Why 1997 Was The Most Iconic Summer In ’90s Music


As summer 2022 winds down and kids gear up to head back to school, I can’t help but feel a little nostalgic. It’s hard to believe it’s been 25 years since 1997—that’s what getting old will do since, for me, it still feels like yesterday. Looking back on it, though we might not have realized it at the time, the summer of 1997 was completely epic. 

The era of the touring festival was at its apex: Lollapalooza, H.O.R.D.E., Warped, Lilith Fair, and more were crisscrossing the country, offering something for everyone. Album and single sales were also at an all-time high, with some of the best-selling songs of all time being released that summer. The Spice Girls’ domination of the music world was just getting started, and a tribute to a recently deceased hip hop megastar spent 11 weeks at #1. Tragedy struck again at the end of the summer when Princess Diana was killed in a car crash in Paris, leading to yet another single selling millions and millions of copies. Let’s get into just how big music was that summer. 

A hearse covered in flowers carrying the body of Biggie Smalls drives past a crowd of people.
Thousands attending a funeral procession for Biggie Smalls in March 1997 (JON LEVY/AFP via Getty Images)

The Tragic Death Of Biggie Smalls

On March 9th, 1997, The Notorious B.I.G. was shot and killed while sitting in a car after the Soul Train Awards in Los Angeles. We all know the tragic story of the beef between Biggie and Tupac, who was killed 6 months earlier. Losing both hip-hop icons in such close succession was shocking, to say the least. At the time of his death, Biggie was on the precipice of releasing the highly anticipated follow-up to 1994’s Ready To Die, and the hip-hop world is still mourning his murder decades later. It’s almost like Biggie saw it coming, naming his sophomore album Life After Death

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The only good thing that came from Biggie’s death was on June 14th, when his longtime producer and mentor Puff Daddy teamed up with his widow, Faith Evans, and the R&B group 112 to record “I’ll Be Missing You” in tribute to the late rapper.  The song would spend an incredible 11 straight weeks at #1 on the Billboard charts, only to be knocked off by Biggie’s own “Mo Money Mo Problems.” In May, “Hypnotize” spend three weeks at #1, ensuring that the summer in hip hop belonged to Biggie, Puffy, and Bad Boy Records. 

The Pop Revival Exploded

If the hip-hop song of the summer was “I’ll Be Missing You,” then without question, the pop music scene was owned by The Spice Girls. The girl power group’s debut single, “Wannabe” was actually released in the U.K. in the summer of 1996, but it would be another six months before the United States got its first taste of the bubblegum single that shook the music world. By the summer of 1997, The Spice Girls were everywhere, bombing the charts with hits that ensured the best-selling album of the year would be Spice, selling over seven million copies in the United States alone. 

On the radio pop stations, if you weren’t listening to a Spice Girls song, there was a good chance you were hearing Hanson’s “MMMBop.” The catchy tune was released in April, and by the summer, it had wormed its way into everyone’s ears. It went on to sell more than three million copies worldwide, hit #1 in dozens of countries, including the U.S., and is to this day one of the most successful debuts by any band ever. Quite the feat for three teenage brothers from Tulsa. 

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Finally, at the tail end of the summer, on August 31st, 1997, Princess Diana was killed. The news hit the entire world like a ton of bricks and tributes came from every corner of the globe. The biggest tribute, of course, came from Elton John. John was an old friend of Diana’s and at her funeral, which was watched by millions, he sang a re-worked version of his iconic “Candle In The Wind.” The original, a tribute to Marilyn Monroe, was already an enormous success for John, but the re-worked version, called “Candle In The Wind 1997,”  would quickly become the second-highest selling single of all time, moving 33 million copies in no time. It was a worldwide phenomenon. 

Some Of The Most Important Albums Of The ’90s Were Also Released

It wasn’t just chart-topping music that was getting airplay that summer either. In Europe, Daft Punk announced their arrival with “Around The World,” which is a song that immediately takes me back to that time whenever I hear it. I was traveling in Europe that summer and “Around The World” was everywhere, in every country, in every club, and in every bar. 

Radiohead’s OK Computer was released in May and suddenly it was clear that if pop hadn’t killed grunge, this strange new mix of rock with an electronic twist would. Of course, the album would end the decade at the top of many critics’ lists of the best of the ’90s. 

If all that wasn’t enough, Missy Elliott, The Backstreet Boys, and Erykah Badu all released their debut albums in the spring or summer. It’s almost too much to take in. Creed also released their debut record, but I’m not going to hold that against 1997.

Concert Tours Also Hit A Peak

Not only were album and single sales filling the pockets of record companies with millions of dollars, but the live music scene was also absolutely huge. Personally, I saw some of the most memorable concerts of my life that summer, including catching Michael Jackson in Paris and traveling to the middle of nowhere, Maine to watch Phish play six sets at their festival dubbed “The Great Went.” The festival drew 70,000 people to remote Limestone, Maine, and was the highest-grossing event of its kind that summer, bringing in $4 million for the New England quartet. 

Across the concert sheds of America, traveling festivals were the order of the day. Lollapalooza was on its eighth and final run before going dormant for a few years when it was revived as a one-off annual festival and has since evolved into multiple festivals around the world.

The “hippie” version of Lolla, H.O.R.D.E., had one of its biggest tours with the 1997 version featuring Neil Young, Beck, Blues Traveler, and others. The Vans Warped Tour was celebrating punk and skateboard culture. Ozzfest debuted with the then-recently reunited Black Sabbath headlining the metal fest. It seems every genre possible was getting its own traveling circus. 

That included, after long last, a festival featuring a lineup of all-female-based acts, the Lilith Fair. For years, tours like Lolla had been fairly criticized for not featuring enough women artists and in 1997, Sarah McLachlan took things into her own hands and founded the festival, named after Adam’s first wife, Lilith, who refused to be subservient to Adam according to Jewish folklore. The festival brought together some of the biggest female artists of the ’90s. In addition to McLachlan, Sheryl Crow, The Indigo Girls, Fiona Apple, Jewel, Lisa Loeb, Tracy Chapman, Joan Osborne, Suzanne Vega, and many others played various dates on the tour. 

All the while, U2 was filling stadiums on their PopMart tour, Fleetwood Mac’s classic lineup reunited for the first time in years, The Rolling Stones hit the road again, this time in support of their Bridges To Babylon album, Michael Jackson toured the world for his final time, though the 82-date run didn’t feature any shows in the United States, and Garth Brooks played a free concert in front of a mind-boggling 800,000 people in New York’s Central Park. It was, to say the least, one hell of summer to catch whatever kind of music you loved—even if it’s Creed.

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