Golden years: what was the greatest 12 months for pop culture? – The Guardian

Is it 1965, with Dylan, the Stones and James Brown? 1984, with Eddie Murphy and Madonna? Or 1999, with The Sopranos and Britney v Christina? Writers and critics stake their claim for the most important ever
In 1988, Bob Dylan was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame by Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen made a speech that started by describing a single sound: the snare shot that began Dylan’s revelatory 1965 single Like a Rolling Stone, which propelled music somewhere new. It sounded, he said, “like somebody kicked open the door to your mind”.
So 1965 was the year that pop gave rise to rock: music with a new depth, plus a sense of revolt and confrontation. The Who released I Can’t Explain and My Generation. The Beatles came up with Help!, Ticket to Ride and the pairing of We Can Work It Out and Day Tripper. Dylan’s new adventures were heralded by the Byrds’ reinvention of his Mr Tambourine Man.
But if anyone distilled the year’s mixture of noise, intelligence and revolt into its purest essence, it was the Rolling Stones, then at the peak of a pop-art phase that produced an amazing trilogy of hits: The Last Time, (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction and Get Off of My Cloud. If you want an idealised picture of life at the mid-60s cutting edge, the latter song should do it: “I live in an apartment on the 99th floor of my block / And I sit at home looking out the window, imagining the world has stopped.”
In Detroit, Tamla Motown was producing records full of creativity and depth: Martha and the Vandellas’ Nowhere to Run; Smokey Robinson & the Miracles’ The Tracks of My Tears; the Supremes’ Stop! In the Name of Love. In Charlotte, North Carolina, James Brown and his band recorded Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag, Parts I and II, which blazed a trail into funk.
This was also the year that David Bailey took his celebrated portrait of Michael Caine; Julie Christie starred in Doctor Zhivago and Jean-Luc Godard released Alphaville). In 1965, the idea that stuff by and for young people had to be full of ideas and importance was so firmly established that it has endured ever since; if there was a year when popular culture was invented, this was surely it.
John Harris is the author of The Beatles: Get Back, the official companion to the Disney+ series
When I think about my favourite years, I think about times when things are changing, and no one quite knows how. I think, in other words, about 1975, when Smokey Robinson released Quiet Storm, a light-headed falsetto fantasia about a lovesick man who compares himself to “a butterfly caught up in a hurricane”. The song was not a huge hit (it went to No 61 in the US), but an imaginative DJ in Washington DC was inspired by its smooth sound, and soon the name of the song became the name of a show, then a radio format. For decades, so-called Quiet Storm stations thrived, playing a mix of plush R&B and mellow jazz, an elegant counterpoint to the boisterous hip-hop that was just being born.
Punk was being born, too: Patti Smith (her first album), the Ramones (their first record deal), the Sex Pistols (their first gig). And electronic dance music, in the dual form of sublime disco tracks (Silver Convention’s Fly, Robin, Fly; Donna Summer’s Love to Love You Baby) and electronic experiments (Kraftwerk’s Radio-Activity; Tangerine Dream’s Rubycon). It was the year of Ali-Frazier III, the Thrilla in Manila – a classic fight broadcast on an upstart network called HBO. And there were other new reasons to stay in the house: US department store Sears began to sell the first Atari video-game system.
It was, I think, an unusually unpretentious year. It gave us crowd-pleasing classics such as Jaws and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, alongside a fistful of cult favourites: The Stepford Wives, Dolemite, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Perhaps it was all a bit miscellaneous and confusing, especially if you were living through it. (I was not; I arrived the next year.) But that’s the thing about golden eras: they often don’t seem so golden at the time.
Kelefa Sanneh is the author of Major Labels: A History of Pop Music in Seven Genres
If 1984 was the best year for pop culture, that landmark period was countered at every turn by lower-end work that showed Ronald Reagan’s US as dysfunctional or corrupt. The inevitable re-evaluation of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four began things. Apple released the first Macintosh. Ridley Scott directed the TV ad, alluding to the book. Represented by a heroine who shattered “Big Brother” with a hammer, Apple framed itself as against conformity.
