Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? Email us at email@example.com.
This week’s question is part of The A.V. Club’s 1996 week: What’s your favorite pop culture from 1996?
As a depressed teenager in small-town Illinois in the mid-’90s, I grew up isolated from interesting new music. Classic rock (especially good-ole-boy bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd) dominated the rural radio stations, and it would take me a number of years to realize that there was a whole world of music beyond MTV. One of the first newly released CDs I bought was Fiona Apple’s Tidal (the other, Beck’s Odelay). Day after day, I’d play the album front to back, and loudly, in my family’s living room, my mom inevitably coming in to turn down the stereo because she found it “too depressing.” But that’s exactly what I liked about it. It was depressing, yes, but also cathartic. Singing along to Apple’s emotionally raw lyrics allowed me to step into big, charged emotions that I didn’t yet know how to articulate myself. That the album also let me express the epitome of teenagery moments when I told my mom that she “just didn’t understand” made me even more steadfast in my Apple devotion.
The most incredible thing about Super Mario 64 is that in its first shot at creating a fully 3-D game, Nintendo didn’t just make a valiant step toward a successful blueprint—it nailed it. The decision to split the game into 15 distinct mini-worlds opened the way to more meaningful diversity and experimentation than was possible in Mario’s earlier adventures. Whether it’s hunting ghosts in a haunted mansion or climbing around the insides of a giant clock, every new world, and the various missions within them, brings fresh game concepts that are developed and brought to a natural conclusion before overstaying their welcome. It’s a philosophy that has since become fundamental to every 3-D Mario game, and while 64 is, naturally, the roughest of the bunch, it stands as an achievement in game design that has the vision and verve to hold up remarkably well for a 20-year-old experiment.
Ask me this question in 1996, and my loyalties would be split between Hey Arnold!, the Arch Deluxe from McDonald’s, and the Detroit Red Wings lineup known as the “Russian Five.” Looking back on the smartass know-it-all I’ve occasionally been over the past 20 years, however, there’s a clear winner: Pop-Up Video, VH1’s all-purpose music-education tool and onomatopoeic dispenser of top-shelf ’90s sarcasm. Pop-Up Video debuted shortly after I was introduced to my favorite TV show of all time—Mystery Science Theater 3000—but it was a while before I connected the dots between the shows, which stoked my curiosity about entertainment while making sure I never took the subject too seriously. There are bits of trivia I remember learning from Pop-Up Video (From the Pop-Up treatment of “Come On Eileen”: “‘Tooloo-rye-aye’ was a popular nonsense refrain in 19th century Irish ballads”), and I still get a kick out of the show’s cheeky habit of superimposing “but” over its star’s cheeks. There’s also a lot to respect about the pithy prose contained in the bubbles, which only have a few seconds to get their points across. These sorts of “enhanced” viewing experiences haven’t disappeared—they just migrated to social media. But no second-screen experience will ever be as informative or as clever as Pop-Up Video filling the frame with every name Madonna drops during the “Vogue” rap.
I could name several albums I wasn’t actually cool enough to know about in 1996, but instead I will name one that I had the good fortune to be turned onto, only to reject like an absolute dumbass. The guy who first played DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing….. around me, over the course of many afternoons at the campus-area coffee shop where he and my friends worked and hung out, was a bit of a moron about most things, and I found his whole stoner hip-hop vibe anathema to my stoner indie-rock one. So based on my distaste for him, I initially didn’t think much of DJ Shadow’s sample-based magnum opus, deeming it “boring,” sleepytime music for backwards cap-wearing white boys. A few years of reappraisal, maturing, slowing down, and experimenting with drugs later, I realized how wrong I’d been. Endtroducing….. is one of the masterpieces of the electronic and instrumental hip-hop genres, sounding as fresh today as it was when I first sneered at it and said to put on some Pavement, and I could probably spend the next 20 years listening to it and still notice something new every time. If I could apologize to that guy, I would… Or nah, he was still a dick.
One of the most formative movies of my life came out in 1996. Fanning a flame in me for writing that had been ignited early on, Harriet The Spy
provided a relatable role model and one more nudge toward a career in journalism. I still remember watching the movie for the first time with my second-grade class, envisioning myself as the fearless and determined spy, with a trusty notebook at my side. The film, Nickelodeon’s first, filled me with such passion that I couldn’t wait to leave the school, swing by my grandparents’ house to grab some binoculars, and hit the streets of downtown Lake Nebagamon, writing down everything I saw. I was not the only one with the idea, however, as the movie is objectionably good (That cast! That music!) and inspired many a kid to dream of a life of espionage. This resulted in a turf war between myself and a male classmate, which I distinctly remember winning, bolstered by the kinship I felt to Harriet as a fellow female spy.
