How Aaliyah Made History as the Oscars’ Youngest Performer in 1998

It’s been almost 19 years since the death of R&B princess, Aaliyah. At just 22-years-old at the time of her passing, Aaliyah was a multi-platinum artist, fashion icon, and an actress who had yet to reach her peak. Despite her death, her impact has only continued to grow. One of her career highlights was her performance at the 1998 Oscars, where she made history as the youngest entertainer to ever perform on the coveted Oscar stage. Aaliyah performed her song “Journey to the Past,” which was included on the soundtrack to Anastasia.

Aaliyah at the 1998 Oscars
Aaliyah at the 1998 Academy Awards | Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc

The story behind Aaliyah’s “Journey to the Past”

“Journey to the Past” was featured on the soundtrack of the FOX musical animation Anastasia in 1997. The version featured in the actual film was not performed by Aaliyah. Instead, it was sung by Liz Callaway. 

Aaliyah
Aaliyah | Sal Idriss/Redferns

According to an article on Vice, all of the songs for the film were written by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. The song was meant to portray the lead character of the film’s journey to finding out the truth about her family, with Ahrens explaining, “We knew we wanted to write a number… that would allow her to express her nervousness and fear and joy about setting off into the world for the first time.”

Aaliyah
Aaliyah | Jeffrey Mayer/WireImage

Though they were impressed by Callway’s rendition, film executives knew that having popular artists sing tunes from the film over the end credits was a huge marketing success. With Anastasia, they adopted the same model and the head of FOX Music suggested Aaliyah for “Journey to the Past.”

Source: YouTube

“Although she came from a hip-hop background musically, her character, smile, and looks exuded something very, very sweet and gentle, very kind and peaceful,” producer Guy Roche revealed once. He transformed Aaliyah’s version into a pop tune. “Not to mention, the tone of her voice was perfect for the song.”

Aaliyah did not disappoint and they were impressed with Aaliyah’s version of the song. 

Aaliyah’s makes history as the youngest entertainer to perform at the 1998 Oscars

“Journey to the Past” became the film’s signature song. The song was nominated for Best Original Song at the award show’s 90th anniversary during the 1998 Oscars. Aaliyah was invited to perform the song live. 

Source: YouTube

Dressed in a sleek black dress with her signature long tresses and swoop bang, Aaliyah delivered a stunning performance with consistent vocals and poise. She received a standing ovation and critical acclaim. It became her most beloved performance of her career.

“Journey to the Past” lost to Titanic’s “My Heart Will Go On,” which was performed by Celine Dion. Despite the loss, Aaliyah’s performance was a win. The 1998 Oscars became the highest-rated Oscars ever. Her performance was viewed live by over 100 million viewers. 

Source: YouTube

A then 19-year-old Aaliyah made history as the youngest entertainer to ever perform on the Oscar stage. An article on Medium also noted that Aaliyah’s performance was a standout and critical moment throughout the show’s history as R&B singers were typically not invited to perform at the Oscars.

Prior to Aaliyah, Vanessa Williams performed “Colors of the Wind” from Pochahontas at the 1996 Oscars. Aaliyah broke down barriers as she had more urban appeal.