Van Halen named their new album after the year. Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA was misinterpreted and exploited by Republican politicians. With Purple Rain, Prince showed that self-creation is harder to co-opt. The MTV Music Video Awards debuted; Madonna writhed in a bridal gown on a wedding cake, singing that she was beat, incomplete. New York once again seemed like the capital of pop culture, with the painters Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Raw comics. Musician-performance artists Talking Heads and Laurie Anderson created a new, smarter, simpler pop aesthetic, and Run-DMC brought hip-hop to the world.
At the movies, for every Footloose and Sixteen Candles, there was Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise or the Coens’ Blood Simple; for every Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, John Sayles’s The Brother from Another Planet. Eddie Murphy combined the two strains in Beverly Hills Cop, the highest-grossing film of 1984. It was pro-police or anti-cop, depending on your mood.
There was a strong undercurrent in the US that things were not working. John Cassavetes made the disturbing Love Streams, while post-hardcore bands Hüsker Dü, Minutemen and Meat Puppets, recorded unpopular songs of anger and confusion, of what LA band the Gun Club called “Bad America”.
The cinema of 1984 belonged to Harry Dean Stanton, who starred in Paris, Texas and Repo Man. He was also in Red Dawn, which US House minority leader Kevin McCarthy mentioned during his eight-and-a-half-hour filibuster speech last November. It was a reminder that at a certain level of American success, everything comes back.
AS Hamrah is the author of The Earth Dies Streaming: Film Writing, 2002-2018.
Look, I get that taste is subjective. But anyone who says that the best year in pop culture was anything other than 1989 is deluded or in denial. Let’s look at this question with the sober neutrality the matter requires: 1989 is when all the best genres of 80s movies peaked, and it is a scientific fact that the 1980s had the best movies and best genres of any decade ever, so this means these were the greatest movies ever created. In 1989, there was When Harry Met Sally … (the greatest ever romcom), Say Anything (the greatest ever teen movie), Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (the greatest ever Keanu Reeves movie) and Batman (the greatest ever superhero movie and the movie with the greatest ever soundtrack because it was made by Prince).
And you want to know something shocking? Prince’s Batman soundtrack was great, but it wasn’t nearly the greatest album that came out in 1989. What can a person even begin to say of a holy year that produced the Cure’s Disintegration and De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising; two albums that have absolutely nothing in common, except that they remain as influential and modern-sounding as they were 33 years ago? Or one that birthed Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 and Neneh Cherry’s Raw Like Sushi? New Order’s Technique and Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique? Pixies’ Doolittle and Tears for Fears’ The Seeds of Love?
What albums have come out recently that will still be listened to in four decades’ time? Well, 1989 had about a dozen, while also gesturing at the best of the 90s to come, with the release of Nirvana’s Bleach and, on TV, the launch of The Simpsons. Taylor Swift didn’t name her most fun album 1989 for no reason, and Taylor ain’t no dummy. To close, four words for you: Madonna’s Like a Prayer. The defence rests, case definitively closed.
Hadley Freeman is the author of Life Moves Pretty Fast: The Lessons We Learned from Eighties Movies
You know that mindfulness tip for alleviating anxiety and grounding you in the present: to think of your “happy place”? My happy place is leading the conga line at my 10th birthday party in 1997, a dozen preteen girls in different Spice Girls crop tops wiggling along to Wannabe behind me. Come Christmas, we would be granted the cinematic triumph that was Spice World. An acid trip of a film featuring luminaries such as Richard E Grant, Bob Geldof, Elton John, Dominic West and Meat Loaf, it was slammed by the dreary critics, despite some frankly epic one-liners: “This dress is dry clean only, Melanie.”
I was only vaguely aware that we’d entered the Blair Years, but even to my young mind things felt exciting – fruity, even – the air rich with optimism and excellent “chick flicks” (loathsome term) such as Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion and My Best Friend’s Wedding. Most importantly, it was the year of Kate and Leo. Being just 10, I had to wait to watch Titanic on general release from the comfort of my blow-up chair, but my older sister went to see it at the cinema about seven times, contributing to the biggest box office release of all time (until Avatar came along 12 years later). I soon came to know Leo’s features better than my own, because my sister had not one, not two, but three Leonardo DiCaprio calendars. It is a year of seeing Leonardo’s perfectly greased blond curtains every single day.