I didn’t actually read it until years later, but I remember the fuss when David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest came out. Here was a wunderkind, a masterwork, a massive novel about Life The Way It Is Now, a book so big you could use it for isometric workouts. And it had footnotes! So many footnotes. The hullabaloo made an impression on me, and the book stuck in my head; so that when I finally did get around to reading it in my late 20s, I felt like I was catching up to something that had been waiting for me for years. But while I’m not sure anything can live up to that level of hype, I loved Infinite Jest so much I ended up reading it twice, and will definitely end up reading it again in a few years. It has its failings, but anything with this scope and ambition is bound to be imperfect by design, and Wallace’s thoughts on our loneliness and isolation and desire to lose ourselves in popular entertainment remain as relevant as ever. On a purely technical level, I find it a joy to read prose this expansive and sharp, and given the narrative’s twisting, unstuck-in-time approach, there’s always something new to discover. It’s a big old glorious mess, and one I’m not sure I’ll ever entirely get enough of.
I’ve been wrestling with this question all day, trying to shrug off the always-haunting specter of “cool.” So I’ll just say it: I love The Wallflowers, and their 1996 breakout Bringing Down The Horse
is one of the most important albums of my life. I love the naked emotion of the music, the obscure lyrics of “One Headlight,” or “The Difference.” I love the album’s deeper cuts, like “Bleeders.” I love Jakob Dylan’s deep, placid vocals. And I love Rami Jaffee’s organ, the underlying heart of the whole thing. It’s the sound of the summer after my senior year of high school, driving around in my car, delivering pizzas, and processing my first real brush with death, after a friend of mine took his own life just a few weeks before graduation. (Ironically, the friend in question would have thought I was a total dork for driving around listening to “Invisible City” in my beat-up Honda and trying not to cry. So it goes.)
I remember listening to a lot of Propagandhi’s Less Talk, More Rock and Weston’s Got Beat Up in the summer of 1996, and while those albums could be called classics in their own right, another album released that summer gets way more attention from me two decades later: Jawbox by Jawbox. While the band’s 1994 major-label debut, For Your Own Special Sweetheart, gets most of the glory—because it’s goddamn great—Jawbox found the band at its most confident. Frontman J. Robbins walked The A.V. Club through the album last year, describing how Jawbox’s prior “bash out the tracks in the studio” approach had evolved into something more considered. It shows. Opener “Mirrorful” is one of Jawbox’s finest moments—cutting, catchy, and clearly focused—but the whole first half is especially strong, particularly the succession of “Mirrorful,” “Livid,” “Iodine,” “His Only Trade,” and “Chinese Fork Tie.” It’s a bit long—ah, the ’90s—but Jawbox found the band going out at the peak of its powers.
In The A.V. Club’s book Inventory, director Paul Thomas Anderson says that The Birdcage is one of two films that “will make me stop dead in my tracks and watch all the way to the very end, no matter what else is happening or needs to get done.” (The other film is Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining). That’s why The Birdcage is my favorite movie of 1996, an underrated ballet of farce and frolic. Director Mike Nichols drafted his old partner Elaine May to help with the screenplay, and the result is so lousy with brilliance, it’s embarrassing. The movie contains a few futile attempts to portray gay people as straight people, probably because Robin Williams must have had it in his contract in the 1990s to do at least one John Wayne impersonation per film. But otherwise, Williams is refreshingly underplayed here, letting Nathan Lane take the high-camp road, resulting in one of Williams’ best roles ever. He wisely lets the mania of the ensuing, tension-filled dinner party with the senator’s family unfold around him, until part of the comedy entails just watching him try not to self-destruct. To this day during moments of extreme tension, I remember Robin Williams as he dives into the kitchen to escape the dinner party, chugging wine and exclaiming to his barefoot manservant Agador (Hank Azaria), “My God, the stress! It’s like riding a psychotic horse toward a burning stable!”
Kyle made mention of it earlier, but Propagandhi’s Less Talk, More Rock basically rewired my brain. I was already into punk but hadn’t fully absorbed the politics informing much of that music. Less Talk, More Rock put its agendas right on the cover, with the slogans “anti-fascist,” “gay-positive,” “pro-feminist,” and “animal-friendly” wrapping around the cover art. The music is just as incisive, with songs that have the music fully drop out so Chris Hannah can declare, “Consider someone else / Stop consuming animals.” Pairing this with songs like “Refusing To Be A Man” and a laundry list of politically charged books referenced in the liner notes, Propagandhi wasn’t the first punk band that moved me, but it was the first to make me think.
As a tiny bespectacled child in 1996, I waited weeks for the premiere of PBS’ Arthur cartoon series. The first episode delighted me: an adaptation of Arthur’s Eyes, the book my kindergarten class had read to help understand why I had just gotten glasses. From there, the show only got more fun as it defined an unusually complex world for a children’s show. With its expansive setting of Elwood City, its continuity of events and character dynamics, and its frequent pop-culture parodies, Arthur is the rare educational program that often feels like pure entertainment. Unlike with other PBS series, I couldn’t put a finger on what Arthur was trying to teach me at the time. In retrospect, the show taught me more than any other about what it means to be a caring friend, a creative thinker, and a good member of a community. And also how libraries are dope.
