1998 and Pop Music’s Missed Opportunity

Below is a guest post from my friend Dan! It’s a very well thought-out read that turns into a surprise tribute to someone I guarantee you may not have thought about in a long, long time. Enjoy! (Do you want to guest post for me? Email me for length and content requirements! Just kidding, the only requirement is, “email me a blog post and I will post it.” We’re not very strict ’round these parts).

1998 and Pop Music’s Missed Opportunity

1998 was a transition year for music, especially pop music. The previous dominate genre, Grunge, had begun it’s decline with Kurt Cobain’s death in 1994. Then around the 1996-1997 time frame, Soundgarden retired (they came back in 2012), Pearl Jam took a left turn and became a Neil Young Tribute band (a sound they haven’t strayed from since), and Alice in Chains went on indefinite hiatus (their lead singer started a war with drugs and lost in 2002). Grunge was rock’s true last dominate time in the world of popular music and it can be argued it hasn’t recovered since then. Pop quiz: outside of the Foo Fighters, who is the U.S.’s biggest rock band? Nickelback? They are still popular even though nobody openly admits to liking them. Linkin Park? Like the Goo Goo Dolls, they’ve sold a ton of albums…and yet how often are they brought up in conversation? Rock music hasn’t been the dominate force it once was decades ago.

Country had begun it’s slow and painful descent from country to country-pop. Even though Nashville’s golden boy, Garth Brooks, was busy becoming the second-best selling artist of all time in the U.S. after The Beatles (incredible but true!), and even though he had also just released a live album which sold very well, Brooks strayed from country and became Chris Gaines for a year and released a very meh-tacular rock album. So Nashville chugged out Shania Twain, Faith Hill, and LeAnn Rimes, essentially hitting the final nail in traditional country’s coffin and announced the new world order of country-pop. Though each sold a massive amount of albums in their own right, country-pop never truly became the dominant genre, and in later years would become reviled by fans of other mainstream genres. Pro tip: if you want to be excluded forever from serious discussions about what’s good in mainstream music, just say “Toby” and “Keith”. Not to disrespect country-pop; the genre’s artists are incredibly talented. But I don’t think the music they put out best exemplifies those talents.

Rap missed a huge opportunity to take over. The 2 best rappers of the decade, Tupac and Notorious B.I.G., were both shot and killed in 1996 and 1997, respectively. Jay-Z released his breakthrough album in September of 1998, but it didn’t truly pick up steam until later in the year. In fact, rap’s most popular artists of 1998 were arguably Puff Daddy (ugh), Master P (ugh), and…Will Smith (throw me off a bridge). Since then rap has increased massively in popularity and is arguably one of the top genres in the modern age along with pop and EDM.

Other genres tried to sneak in as well. Punk tried it’s best to sellout and become truly mainstream with Green Day’s excellent “Dookie” and The Offspring’s “Smash” and “Ixnay on the Hombre”. Green Day then released a good-but-not-great “Insomniac,” and The Offspring took a weird turn with their most popular-but-not-really-punk album “Americana”. Pop-punk would become popular several years later, jumping on the “let’s trash boy bands and tween-pop acts” bandwagon with Blink 182 and Sum 41. The elitist side of me still has a hard time calling either of those bands “punk”.

Ska made an appearance too, most notably with No Doubt’s classic 1994 release “Tragic Kingdom,” which peaked in 1996. They wouldn’t release another album until 2000. Other ska acts, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Save Ferris, Reel Big Fish, and Less Than Jake all enjoyed some mainstream success (riding No Doubt’s coattails) but none ultimately were good enough to show any real staying power in terms of mainstream success.

Nine Inch Nails released one of the best albums of the decade in 1994, “The Downward Spiral”. The album debuted at #2 on the charts and was still incredibly popular in 1996, but by 1998, Trent Reznor was fighting his own battle with depression and drug usage and didn’t release another album until 1999’s “The Fragile”. The only two “industrial” acts that even came close to mainstream popularity were the forgettable bands Stabbing Westward and Gravity Kills, both bands who 1. did not have the talent to become anything other than obvious NIN ripoffs and 2. weren’t all that great to begin with. Industrial music’s only other major player, Ministry, was simply far too weird to catapult industrial into the empty top genre slot. Industrial had nothing else great to offer to mainstream other than NIN.

And thus, 1998 was a transition year. No specific genre dominated the pop music charts. Boy bands and teeny-bopper acts were coming into their own, but had yet to truly materialize on a grander stage. The ugliness that was rap rock (or nu-metal or whatever you want to call it) didn’t achieve mainstream popularity until the following year. Every so often, we have a year in music where the mainstream is searching for an identity and waiting for the next big thing to take over.

That Next Big Thing should have been Jennifer Paige.

The summer of 1998 was 17 years ago. I was 17 and gearing up for my senior year of high school. I was failing (miserably and spectacularly) at finding myself a girlfriend, so I filled the time with video games, basketball, and playing Dungeons and Dragons with my friends. The inner hipster in me likes to point out I was a geek before being a geek became a thing. I also had a job where I was working in the music section at (the now out of business) Circuit City.

The department was officially titled the “music” department, but it was actually referred to as the “CD section” by store employees and customers alike. Music came on CD, and only on CD. We didn’t sell cassette tapes any longer, vinyl had not yet made it’s resurgence, and Napster didn’t exist yet, so getting music through the internet had yet to be a thing. So my everyday life became stocking, sorting, and selling CD’s.

By far the coolest part of my job was getting to listen to EVERYTHING. Even though I didn’t really care for the budding N’Sync or Backstreet Boys, I still appreciated the catchy melody and harmony incorporated into their music. I didn’t fully appreciate R&B at the time, but I really liked both Monica and Brandy, especially their duet on “The Boy is Mine”. I enjoyed Usher’s swagger, I made fun of Hanson, and I (correctly) predicted that Savage Garden was probably not going to stick around forever. But the point is that was the year I truly got broke out of my “rock or alternative” only shell and started listening to and enjoying pop music.

Then in August of 1998, I heard “Crush” by Jennifer Paige.

I should first point out that most of the female singers I heard around the time fit into mainly 3 categories: R&B, country-pop, or pop. Mariah Carey and Madonna were still big and releasing stuff, but I heard their voices so much by then it was as if my brain went on autopilot whenever one of their tracks came on.

17 year old me: “Oh, another song by Madonna? Alright, cool. I’ll check it out. Janet Jackson is releasing another album? I’m sure I’ll hear it at work at some point and see if I like it.”

No disrespect intended.

I want to secondly point out that in our department, we had a music player pre-built by Circuit City that served two functions. The first was to display several new and popular artists during that time where people could wear connected headphones and select music they wanted to listen to. They usually had about a dozen albums they could choose from. The second function played selected singles from each of the albums on a speaker for the customers to hear. The music player’s goal was simple: get customers to by more CD’s!

I was about halfway through an afternoon shift of sorting the CD’s on the shelves when “Crush” came on over the speaker. Within 30 seconds, I stopped working to actively listen to what I was hearing. I said out loud to myself, “hey…who is this?”, and wandered over to see what track was playing.

That was when I discovered Jennifer Paige and her self titled album. That was also the first time I ever remember seeing a picture of a girl and saying “holy crap” out loud. I mean, I had seen pretty girls before (Jennifer Love Hewitt, Sarah Michelle Gellar, etc), but she took it up a notch in my book. Holy crap indeed.

I stood there listening to the rest of the song. I was immediately taken in by her smooth and smokey voice and how it blended in perfectly with a guitar driven pop track. I actively listened to the song’s lyrics, attempting to remember them so that I could later figure out what they meant. Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life” taught me to listen to what a song is saying versus what it sounds like, something Outkast would later reinforce with “Hey Ya!”. “Semi-Charmed Life” is a very upbeat song with a very, very sad message about abusing crystal meth. And “Hey Ya!” is another upbeat tune whose lyrics actually convey the sadness behind a failed relationship.

