One of my favourite pop-punk bands is a fictional group hardly any one remembers. They dressed like they’d been dragged arse backwards through Tammy Girl, they sounded like a cross between early No Doubt and peak Blink-182, and they told me I could be my own “punk rock prom queen” long before Something Corporate came along and said I could be someone else's “Punk Rock Princess”. Let me tell you, dear readers, about Josie and the Pussycats.
The band first originated as a comic book series in the 60s. They then took centre stage in an animated television series in the 70s made by the company behind Scooby Doo, where musical instruments replaced villainous wax phantoms. However, the trio didn’t enter my life until 2001, the year Josie and the Pussycats was released as a feature length film starring Rachael Leigh Cook, Tara Reid and Rosario Dawson as “The Pussycats”. Gone was the traditional rock n’ roll jukebox vibe the comic established, along with the leopard-print leotards the television series popularised. Instead, the group arrived in shiny animal print halter tops, supernaturally low rise jeans, and power chords that both destroyed and immortalised their career as one of the greatest pop-punk bands to walk the earth.
To say the film was a commercial flop would be an understatement. It grossed $24 million less than its production budget, and critics dismissed the concept as “witless” and the music as “brainless pre-teen fodder”. This, however, should be taken with the grain of salt, in the sense that any entertainment centred on or made for teenage girls is often dismissed as insubstantial or cheap.
The problem for this film was that it arrived both too late and too soon; missing the tail-end of the 90s feminist indie band wave, but arriving just before Avril Lavigne came along and held things down for kids who made their way to women’s rights via vests that had “WILD CHILD” splayed across the front in diamantes. Looking back on Josie and the Pussycats as someone who has lived through being a teenage girl and is now what society deems to be a grown up, I see it as a work of high art.
The film follows Josie, Melody and Valerie – a suburban band called “The Pussycats”, who are struggling along; performing at bowling alleys to disinterested punters for $20 (minus $15 shoe rental). Eventually, they catch a break only to discover that the major label they signed with is actually a massive government conspiracy to exploit the crap out of teenagers. The label executives, it seems, are controlling teens across America by using pop songs as vehicles for subliminal messages telling them that orange is the new pink and they need to go to Foot Locker immediately. The end goal is to build a robust economy from the “wads of cash” teens earn from babysitting and minimum wage jobs. A self-aware meditation on fame, fortune and fandom, Josie and the Pussycats transcends the sum of its parts to satirise late 90s/early 00s consumer culture whilst operating entirely within the same vacuum – kind of like the music industry’s answer to Scream.
Before the opening credits even roll there is a seven minute prologue about the life and times of another fictional boyband, called DuJour (Seth Green, Breckin Meyer, Donald Faison, and some other dude) who are the government conspiracy label’s biggest export. In an opening montage that’s reminiscent of A.J. McLean and Howie D swanning around in the Backstreet Boys’ video for “I Want It That Way”, DuJour descend from their private jet to greet their screaming fans – most of whom are female, except for one boy whose sexuality is immediately brought into question. They then perform their single “Backdoor Lover”, which is presumably named as a response to the then-current trend of giving pop songs double entendre titles that led to 11-year-olds unwittingly singing about jizz. Barely a minute and a half into the film, and it has already pointed fingers at the weird 90s phenomenon of pop stars singing about sex while also pretending to be virgins, the concept that pop music is exclusively for the girls and the gays, and the Backstreet Boys at large.
From here, it starts to explore the three-headed-hydra that is consumer culture, corporate greed and advertising. Sure, there may be so much product placement in this film that you could play a drinking game where you take a shot every time you spot a brand name and get alcohol poisoning in the first ten minutes, but that’s also the point: there is too much product placement. A ridiculous, obscene amount of product placement. So much product placement that, rather than serving as a genuine form of advertising, it mostly serves to highlight how gross sponsorship can be – even more than that scene in Britney Spears’ “Work Bitch” where someone in a BDSM club is gagged with a Beats Pill. The bowling alley The Pussycats play in at the beginning has Coca-Cola spraypainted in 20ft lettering on the side. DuJour’s tiny plane is sponsored by Target. At one point, Tara Reid gets out of a shower tiled with McDonald’s M’s.
