There are arguments out there that 1998 is one of the best years in music, and certainly the best year in music of the 90s. While I’m not sure I agree with either of those theories, it was certainly a significant year in music, a year in which music had more impact on American pop culture than both film and TV. Two of the biggest singles of all time were released in ’98 and while one outsold the other, it was Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time” that truly rocked the American pop culture boat the most. The song was the perfect bubblegum pop tune: catchy, uptempo, and fun. More than that, it had Spears singing it. She became an instant heartthrob to just about every teenage boy (and adult man) around the nation (and world). Was Spears a great singer? No, but she was a great entertainer and the biggest name in 1998 American pop culture.
What’s interesting is that “…Baby One More Time” was considered the biggest single of 1998 although Cher’s ’98 single, “Believe” would eventually go on to sell 11 million units to Spears’ 10 million. Obviously, it was another big year for female artists. Adding to the success of female artists of that year, one has to point out Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn,” which was considered the most played song of the year and one of the biggest one-hit wonders of all time. Funny thing about “Torn” is that Imbruglia’s version is actually a cover of the original, written in 1993 by an alternative rock band out of Los Angeles called Ednaswap. Since we’re on the subject of female artists, it would be wrong to leave out Alanis Morissette and her hit single “Uninvited.” Made for the City of Angels soundtrack, “Uninvited” would go on to sell more than 8 million units.
Speaking of City of Angels, it had not one, not two, but three hit singles. In addition to “Uninvited,” the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris” was one of the biggest singles of the year. “Iris” was listed at #1 for Billboard’s Top 100 Pop Songs 1992-2002. It’s a good song but I don’t know if it’s that good. The third hit single from the City of Angels soundtrack was “Angel” from Sarah McLachlan although the song was originally written for her album Surfacing. As beautiful of a song as it is, the subject matter is incredibly dark being that it is about the heroin overdose of Smashing Pumpkins touring keyboard player Jonathan Melvoin.
There’s more. 1998 saw the rise of quite a few music stars. One was Jay-Z who released Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life, which catapulted the rapper to superstar status. On the contrary, his current wife Beyonce would be part of Destiny’s Child’s huge debut album, Destiny’s Child. In hip hop, Lauryn Hill used her fame from The Fugees to go off on her own with much success. Her debut solo album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was a huge hit and is still considered one of the best hip hop albums of all time to this day. In addition to Destiny’s Child and Lauryn Hill, there was a significant amount of new artists that debuted in ’98. N’Sync, DMX, Jurassic 5, Death Cab for Cutie, Mya, System of a Down were some of the debuts to name a few.
The movie world saw another major Steven Spielberg hit with his World World 2 epic, Saving Private Ryan. It was the second biggest movie of the year at the box office, earning almost $482 million worldwide. The biggest film of the year belonged to the Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck sci-fi disaster film, Armageddon, which pulled in more than $553 million internationally. The third biggest film of the year was the Godzilla reboot starring Matthew Broderick with $379 million worldwide. Strangely, as much money as it made, the ’98 version of Godzilla was not considered a success by the studio, the main reason there was no sequel. In fourth place with $369 million was the raunchy Farrelly Brothers comedy There’s Something About Mary starring Ben Stiller and Cameron Diaz. Rounding out the top five at the box office for ’98 was A Bug’s Life, Pixar’s second feature length animated film. Many people think their second film was Toy Story 2 but it was A Bug’s Life which earned more than $363 million worldwide.
There were quite a few notable deaths in the film world in ’98. One of the most influential and greatest directors of all time, Akira Kurosawa, passed away at the age of 88, leaving behind a legacy that included such films as Seven Samurai and Rashomon among many others. Other big stars that passed in ’98 were Frank Sinatra, Gene Autry, and Roy Rogers. The most shocking death of the year was that of Phil Hartman, a comedic actor and former SNL cast member who was murdered by his wife who then killed herself. He was widely loved by all those that knew him and is even recognized as the person who helped Paul Reubens develop the character of Pee Wee Herman and even co-wrote the film, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. He was only 49 when he was killed.
*Phil Hartman and his wife, Brynn who murdered him before killing herself
In television, ER, Friends, Veronica’s Closet, and Seinfeld were at the top of the Nielsen ratings although it would be the final hurrah for Seinfeld. After nine wildly successful seasons, Jerry Seinfeld, Jason Alexander, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, and Michael Richards would finally call it quits. The show often ended television seasons in the number one or two spot atop the Nielsen ratings, usually going against the hit TV drama ER. Its 75-minute finale on May 14, 1998 is one of the most watched TV finales of all-time with more than 76 million viewers tuning in to say goodbye to one of the most successful sitcoms ever. Only the finales for M.A.S.H., Roots, Cheers, and The Fugitive had more viewers.
Other hit shows would say goodbye in ’98 as well. Living Single, a sitcom based on 4 black single women starring Queen Latifah ended its 5-year run. Other popular sitcoms that ended in ’98 were Grace Under Fire, The Naked Truth, Ellen, Murphy Brown, Family Matters, and The Larry Sanders Show. For TV dramas, it would be the end of six seasons for Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman and after four seasons New York Undercover was finished. It’s necessary to note that New York Undercover was the first police drama to feature two people of color as its stars (Malik Yoba and Michael DeLorenzo). ’98 was really the year that many kids’ shows would end. Among them, Beakman’s World, Bill Nye the Science Guy, Pinky and the Brain, Animaniacs, Goosebumps, and Bobby’s World.
Whereas many shows ended, many others were just starting in ’98. Arguably the most popular show to debut was the HBO mega-hit Sex and the City, starring Sarah Jessica-Parker. A few big network sitcoms hit the tubes in ’98 with the arrival of such shows as The King of Queens, Will and Grace, The Hughleys, Becker, and That 70’s Show. TV dramas saw the debuts of Charmed, Felicity, and Dawson’s Creek but it was kid’s programming that saw a big influx of new shows. Teletubbies would begin its run in the U.S. after its huge success in its native Australia. In addition, The Powerpuff Girls began its 6-season run on the Cartoon Network.
In the toys and video game industries, Furby dolls were a huge craze. The furry, owl-like creatures were one of those toys that parents fought over in stores during the holiday season. It got to a point where people were buying them and then reselling them for five times the price on the black market. ’98 was also a special year for video games as iconic games such as Starcraft, Half-Life, and Metal Gear Solid. There was also another wildly popular Legend of Zelda game for Nintendo with Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. As games and consoles continued to increase in sales, the video game industry kept growing and growing.
So what was 1998 in American pop culture exactly? Was it all about the music or all about the movies? Hard to say, but I would personally put my money on music being the more impactful industry of the two in ’98. While Armageddon and Saving Private Ryan were certainly big hits at the box office, they didn’t put their stamp on the year like music did. As stated in the first paragraph, there have been very few breakout pop stars like Britney Spears. While she didn’t wind up becoming the star that Mariah Carey or Madonna became, she was still the biggest name of the year. For that, I think Britney deserves recognition for just how much of a thing she was in ’98.