Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Culkin as Richie Rich
Culkin as Richie Rich
Illustration for article titled Farewell, Macaulay Culkin: 19 pop-culture windows into the world of 1994

1. The fall of Macaulay Culkin

Heading into 1994, Macaulay Culkin was the biggest child actor since the days of Shirley Temple. His star-making turn in Home Alone had led to a successful sequel in 1992, a turn hosting Saturday Night Live at the age of 11, and an unheard-of $1 million fee for My Girl. Meanwhile, 1993’s The Good Son—though not a hit—suggested a dramatic versatility that could see Culkin into the ever-uncertain future of Hollywood adolescence. But then 1994 hit with a string of failures that would prove all but career-ending. The summer comedy flop Getting Even With Dad kicked off a trajectory that ended in the double-whammy disappointments of The Pagemaster and Richie Rich. By 1995, Culkin’s only appearances were in court, as he became embroiled in a nasty public fight with his parents over his earnings. The fallout of 1994 would keep Culkin off the screen for nearly a decade; he finally turned up in 2003’s Party Monster but has mostly eschewed the spotlight, preferring artistic larks like playing in a pizza-themed Velvet Underground cover band. Meanwhile—also keeping in mind Lindsay Lohan—Hollywood has seemed wary of staking so much on a child star ever since. [SO]

2. “Political correctness” officially becomes a joke
Somewhere around the early 1990s, “political correctness” ceased being the rhetorical weapon of conservatives decrying Orwellian censorship, and became a gag even among those whose progressive sensitivity it was meant to reflect. The summer of 1993 saw the debut of Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, a panel show moderated by a comedian who regularly attacked right-wingers for their discriminatory views and openly supported liberal causes, but also loved a good, filthy, unfiltered joke. By 1994, the P.C. backlash was officially louder than the movement. James Finn Garner released the bestselling Politically Correct Bedtime Stories, with traditional fairy tales rewritten so that, for example, Little Red Riding Hood rejects society’s “species-ist” hatred of the wolf. On the big screen, the college comedy PCU made tree-hugging student activists the butt of the joke, every bit as ridiculous and uptight as the obligatory young Republicans. A few attempts at nostalgic revivals by neocons aside, “political correctness” remains more or less a punchline. [SO]

3. My So-Called Life has a brief, yet influential run
Had My So-Called Life debuted in any year after 1994, it would have seemed nearly indistinguishable from the many teen dramas that have flourished in its wake. At the time, the show’s focus on (relative) realism and indefinable teen angst was a marked departure from the glossy, melodramatic soap opera of Beverly Hills 90210, and its DNA can be found in scores of shows that came after it, from Dawson’s Creek to whatever’s on ABC Family right now. Also, had My So-Called Life debuted any year after 1994, it’s likely it never would have even lived long enough to pass along its genes. Despite dismal ratings and behind-the-scenes problems with star Claire Danes (who was vocal about wanting out), ABC aired all 19 episodes of the series’ first season without any of the schedule shuffling or forced hiatuses that are so common today. That old-fashioned patience fostered the passionate fan base that allowed the show’s legacy to develop and, ultimately, become so influential. [SO]

4. The movie box office explodes
Two movies grossed over $300 million at the box office in 1994—the first time this ever happened in a single year. The previous summer, Jurassic Park made over $350 million, which was then anomalous; a year later, The Lion King and Forrest Gump each made nearly that much without any dinosaurs at all. These days, the $300 million mark is so commonplace that this summer will be a modern outlier if no movies hit that number; it would be the first such summer since 2001. Of course, the demystification of the $300 million gross happened in part because of inflation, but the 1994 increase wasn’t just higher ticket prices (1995, for example, didn’t have an automatic $300 million movie). Rather, it was indicative of a rapidly rising ceiling on how successful a movie could be—that hoping for $300 million at the domestic box office was no longer comparable to the futility of hoping for one of the two or three highest-grossing movies ever. Expectations for the full year adjusted, too. When 1993 became the highest-grossing year ever, it beat out record-holder 1989—but when 1994 took the crown just a year later, it established the expectation that each year would be bigger than the last (an expectation that was, amazingly, met for the next 10 consecutive years, and regularly if less often since then). One of those 1994 mega-hits, The Lion King, also established how huge animation could get, anticipating the presence of a cartoon in the year-end box office top ten every year of the 2000s. The record grosses of 1994 made huge the new normal. [JH]

