Hello! My name is Stephanie and I stand before you today a woman in her early thirties, ready to talk to you about how 1997 was indisputably the greatest year in music that this world has ever seen (only ’90s kids remember!). Here’s me back then:
Yep, that’s right. I was basically an 11-year-old Spice Girl. But enough about that. If you have any sense, you’ll currently be thinking something along the lines of: “But Stephanie, Britney Jean Spears’ first single, ‘… Baby One More Time’, did not debut until 1998, so how can 1997 be the greatest year in music?” That is an EXCELLENT POINT (and one we will get into on another day), but bear with me.
1997 delivered more bops, ballads and bangers than any year before or since, so let’s settle in and I’ll guide you through my argument.
Bops and bangers
It would be remiss of me to begin a paragraph about 1997 bops without kicking things off with the ULTIMATE bop, Hanson’s aptly named “MMMBop”. The world ba-doopa-dopped this hit all the way to number one in 27 countries, and the brothers went on to be nominated for three Grammys the following year. Like an infection resistant to antibiotics, the reign of Hanson was only just beginning. Second single “Where’s The Love” was equally huge (but I’d argue it’s been criminally overlooked in the decades since), and just like that, the boys from Tulsa, Oklahoma cemented their place in pop culture history for all time.
Of course, Hanson weren’t the only boy band dominating the charts, as the year also saw the unstoppable rise of Backstreet Boys. Packaged as pop perfection, and marketed to tweens and teens everywhere as the squeaky clean nice guys who just wanted us to quit playing games with their hearts, BSB didn’t care who we were, what we did, where we’d been, as long as we loved them, and boy oh boy, did we love them. Smash hit “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” – a monster mash bop that’s as flawless today as it was 20 years ago – still has the ability to pull anyone over the age of 25 onto a dance floor to recreate the choreography practised and perfected at school camps and sleepovers back in the day. Still, it should be noted that BSB member Nick Carter has faced recurring allegations of abuse and sexual assault against both Paris Hilton and Dream singer Melissa Schuman. He’s also been arrested on multiple occasions for violent, alcohol-fuelled incidents in the decades since.
Even with two unstoppable boy bands climbing the charts, 1997 was really all about girl power, and by that, I mean Spice Girls. In ’97, Australia moved on from “Wannabe” to “Say You’ll Be There”, a song that has some of Mel C’s most iconic harmonies to scream when you’re white wine hammered in your PJs at a girls’ night in.
(“I’M GIVIN’ YOU EV-RY-THIN / ALL THAT JOY CAN BRING / YESSSS I SWEAAAAAAAARRRRRR!!” and “ALL THAT I WANT FROM YOU / I WANT YOU TO PROMISE TO / ALWAAAAYS BEEEE THEEERREEEEEEEE!!”)
Next came “Mama”, the track played in every tween’s house that Mother’s Day, along with “Who Do You Think You Are”. With their fame at the time being compared to Beatlemania, it’s safe to say we were all ready to spice up our lives when they dropped second album Spiceworld later in the year.
Our other main player in 1997’s pop scene was Scandinavian bubblegum pop group Aqua, a group commonly disregarded as a one-hit wonder due to the sheer pop cultural impact of their biggest hit, “Barbie Girl”. Although it’s a forgivable error, let’s just clear this up right now: Aqua served us HITS back in the day. Aside from the aforementioned smash, Aqua also released “Doctor Jones” in 1997 – another number one, baby!
With (my personal fave) “Lollipop (Candyman)” and “Turn Back Time” – the theme song from Sliding Doors – released in 1998, Aqua’s debut album delivered us FOUR top 10 charting singles, as well as two more singles in “Roses Are Red” and “My Oh My”. Basically, Aquarium is an album truly worthy of endless praise and I will not hear a bad word against it.
Outside the realm of bubblegum pop were other classic hits, such as Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life”, an uptempo bop about getting addicted to crystal meth; Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping”, a song about pissing the night away on whiskey, vodka, lager and cider, before singing the songs that remind you of the best and worst times; and “Your Woman”, a song that – according to the songwriter – is about “being a member of an orthodox Trotskyist / Marxist movement. Being a straight guy in love with a lesbian. Being a gay guy in love with a straight man. Being a straight girl in love with a lying, two-timing, fake-ass Marxist. The hypocrisy that results when love and lust get mixed up with highbrow ideals.”
There was also The Verve’s “Bitter Sweet Symphony”, about how life is just about being a slave to money; Silverchair’s teen-angst fuelled “Freak”; and Savage Garden’s “Break Me, Shake Me”, a song that’s actually more of a bop than their 1996 debut, “I Want You”, but is constantly forgotten just because it doesn’t have that “sweet like a chica-cherry-cola” line in it. Sad! Anyway, in retrospect, it’s possible my 11-year-old self really missed a lot of the context of these songs.
Although 1997 is mostly memorable for its bubblegum pop bops, the year also delivered some timeless ballads. From our boy and girl groups, we got Savage Garden’s “Truly, Madly, Deeply”, a song (probably) heard at weddings for years after – a fact I cannot confirm as I was 11 at the time, the period of life in between playground weddings and real weddings. Hanson released “I Will Come To You”, a title that sounds rather ominous but is in fact rather sweet, while there was also Spice Girls’ iconic safe sex anthem, “2 Become 1”, and En Vogue’s “Don’t Let Go (Love)”, which is honestly one of the best songs to perform karaoke to. Don’t @ me, please.
Fun fact about “2 Become 1” – the album version has the line “boys and girls feel good together”, but it was changed to “love will bring us back together” for the single in order to be more appealing to the group’s growing LGBT+ fanbase. We stan some woke queens, honey!
We also need to talk about how weird it was that there were two versions of country ballad “How Do I Live” released and charting at the same time, because honestly, why did this happen? Can you imagine if Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato released the literal same song at the same time today? Stan Twitter would have a collective aneurysm and it would break the internet.
Anyway, I don’t know why or how this came to be – I guess some mysteries aren’t meant to be solved except by the reasoning of “1997 was wild”. (Read between the lines, please. I can’t be bothered looking it up, but if you can please @ me on Twitter.) Anyway, here’s the deal – before Leann Rimes was a headline-making, Real Housewives-entangled tabloid regular, she was the 15-year-old country singing sensation who released “How Do I Live”. The very same single was also released by Trisha Yearwood, with both versions charting, although Leann’s version was eventually ranked as the “most successful song of the 1990s” by Billboard, so I guess she won. That being said, Trisha’s placed better in Australia, peaking at number 3, while Leann landed at number 17.
1997 also delivered two huge in memoriam ballads. The first, obviously, was Elton John’s “Candle In The Wind 1997”, a reworking of his classic single in tribute to the late Princess Diana; the second being “I’ll Be Missing You”, a tribute to The Notorious B.I.G by Diddy (then going by Puff Daddy), Faith Evans and 112. Although not a cover, “I’ll Be Missing You” did sample “Every Breath You Take” by The Police.
Finally, and indisputably (I will not hear a word against this next statement), the most iconic of the year’s ballads was Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On”, aka the love theme from Titanic, which was released in December and closed out music’s most iconic year. Just like Rose (well, right before she dumped Jack at the bottom of the Atlantic), I will never let go of the love I have for 1997’s pop music.
Still unconvinced? Here, I made you a playlist with all of these and many more bops, ballads and bangers.
Still unconvinced? Watch the music episode of The Nineties (Sundays at 8:30pm on SBS) at SBS On Demand: