A few weeks ago, I rewatched the 2001 film Josie and the Pussycats, which I loved so fervently when it first came out that I paid a boy in my sixth-grade class $6 to burn the soundtrack onto a CD for me. (I consider that act my first crime.) Critics and other theatergoers didn’t like Josie half as much, though, and the movie bombed at the box office. These critics and theatergoers were wrong. Josie and the Pussycats is a masterpiece.
For one thing, this movie is funny as hell, has a cast that includes Alan Cumming and Parker Posey, and features a pop track called “Backdoor Lover” that contains the lyrics: “Runnin’ my hands across your cheeks/They’re oh so smooth and white/So leave the light on baby/And unlock your back door.” (The song is a banger.) Not to mention the fact that Kay Hanley from Letters to Cleo (this one) provided the singing voice for Rachael Leigh Cook’s Josie, hence my youthful desire to have someone rip the soundtrack off Napster for me pretty much the moment I left the theater. But there’s also something delightfully nostalgic about it, especially as we hurtle toward the end of yet another 21st century decade, and in retrospect, the whole thing feels like a time capsule.
If you haven’t seen Josie and the Pussycats or need a refresher, the film stars Cook, Tara Reid, and a very young Rosario Dawson as the Pussycats, a killer rock band struggling to get noticed in the pre-Jingle Jangle town of Riverdale. After ’NSYNC-esque boy band DuJour (Seth Green, Donald Faison, Breckin Meyer, Alexander Martin) goes missing in an untimely plane crash, the Pussycats are “discovered” by music executive Cumming and very suddenly skyrocket to pop stardom, but it turns out it’s all part of an industry-wide conspiracy in which Cumming and fellow exec Posey are hiding subliminal messaging in music to control what teenagers buy. Mr. Moviephone does the subliminal messaging voice! It’s all very 2000s.
All the focus on consumerism means the film’s peppered with images of shopping bags, Coke cans, Target targets, and Starbucks mermaids. The excess is purposeful, but some reviews noted the onslaught of brand images were still annoying in 2001, satirical or not. Nearly two decades later, though, it’s kind of fun to revisit the once-ubiquitous Steve Madden shopping bags, even if it mostly reminds me of fighting with my mom over a pair of overpriced platform boots. In my middle school memories, these brands were coveted and inescapable, whether or not Mr. Moviephone hid messages urging me to purchase them somewhere in my copy of No Strings Attached.
Look at the brands! The fashion! Low riders! Diesel jeans! Tower Records! Boy bands! Remember CDs?! ’Memba? ’Memba?
Josie and the Pussycats was meant to be a sendup of early aughts consumer culture, a Dawn of the Dead-type rebuke on trends and marketing, much like how George A. Romero’s original film was a rebuke on mega malls and shopping. In 2019, though, Josie and the Pussycats feels more like a celebration of a bygone era, or at the very least a reminder of a pre-recession, pre-iTunes and Spotify, pre-buying-movie-tickets-on-the-internet-so-you-don’t-have-to-listen-to-Mr.-Moviephone era in which everybody blew their babysitting money at the mall.
Now the malls are dying. Tower Records is gone. Steve Madden has both gone to jail and gotten out of it. The Starbucks guy nearly ran for president. Rosario Dawson’s dating a guy who’s running for president. TRL, which had a pivotal scene in the film, has been canceled and uncanceled, then canceled and uncanceled again. The last two decades have been wild.
As much as things change, they also stay the same, which is where Josie and the Pussycats’s genius and enduring quality lies. The same week I rewatched the movie, every clothing company I’d ever bought something from or even vaguely thought about emailed me about a Black Friday sale. Everlane offered me a deal on the same $100 sweater in 12 different colors. Sephora wanted me to spend $75 to save $20. Reformation, a company I had previously never purchased anything from, emailed me so many times I dropped a bunch of money on a sexy off-the-shoulder shirt just to shut them up.
Subliminal messaging is everywhere, perhaps even more so in 2019, when ads blink at you next to every article you read online and emails about Your Perfect Weekend Jean making your phone buzz. Bureau of Labor Statistics show Americans do spend less on clothing and other consumer items than they did pre-recession, and there’s been a real cultural emphasis on buying and owning less, with the rise of slow fashion and de-cluttering fads like KonMari.
But brands still get teens (and me) to buy shit, and they can still convince teens (and me) that Heathered Java is the new Dusty Rose. Josie and the Pussycats’s anti-consumer, but also consumer-celebratory, message endures.
Also, Alan M? Still hot.