5. The Simpsons returns to Sunday, where it remains an anchor of animated programming
In the summer of 1990, a young, cocky Fox network announced its intention to challenge TV’s broadcast old guard by moving The Simpsons to Thursdays—a battle best summarized by this Entertainment Weekly cover from that year, pitting a bratty Bart Simpson against Old Man Bill Cosby. The Simpsons lost to Cosby in the ratings, of course (though Nielsen research suggested more actual viewers had tuned in). But that it even presented a theoretical challenge was a huge victory for the fledgling Fox. In 1994, with the network having made its point, The Simpsons made the equally noteworthy move back to Sundays, where it’s remained ever since—holding down an animation block that’s seen scores of cartoon companions and competitors come and go, but remaining the immutable anchor of Sunday night. The association with Sunday night and cartoons is so unshakable, Fox’s recent decision to break it up with the live-action Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Mulaney has been seen as nothing less than the end of an era. [SO]

6. Eagles reunite, paving the way for everyone else
Legend has it that at their final concert in 1980, various Eagles were shit-talking each other onstage, complete with physical threats. Don Henley states that the band would get back together—in spite of the obvious upside, since its records continued to sell—“when hell freezes over.” Naturally, that became the title of the band’s 1994 reunion album and subsequent tour, a cash grab that continues today, since clearly there’s still some bad blood. But the audiences (and that cash) was there, and a flood of big-name reunions followed in subsequent years, from The Sex Pistols (1996) to Black Sabbath (1997) to The Police (2007). There are still some holdouts, including Pink Floyd (who did one charity gig) and The Smiths, but reuniting for a big payday seems like the norm nowadays rather than the exception. [JM]

7. Woodstock 1994 foretells the horror of big one-location festivals
There was a time when huge, one-location music festivals were almost strictly for European audiences. The U.K. had Reading, Glastonbury, etc., while the U.S. had more interest in package tours, including the original incarnation of Lollapalooza. But organizers in America started to realize that replicating the one-time-only nature of things like the original 1969 Woodstock could be good business, so they decided to do it again, 25 years later. Unlike Woodstock 1999, which was marred by violence and mud, the 1994 version just seemed a little safe. It was overcrowded—more than its promoters could handle, supposedly—and it foreshadowed the idea of the mega festival for American shores. Now, festivals like Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo are regularly gathering 100,000 people in one place to hear music and be seen. [JM]

8. MTV has a wild, experimental year, the likes of which will never be seen again
Halfway between MTV’s original programming slate of all music videos, all the time, and its current iteration, where the “M” stands for “Maybe You Should Visit YouTube,” 1994 marked some of the network’s wildest experiments with original programming. The success of Beavis And Butt-Head—and the late-night animation anthology series that spawned it, Liquid Television—led MTV to gamble on other unabashedly weird cartoons like The Brothers Grunt, a show about five vein-riddled oafs in their underwear, and The Head, about a hydrocephalic and his mutant buddies. Ultimately, these show’s lives proved as short-lived as the star of MTV’s first original drama series, the sci-fi oddity Dead At 21, as did that of their spiritual successors, like the next year’s Aeon Flux and The Maxx. But for those watching, 1994 was a surreal, exciting year of risk-taking, before MTV retreated to the far more predictable freak shows of reality TV. [SO]

