If it weren’t for Will Smith, Independence Day would not have been the same (for proof of this just watch the god awful sequel). However, without Independence Day, Will Smith might not have become the global star that he is. With his star rising, Independence Day put him catapulted him to A-list status in Hollywood after his successful tryst alongside Martin Lawrence in Bad Boys. To put the success of Independence Day in perspective, consider that it brought in more than $817 million worldwide. The next biggest movie of ’96? That would be Twister, with a worldwide gross of $494 million. So yeah, Independence Day was far and away the biggest film of ’96 and Will Smith’s fame skyrocketed afterwards.
The aforementioned Twister was a big hit with Bill Paxton as part of a storm-chasing team that included a young, spunky Philip Seymour Hoffman. The third biggest film of the year was Mission Impossible, starring Tom Cruise. Disney was happy to have the fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh biggest movies of ’96 with The Rock, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 101 Dalmations, and Ransom in that order. Rounding out the top ten biggest movies of the year were Eddie Murphy’s The Nutty Professor, Jerry Maguire, and Eraser in what would be Arnold Schwarzenegger’s last big box office hit as the leading man.
1996 was also a special year for movie debuts from quite a few actors. Perhaps the most critically acclaimed were Edward Norton’s supporting role in Primal Fear (earning him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor) and Emily Watson’s leading role in Breaking the Waves (earning her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress). Other debuts that year were Mila Kunis in Santa With Muscles, Billy Crudup in Sleepers, Viola Davis in The Substance of Fire, Michael Pena in My Fellow Americans, Octavia Spencer in A Time to Kill, along with Owen and Luke Wilson in Wes Anderson’s feature film debut, Bottle Rocket.
The music world was hammered with one of its worst tragedies in history with the murder of Tupac Shakur. It was made even more tragic with the fact that Tupac’s double album, All Eyez on Me, was released earlier in the year and reached platinum only four hours after it went on sale. It remains one of the best-selling albums of all time in America. Theories over who killed Tupac and why continue to this day although the most accurate one, in my opinion, continues to be that he was shot by the guy who he and Suge Knight beat up in Vegas a few hours prior to Tupac’s murder. Chances are, the case will never be solved, unfortunately.
Despite Tupac’s early death, 1996 was a huge year for music. The two top singles of the year each had their own personal accolades and records. For Los del Rio, “Macarena” turned out to be a timeless hit that remains popular at sporting events and parties to this day. Not only was it ranked the #1 One-Hit Wonder of all time by VH1 in 2002, it also holds the #1 ranking for Billboard’s All Time Latin Songs. The single went on to sell more than 10 million copies. Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men came together to sing, “One Sweet Day,” a song dedicated to a friend of theirs that lost their life to AIDS. It was the number one song on the Billboard charts for 16 straight weeks, a record that stood alone until 2017 when “Despacito” tied the record.
There were also a ton of successful singles, sales-wise, from 1996. Toni Braxton’s “Un-Break my Heart” would sell more than 10 million copies. Spice Girl’s first big hit, “Wannabe” sold over seven million copies. The top-selling single of 1996, however, was operatic pop hit, “Time to Say Goodbye” by Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman. It has sold more than 12 million copies worldwide.
As for albums, 1996 proved to be another strong year for hip hop as well as rock music with both genres dominating the Billboard charts. Death Row Records had a great year with Tupac’s “All Eyez on Me,” “The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory,” and Snoop Dogg’s “The Doggfather.” Tribe Called Quest, Fugees, and Nas also had great years with their albums, “Beats, Rhymes, Life,” “The Score,” and “It Was Written.” Together, the three albums combined to sell more than 9 million copies. In the rock world, groups such as Rage Against the Machine, Metallica, No Doubt, Pearl Jam, Hootie and the Blowfish, and Bush had big albums. None of these groups, however, could match the sales of The Beatles’ “Anthology” album. On that note, the Beatles couldn’t match pop star Celine Dion’s “Falling into You,” which wound up as the biggest album of the year, going on to sell more than 32 million copies. All of this despite the fact that Dion’s biggest single ever, “My Heart Will Go On,” wouldn’t come out until 1997.
There were some great debut albums in ’96 as well as debuts by artists that would later become superstars. One such man, Eminem, released his first album, “Infinite,” in 1996 but he sold it out of the trunk of his car in Detroit. Other hop hop debut albums in ’96 include Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown, Busta Rhymes, Ghostface Killah, Jay-Z, Xzibit, and my personal favorite, DJ Shadow with “Endtroducing…” Nickelback and Backstreet Boys also had debut albums in ’96 although no one would have a debut album that year as successful as the Spice Girls’ “Spice.” With more than 23 million copies sold worldwide, “Spice” remains one of the most successful debut albums of all time.
Television was once again controlled by shows that topped the Nielsen ratings the past few years such as ER, Seinfeld, Friends, Touched by an Angel, and Home Improvement. There were very few changes among the most popular shows with mainstays such as Frasier, NYPD Blue, Chicago Hope, and X-Files continued to hold audiences’ attention for another year. None of them would grab the amount of viewers that ER and Seinfeld would. Both shows ended their seasons with more than 20.0 Nielsen rating.
Many debut shows had quite successful first seasons starting in ’96. Suddenly Susan, starring Brooke Shields, and Tea Leoni’s The Naked Truth both ended their first seasons in the top 10 of the Nielsen ratings. Other popular debut shows were Fired Up and 3rd Rock from the Sun, the latter of which earned star John Lithgow an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series. UPN and The WB continued to debut shows targeting black audiences with Moesha, The Jamie Foxx Show, In the House, The Steve Harvey Show and Malcolm and Eddie among some of the successful shows to debut in ’96. Spin City, starring Michael J. Fox, was a big hit in its first season although perhaps the most successful new show of ’96 was Everybody Loves Raymond, which would run for nine seasons. Other popular debuts of ’96 were Sabrina the Teenage Witch, 7th Heaven, Nash Bridges, Kenan and Kel, The Daily Show, and The O’Reilly Factor.
As many new shows would debut, just as many would end their run on TV. One of the most iconic children’s shows of all time would end as the Mickey Mouse Club would say goodbye 41 years after debuting in 1955. Another big show that ended was The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air after six seasons although star Will Smith would go on to be one of the biggest box office stars of the mid-to-late 90s. Only the second TV show on HBO, Dream On ended its show after six seasons. The biggest goodbye of all in ’96 was probably Murder, She Wrote, which aired its final episode after 12 seasons on the air.
In conclusion, 1996 didn’t stand out as much as some of the other years of the 90s in terms of film, music, and television but it still had an impact. It would also be wrong to leave out the fact that such popular video games like Super Mario 64, Tomb Raider, and Resident Evil debuted on consoles in ’96. Despite that, when one recollects 1996, it’s hard to argue that Independence Day wasn’t the biggest part of American pop culture than year. To repeat the words of Bill Pullman’s President President Thomas J. Whitmore, “Today we celebrate our Independence Day!”