A love letter to a trashier — and more innocent — age.
Few of us who were there for the early aughts look back on them with any kind of fondness. (Remember the second Bush administration? How about UGGs?). But for Matt James, the 19-year-old proprietor of popculturediedin2009, “fondness” is a bit of an understatement. After four years fastidiously archiving the tabloid moments that made the early 2000s unique — from Paris Hilton’s memorable exit from jail to Donald Trump’s protracted war with Rosie O’Donnell — James has built a cultish lifestyle brand with nearly a quarter of a million devotees across Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram.
James recalls, with impressive clarity, some of the decade’s most iconic moments — despite the fact that he was in elementary school when they happened.
“I distinctly remember watching a countdown of outrageous celebrity moments on VH1 and seeing that clip of Michael Jackson dangling a baby over the balcony,” he says. “It just blew my mind. I just thought, oh my God, what is wrong with him? It was so shocking.”
Now James has turned his nostalgic obsession with the 2000s into a new art exhibit, showing at the Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan 1994 Museum in Brooklyn (yes, that’s a real place) through Aug. 11. Titled “Nicole Richie’s Memorial Day BBQ,” the exhibit imagines the Memorial Day BBQ that Nicole Richie had planned in 2007 — the invite for which was leaked to the press, memorably prohibiting the attendance of “girls over 100 pounds.” (Richie insisted it was a joke intended only for friends.)
James’ invitation to the exhibit, which features artworks by Laura Collins (“Lindsay Lohan Posing in a Bikini and Ankle Monitor", acrylic on panel), Derek Covington Smith (“Community Service”: three portraits of Naomi Campbell showing up to do community service in couture — most notably a Commes Des Garcons gown), and PopAesthete (“Dear Justin,” a lenticular print depicting Janet Jackson in her “wardrobe malfunction” moment, raising two middle fingers in the air), reads:
“We all remember the leak of Nicole Richie’s e-mail invitation to the BBQ, but what we don’t know is who was CC’d. The exhibit asks you to do one thing: imagine if everyone was. Tyra Banks, Britney Spears, Mischa Barton, Lindsay Lohan, Janet Jackson, NOT JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE, Paris Hilton’s Valtrex prescription bottle. All of the most fabulous people from the era.”
A Golden Era of Tabloid Culture
The content on popculturediedin2009 is largely composed of tabloid clippings and entertainment news videos on YouTube of these celebrities, who embodied a renegade celebrity culture at the time — wild and suddenly unhindered by the institutional mechanisms of the Hollywood PR machine. Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Nicole Richie, and Tara Reid all came into the public eye right on the cusp of Web 2.0 and realized they no longer needed prestige media — like, say, Vogue magazine or even People, which often worked hand-in-hand with PR reps to craft glossy gossip narratives — to spin infamy into international stardom.
[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]There was this Girls Gone Wild culture everywhere.[/quote]
“Gossip sites were just starting up halfway into the decade,” says James. “TMZ and Perez Hilton weren't around until 2004, 2005. Paparazzi ... didn't become what it was until tabloids became weeklies. All these gossip sites had huge demand for pictures. So it was a perfect storm.”
James launched his blog in September 2013 to celebrate the kind of heady recklessness that characterized tabloid and celebrity culture popular a decade earlier. Like a lot of kids who grew up in the suburbs before social media, he watched entertainment news with wide-eyed fascination, enthralled by the messy dramas playing out on magazine covers and blogs.
“I really didn't have any friends,” he says. “I was just watching all these celebrities. That was my exposure to what was out there, and it was a very, very twisted version of it.”
Intertwined as they were with the rise of social media, the era’s events have permeated popular culture and cemented themselves as canon in internet lore. Images of Tyra Banks’s 2005 “We were all rooting for you” moment — in which she screams at contestant Tiffany Richardson during her send-off on “America’s Next Top Model” — remains one of the most popular GIFs online, while Banks’ speech remains one of the most memed. (For “Nicole Richie’s Memorial Day BBQ,” artist Valerie Petrov captured the moment in aluminum print.)
Then there are the drunken, drugged-out escapades of the It Girls at the time — Lindsay, Britney, and Paris — rendered iconic by the flash of paparazzi cameras in the print "Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears and Paris Hilton in a Car" by Laura Collins.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Donald Trump’s the president. That's not different than Paris Hilton. You have two real estate hotel heirs that turned to reality TV to build a name for themselves.[/quote]
According to James, these scandals provided a reprieve from the tragedies of American politics in the 2000s: 9/11, the Iraq War, the federal failures of the Hurricane Katrina response, the financial crisis. Pop culture became a foil for the buttoned-up bureaucratic misconduct that was happening in the White House. But even the first family couldn’t escape the glossy pages of supermarket checkout rags. “There was this Girls Gone Wild culture everywhere,” says James. “I mean, you had the Bush twins being filmed drunk and getting into all these scandals.”
If there ever was a division between pop culture and politics, it doesn’t exist anymore — at least not under the current administration. “If you told me, growing up, the 'You're fired!' guy from TV would be the president, I would never believe you. But that's the reality now.”
The same magazines that once peddled headlines about Mischa Barton’s clubbing misadventures now bear stories about Trump’s political bungling. Here’s our first tabloid president.
“That's why it's definitely interesting when a lot of celebrities 'stay out' of politics,” says James. “I mean, come on. Donald Trump's the president. That's not different than Paris Hilton. You have two real estate hotel heirs that turned to reality TV to build a name for themselves.”
A Reality-Show President
Pop culture died in 2009, says James, because of social media. “That's the year I associate with Twitter and Facebook [becoming] close to what they are today,” he says. “I really think social media took the excitement out of celebrity culture.” Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram gave celebrities direct lines of communication to their fans. They no longer had to plant stories in the press or arrange run-ins with the paparazzi to get their photos in the magazines. “We don't need to wait for the gossip sites,” says James. “They just tell us right away.”
The Kardashians all have personal phone apps and websites that allow their fans day-to-day access to their lives. We know what kind of foods they eat, what kind of drinks they drink, what kind of makeup they put on their faces. We no longer need to scrounge for blind items in a weekly magazine for intel on our favorite celebrities.
This also means their images are more carefully curated; even when embroiled in scandal, the collective public memory is quick to forget. “A story that would last weeks back in 2007 will last 10 minutes now because of Twitter,” says James. “It gets old really fast. There was a lot of excitement taken out of it.” The Rob Kardashian and Blac Chyna falling-out — which took place primarily on Instagram and Twitter — only held the public’s attention for a couple of hours before it was buried by a Trump story.
Social media and the internet have accelerated nostalgia, as well. Things that happened five years ago feel decades old. (Or maybe we just yearn for a time when the kind of thing that would get Ivanka’s name in the press was not about whether she was qualified to take her father’s seat on G20 talks but about whether ex-boyfriend Topher Grace approved of her alleged boob job.)