1998 was a landmark year for women in pop
Britney’s first single, ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,’ and the legacy of the Spice Girls. Looking back at the rise of girl power in pop, 20 years later.
Still from “...Baby One More Time” by Britney Spears (1998), via YouTube
The year was 1998. The original TRL aired for the first time, Rose McGowan showed up nearly naked to the MTV VMAs, and Furbies were all the rage. And just one year prior, there had been a radical shift in the music world: the Spice Girls had taken over pop music in the UK and moved the needle for artists to come. By the time 1998 arrived, a new era of pop was born. Pivotal moments that would shape the genre for decades ahead included the emergence of teen pop idol Britney Spears and the reinventions of Madonna, Cher, and Lauryn Hill. A “girl power” movement, seemingly ignited by the Spice Girls, seeped into America, putting empowered standalone female artists front-and-center on the pop stage.
First, one of the most memorable and notable moments of 1998: the rise of Britney Jean Spears. With her inspired hooks and cheerleader high kicks, Britney helped shift the focus of the music industry away from pop groups like the Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys and back to solo artists. The then rising star, fresh out of Louisiana, released her debut single “...Baby One More Time” on September 30, 1998. Spears, scantily clad in a schoolgirl outfit and pigtails, paved the way for the later rise of teen pop stars like Christina Aguilera and Mandy Moore, who remained at the height of the pop industry for the next decade. “...Baby One More Time” could have been a one-hit wonder, but it ushered Spears in as a dynamic performer who would become an icon for her pop ethos and dance abilities. “...Baby One More Time” was also the beginning of Spears owning vulnerability and sexuality in pop music — something that would help foster artists with a common ethos down the line.
1998 was also the year that Madonna released her seminal album Ray of Light. The record was transformative for the already well-established star. It demonstrated her new efforts to experiment more with electronic music, and to evolve pop music. Her interest in religions like Hinduism and Kabbalah influenced the fluid sound of her new music. Madonna’s transformation on Ray of Light was a reflection of the female-centric pop movement that would be the cultural focus for the next several years.
Another legendary pop icon who ruled 1998: Cher. Three years after the release of her previous record, It’s a Man’s World (1993), she dropped her disco-pop classic Believe in October 1998. The album saw the then 52-year-old singer catering to a younger set of fans, which seemed to usher in a new era for the artist. The title track was a club favorite that has remained as such almost 20 years later. It was heralded as nothing short of iconic — landing Cher several Grammy nominations and one win (for Best Dance Recording in 2000). Naturally, critics compared and mostly celebrated the reinventions of Cher and Madonna endlessly during this time, encouraging the rise of empowering dance-pop anthems.
R&B-infused pop was also at its peak in 1998: both Brandy and Monica’s careers were flourishing and they released one of the most epic collaborations of all time with “The Boy Is Mine.” While a song in 2017 would more likely be about feuding with a guy rather than over one, the call and response dynamic between the two artists was flawless. Regardless of the subject matter, Brandy and Monica were seen as strong women with strong opinions — at the end of the video they band together and slam a door in two-timing beau Mekhi Phifer’s face.
Last but not least, the summer of 1998 brought with it the debut solo record from Lauryn Hill, one of the most pivotal moments in 90s pop music. With The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, the powerhouse vocalist sought to modernize pop and succeeded, with her own blend of neo-soul, hip-hop, and R&B with pop sensibility. The record arrived at a significant point in Hill’s life, too: she was pregnant with her first child, an experience that inspired her to make music, she said. She also bravely sang about love, heartbreak, and the tumultuous relationship she had with the The Fugees. The album propelled Hill to the highest heights of pop and R&B.
Each of these artists brought something different to the genre, but they all had a hand in the evolution of pop. The definition of the genre became broader and more inclusive of hybrid pop experimentation. The impact of 1997’s “girl power” boom left a lasting impression on the pop industry. But pop really pivoted to focus on female icons (and potential icons) in 1998, women who sought to spread empowerment through their own music. The work of artists like Britney, Lauryn Hill, Madonna, Cher, Brandy, and Monica has had long-lasting effects on music that we still feel nearly 20 years later. The artists dominating pop today — Beyoncé, Halsey, Demi Lovato, Solange, and more — continue their legacy of strong hooks and strong opinions. In 2018, the future of women taking a stance in pop music and continuing to push boundaries is looking bright.