In case you missed it, CNN aired their documentary miniseries The Nineties in the summer of 2017. When Tom Hanks and co. debuted The Sixties back in 2014, I wasn’t all that interested. (Frankly, I find baby boomer self-congratulation to be nauseating, probably because my parents are baby boomers.) I haven’t seen more than a few minutes of The Sixties even though it re-airs during seemingly every holiday weekend. The Seventies premiered in 2015, and I caught some of it here and there but didn’t make a point of watching any of it.
The Eighties debuted in 2016, and during a re-airing during Thanksgiving week, I sat there and devoured all of it. I was alive during the 1980s, but I am too young to remember any of it. Still, I was intrigued by the material, since it seemed to be relevant to my life somehow, as if the events had consequences that lasted far beyond the decade itself.
Which brings us to The Nineties, which aired during the course of seven weeks during July and August. To me, the most interesting episodes were the first (“The One About TV”) and the last (“Isn’t It Ironic?”). These were the pop culture episodes about TV and music, respectively. The TV episode was two hours long and, frankly, could have been even longer — as the episode points out, the 1990s was the decade when the best TV finally matured into something that wasn’t inherently inferior to film. (Disappointingly, there was no episode about movies in the 1990s, which is a pretty unforgivable omission.)
As for the music episode that concluded the miniseries, honestly they could have expanded it into its own eight-hour miniseries. At the end of the episode, there is quite a long list of artists they basically admit they didn’t have time to get to. But it’s still a ridiculously fun hour of TV, providing a 30,000-feet view of mainstream music in the 1990s. You’ll see the fall of hair metal, the rise of grunge, the alternative explosion, the fall of grunge, the invasion of Britpop, and many other threads like country, gangsta rap, and teen pop. Still, it’s pretty condensed, so be prepared for that.
For some strange reason, just now I thought about something that honestly hadn’t crossed my mind in 15 years (or perhaps even longer). When I first started listening to music, it was the spring of 1999 — obviously, most of what the Nineties episode covered was stuff I didn’t pay any attention to at the time. That was kind of the deal back then: pop culture was governed by the mainstream and the monoculture. You watched MTV or listened to the radio, or you didn’t listen to music. Well, pre-1999, I didn’t listen to music.
One of the things that’s a bit ridiculous now in retrospect was how music turned into acting. It’s jarring to watch something like The Nineties and see just how elaborate and expensive music videos used to be — you experienced music as a video instead of as a piece of music. One of the positives about there not being any money in selling records anymore is that the huge budgets for videos just don’t exist now. In the YouTube era, music videos are just a novelty, which I know I prefer.
However, watching The Nineties reminded me of how I first experienced music in 1999: as videos. What made the ’90s such a special decade for music was that all the songs were packaged in a way that was marketed and delivered as a communal experience. I can still remember having discussions with kids at school about the content of music videos. What I decidedly do not remember having were serious discussions about why a song or band was good in a critical sense — for example, even though I listened to Blink-182 I doubt I ever said, “Travis Barker of Blink-182 is a really good drummer!” (Which is actually true, incidentally. Had no idea at the time.)
I remember spending the summer of ’99 devouring music videos via MTV, since they still played them back then. (In less than five years, they would no longer be playing any music videos at all.) There was no listening to music on Spotify. There was no downloading songs on Napster yet either — that would arrive in the fall. By the end of the summer, I had bought my very first CD: Americana by The Offspring. I could listen to that, I could listen to the radio, or I could watch MTV. That was it. If you would have told me back then that in 2017 we would have access to every CD in Best Buy via these streaming services, I would have said you were crazy. (Even in 2009 I would have thought that idea was crazy.)
The summer of 1999 was a strange time for me. I was not only about to confront adolescence head on by entering middle school in the fall, I was going to be attending a private school for the first time after attending a public school for elementary school. In retrospect, I suppose I was having adequacy issues already, whether I was aware of it or not — trying to figure out how the pop culture puzzle fit together was a way of negotiating my place in society as I was moving to a new stage in life. MTV, for whatever reason, spent the entire summer on the so-called “Island of MTV” in the Bahamas and shot many episodes of video countdown shows there, as well as other shows too like Say What? Karaoke.
On August 28, Carson Daly (now a prominent host of several shows on NBC like The Voice) hosted a completely ridiculous five-hour countdown of the 50 top videos of the summer. Back then, of course, Daly was the host of Total Request Live (later shortened to just the acronym), and this fifty-video countdown was branded as some kind of TRL special. I was only eleven at the time, and I was stupid and bored enough to watch all of it (including MTV’s now-unfathomable five-minute commercial breaks). In fact, I sat there with a blank VHS tape in the VCR and hit record whenever one of my favorite videos surfaced so I could later watch them whenever I wanted. (YouTube has since proven to be a marvelous invention, incidentally.)
Remember when I mentioned a few paragraphs earlier that I thought of something today I hadn’t in at least 15 years? Well, I was referring to that damn fifty-video end-of-summer countdown from 1999. I can’t believe it’s now been 18 freaking years since then. Well, I figured it would be fun to dig up that list and see what it looks like as a fun time capsule of an era long since gone by. The only problem is, does the list actually exist anywhere online? It took a few Google searches, but at last I found it on some kind of TRL archive site. I would post the link, but why do that when I can build the suspense and post the list below video by video? Prepare your face for some major WTF reactions. (As in, you’ll have simply forgotten a lot of these songs existed.)
FYI: I can’t remember now if these videos were voted on by viewers or if they were simply chosen by the show’s production team. Actually, I can’t remember if they even told us that information in the first place.
Here’s the list:
#50: “Black Balloon” by Goo Goo Dolls
I don’t really listen to the Goo Goo Dolls, but have definitely heard this one occasionally over the years.
#49: “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay” by Whitney Houston
This falls in the “I’ve never heard this song before other than the time I guess I heard it 18 years ago watching this countdown” category.
#48: “Steal My Sunshine” by LEN
Ah, ’90s optimism. This is essentially the 1999 version of 1998’s “You Get What You Give,” the similarly infectious single from the New Radicals. Gotta love one-hit wonders.
#47: “Anywhere” by 112 feat. Lil Zane
What the hell is this song?
#46: “Millennium” by Robbie Williams
Great song — surprised a Britpop tune would make the TRL cut. I wish we could go back to 1999 and feel as good about things as we did as the 20th century was coming to a close.
#45: “The Kids Aren’t Alright” by The Offspring
This is an example where I don’t associate the song with the video at all, likely for a couple reasons: 1) the video didn’t get much play as I recall — at least not compared to “Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)” or “Why Don’t You Get a Job? — and 2) I heard the song countless times on radio and CD. Watching the video here is kind of a curious experience.
#44: “She’s All I Ever Had” by Ricky Martin
Forgot this song existed. Hilariously bad.
#43: “Where My Girls At?” by 702
Also forgot this song existed. Not terrible, but still entirely forgettable.
#42: “No Sex (In the Champagne Room)” by Chris Rock
Forgot this “song” existed as well. Chris Rock can be a pretty funny guy but these jokes really just don’t work, for the most part.
#41: “Scar Tissue” by Red Hot Chili Peppers
I honestly would not have been able to tell you what this video was like, though I do recognize it now having seen it again. Another example of hearing the song countless times on radio and CD.
#40: “Everything Is Everything” by Lauryn Hill
Terrific song — probably my favorite on the entire list. Forgot how neat the video is too. Remember when Lauryn Hill was going to have a long, huge career?
#39: “Someday” by Sugar Ray
I remember this video pretty well. Good song — wish there was still room for this kind of rock music (or any kind of rock music, frankly) in the mainstream.
#38: “Holla Holla” by Ja Rule
I thought it was laughable in ’99, and it’s even more laughable now. The epitome of trashy commercial rap.
#37: “Zip-Lock” by Lit
Oh God, not these guys. Lit isn’t even that bad, they’re just one of those bands I wish I could forget for some reason.
#36: “Whatever” by Godsmack
“Whatever” has always been pretty whatever to me. Not a Godsmack guy at all, but if you want to hear a great song they did from the same album, give “Voodoo” a listen. Hypnotizing.
#35: “Unpretty” by TLC
I remember this one existing, but I couldn’t have told you how this song actually sounds. CrazySexyCool is one of my favorite albums, but this one doesn’t do it for me. As for the video, it looks like it was highly influential on James Cameron, who implemented a similarly garish color scheme in Avatar ten years later.
#34: “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” by Jordan Knight
If you’re me, you’re wondering, “Who the fuck is Jordan Knight?” Answer: a former member of New Kids on the Block. For his solo career, he apparently decided to take on a Prince classic from the Sign o’ the Times album.
