goregrind. When Korn released Follow The Leader that summer, they’d nab a number one album and find themselves in the company of pop stars such as the Backstreet Boys, ’N Sync, and Britney Spears thanks to their videos all forming the backbone of MTV’s Total Request Live. Once Limp Bizkit entered the mix, nu metal would reach new heights, as the band’s 2000 album, Chocolate Starfish And The Hot Dog Flavored Water, became the fastest selling rock album in Nielsen Soundscan’s history. That popularity would be short-lived, but metal’s most maligned subgenre burned bright in 1998, for better and for worse. [David Anthony]

16. September 29: Greatest day in hip-hop history

With apologies to November 9, 1993, when A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders and The Wu-Tang Clan’s debut LP were both released, September 29, 1998 is the greatest day in hip-hop history. It’s not even close. It’s a weird twist of fate that Outkast’s sprawling, genre-eviscerating masterwork Aquemini dropped alongside Hard Knock Life, Jay-Z’s redefinition of mainstream hip-hop. They’re both albums that bridge the early ‘90s golden age with the searching, fragmented period that would follow. But the fact that those releases were also accompanied by The Love Movement, which would stand as A Tribe Called Quest’s swan song until their 2016 comeback, and Mos Def and Talib Kweli’s debut as Black Star, which defined backpack rap at its inception, marks the day for all eternity. Hell, even the Brand Nubian record released that day was good. As if sensing this moment in the air, XXL magazine decided to honor the 40th anniversary of Art Kane’s photograph “A Great Day In Harlem” by staging a massive photo shoot full of hip-hop royalty sprawled out across a foldout cover. Scrawled across it were the names of all the artists featured, that date, and the claim, again, that it was “the greatest day in hip-hop history.” It may’ve seemed bold at the time, particularly in a year dominated by Will Smith, the critically maligned No Limit Records, and the lingering dominance of post-Biggy Puff Daddy, but history proved them correct. Today, when albums tend to be released more or less the exact second that they are finished, the notion of another 24-hour period contending with the title seems unthinkable. [Clayton Purdom]

17. Saving Private Ryan plants its flag atop the summer (and year-end) box office

An R-rated World War II movie targeted towards adults isn’t the likeliest of summer smashes. Or it wouldn’t be, in the hands of anyone other than the world’s most famous filmmaker and the country’s favorite movie star. With Steven Spielberg at the helm and Tom Hanks in the lead, Saving Private Ryan stormed the beaches of Hollywood’s blockbuster season, edging out Armageddon and another improbable R-rated sensation, There’s Something About Mary, to become not just the biggest hit of the summer but also the highest-grossing film of 1998. It was that rare multiplex phenomenon that also felt like an essential cultural event, a movie that all of America had to see, out of patriotic duty or at least a desire not to be left out of the national conversation. Memorably, and quite shockingly, Saving Private Ryan would end up losing the Best Picture Oscar to a relentless Harvey Weinstein awards campaign. But its aftershocks could be felt for years: in a new class of graphically violent, immersively shot combat cinema; in a revived interest in the “Great War” (further sparked by Spielberg and Hanks’ HBO miniseries Band Of Brothers); in the appearance and popularity of war-themed video games. Meanwhile, it’d be a whopping 16 years before an R-rated film topped the yearly box office again. Not coincidentally, perhaps, it was another acclaimed war movie. [A.A. Dowd]