9. Billy Corgan gets Pavement kicked off of Lollapalooza
Pavement scored an honest-to-goodness chart hit in 1994 with “Cut Your Hair,” but another track from that year’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain prevented the band from breaking even wider. One of the record’s many takes on the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle circa ’94, “Range Life” appears to take shots at two of the era’s biggest bands: Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots. “Appears” being the operative term, as Pavement frontman and primary songwriter Stephen Malkmus claims he meant no harm by calling the Pumpkins “nature kids” with “no function” before the finishing blow “I don’t understand what they mean / And I could really give a fuck.” It’s foolish to take any Malkmus lyric at face value, but that didn’t prevent nature kid Billy Corgan from reportedly issuing a “Range Life”-derived ultimatum prior to Lollapalooza 1994. Corgan threatened to walk from a headlining gig if Perry Farrell didn’t rescind Pavement’s invitation to join the traveling alt-rock circus; ultimately, Smashing Pumpkins played Lolla, and Pavement went out with the festival the following summer. Corgan held onto the “Range Life” grudge for another 16 years; as of this writing, no past or present member of Stone Temple Pilots has a problem with being described as “elegant bachelors.” [EA]

10. Aerosmith introduces downloadable music to the masses
It seems hard to believe, but Aerosmith was, for a while at least, a little bit groundbreaking. In 1994, fresh off its hit trilogy of “Crazy,” “Amazing,” and “Crying” videos, the group became the first act to debut a single online. Aerosmith’s “Head First” was an unused track from the Get A Grip sessions—not even a single—but was downloaded by over 10,000 CompuServe customers in its first eight days online, mainly via line command “GO AEROSMITH.” That’s kind of impressive when you consider the 4.3 MB file took most users between 60 and 90 minutes to download and that Geffen Records’ online services division had only launched the year before, with its head, Robert Von Goeben, given just $300 per band to make websites for acts like Nirvana, Guns N’ Roses, and Beck. In the press release accompanying the news about the download, Steven Tyler noted that, if Aerosmith’s “fans are out there driving down that information superhighway,” that his band wants “to be playing at the truck stop.” [ME]

11. Hollywood goes crazy for the Western—and kills it in the process
Spurred by the Oscar-friendly success of movies like Dances With Wolves, Unforgiven, and The Last Of The Mohicans, as well as commercial hits like City Slickers and Tombstone, the Western enjoyed a renaissance in the early 1990s—though not always a creative one. The cowboy revival came to a head in 1994, with some 28 movies released that year that could be classified as a Western, whether they be comedies like the Mel Gibson-starring Maverick, John Candy’s swan song Wagons East!, the Woody Harrelson-Kiefer Sutherland fish-out-of-water farce The Cowboy Way, or City Slickers II: The Legend Of Curly’s Gold; or self-serious dramas like Wyatt Earp and the “female Young Guns” wannabe Bad Girls. Of course, most of these movies weren’t fast enough on the draw. Enthusiasm for movie stars wearing Stetsons was already on the wane, and 1994’s glut of Westerns only hastened that exhaustion. In the 20 years since—with a few notable exceptions that can be counted on one hand—the Western has struggled to make a comeback, and these day’s it’s generally regarded as a gamble, even with the addition of aliens or Johnny Depp. [SO]

12. The cartridge enjoys its last great days
At the Computer Electronics Show in January, Nintendo declared 1994 “the year of the cartridge.” Later that year, they doubled down on that assertion, revealing to the public the design of their upcoming cartridge-based 64-bit system (then known as the Ultra 64). And for most of the year, the company lived up to the hype: 1994 saw the release of Super Nintendo megahits like Rare’s Donkey Kong Country, Square’s Final Fantasy VI (released in America as Final Fantasy III), and Super Metroid, widely regarded as one of the greatest games ever made. Meanwhile, Nintendo’s rival Sega released its experimental Sonic & Knuckles, featuring “lock-on” technology that allowed gamers to combine the cartridge with the already popular Sonic The Hedgehog 3.