Aside from the obvious and at times exhausting references to financial gluttony though, the most important lessons to be learned from the film – at least, if you’re a teenage girl – are through Josie, Melody and Valerie. The Pussycats are discovered after DuJour mysteriously disappear in a plane crash and their manager (Alan Cumming) almost mows them down in his car, which is of course plastered with Ray-ban stickers, while trawling a deadbeat town for a new act to exploit. Before even listening to a millisecond of their music, he flies the girls to New York for sexy makeovers, renames them “Josie and the Pussycats” – because how are people supposed to pit women against each other if they don’t know who the main one is – and plasters them up on a giant billboard in Times Square. At this point the message is a pretty transparent one about major labels not giving a hot turd about who they sign as long as they are good looking and easily monetised. At this level of reading, it’s basically Zoolander but with bands. But it is also so much more than Zoolander with bands.
For starters, and most crucially, the music bangs. “Three Small Words” is the alt version of Shania Twain’s “That Don’t Impress Me Much” as far as self-confidence is concerned, “Pretend to be Nice” flips pop-punk’s mean ex-girlfriend trope on its head, “Spin Around” has a choice cut of “na na na’s” that would make Mark Hoppus dribble, and “I Wish You Well” is the “boy, bye” mantra every shit-on girl needed in those dark, pre-Beyonce days. If you cut out the two DuJour songs, good as they are, the Josie and the Pussycats OST was one of the only pop-punk releases from a band comprised of all women at the time besides The Donnas Turn 21 by The Donnas. Sure, Rachael Leigh Cook, Tara Reid and Rosario Dawson may not have been the ones shredding their fingers bloody on the actual record, but their roles in the film said they could be, and that’s exactly what teenage girls needed to be told. While Blink-182, Sum 41, Good Charlotte and friends played host to the great commercial pop-punk sausage party of 2001, Josie and the Pussycats spoke about the teenage girls experience to teenage girls. They were one of the few who said: hey, you can also smash the drums, in a crochet bralette, no less.
Despite the film itself going down worse than a Rocky Horror screening at Westboro Baptist Church, the soundtrack actually did pretty well. It even was certified gold, thanks very much. You may also recognise Josie’s voice as Kay Hanley of 90s indie darlings Letters to Cleo, who have been in the business of illuminating the credibility of teen movies since they played on the roof at the end of 10 Things I Hate About You.
Speaking of which, Josie and the Pussycats also gives a meditation on millennial teen girls and their tendencies with a level of self-awareness that went unmatched until Mean Girls fucked shit up three years later. At one point, while loading their gear back into their shitty van, The Pussycats are approached by a rival trio of girls we can identify as “the popular ones” on account of the fact they are all dressed the same and one of them is constantly applying lip gloss. They pull up in a life-size version of the Barbie Jeep and make fun of The Pussycats for, like, following their dreams or something. Sound familiar? That’s because this is exactly what high school was like for many girls in 2001. You either liked Sum 41 and wore XL hoodies, or you liked Christina Aguilera and pulled your g-string above your belt. Was it ridiculous? Yes. Did I spend my school days etching “The Offspring” into my pencil tin with a compass only to go home and learn the choreography to “Love Don’t Cost A Thing”? Absolutely. Did it transpire at the school disco that, actually, all the popular kids knew every goddamn word to “Last Resort”? You bet your ass. The point I like to think Josie and the Pussycats is making by way of its sheer ridiculousness is: why choose? Contrary to what corporate advertising would have you believe, you can be the protagonist in Avril Lavigne’s “Sk8r Boi” and “Hello Kitty”. You can play bass and have a bountiful collection of heels. Things don’t have to play out – around a boy – like the video for Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me”.
In the end, Josie and the Pussycats achieve immediate chart success and go along with it for a while before Valerie and Melody notice that all the media attention is on Josie – a narrative that is basically an all-girl version of what happened with No Doubt. The label tries to brainwash Josie into pursuing a solo career while attempting to kill off the other two, because whether it’s Britney versus Christina or the members of Destiny’s Child versus one another, women in the music industry are constantly made to battle each other for space. But, in this case, the industry loses. After destroying the machine used to generate the subliminal capitalist messages, The Pussycats make it on their own. Corporate greed is squashed by the power of female friendship and an authentic passion for pop-punk.
Why did this film sweep so dramatically under the radar? Who knows. The first installments of Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and Shrek also came out in 2001, so there’s that. But Josie and the Pussycats made me pick up an instrument that wasn’t the piano or the oboe or any of those other classical instruments that “nice girls” are supposed to play. Josie and the Pussycats sat in my Walkman for years, on rotation with pop-punks more widely accepted allumni – only they didn’t chastise me for breaking their heart, they didn’t hope I’d get a disease from snogging someone else and then burn to death in a plane crash, or fixate on whether or not I was wearing underwear. They shouted about loving yourself, boys being inadequate, and the importance of having a generally nice time. In essence: thank fuck for Josie and the Pussycats.
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