Now That’s What I Call Weird
Why 1999 was the most awkward year in pop history
Nostalgia is a helluva drug. When it comes to the music of your youth, the yearning for yesteryear can make even the worst songs seem like the perfectly curated, epic soundtrack to the story of our formative years.
I was 13 in 1999, a fate I wouldn’t wish on anybody who cares about music. ‘I Want It That Way’ debuted at exactly the same instant as my pubescent hormones, and I suddenly went from competing with jocks to competing with jocks and JC Chasez. Truthfully, I wasn’t competing at all.
Boy bands and Britney Spears dominated, and as a kid whose formative years were spent listening to the grunge greats of the early 90s, things sucked. For most of those legendary groups, either their frontman was dead or their best years were already behind them. I felt lost — and in retrospect, I don’t think I was the only one.
1999 was a historically schizophrenic year for the music industry. I suspect that at a certain point, label heads were just throwing shit at the wall to see what could take on the boy bands. And they weren’t doing it act by act or song by song. They were trying to break entire ‘movements.’ If you were watching TRL or listening to Z100, it seemed like everything was supposed to be the next big thing.
Of course, with one notable exception, none of it would last. Napster was already knocking on the door, and within just a few short years the fundamental nature of the industry would be shattered beyond recognition, ushering in a painful era of transition that we‘re stuck in to this day.
But when I look back at what was big in 1999, I have to wonder if the wheels for this fragmentation were set in motion before the digital revolution by desperate executives, high-stakes gambling with entire subgenres of music.
These guys were the obvious competitors to the boy band movement, selling millions of albums and thousands of Ozzfest tickets to disillusioned grungesters. It was ‘big news’ when Limp Bizkit’s ‘Nookie’ knocked BSB’s ‘I Want It That Way’ off the #1 spot on TRL after 19 days at the top. However, to give an example of just how weird 1999 was, it wouldn’t have been inconceivable for a 13-year-old girl to have a poster of Fred Durst next to her poster of Joey Fatone either. Honestly, the fact that they were both sex symbols that year pretty much says it all.
And don’t forget about Woodstock ‘99.
The Latin Explosion
As if the clash between rap rock and saccharine 5-part harmonies wasn’t bad enough, the world was also told to sit down, shut up and wait patiently for the inevitable Latino takeover.
Artists like Ricky Martin and Enrique Iglesias started singing in English, and for a moment there it looked like the pundits might have been right. Many of these songs found success, and a few even held up pretty well over the years. But the major boom never happened. In fact, it disappeared almost as quickly as it began, leaving us with nothing but fading memories and J. Lo.
And don’t forget how much you loved ‘Smooth.’
NOTE: ‘Mambo No. 5 (A Little Bit of …)' by Lou Bega was also from the same year, but I don’t count it here because, in fittingly weird 1999 fashion, Lou Bega is actually German.
The Swing Revival
Seriously, I’m not making this up either. There’s even a Wikipedia page. I have no idea how or why this one happened, but this was a big thing. I’m guessing some coked out A&R guy was flat out of ideas for a big 11AM meeting and decided to give this a shot off the top of his head. Judging by what else was going on that year, the sad truth is that it was probably the best idea in the room.
Even the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies were mystified by their own success, and actually argued with their label against releasing ‘Zoot Suit Riot’ as a single. The song was recorded in 1997 as a throwaway, but didn’t become successful until two years later.
And don’t forget that Big Bad Voodoo Daddy played the Super Bowl Halftime Show that year. Only in 1999.
What the fuck? Honestly, seriously, actually what the fuck? One of the strangest moments of my life came a year or two ago when I watched this video and actually read the lyrics to ‘Blue’ by Eiffel 65. There is no rhyme scheme, and if you listen closely, it sounds sort of like your inebriated, slurring uncle trying as hard as he can to shout through a story about this weird kid he went to elementary school with.
It brings great shame to our country that this hot mess of Eurodance ever even made it to our shores, let alone to enormous fanfare and, apparently, 52 million views on YouTube to date. And don’t even get me started on the video (better to read this piece on The Verge about it anyway).
At best, this is an unequivocal sign to all musicians and music video directors that talent doesn’t matter for shit when it comes to success. Even the band name was just the result of a random typo, so if you haven’t settled on your own yet, you’re probably thinking too hard.
And don’t forget that the one techno song even your grandma knows came out this year too.
From the guttural barks of Limp Bizkit to the hapless ramblings of Blue, one thing is clear: Speaking white dudes were pretty successful in the late ‘90s. Perhaps director Baz Luhrmann spotted that train leaving the station and decided to hop on it with this inspirational, non-sensical essay set to music.
There’s nothing too good or too bad about this song, it’s decidedly neutral. But it’s certainly unique and very much in the ‘seemed like a good idea at the time’ nature of 1999.
And don’t forget, he made an entire album of stuff like this called Something for Everybody — which also sums up the year pretty well.
The Next Big Thing
As we’ve seen, every label’s attempt to be the tastemaker of the 21st century fizzled out. Every label except Interscope, that is.
In an era of white trash white dudes stirring shit up to get their shot at 15 minutes of fame, it was easy to see Eminem as just another one-hit wonder when ‘My Name Is’ exploded. But Marshall Mathers had a lot more to say, and went on to become the biggest seller of the next decade.
And don’t forget that Dr. Dre’s 2001 actually came out in 1999 too. Go figure.
More From 1999: Still D.R.E. — Dr. Dre