But 1994 was also the year that Nintendo ceased developing games for the venerable Nintendo Entertainment System, with the December release of Wario’s Woods marking the death of one of the most successful cartridge-based systems ever sold. More ominously, that same month saw the Japanese release of the hardware that would eventually allow a company that, until then, was associated with TVs and stereos, to usurp Nintendo’s position as the world’s premier console manufacturer: The Sony PlayStation—ironically, an outgrowth of Nintendo’s own failed efforts to develop a CD-based system compatible with the Super Nintendo. Although companies like Sega and 3DO had dabbled in CD-based systems before, the PlayStation (and, to a lesser extent, Sega’s Saturn, released a month earlier in Japan) marked the moment when optical media’s strengths (massive storage capacity at a far-reduced manufacturing price) began to supersede those of cartridges. Although Super Nintendo (and, eventually, Nintendo 64) carts would continue to be released (including highlights like Chrono Trigger and Super Mario RPG, which retailed for as much as $80 due to manufacturing costs), 1994 marked the moment when the cartridge peaked, and the era of disc-based gaming truly began. [WH]

13. Warner buys a 49 percent stake in Sub Pop, ushering in the era of big labels throwing money behind little ones
Though the deal didn’t actually kick in until January 1, 1995, the big-money merger between Sub Pop and Warner Bros. actually happened in 1994, with the major label throwing a reported $20 to $30 million at the Seattle-based indie in exchange for a 49 percent chunk of the then-booming company. Warner was probably banking on hopes that the whole grunge phenomenon would keep paying out and dramatically overpaid, with each of Sub Pop’s two founders—Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt—walking away from the deal with a reported $4 million. While Sub Pop would spend the next six or seven years struggling to stay afloat, with Poneman reportedly putting “millions” of his own dollars into the company, the move marked the first modern instance of a major label recognizing the power of an indie, with many major labels now bankrolling smaller “indie” labels like Harvest, Loma Vista, and Nonesuch, and indie labels using major label distribution companies like the Alternative Distribution Alliance to get their product out into stores. [ME]

14. Four Weddings And A Funeral introduces the world to Hugh Grant’s charming stammercore
Made in just six weeks for under £3 million, Four Weddings And A Funeral was the movie that brought Hugh Grant and his floppy, charming hair to America. Then the highest-grossing British film to date, Four Weddings made about $250 million internationally and launched Grant into the stratosphere, practically forcing him to launch his own production company, Simian Films Limited, and throwing him into the lurid, crush-having public eye. It all came crashing down a little over a year later, when Grant was caught getting a blowjob from Los Angeles prostitute Divine Brown, but Grant’s career has since turned itself around, with the lovably crumpled actor now worth an estimated $80 million. [ME]

15. The modern era of nü-metal kicks off
Thanks to the mainstream success of 311 and Rage Against The Machine, blending rap and rock was no longer a novelty in alternative music circles by 1994. But Korn’s hybrid of the genres—as first heard on their self-titled debut LP, which was released in October—directly spawned a more sinister offshoot: nü-metal. Of course, it wasn’t obvious that Korn was ground zero for a new movement at the time of its release. The record’s singles—including “Shoots And Ladders” and “Blind”—received only minor radio airplay, and Korn didn’t quite fit into any typical metal band pigeonhole. In fact, the California group was a melting pot of influences. Jonathan Davis barked and growled like an incoherent Cookie Monster atop churning metal riffs, swampy grooves and pick-up-sticks percussion—all of which conjured elements of existing bands such as Faith No More, Biohazard, and Quicksand. And Korn’s lyrical themes also shared grunge’s penchant for speaking directly to the disenfranchised; its songs addressed heavy topics such as child abuse, drug addiction, and societal alienation. Yet the record sparked a fire that smoldered for the next few years on music’s fringes; Ozzfest launched in 1996 (with a second stage that featured future nü-metal leading lights Coal Chamber and Powerman 5000) and Deftones released formative LPs such as 1995’s Adrenaline and 1997’s Around The Fur. By the time Korn received Grammy nominations in both 1997 and 1998—and hit the top of the Billboard album charts with Follow The Leader and Issues— their status as nü-metal pioneers was affirmed, which led to one of the darkest (and most misogynistic) eras of rock ’n’ roll. [AZ]