#33: “Bailamos” by Enrique Iglesias
Holy shit this song is terrible. I never liked it, but I don’t remember it being this bad.
#32: “Summer Girls” by LFO
Worst lyrics ever? Christ.
#31: “Bills, Bills, Bills” by Destiny’s Child
Ah, the video that introduced the world to Beyoncé. Too bad the song sucks.
#30: “(You Drive Me) Crazy” [The Stop Remix!] by Britney Spears
Britney can actually deliver on occasion when she sticks to the dance numbers — on her ballads, not so much. Since “Crazy” has plenty of energy and really big hooks, it’s harmlessly palatable. Not as good as “…Baby One More Time,” but better than really awful ballads from this album that got video play like “Sometimes” and “From the Bottom of My Broken Heart.” (For those keeping score at home, the version of “Crazy” that got a video was “The Stop Remix!,” not the album version.)
#29: “Jigga What” by Jay-Z
I like Jay-Z, but his late-’90s pop-rap stuff kind of sucked. Serious hip-hop aficionados should stick to his albums Reasonable Doubt (1996), The Blueprint (2001), and The Black Album (2003).
#28: “American Woman” by Lenny Kravitz
Remember when seemingly every major motion picture had some kind of music video attached to it that ran on MTV as part of the run up to its release? As covers go, Kravitz’s version of the Guess Who classic is pretty plain, but seeing Felicity Shagwell in action in the video is nonetheless cool.
#27: “Almost Doesn’t Count” by Brandy
Don’t remember this song, don’t want to remember it, don’t care about it. Next.
#26: “Blue Monday” by Orgy
I’m a Nine Inch Nails and Trent Reznor fanatic, so I’m into a lot of the industrial metal that came to the fore during the back half of the ’90s even if it all basically sounded the same and lacked the personality and craft Reznor possessed. Which is another way of saying I really dig this revamp of New Order’s early-’80s classic.
#25: “Look at Me” by Geri Halliwell
Had no idea who Geri Halliwell was just now — former Spice Girl. Song’s not bad. The actual video isn’t on YouTube for whatever reason, so this one will have to do.
#24: “Cowboy” by Kid Rock
Whoa, Kid Rock looks young in this video.
#23: “The Hardest Thing” by 98 Degrees
Embarrassing. How do you live with yourself if you’re one of the idiots who participated in this thing?
#22: “My Own Worst Enemy” by Lit
I was about to say I had no memory of this video, but I do remember the bowling thing kinda.
#21: “Music of My Heart” by ‘N Sync and Gloria Estefan
Grade-A awful. More painful than laughable.
#20: “Beautiful Stranger” by Madonna
In 1999, I didn’t know the context of Madonna, so I feel kind of bad about disliking her back then in retrospect since I like her early work a lot now and think she’s pretty great. This is a fun video and is another good example of how prominent music videos were in the promotion of high-profile films during the ’90s.
#19: “Why Don’t You Get a Job?” by The Offspring
Now this one I remember almost exclusively as a video (I’ll explain why in a sec) — I don’t remember hearing “Why Don’t You Get a Job?” on the radio at all, though apparently it charted quite nicely. This actually isn’t surprising, since this blatant “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” ripoff — calling it a parody would be giving the Offspring a little too much credit, I think — seems more or less written with MTV and the general presentation in mind. Would any serious songwriter write something as asinine as this? Please. This is stunt-songwriting of the worst kind. In contrast, “The Kids Aren’t Alright” is actually a song to be proud of, and I couldn’t picture the video at all before seeing it again.
#18: “Freak On a Leash” by Korn
Don’t really care for the band or the song (though the Dante Ross Mix that tended to get radio play instead of the original was an interesting improvement), but this has to be the coolest music video ever. Directed by the husband and wife duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Ferris, it’s possible this music video had a higher budget than Little Miss Sunshine, which they directed several years later and rode all the way to a Best Picture nomination and Best Original Screenplay win at the 2007 Oscars.
#17: “All Star” by Smash Mouth
This song has been overplayed to the point that it actually pisses me off if I ever have to hear it. Why, two years after everyone got tired of “All Star,” was it selected to play over the opening credits of Shrek? Why? To torment millennials everywhere once they became parents and inevitably showed their kids the movie? I feel like we deserve an answer here.
