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The Joy of Pepsi

What Does Britney Spears tell us about our pre-9/11 nostalgia?

By Ryder B. Kessler

I’ve been watching a lot of Britney Spears recently. I find myself in my room in the afternoons or late at night and returning to Britney. But I’m not watching “Britney Spears Stoned” on YouTube or exposés about her latest psychiatric evaluations and custody battles on TMZ.

Instead, I’ve found myself watching her 2002 Pepsi commercial. It’s the one that ran during the Super Bowl: Britney appears between Pepsi delivery trucks, face hidden by a cap that she promptly tears off and flings aside as her dance crew appears for a tightly choreographed number. She sings “bah bah bah bah bah, bah bah bah bah bah…the Joy of Pepsi, yeah!”

And I’m not the only one watching: the video has gotten almost four million hits (another, with Britney, Beyoncé, and Pink singing “We Will Rock You” has gotten more than 12 million). What are we looking for? Why do we, in 2008, keep coming back to this pristine but painful image of an all-too-changed icon?

A People magazine article about Britney’s Super Bowl commercial was quick to point out that “the commercial was created before Sept. 11, yet conveys a subdued mood that seems appropriate for the temper of the times. Several other commercials, especially those with a satiric bent, were scrapped in the wake of the attack on America... the Spears spot has already clicked with test audiences and ties in with the current wave of nostalgia.”

My melancholy makes sense when thinking of the perfectly fit, perfectly coiffed, smiling twenty-year-old Britney from the Pepsi commercial as an expression of nostalgia. Every generation experiences its nostalgia through popular culture: It is the shared text of every time, especially since we feel nostalgia for our youths, when we were more cognizant of Saturday morning TV and number one singles than of politics, world events, and “high” culture.

My generation was cognizant of Britney Spears. The video doesn’t make me particularly happy to watch—instead, it brings a subdued smile, a remembrance of that time mixed with a melancholy at its having passed.

And boy has it passed. The Atlantic Monthly, which features Britney on its cover this month, asks that question in their article “Shooting Britney,” which attempts to break down our national obsession with celebrity gossip. It traces the “evolution of Hollywood paparazzi from a marginal nuisance to one of the most powerful and lucrative forces driving the American news-gathering industry... to March 2002, when a women’s magazine editor named Bonnie Fuller took over a Wenner Media property called Us Weekly.”

Concomitant with the wave of nostalgia that followed Sept. 11, 2001 was a wave of escapism, manifest in the celebrity culture of Bonnie Fuller’s weekly feature, “Stars—They’re Just like US!” showing Ben Affleck pumping gas and Kate Hudson at supermarket. Within a month of Britney’s Super Bowl commercial, the seeds were sown for our collective consumption of her downward spiral. “The genius of Bonnie Fuller’s new approach was that almost any picture of a celebrity doing something ordinary would do,” the article says. Goodbye privacy, goodbye solipsism.

On 9/11, my generation lost its sense of solipsism and security and realized that it was a part of a broad and sometimes frightening world. The videos of Britney’s commercials are potent links to a longed-for past, while our current consumption of each new pointless piece on Britney, Kevin, and Adnan Ghalib helps us escape the fear of today.

We feel ownership of Britney, and her story tracks our own from pre-teens to twenty-somethings. Britney in her Pepsi commercials—brightly smiling, happy, and safe—was where we were then; where she is now—overwhelmed, unsure of her privacy or her place in the world—is where we all are, as a generation and as a country.

One of the commenters on the video this month captured my sentiments towards the video: “Geez she was like my idol at this point, (when I was like 13). Saaad.....her downfall made my childhood shatter. lol.” What is particular to our generation is that we are constantly surrounded by the images and culture from both sides of this shattered childhood. We live a double-consciousness, where on the same browser page we can watch our innocent pasts and our broken present, both convenient and ephemeral escapes from the reality beyond the YouTube screen.

So, while we buy up copies of People and Us Weekly, we also return again and again to those images of a flawless Britney winking at us a with can of Pepsi in her hands.

Ryder B. Kessler ’08 is a social studies concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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