Sean O’Neal: In the topic of “Worst Music Year,” 1997 is a frequent contender. Some of this can be attributed to distaste for a single genre—boy bands and the Spice Girls, mostly, whose dominance was complete anathema to anyone who’d spend the earlier part of the decade convinced the alt-rock “revolution” was anything but a passing fad. But even those who still clung to the idea that real music was made by earnest dudes yarling over distorted guitars were seeing diminishing returns in ’97; it’s a little hard to make that argument when the major torchbearers are second-tier Seattle clones like Live, Our Lady Peace, and Creed, or adult-contemporary balladeers like Third Eye Blind, Sister Hazel, and Matchbox 20.
Meanwhile, nu-metal and rap-rock were making their inroads with the debuts from Papa Roach and Limp Bizkit; The Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Cherry Poppin’ Daddies were heralding pop-punk’s mutation into third-wave ska and the looming swing revival; we were awash in sensitive Lilith Fair fare from the likes of Jewel, Shawn Colvin, Paula Cole, et al. Creatively speaking it was a year of stagnation, with the only real breaks from that involving bands that relied on gimmickry. But mostly, you just have to point to the year’s top singles: When your Top 5 is dominated by two treacly funeral ballads—Elton John’s “Candle In The Wind 1997” and Puff Daddy’s “I’ll Be Missing You”—and rounded out by irritating, nonsensical earworms like Aqua’s “Barbie Girl” and Hanson’s “MMMBop,” the year in music definitely starts to look a little dire.
Obviously, there was still a lot of great music to come out of 1997, just as there is in any year. Spiritualized’s Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space. Elliott Smith’s Either/Or. Missy Elliott’s Supa Dupa Fly. Radiohead’s OK Computer. Daft Punk’s Homework. Built To Spill’s Perfect From Now On. Company Flow’s Funcrusher Plus. Blur’s Blur. The Notorious B.I.G.’s Life After Death. Sleater-Kinney’s Dig Me Out. Yo La Tengo’s I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One, etc. etc. These albums have endured long past their less distinguished, often more successful contemporaries, and for most people, that’s all that matters about ’97. I also know there’s already someone who’s already skipped right to the comments to chastise me for slagging off Third Eye Blind, or shame me for lumping Our Lady Peace in with Creed.
But right now, I’m not interested in arguing over whether Third Eye Blind is underrated, or whether the year’s standouts should supersede the dross—or even whether the dross actually validates the idea that 1997 was, taken as a whole, popular music’s all-time low. I’m actually here to propose this far narrower argument: that the two-week span from June 23 to July 8, 1997, specifically, may have been the worst two weeks for music ever recorded.
According to the Billboard charts, those two weeks saw the aforementioned “I’ll Be Missing You” bump “MMMBop” from the top spot, where it would remain for 11 straight weeks of everyone paying mawkish tribute to the late Notorious B.I.G. over a Police CD that Puff Daddy bought. And amid this fallow period for terrestrial radio, here’s a list of the new albums that hit stores:
Paul Weller, Heavy Soul
Wyclef Jean, The Carnival
Sugar Ray, Floored
Mötley Crüe, Generation Swine
Insane Clown Posse, The Great Milenko
Edwin McCain, Misguided Roses
Ween, The Mollusk
Twista, Adrenaline Rush
The Murmurs, Pristine Smut
Robyn, Robyn Is Here
Slick Shoes, Rusty
Del Amitri, Some Other Sucker’s Parade
HammerFall, Glory To The Brave
Iron Savior, Iron Savior
Sham 69, The A Files
The Prodigy, The Fat Of The Land
UB40, Guns In The Ghetto
Reel Big Fish, Keep Your Receipt
Men In Black: The Album
Puff Daddy And The Bad Boy Family, No Way Out
Blues Traveler, Straight On Till Morning
Limp Bizkit, Three Dollar Bill, Y’all
Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, Zoot Suit Riot
Celine Dion, The Collection 1982–1988
Dropkick Murphys, Boys On The Docks
Brian Eno, The Drop
Primal Scream, Vanishing Point
Exodus, Another Lesson In Violence
Emperor, Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk
Primus, Brown Album
Smash Mouth, Fush Yu Mang
Super Deluxe, Via Satellite
I’m eager to start tearing into it, but this is supposed to be a Crosstalk. So I’ll just let this stand without commentary—for now—to avoid contaminating you with my biases, Clayton. In fact, why don’t we start by searching for a positive? Looking at this list, is there anything that immediately stands out to you as completely negating my whole theory?
Clayton Purdom: Yeah, no, that list is pretty much hell. The amount of canonically terrible music in it is a little shocking every time I go back to it. To believe that Reel Big Fish, Limp Bizkit, Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, Smash Mouth, and Sugar Ray all came out within a fortnight is sort of astonishing. That’s music that we don’t just hate, but that we’ve since culturally joined together to revile. This is an era of pop that’s so bad, it’s become a shorthand for vapidity via endless memes. That Insane Clown Posse also dropped its breakout record amid all this feels like a spiritual inevitability, as if all this fell, thrashy bullshit somehow also summoned the twin horsemen of the rap-rock apocalypse.
