It’s mid-May, a Clinton is being debated in the news, and a Godzilla reboot is in theaters. For this week’s installment of my Somewhere in Time column, we’re hopping in my DeLorean GIF and traveling back to the last time we were able to say those three things in a row: May 1998, where it’s all about the top 20 singles on Billboard’s Modern Rock chart. I think you will agree the lineup of songs on that chart is a murderers’ row — you know, like (cross-promotion alert!) the trivia questions I posed to cast members from Orange Is the New Black, New Girl, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine during the big event I hosted two weekends ago at the inaugural Vulture Festival.
20. God Lives Underwater, “From Your Mouth”
As a radio format, “modern rock” was right smack in the middle of its awkward adolescence in 1998. It was past its promising post-Nirvana youth, trying to figure out where it would go: Would it be sexy and beats-y like Garbage? Power-poppy like Semisonic? Ultimately, it would be sludgy and awful like Korn and Staind and Creed; like so many of us, it shlumped into a disappointing adulthood. But at least its questioning middle years left us with some oddities like this pseudo-electronic jam from a forgotten band with a perfectly ponderous ’90s name.
19. Third Eye Blind, “Losing a Whole Year”
Wouldn’t it be “I remember you and I used to spend the whole goddamn day in bed?” I suppose I shouldn’t be a stickler about correct I/me/he/him/she/her usage when so many of us are still struggling with your/you’re, but we have got to get that shit together. Where is the leadership on this issue?
Anyway, I certainly remember I used to spend the whole goddamn day in bed. It was about twice a month, after calling in hungover from my advertising job, which I hated and was terrible at. I lost four whole years this way, sweating and cursing, trying to squeeze my big square ass through the round hole of corporate life, sitting in meetings brainstorming how to use the new interactive media to enliven the Uncle Ben’s Rice brand. Until one day, when I realized: All available evidence points to me being alive exactly one time. What am I doing? Why am I struggling in New York City, where I can do more or less anything I want to do, literally trying to get people to talk to a bag of rice?
With the blind hope of youth, I threw myself into comedy and gave myself a deadline: By the end of 1998, the tie would come off.
18. Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, “Zoot Suit Riot”
Real talk: In 2014, how many of the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies have curly mustaches, arm garters, and banjos? All of them, probably, right?
17. Foo Fighters, “My Hero”
“Ah don’t wunt yer laaaahf” said James Van Der Beek in Varsity Blues, whose high-school football montages are set to this song. And ah agreed. So I took myself to every audition I could find in Backstage, sat through a million acting classes, did The Artist’s Way, performed short-form improv shows in bars full of people who didn’t show up in those bars to see any kind of shows, and hoped for the best. And then one Thursday morning in April of 1998, as I checked Billboard.com for the charts, I saw a headline: “MTV To Hold Open Call For VJs.” I circled the date in my calendar and made a note to call in sick that day. The rest is trivia.
16. Creed, “My Own Prison”
In 1998, at the release of their debut album, it was right and proper to call Creed a “modern rock” band, as opposed to what we call them now, which is “first-draft Nickelback.”
15. The Urge, “Jump Right In”
So in the wake of Wanna Be a VJ, I’d secured myself a few writing jobs on a few weekend specials, and once my face was popping up around the halls of 1515 Broadway, producers started asking me to test for the various summer-programming pilots they were filming. I had an ace in the hole, I figured: While Jesse could do things I could never do, like be an interesting character and make teenage girls scream, I could do things he couldn’t, like be on time and say words. And so it happened that one day, while I was walking the halls doing my best to be visible and eager-looking, one of my bosses asked me if I wanted to host MTV Live that afternoon. The live show, which did not yet have a countdown element, and which counted on the host to steer the ship for 90 minutes. Me, who had not yet hosted anything, ever. That afternoon, which was that afternoon. Every cell in my body screamed “NO,” except the ones around my mouth, which said “Yes.” He also asked if there was anything from the current playlist I wanted to play to kick off the show, and I chose this one, from my hometown’s pride the Urge (featuring Nick Hexum, because in 1998, featuring Nick Hexum was a thing you would do to make yourself more popular). Guests: Stacey Dash from the new TV version of Clueless, and Doug Savant from the last reboot of Godzilla.
14. Tori Amos, “Spark”
The woman in this song who’s addicted to nicotine patches is for sure a Blu e-cigarette smoker in 2014, can we agree? Incidentally, I have seen Stephen Dorff in the wild, and he really does smoke those things.
13. Matchbox 20, “Real World”
Starting the morning after Wanna Be a VJ, when I’d be out in the world, people would stare, point at me, and whisper. Not everyone; just a few people in a very specific demographic. Because I was too stupid to remember that what I had experienced in the contest had been televised and repeated a million times, I kept checking my fly. And right away I had an answer for the question “what is marginal fame like?”: It’s like having your fly down at all times.
12. Marcy Playground, “Sex and Candy”
As soon as I had a regular television gig, I was certain that my sex life would pick up considerably. But no: Even New York was still so segregated in 1998 that you had to go to gay bars to meet gay boys, and being a marginally famous fat guy in a gay bar is exactly like being any other fat guy in a gay bar, which is like not existing and being a terrible nuisance at the same time. It’s a little like what the fat woman goes through in that recent Louie episode, but without all the parts where Louis C.K. tries to behave like a decent human being. (In fact, I can’t wait for someone to do a long televised monologue about the experience of the fat man in the gay world, just to watch all of gay media rise up as a whole and say “What? Oh, yeah, sorry, we don’t own a television.”)