Boring as this response is, my answer could not be anything other than Fargo. This movie shook me when I first saw it 20 years ago, and it still has that effect on me now, even when I just happen to catch it on basic cable somewhere with all the violence and profanity clumsily edited out of it. I grew up in Michigan, not Minnesota, but the film’s bleak winterscapes look enough like my own childhood that I can recognize them. I wish I could say I identified with the film’s hero, the brave, honest, and diligent Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand). But I don’t. The character I see as my onscreen surrogate is poor, hapless Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), the sad-sack car salesman whose pathetic kidnapping scheme falls apart in spectacular fashion. Jerry seems like the manifestations of all my own worst tendencies, from cowardice to greed. When he is dragged, kicking and screaming, out of a crummy motel while clad in only his underwear, his shame feels like my shame.
There are several movies I could pick, and Joe relieved me of the burden of talking about how great Fargo is, so instead I’ll move over to music to mention perhaps my weirdest 1996 favorite, at least in terms of how much I love it: R.E.M.’s best album, New Adventures In Hi-Fi. You heard me: best! I’m sure there’s some mid-’90s coming-of-age bias informing this particular opinion, but I’m surprised how infrequently anyone notices just how epic, varied, and beautiful the band’s last album with original drummer Bill Berry really is. What it lacks in hit singles it makes up for in the atmosphere of “How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us,” the fire of “The Wake-Up Bomb,” the tenderness of “Be Mine,” and the blaring-siren-driven “Leave,” among other unsung classics. Recorded partly on the road during the Monster tour, Hi-Fi feels restless yet full of momentum, and just as cohesive as any of the band’s other records. It’s an unsung masterpiece.
Since people have already name-checked some of the most meaningful pop culture in my life (hi, David Foster Wallace), I’ll go with the thing that I’ve probably revisited more than anything else from that year: the Adam Sandler comedy Happy Gilmore. The number of times I’ve seen this movie has surely entered triple digits by now; it’s not just that I’ll stop and watch the whole thing whenever I stumble across it on cable (though I do), so much as I watched it at least once a week or so for several years straight in the late ’90s. I think it’s his best comedy (though Billy Madison comes close, confirming that I only laugh at dumb shit), and regardless of his disastrous, lazy-vacation output for the past decade or so, this golfer/hockey player magnum opus still cracks me up consistently from start to finish. Plus, I’m pretty sure “You eat pieces of shit for breakfast?” will remain in the pop lexicon long after we’re all dead. Of course, given my answer to this, my soul probably died long ago.
In 1996, besides New Adventures In Hi-Fi (great choice, Jesse!), Grant Lee Buffalo’s Copperopolis
was in heavy rotation in my CD boombox. I had fallen for the trio thanks to 1994’s Mighty Joe Moon, which hewed toward Americana imbued with romantic and historical longing. Copperopolis felt equally out of time and place, as it focused on acoustic folk music drawn to the rabble-rousing vibe of electric rock ’n’ roll. (If the Little House On The Prairie book series had a house band, I imagine it would’ve been Grant Lee Buffalo.) Dust cloud guitars and antique piano, coupled with Grant-Lee Phillips’ expressive, urgent voice and lyrics trying to make sense of emotional and societal fractures, gave Copperopolis a mysterious bent I couldn’t resist.
I have lost faith in David O. Russell to the point where I did not even feel the need to see Joy (although maybe I will cover it for My World Of Flops), and I liked American Hustle a hell of a lot more when it was called Goodfellas. I loved Russell’s first few films, however, particularly his hilarious 1996 screwball comedy Flirting With Disaster. It’s a daffy, freewheeling comedy of parental confusion and midlife angst that features one of Ben Stiller’s best lead performances and an ace cast. Tonally, the film anticipates the wackiness that has characterized Russell’s stuff as of late, but the results are much more assured and less pandering.
I’ve admired John Sayles’ standing as uncompromising American maverick since I first latched onto him back in the late ’80s. (His cred as writer of schlock classics Piranha, Alligator, and The Howling didn’t hurt.) But his 1996 film Lone Star is the purest example of his politically minded but deeply humanistic vision of America. (It still is, although his 1987 coal-miner drama Matewan remains a close second.) A multiple-character study wrapped around a murder mystery, Lone Star follows never-better Chris Cooper as the decent, second-generation sheriff of a Texas border town. A body in the desert sees him digging into the past of his legendary sheriff father (a striking young Matthew McConaughey in flashbacks), dealing with the town’s changing racial and economic dynamics, and reconnecting with his high school sweetheart (the late Elizabeth Peña.) The great cast (including Joe Morton, Clifton James, Kris Kristofferson, and Frances McDormand) populates this evocative microcosm of Sayles’ America, where the past both informs you and drags you down. Unless you can let it go.
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