Tim Tan Huynh

The Best Summer, Ever

2 Sep 2019 — In terms of personal memories and pop culture, the summer of 1999 was special.

I would be remiss if I didn’t take some time to think and write about the summer of 1999, aka The Best Summer, Ever. In terms of historical significance, the summer of 1969 is arguably greater. It has the Moon landing and the Woodstock festival. To some extent, it has the lead-up to the birth of the Internet, which is possibly the most profound invention since the printing press over 500 years earlier.

On the other hand, the summer of 1999 has the distinction of being the final one before the turn of the century and, for all intents and purposes, the turn of the millennium. This distinction alone makes it noteworthy, but it’s personally and culturally special for other reasons. That entire school-year is memorable because of events in my life and in the world of politics and pop culture. Simply put, that summer was the pinnacle of carefree optimism.

An Unusual Summer

The summer of 1999 was, for me, partly a continuation of an eventful school-year. With only a few weeks of notice, my high school had to host the students and faculty of another high school because their building was deemed to have unsafe exposure to asbestos. So, my school started its day at around 7:00 AM and ended around 1:00 PM; the other school started its day shortly after we left. This arrangement lasted for the entire first semester.

For the second semester, my school continued to use a relatively early schedule because everybody was used to it. During these months, I got my conditional driver’s license and my first job, which was working for my dad. I was recognized for being among the top 100 students in my school. I was basically in the top quarter of the student population, but it was the first time that the school gave such recognition.

I didn’t have much of a break because I went to summer school, to take a full-credit biology course, for the first and only time. Coincidentally, it was at the high school that had been deemed unsafe almost a year earlier. Surprisingly, it had a lot of students. Besides the usual slackers, there were some overachievers from my school, plus friends who went to different schools, not to mention students from still other schools. That was July.

Most of August was spent on a family trip to visit my well-to-do uncle and his family in the Houston area. Whenever they weren’t taking us on trips, I used their satellite TV to watch movies like Saving Private Ryan, Enemy of the State, The Faculty, and Varsity Blues. I also watched MTV’s TRL and Daria, which were perfect shows for that era. On the big-screen, we saw some iMax show at the Houston Museum of Natural Science and Big Daddy, of all things.

I have such vivid memories of that trip. The worst is being attached to a drop tower at Six Flags; the anticipation of the fall is worse than the fall itself, though. I also remember mundane things like waiting in my cousin’s car outside of a grocery store and hearing Destiny’s Child on the radio as well as reading my sister’s June/July issue of Teen People while sitting on the toilet of one of my relatives’ many comfortable washrooms.

Leaving my relatives’ hospitality was a bummer. Leaving any carefree situation and returning to school and work is a little disheartening, doubly so if it marks the end of summer, which is the time to savor as a teenager. I know that I’m not the only person who longs for that summer, especially considering how the world has changed, in ways both good and bad, since 1999.

The Cultural Record

Movies

That year was an amazing one for movies. The Matrix and Fight Club came before and after the unofficial summer season, respectively, but that summer had unexpected classics, too. Of course, one summer blockbuster reigned supreme and its success was hardly a surprise. The following movies, in chronological order, best represent that summer. Coincidentally, four of them are the 10 highest-grossing movies of 1999.

Besides being a genre parody, which is rare anyway, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me being a direct sequel had been unique for its time. The only other blockbuster sequel from that year is Toy Story 2. I remember the title, which parodies The Spy Who Loved Me, being somewhat controversial in the UK because the word “shagged” is considered to be vulgar there. Coincidentally, I’ve never seen the movie from start to finish.

Before sites like YouTube existed, some people would buy tickets for movies only to watch the pre-showing trailers for the most anticipated movies. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was one of those latter movies. It was undeniably the most hyped and successful movie of 1999. I saw it in a theater with a friend and was enamored with Natalie Portman, but it never compelled me to watch any other Star Wars movie.

American Pie was the talk of summer school. I was probably the only person in my social circle who didn’t see the movie during its theatrical run. I still haven’t seen the entire thing, but I know its plot. It’s difficult to separate from the countless sequels and direct-to-video spinoffs, although I can appreciate American Pie 2, which is the only one that I’ve watched. The first movie might be best known for adding “MILF” to the general lexicon.

Strong word-of-mouth, especially the impact of its ending, made The Sixth Sense a must-see movie. Until recently, I forgot that it was released in the summer. My two cousins had already seen it by the time we visited them. I remember watching Forest Gump on their satellite TV and one of my cousins exclaiming that Haley Joel Osment is the kid from The Sixth Sense. They took us to see the movie, but tickets were sold out and we settled for Big Daddy.

The Blair Witch Project was ahead of its time in terms do-it-yourself filmmaking and guerrilla marketing. My gullible, teenaged self believed that the movie’s footage was real for a while. I saw it in a packed theater with a couple of friends after returning from Houston. I remember a theater employee warning the audience that some people might become dizzy or nauseous, which seems silly in hindsight. The folklore within the movie is still interesting.

Music

That year was also an amazing one for music. Pop ruled the airwaves and the charts, thanks to boy bands and ex-Mouseketeer starlets, but other genres were represented as well. There were one-hit wonders, career breakthroughs, and so-called comebacks. The most popular artists were individual and group vocalists, that is, singers or rappers; relatively few bands had the spotlight. The following songs are in ascending order.

Movie soundtracks with exclusive songs, either covers or originals, were common in the 90s. Some songs would be singles and have music videos that showed clips from the movie. The video for Madonna’s “Beautiful Stranger,” directed by Brett Ratner, is rare for being an extended skit with the movie’s star. I bought the soundtrack for Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me as a birthday gift for a friend’s annual birthday / end-of-the-school-year party.

“Scar Tissue” was the lead single for the Red Hot Chili Peppers album, Californication. The band was returning from hiatus, during which time rock had given way to pop, but they stood out with reunited guitarist John Frusciante. The video, directed by St├ęphane Sednaoui, evokes the epic road-trip that is every young person’s summer fantasy. I remember listening to the song on the radio while driving friends around at lunch-hour in summer school.

“Someday” is atypical of Sugar Ray’s music at the time. The song has a Latin American melody and a fairly pensive mood, whereas most of their singles in the late 90s are light-hearted. The remote-looking locations of the video, directed by Joeseph Kahn, along with the exotic-sounding music give the impression of a getaway vacation, which is another summer fantasy. I remember watching the video on MTV from my uncle’s high-ceiling living room.

“Summer Girls” was released in the middle of the summer and probably wouldn’t have been such a hit in any other year. It might be the song of summer ’99, although its laughable yet memorable lyrics tell a tale of summer (circa) ’89. I’ve always liked the outfit that Rich Cronin wears in the video, which is directed by Marcus Raboy. Cronin and group-mate Devin Lima have passed away because of illness, but I’ll always fondly remember this song.

Christina Aguilera drafted behind Britney Spears, a fellow alumnus of The Mickey Mouse Club, but “Genie in a Bottle” put them shoulder-to-shoulder. That year also had breakthroughs for Latino artists like Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez, and Aguilera, whose father was born in Ecuador, recorded a Spanish version. The song and its video have summer-related themes that might be the reason for their dominance that summer.

Summary

The summer of 1999 was amazing. The End.