I have not even mentioned Slick Shoes, Del Amitri, Celine Dion, or Mötley Crüe yet. And Blues Traveler. Christ.
As for any outliers, I’ll say: not really. The best record here is Puff Daddy’s No Way Out, which history has slightly come around on, but which is generally considered the harbinger for hip-hop’s jiggy, shiny suit era—a period of such artistic paucity, it helped to birth underground rap, in sort of the same way we credit Jefferson Starship with birthing the Ramones. That Wyclef record has “Gone Till November,” which is still good; Google informs me that this is the Australian prog-metal Alchemist, not the one who made a record with Oh No, so no passes there. Prodigy’s Fat Of The Land is an important touchpoint in “electronica’s” brief popularity within this hyper-masculine rap-rock era. All Brian Eno releases are important, but The Drop is also intentional background music, so let’s not spend too much time on it. All in all, I’m not seeing anything that stands up to the rest.
Can you make a case that Ween, Primus, or Primal Scream redeems this shrill, frosted-tip mosh pit of Clear Channel garbage? These two weeks seem to singlehandedly justify the birth of Napster as a necessary cultural counterpunch.
Sean O’Neal: Frankly, no. Granted, I’m not much of a Ween fan, and I’m aware that its fanbase loves just about every one of its indulgent experiments—even an album of sea shanties—so there’s probably someone who would say that The Mollusk alone redeems these two weeks. But I feel that would probably be disingenuous.
Likewise, I was only into Primus for approximately three weeks in high school (primarily due to peer pressure), but I think even diehards would regard the Brown Album as inessential. Actually, the closest I’ve come to an “Oh yeah, but…” moment here is Vanishing Point, otherwise known as the only Primal Scream album I really like besides Screamadelica. I also kind of like that Tindersticks record, though not as much as the second album. All in all, there’s nothing here to tip the scales.
But I think you’ve already hit on the reason why these two weeks feel like the worst ever, even if there are a couple of relatively bright spots: They contain so many signifiers of the myriad terrible directions music was taking at the time, alongside omens of the worst still yet to come. Even if OK Computer or Life After Death had arrived during those two weeks, I’m not sure it could overcome the portentous weight of all these oracles of a world about to be dominated by some of the stupidest music ever made.
Like you say, No Way Out presaged hip-hop’s empty, call-me-on-the-yacht pop bloat—and you could probably even say the same for the Men In Black soundtrack, with the ubiquity of that Will Smith-rapped title track setting the stage for November’s Big Willie Style (and from there, on into the Willennium). Meanwhile, whatever novelty that was still left to be found in third-wave ska was about to be completely obliterated by the bajillion spins of “The Impression That I Get” and “Zoot Suit Riot” that would dominate the next 12 months, leading into America’s (and my own!) embarrassing swing-revival phase. And whatever “alternative rock” used to mean, by ’97 it was now primarily being lazily applied to interchangeable rom-com jangle-pop like Del Amitri and Blues Traveler. (I actually just now realized I always thought Del Amitri’s big hit was Blues Traveler.) And as much as I kinda enjoy Prodigy’s The Fat Of The Land, the number of septum-pierced rave casualties it inspired to turn electronic music into the realm of aggro, bro-stepping Skrillexes earns it several demerits.
And let’s talk now about the real reasons we recoiled after we first stumbled upon this list: Limp Bizkit’s Three Dollar Bill Y’all, Sugar Ray’s Floored, and Smash Mouth’s Fush Yu Mang. All three massive hits; all of them bad in distinct yet equally damaging ways that would continue to reverberate for years.
Let’s start with the most innocuous: Smash Mouth’s “Walkin’ On The Sun” is a great song, and the band’s Shrek-fueled fall into viral punching bag since then has only obscured how that cool Farfisa riff cut through all the Counting Crows-esque simpering that was all over alternative radio at the time. Of course, nothing else on Fush Yu Mang sounds like “Walkin’ On The Sun,” and Smash Mouth quickly went on to become a grown-ass-man version of Kidz Bop, which—along with the band’s complete inability to laugh about itself—sort of retroactively ruins it. Still, I suppose if the worst thing we got out of it was a bunch of would-be ska-punk musicians picking up vintage organs instead of the trombone, plus a thousand “All Star” memes, it’s hard to be too mad at it.
Contemporary critics used to say the same thing about Sugar Ray—that the funk-punk-alt-metal-lite-FM-pop mishmash the band produced was just too breezy and silly to hate, and besides, their self-deprecation negates all criticism anyway. But fuck that and fuck them: I will spread my wings right here and say that “Fly” is one of the worst songs to ever suffocate the radio, a pandering, Sublime-aping, reggaeton ragbag that spent the summer of ’97 sprawling across the national consciousness like a frat bro dripping his ultimate-frisbee ball sweat into your futon. I was a college sophomore at the time, and I recall how Mark McGrath’s voice seemed to seep out of every surface within five square miles of campus. Worse, the massive popularity of “Fly” spurred the band to basically release the same damn song two years later, ensuring that no kegger nor future CVS Pharmacy line would ever go without a chill sing-along moment.