The song was over but I had to hear it again. I couldn’t just pull a CD out of one of the cases and put it into one of the hundreds of stereos we had; that would have gotten me fired. And I couldn’t grab a pair of headphones and listen to it again; one of the managers would catch me.

I had only $20 in my pocket that I was saving for gas. So I did what any fiscally responsible teenager would have done: I bought her album when my shift was over.

Later that night I walked out to my clunker of a car. I got into the car, pulled the plastic wrap off the CD, and popped it into my CD player. It was one of those CD discmen where I had the component you had to connect to a cassette player. We might laugh at those now, but hey, it worked.

And I listened to the song again. Then I listened to it again on the way home.

“This is such a great song,” I thought to myself.

Almost every major pop song in the U.S. in the late 90’s portrayed one of the following narratives: love, loss, heartbreak, drugs, feeling good about yourself, hating yourself (or someone else- especially an ex or a parent), or sex, sex, and more sex. Pop songs have generally always followed the same narrative and they still do today.

But this song’s message was different from anything I had heard up to that point. Being just a highschooler, my ideas of a relationship came from personal experience and music. I thought you were either in a relationship and totally head over heels for someone, or you weren’t with anyone at all. There was no middle ground in my teenage world.

“Crush” changed my perspective. The song is about keeping your feelings in check. A girl likes a boy. A boy falls head over heels for the girl. The girl then pulls back and calls a timeout.

So let it be what it’ll be
Don’t make a fuss and get crazy over you and me
Here’s what I’ll do
I’ll play loose
Not like we have a day with destiny

“Yeah, I feel something for you, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”

In a world of music that pushed romantic absolutes, here we had a terrifically written and recorded pop song with a very honest and applicable meaning. There was nothing profound here; this was a song that could truly highlight what dating in the adult life was actually like. Romance didn’t have to be some sappy soap opera filled with eternal happiness or tears.

The song went on to do very well. According to the wiki page, the song topped the charts in 6 countries and stayed high up in the U.S. for a while. It ultimately finished as the 21st best-selling single of the year in the U.S., which is never a small feat in any right. And above all else, the song certainly didn’t feel like it would be just a one-hit wonder. The rest of the album was received pretty well by critics, and I agreed. Before the age of digital music, companies would chug out album after album where maybe 2-3 songs were worth listening to, while the rest was just filler crap. Not this album- the entire album is one of the better pop albums from the late 1990’s. To be fair, some of the other songs do stick to one of the more formulaic narratives, but at least they were done well and didn’t come off as obtuse in any sense. It was just a good album, and Jennifer Paige certainly displayed serious potential. I thought the video was great as well. Staying consistent with the narrative of “Crush”, Paige displayed just the right amount of charisma with the actors and didn’t do too much else. She didn’t get ahead of herself. She was just hanging out with the guys, enjoying the attention, but she didn’t let anything go too far for her liking.

I honestly thought Jennifer Paige was going to be huge. I really did. Here was a very attractive woman with real, actual vocal talent. She didn’t need autotune to fix errors in her pitch. She could crescendo and decrescendo at a moment’s notice. And she was arguably a better singer most of the women and men on the charts at the time. She was touring the world to support her album, picking up fans everywhere she went.

Then that was the last time she was truly big in the mainstream. Just like that, it was as if a light switch had been turned off.

So what happened?

The following reasons are my best guesses based off what I know and have read. And I could just be flat out wrong on some (or all) of it.

1. The timing of her follow-up release.

Remember how I wrote about the fact no single genre was dominating the charts in 1998? Well that all changed in 1999. Britney Spears released “…Baby One More Time”. N’Sync and the Backstreet Boys finally erupted. Christina Aguilera released her debut and, like Britney, pushed the narrative of former Mouskateers becoming huge. Teenagers were baring as much as they could and released overproduced music.

