Case Study
2001 – The Year Pop Broke
The 2001 film Josie and the Pussycats starts with a plane crash. Boy band Du Jour, having found subliminal messages inserted into their recordings by their label, Mega Records, confront their manager who discards the group by crashing their private jet, parachuting to safety in the suburb of Riverdale. After brainwashing the town’s youth with Du Jour’s final remix, “Slave,” the manager scouts new talent, finding it in Josie & The Pussycats, a pop-punk group with dreams of making it big. Signing the young women sound unseen, the manager flies them to New York where he elevates the group to stardom only to use them as a disposable tool for controlling the minds, tastes, and wallets of a mass teenage audience.

Justin Theroux as Evil DJ, Zoolander, Paramount Pictures, 2001
Two nights after the September 11 attacks, Gavin Brown’s West 15th Street art-bar Passerby re-opened to the public. As a community of downtown gallerists, musicians, and artists reassembled together on Piotr Uklanski’s flashing disco floor, the mood was heavy, almost schizoid. What the hell had happened? How were they supposed to feel?
It was in response to this lingering atmosphere that house DJ Spencer Sweeney put on an unreleased track from Andrew W.K.’s forthcoming Debut LP: “I Love NYC,” a pop-metal track whose heavily layered guitars and vocals summoned the majesty of a symphonic choir. While some bar patrons screamed along to the lyrics “You can’t stop what you can’t end,” others were in tears. Not even released, it was clear that this song could serve as a much needed anthem for whatever lay ahead.
Andrew W.K. was the first of many Post-9/11 Bands: groups born to this new cultural landscape bereft of baggage or backstory from the previous decade. The Strokes’ “Is This It,” was just entering the pop charts when the band (or their label) made the confusing gesture of reissuing the album and removing “New York City Cops” from the tracklist, “out of respect” for the death of police and firemen in the towers. Fischerspooner’s debut record was also received as uncannily timely, its opening song “Sweetness” commencing with the sound of a jet launch, drowned out by electroclash beats and the chilling lyrics “Violence paints the sky… Was a fearsome joy of shooting blazing bursting…” But what exactly was new or even different about these acts emerging from the dust of the twin towers? Why did they seems so alien? And what was it that made their sound suddenly feel so necessary?
If the guiding coordinates of ‘90s indie rock had been social realism, self-sufficiency, and a reactionary stance to the plasticity of the ‘80s, it was clear Post-Nirvana that these lo-fi aesthetics could just as easily be co-opted by the corporate interests they stood against. In response, a new counter pose began to form among a self-aware generation: as sincerity gave way to strategy and production, a backlash felt in the form of ’80s-style dance nights and a rising influence of disco. Despite these transitions of style and attitude, this dialog was largely insular amongst localized DIY communities until the 2000s.
The 2000 release of “The Teaches of Peaches” came as a loud announcement the ‘90s were over. Blasting deadpan hypersexual lyrics over bass-heavy beats Peaches music seemed designed for the kind of corporate co-option that the underground had forever dreaded: perfect for house parties, movie soundtracks, and advertisements alike. “The Teaches of Peaches” was in-your-face Pop for, at least initially, an indie scaled audience, the album cover boasting a close up of a crotch in pink gogo shorts, directly aping Warhol’s “Sticky Fingers” album art for the Rolling Stones.
This point-blank sensationalism was also seen in the album covers of New York bands Fischerspooner and Andrew W.K., both shot by Roe Ethridge, whose iconic images inspired by stock photography and advertising were already gaining traction in the art market. Ethridge’s large format portraits of Casey Spooner’s caviar-soaked tongue and Andrew W.K.’s bloodied nose both invoked the cocaine fuelled decadence of the decade, while bluffing industry support in the form of high production value. Fischerspooner even publically celebrated its massive budget, broadcasting that its “personnel” included gallerist Jeffrey Deitch and designer Jeremy Scott, applying a corporate model to the art collective. The system proved itself to work, and while their debut album, aptly titled “#1” didn’t topple charts, it’s main single “Emerge” was a hit favorite in the nightclubs and fashion runways alike, it’s refrain of “hyper-medi-ocrity….” becoming all but a veritable anthem to cultural industry complicity.
Likewise, The Strokes, despite having zero credibility in the downtown community out of which they ostensibly came, arrived with “enough publicity in 2001 to make bin Laden jealous,” as described by Pitchfork only a month after 9/11. The controversy wasn’t over new ideas that they were bringing to the table, but that their sound was openly derivative, leaving eager critics too eager to free-associate then-obscurities like Television, The Velvet Underground, and Wire, as evidence of The Strokes’ mastery of pastiche.
Pre-Napster, musical knowledge had been an analog art, and The Strokes’ decision to cherry pick the best sounds of the past while foregoing scene approval was indicative of how musicians would increasingly relate to the notion of genres in the decade to come. The release of the iPod in October 2001 sealed this fate, as the history of music was suddenly compressed and rendered readily available as portable, shareable, immediately reproducible content for anyone with access to the device. While some aesthetes bristled at two-dimensional acts like The Moldy Peaches and Gorillaz, claiming they lacked authenticity, this transition from artist to avatar made sense to a generation born with the Internet as an already active force.
The nationalist narrative that followed the wake of September 11 attacks made it impossible for public discussions not to jump to binaries. Post-9/11 bands responded to this white noise of cultural discourse by not announcing their intelligence as a threat, instead augmenting their music’s decisive lack of transgression with winking self awareness. This approach brought comfort to those coming of age in a world that was becoming increasingly two-dimensional. Having space to read between the lines was essential to cope with a culture that was avoiding nuance and context.
Despite their popularity, however, no band that released hit albums in 2001 was able to make a follow-up release that matched in intensity or effect of their debut. These were the last new bands until music reinvented itself on the Internet. Their careers could be used as a barometer for the rise of piracy and devaluation of original content, as they dwindled in sync with the music industry that eventually came to a crash. They had hit their target, with pitch perfect precision, but it had been a suicide mission from the start.

In the film’s climax, Josie and The Pussycats defeat Mega Records executives and destroy the machine that put subliminal messages in their songs. Standing on stage in front of a now silent stadium, Josie prefaces her “new song” with a message to her newly liberated audience of an ideology that has felt lost for the entirety of the film: “It’s cool if you like it, and okay if you don’t. Just decide for yourselves.”
Asher Penn is a creative director and producer based in Los Angeles. Blog
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