When I wasn’t lining up my £1.99 Spice Girls cassette singles like Pogs and rating the members of boyband 5ive in order of cuteness, I was dreaming about crystal chokers, matching crop top and miniskirt sets, and Gap-logoed everything. It was also, of course, the year that Princess Diana died, prompting a mass wave of public emoting that Britain had never witnessed before. For that reason, some might suggest it’s not the best year ever – but it’s inarguable that it’s among the most iconic.
Pandora Sykes is the author of How Do We Know We’re Doing It Right? And Other Thoughts on Modern Life
To categorise any year as “great for pop culture” is different from claiming that it was positive for culture. A good year for the culture at large involves transformations in thought; a good year for pop culture means that thoughts are chaotic and transitory, and art mostly discussed for how it is presented and perceived. For the past four decades, most years have been better for pop culture than for non-pop culture. But in 1999 the most interesting things were assumed to be disposable on purpose.
Was there still “real culture” in 1999? Of course. The Sopranos debuted and is frequently cited as the apex of its medium. Yet what’s most regularly noted about it tend to be ancillary details: its invention of prestige TV; and a growing generational discomfort with antiheroes. It was an excellent year for film, but its signature movies have become symbols of ideological projections: The Matrix (now seen as a way to describe a mediated reality); Fight Club (shorthand for toxic masculinity); American Beauty (an evisceration of white suburban parochialism); and Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (the prime example of nostalgia as futurism). There was a shift in the perception of anything commercially dominant. Content mattered less than analysis of that content.
The first Britney Spears album was released two days after The Sopranos pilot. Everything about it was fascinating Spears’s celebrity, the marketing, the presentation – except for the music, which was merely OK. That dichotomy felt deep. It was now essential to take someone such as Spears seriously even if her songs were the least important aspect of her celebrity. Christina Aguilera put out her own CD, and could sing the quills off a porcupine – but again, the music was less crucial than her persona (most notably, her role as Spears’s alleged rival). In almost any previous era, both acts would have been popular, but dismissed as unserious. They would have been marginalised as music for kids who didn’t care about music. Such thinking was over. In 1999, the fact that teen pop was unserious meant you needed to think about it more.
Chuck Klosterman is the author of The Nineties: A Book
What was in the water in 2003? Its cultural output was so strong, it could nearly be forgiven for its disc belts and Von Dutch hats. The year saw Finding Nemo, two Christmas classics in Love Actually and Elf, and the first Pirates of the Caribbean film. And while we’re now sick to the back teeth of sequels, in 2003 they were still something to look forward to: Charlie’s Angels 2: Full Throttle, 2 Fast 2 Furious, X2: X-Men United, Bad Boys II and two Matrix sequels. The third Terminator film came out, as did the third American Pie movie and the final instalment of Lord of the Rings, which became one of the highest-grossing movies of all time. It was nominated for a whopping 11 Academy Awards (and won them all).
It was a golden era for TV, too. We lost Dawson’s Creek but gained The OC. Chappelle’s Show hit screens in the US and so did NCIS. In the UK, Peep Show, Little Britain and QI were airing for the first time. BBC Three was launched, too. And let’s not forget: 2003 was the year reality TV came into its own. America’s Next Top Model aired, without which we wouldn’t have RuPaul’s Drag Race or Project Runway. Queer Eye for the Straight Guy was a watershed moment for LGBT+ representation. This era was the genesis of “rich bitch TV”, with Rich Girls following wealthy 18-year-olds Ally Hilfiger and Jaime Gleicher, and the much more famous offering The Simple Life, with Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie. Madonna and Britney Spears’s kiss at the VMAs sent the world into meltdown.
Beyoncé blessed us with her Grammy-winning solo debut Crazy in Love and the Dangerously in Love album. 50 Cent dropped his debut In Da Club and followed up with Get Rich Or Die Tryin’. Girls Aloud’s first album Sound of the Underground topped charts. iTunes was launched and so was Myspace, arguably establishing social media as we know it. It was a blessed year: technology was advanced enough to usher in genre-defining TV and films, but still gave us an optimistic naivety we may never see again. Not all it pioneered was good: 2003 was the first year the UK scored “nul points” at Eurovision with Jemini’s Cry Baby, becoming the first English-language song to do so. That’s a trend I think we’d all be happy to see the back of.
Yomi Adegoke is the co-author of Slay in Your Lane: The Black Girl Bible


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