By 2001, boy bands and tween-pop were an unstoppable force and an unmovable object. Britney had released 3 albums by then (yes, three). And consider this- N’Sync and the Backstreet Boys were “rivals” in the loosest sense, and the marketing teams at their respective labels took advantage of this. This “rivalry” was taken so seriously by their fanbase that their fans would buy half a dozen copies of their latest album just so they could outsell the other guys. I’m not joking. Whomever was able to push this in that day and age was incredible at their job.

Riding off their coattails, rap-rock and some rap acts decided to utilize boy bands and tween-pop as some sort of focal point of criticism, taking advantage of angry backlash at their domination of pop music. Limp Bizkit (ugh) made fun of them at every opportunity. Eminem would occasionally take breaks from complaining about his mom to write about “destroying”  the “little girl and boy groups”.

Pop music had changed and it had changed very, very fast.

So when Jennifer Paige released her follow-up album “Positively Somewhere” in 2001, she was already climbing an uphill battle. She was not a tweeny-bop act; by that time, she was in her late 20’s (more on that to come).

2. The label mismanaged her follow-up album.

When her song “Crush” first broke in 1998, it was immediately everywhere. Her label splashed her voice all over the radio and the video got routine airplay on MTV. By 2001, her next album barely caused a whimper in the music world- at least in the U.S.; it did well internationally. I remember going to buy it shortly after it came out, but there was no advertising to be seen in the store; it was still all boy bands, tween-bop, rap-rock, and Eminem. Everywhere.

It was as if they really didn’t even push her album at all. Which was sad considering it was a solid follow-up in a world that was used to seeing sophomore slumps in the music business.

3. Her label didn’t think she was marketable because she was a woman in her late 20’s, not early 20’s.  

I’ll be the first to admit that women have been, and still are, treated more like things to look at rather than be recognized for their talent. Adele put out one of the best pop albums from the last 2 decades, and everyone wanted to discuss her weight. Madonna is still releasing music well into her 50’s, and people instead talk about her age. The Rolling Stones, U2, Pearl Jam, Metallica, Billy Joel, and so forth never get remarks about their ages. They are all 50+ at this point and still sell out venues without question.

Same thing happens in the movie business: men get questions about the movies, women get questions on what they’re wearing.

So now couple this with the fact she wasn’t tween-bop AND she wasn’t already majorly established and doing a ton outside of music (example: Jennifer Lopez). Her sell wasn’t her body or her image- it was her music. The fact she was (and still is!) very attractive certainly helped, but the music she put out didn’t require an image.

Those reasons alone might have led her label to believe that while she could still make them lots of money, she wouldn’t make them Britney level money.

4. Other than her music, she didn’t do anything crazy to gain attention.

I can’t find an instance where she “dated” a celebrity (or should I say, a PR firm matched them up). She didn’t have any public meltdowns. She didn’t say, or do, anything stupid to gain attention on a national level.

She didn’t pretend to be something she wasn’t. There wasn’t some faux-image being portrayed; what you saw is what you got. Normal and honest. She basically “kept it real” more than people who claim to do it.

There could be more to it, or I could be grasping at straws. But I think I must be at least somewhat close on a few of the above topics. Jennifer Paige and her label went their separate ways. And that was that.

So where is she now? I know she put out a few more solid pop albums, including a Christmas one complete with traditional covers and a few originals. I know she is apparently working on another album, which I will likely purchase once it comes out. I don’t know if she is touring or anything (nothing on her site), but if she came to Milwaukee or Chicago, I’d buy a ticket. And her Twitter account mentions a husband and baby, so I’ll admit the 17 year old in me was secretly let down (like I ever had a chance).

1998 was a long time ago, but I’m holding out hope she can be big again. She does have one major hit and several minor hits to point back to, even if they were years ago at this point. Less likely scenario is she makes it big in the mainstream again. More likely scenario is she scores a couple of big hits on the indie scene and people snatch up her music on iTunes and many more follow her on social media platforms. Music still needs her and other artists like her.

But what a missed opportunity, and we’re all to blame.

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