So I did what I’d done before, which was use my detective powers to sniff out the other like-minded guys in whatever social situation I found myself in, and generally hit on the wrong ones. And I lost 50 pounds in my 40s, so now I can be invisible and bothersome because I’m old.
11. Harvey Danger, “Flagpole Sitta”
This song is pure 1998 Zeitgeist. It’s “For What It’s Worth” for a generation that wasn’t being sent to war (yet). Dawson’s Creek season one and The Truman Show on DVD, frosted tips and “Flagpole Sitta,” and boom — your 1998 time capsule is complete.
10. The Wallflowers, “Heroes”
This was the big single from the Godzilla soundtrack, and as sacrileges go, it’s about as good as you can ask for. At least it’s better than the other big single from the Godzilla soundtrack, Puff Daddy’s “Come With Me,” on which Jimmy Page re-created (or just sold) the guitar riff from Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir.” Puffy and Jimmy performed that one on a May 1998 episode of Saturday Night Live, to which I managed to score tickets for myself and my visiting parents. Puffy was at his most aggro in this performance, and in the middle of it, I looked over at my mother, whose head was bowed, hand in front of her eyes. I nudged her shoulder and gave her a concerned look, and she said: “Dave, I’m frightened.” (In fairness, proto-metal and opportunist hip-hop are a heady brew for a midwestern grandmother.)
9. Smashing Pumpkins, “Ava Adore”
This represents the moment Billy Corgan decided to embrace his inner Nosferatu. Mom, I’m frightened.
8. Fuel, “Shimmer”
Real talk: I still love this song, and if alternative-rock radio had stayed in this moment forever, I wouldn’t have complained. But not even Fuel stayed here; just a year or two later, they Creeded out, releasing grim singles with titles like “Hemorrhage.” All that shimmers in this world is sure to fade. Realer talk: Former Fuel lead singer Brett Scallions is the Josh Charles of song.
7. Pearl Jam, “Wishlist”
Eddie, I love you, but “The Christmas tree, I wish I was the star that goes on top” is a garbage lyric and we all know it.
6. Everclear, “I Will Buy You a New Life”
At around the same time as I booked the MTV gig, my roommates Aimee and Adam got big promotions at work. Suddenly we were making enough money to stop living like animals, and we decided we’d all move downtown and get one-bedrooms in the same East Village neighborhood. We’d move slowly, tentatively into adult life.
Or not. On our first trip downtown, we happened upon a giant, Tompkins Square Park–adjacent four-bedroom duplex that had just gone on the market. It was huge. It was perfect for entertaining. It was far out of our price range. We sprinted to Citibank to get a cashier’s check for the deposit.
Cleaning up the day after our housewarming party, we found a bottle of apricot-flavored Arbor Mist that one of our friends had brought. God almighty, we said. Who brings this? What are we, college students? We looked at each other for a hot moment, halted the cleanup, took the bottle to the private-room karaoke place near St. Marks, and downed it in long swigs as we sang to each other for a whole Sunday afternoon. Our new life would look a lot like our old life.
5. Garbage, “Push It”
Has the world ever needed Shirley Manson as badly as it does now? If only so she and Justin Bieber could encounter one another at an awards show or radio festival and she could reduce him to gravel with a single arched eyebrow?
4. Dave Matthews Band, “Don’t Drink the Water”
A legitimately sexy song, which is an even more impressive feat when you remember that the same guy wrote the lyric “Hike up your skirt a little more, show the world to me.”
3. Goo Goo Dolls, “Iris”
The Goo Goo Dolls were one of my favorite bands in my college-radio days, back in the “Jed”/“Hold Me Up” era. They were scruffy Buffalo underdogs, a catchier Replacements, the band least likely to succeed. But they succeeded; by 1998, they were huge. Listen-at-Work Station huge. First-Single-From-A-Meg-Ryan-Movie-Soundtrack huge. But on Dizzy Up the Girl, the blockbuster album on which this song appears, they also record a Tommy Keene song (“Broadway”), so they have my respect forever.
2. Semisonic, “Closing Time”
The bar where we shot my first MTV show, Eye Spy Video, was near the boardwalk in Seaside Heights, New Jersey. It opened at 7 a.m., 365 days a year. And at 7:05 a.m., 365 days a year, it would be full of people. Ashen-faced, chain-smoking people who didn’t speak to one another. I asked the off-duty cop who acted as our security guard: “Who are these people?” “They’re the people who used to cause all the trouble in town five years ago.” “And now?” “Well, now they’re too tired.” This song holds up, of course, but you owe it to yourself to listen to lead singer Dan Wilson’s solo stuff, particularly “Free Life,” which makes me cry on the regular.
1. Fastball, “The Way”
Of all the ways modern rock could have gone, this is the one I would have chosen. Winsome, grown-up, distinctly American, bound for the inevitable Broadway ’90s jukebox musical. Fastball’s best days were ahead of them (their next albumThe Harsh Light of Day is brilliant from start to finish), but rock radio would soon enter its Limp Bizkit phase, and they’d be shuffled to the side, like so many chubbos at a gay bar. But it’s okay; the underdogs always end up having a better time.