#16: “Give It to You” by Jordan Knight
I was about to write, “Who the fuck is Jordan Knight?” again, but then I remembered he already had a song higher up in the countdown.
#15: “Genie in a Bottle” by Christina Aguilera
Didn’t enjoy it at the time, but I actually had a lot of fun watching this one again just now. Christina’s got a great voice (even if it’s a bit processed in places here), and the material here is strong hook-wise.
#14: “Wild Wild West” by Will Smith feat. Dru Hill and Kool Moe Dee
Jesus, how much money was poured into this? Fun song, but after spending $170 million on the movie (seriously) they still had money left over for this? Judging by how shitty the movie turned out to be, it was probably a good investment, since I doubt the domestic gross would have climbed over $100 million (which itself is unfathomable to me) otherwise.
#13: “Stitches” by Orgy
This one certainly faded, and for good reason: it’s an entirely forgettable song.
#12: “I Love You Came Too Late” by Joey McIntyre
Another former New Kids on the Block guy. And he isn’t any better.
#11: “If You Had My Love” by Jennifer Lopez
Kind of remember the song. Didn’t remember the video. Both are pretty dated now.
#10: “Guilty Conscience” by Eminem feat. Dr. Dre
I remember both the song and video pretty independently, probably because the track used for the video is a little different from the album version. One of the few songs on this list I still listen to all the time.
#9: “What’s My Age Again?” by blink-182
I remember this video, but somehow I had forgotten about the band’s naked shtick. Always fun to hear the song though.
#8: “No Scrubs” by TLC
Much better than “Unpretty,” but still not something I’d choose to listen to. Guess I’ll be sticking to CrazySexyCool. And how much did they spend on this video? Between the CGI and sets, this must have been a several hundred thousand dollar production.
#7: “I Do (Cherish You)” by 98 Degrees
Girl’s hot, but otherwise this is pretty embarrassing.
#6: “Livin’ La Vida Loca” by Ricky Martin
I kind of miss heavily produced videos like these. This is certainly a video that is very emblematic of what was on MTV at the time.
#5: “Sometimes” by Britney Spears
Britney Spears really doesn’t have a very good voice — particularly for ballads, when she can’t rely on the music’s energy.
#4: “Bawitdaba” by Kid Rock
I still get a charge out of this one. Who knew “bawitdaba, da bang, da dang diggy diggy / Diggy, said the boogie, said up jump the boogie” would turn out to still be so indelible nearly twenty years later? Well, actually, the Sugarhill Gang did when they debuted “Rappers Delight” back in 1979: “I said a hip hop / The hippie to the hippie / The hip hip a hop, and you don’t stop, a rock it / To the bang bang boogie, say up jump the boogie / To the rhythm of the boogie, the beat.” To the uninitiated, “Rapper’s Delight” wasn’t quite the first rap song, but it was the first one of consequence.
#3: “Thinking of You (I Drive Myself Crazy)” by ‘N Sync
Not sure which is more hilarious, the song or the video. I couldn’t stand the song at the time, and that was without picking up on how tinny and shitty the production is. (Timberlake’s vocals have certainly made some progress since 1999.) I forget the name of the guy who sings the first verse, but how did he actually get a job as a singer? Seriously!
#2: “Nookie” by Limp Bizkit
At the time this countdown aired, this was my favorite song. As you can see here at the top of the list, there was a pretty clear divide between teen pop for the girls and nu metal for the boys. Well, I was one boy eating up all the nu metal that was shoveled out by MTV and radio at the time, and “Nookie” was the nu metal song of the summer of ’99. Video’s not particularly elaborate, which is I suppose to be expected, since lead singer Fred Durst directed it himself, as I recall.
#1: “I Want It That Way” by Backstreet Boys
Let’s give credit where credit is due: not only are the Backstreet Boys much better singers than the other groups of their ilk on this list, but “I Want It That Way” is a much more effective song to boot. There are some subtle touches here that I definitely didn’t pick up on at the time, such as the chiming sound that comes in during the “nothin’ but a” part of the chorus and the vocal harmony that slides in during the bridge. It’s hard to argue that any other piece of pop music was packaged more effectively during this period. Lyrically, the song is pretty inconsistent, since during the verses, the singer says he wants it “that way” (whatever that means), but then he decides he doesn’t during the choruses. However, to millions of young girls trying to figure out whether a guy likes her or not, it certainly struck a chord.