16. Gothic industrial becomes a hallmark of serious action movies
Goth touchstone The Crow was a cult classic after its 1994 release, but its influence has become part of the mainstream aesthetic of action noir: The death of star Brandon Lee in an on-set accident near the end of filming lent the movie a grim mythology separate from its moody source material, the angsty soundtrack topped the charts, and the vicious, stylish violence (which caused some controversy at the time of release for its brutality) has become the action-flick standard in the years since. The grit of Christopher Nolan’s new Batman, and the dramatic cachet of the grim, owes a lot to The Crow. [GV]

17. Turner Classic Movies begins its long game of niche cable content
Turner Classic Movies, a TNT sister channel showing commercial-free flicks from Old Hollywood, launched in 1994. One of two movie channels that was born that year (IFC handled the modern indie stuff), TCM bore marked similarity to American Movie Classics, which was not happy about the overlap: 1994 was the beginning of territory scuffles that would get legal in 1995, when AMC filed a breach of contract suit over some Warner Bros. titles. Despite the significant bumps in the road, TCM won this game of programming chicken: Since 2002, AMC has shifted focus to original series, while TCM has stayed closer to its original formula of features from the studio vaults. Expanding its online presence (the channel’s site includes a video archive, articles on Old Hollywood, and a store selling academic-press books alongside bestsellers) has made the channel a portal for classic film, reflecting what it knew back in 1994—if you show it, they will come. [GV]

18. Space Ghost Coast To Coast debuts on Cartoon Network
The year 1994 saw the launch of Cartoon Network’s first original series, a spoof of late night talk shows starring a mostly-forgotten 1960s Hanna-Barbera cartoon superhero. The original joke was simply the juxtaposition of HB’s familiar cheap animation, with the equally familiar mannerisms and rhythms of Letterman, Leno, et al. But over time, the show morphed into something stranger, mostly ignoring the guests in favor of non-sequiturs and silliness with the cartoon villains who staff Space Ghost’s show. By 2000, Coast To Coast was an institution, which CN used as a template for two new series starring repurposed Hanna-Barbera characters: Harvey Birdman, Attorney At Law, another surprising juxtaposition of character and setting, and Sealab 2021, which ramped up Space Ghost’s absurdism to sometimes-unsustainable levels. The following year, the network decided to bundle these and other shows into a not-for-kids programming block they called Adult Swim. While Adult Swim has grown to encompass live-action shows and a broad range of comedic styles, the seeds planted by Space Ghost—pop culture recycling with a heavy dose of absurdism—can be seen in everything from Aqua Teen Hunger Force to The Greatest Event In Television History. The show also spawned two spinoffs (The Brak Show and Perfect Hair Forever), and a surprisingly good rap album, making it the most stealthily influential show of the ’90s. [MV]

19. Chinese arthouse makes its mark
The year 1994 saw four Chinese-language movies—Red Firecracker, Green Firecracker; Fist Of Legend; Eat Drink Man Woman, and Chungking Expressthat got both U.S. release and critical acclaim. Collectively, their influence continues today both stylistically, in that Chinese films that see increasingly wide American releases, and in specific: Eat Drink was Ang Lee’s follow-up to the award-winning The Wedding Banquet, and was the film that got him invited to direct Sense And Sensibility and become a Hollywood name. Chungking Express received backing from Quentin Tarantino for American distribution and established Wong Kar-Wai as a director to watch. And Fist Of Legend brought Jet Li to the attention of Hollywood filmmakers—he’d be working on American films by 1998. [GV]

Share This Story

Get our newsletter