And finally, it’s way, way too easy to rip on Limp Bizkit, so let’s do it. With its major-label debut Three Dollar Bill, Y’all, the musical manifestation of the state of Florida took the agitprop of Rage Against The Machine and the alienation of Korn and finally turned it into something backwards-ball-cap-rocking mooks could pound SoCo to while doing donuts in the Hardee’s parking lot. The proliferation of mouth-breathing rap-metal that Limp Bizkit’s popularity inspired, all the misogyny and violence and Woodstock riots it instigated, all the dumb fucking songs that were still yet to issue from Fred Durst’s mouth—there’s no need to reiterate it, especially when Durst said it best himself: “For years I looked into the crowd and saw a bunch of bullies and assholes who tortured me and ruined my life,” he told Rolling Stone in 2009, adding, “I don’t even listen to any type of music that’s like Limp Bizkit at all.” If only he’d come to this conclusion in 1997.
Instead, Durst formed a questionably goateed trinity with Sugar Ray’s McGrath and Smash Mouth’s Steve Harwell—three dudes whose combined efforts made rock radio an unbearable place in 1997 and for most of the rest of the 20th century. And somehow it all emanated from this one, incredibly brief period in American culture. Honestly, Clayton, is there a worse two weeks on record? You’re the internet guy. You tell me.
Clayton Purdom: While it’s easy to look at that unholy trio—plus Insane Clown Posse—and just say “no” on gut instinct, I spent a few hours scrolling through Wikipedia looking for challengers. It’s somewhat encouraging that you need to look for whole bad eras to compete. New wave, hip-hop, early indie rock, and a lot of good mainstream pop keeps the ’80s afloat. The early ’70s still have the vestiges of the late ’60s, and artists were more prolific then; the late ’70s are so rich with good funk, jazz, disco, fusion, and punk that they’re out of contention. The early ’90s have golden-age hip-hop and canonical alt-rock. So I finally settled on a stretch from 1996 to 2005 as the likeliest to yield competition.
There are some contestants throughout the late ’90s that get pretty close, all redolent of the same blend of nu-metal, inflated bargain-bin boy-band pabulum, and chintzy, artistically bankrupt rap. The two weeks after July 21,1998, for example, feature Jermaine Dupri’s debut, Candlebox’s Happy Pills, a Fear Factory record, and Squirrel Nut Zippers; earlier that month, there’s a pretty painful stretch of Kid Rock, Orgy, and the Kottonmouth Kings. But there’s also stuff you could make a stronger argument for, like Death Cab For Cutie and even Korn. In a horrible twist of fate, the two weeks following May 25, 1999, contained both a new ICP album and Smash Mouth’s Astro Lounge, as well as records by Spin Doctors and Ja Rule. Still, it also had albums by Cibo Matto, Pavement, and Sigur Rós. You get the picture: Some real contenders in this era, but nothing with quite the light-swallowing darkness of The Summer Of The Goateed Cerberus.
By the early ’00s, many of the responses to this era we’re shitting on were already in full swing. Early ’00s indie rock was taking off as an antidote to the rap-metal implosion; underground hip-hop records that would quietly go on to be considered classics were coming out; and a new wave of lower-key international electronic music was exploring a back path into listeners’ ears. Thus, a span like October 10-24, 2000—which contains albums by Collective Soul, Ja Rule, Orgy, Squirrel Nut Zippers, and Limp Bizkit—is leavened by Deltron 3030 and Reflection Eternal.
And 2003 is a really surprisingly bad year in music, in general, but this same habit plays out: As soon as you’ve found a week that seems to maybe qualify, a Menomena or Four Tet record pops up. In 2005, Lil’ Wayne started releasing a great mixtape every week, kickstarting a boom in great, scrappy, streaming independent rap, and many now-canonical indie-rock records by folks like The National, Arcade Fire, Wolf Parade, and more had started coming out. I don’t think we have enough distance from the music of the past few years to really judge them, but safe to say, none of them are Sugar Ray.
All of which is to say that, yes, the two-week span from June 23 to July 8, 1997, probably was the worst two weeks for music ever—at least as far as I can tell. I’ve always balked when people grouse, usually after a few drinks, about how music or film or games aren’t as good as they once were. What bullshit! There are always wonderful movements being born and dying, things we’re not paying attention to, treasure troves we’ve yet to unearth, genres we haven’t grasped. Culture is rich and full of wonders. But the pop music stock-market seemed to crash after the boom of the early ’90s, and this two-week span serves as a historical microcosm of what American music looks like at its rock bottom. It’s a nadir it’s hard to imagine us ever returning to, what with so many artists putting out new albums every minute and options to discover them. Thank god for that.
Sean O’Neal: Hey, I liked Squirrel Nut Zippers! Fuck you!