For Black History Month, writer Britt Julious pens a weekly column examining pop culture moments that deepened her understanding of her self and identity.
By 1997, Brandy and Monica—two successful teenage Black girls—each had at least one solo album, commercial success, and rising public profiles. Although the singers utilized different sonic aesthetics (Brandy's music often had more uptempo beats while Monica became known for her R&B ballads), it seemed no two performers of similar marginalized demographics were allowed to shine at the same time. Thus, a media-driven rivalry was born.
I sat in front of the television with my older sister, soaking in the beauty and charm of Brandy’s star turn in Cinderella—but later that year, I used Monica’s "For You I Will" as an audition song for the school choir. Though the media pushed the rivalry narrative, each singer meant the world to me. I couldn't pick sides. I had two bright, beautiful, and talented young Black women to look up to as an aspiring singer and actress, so I chose both. It wasn't greed so much as an act of devotion. I didn't realize how important they were to pop culture as a young girl or comprehend the rare and monumental accomplishment of two teenage Black girls dominating radio, television, and singles chart. But I did feel something special in Brandy and Monica’s ubiquitousness: They were so obviously ours, and so obviously loved.
It was a pleasant surprise to learn about "The Boy Is Mine" in the first place—how could a rivalry be real if the singers chose to work together? Originally written as a solo track by Brandy and Rodney "Darkchild" Jerkins in the fall of 1997, the two decided the song would work better as a duet and were inspired by Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson's "The Girl Is Mine." Brandy asked her label to approach Monica as a gesture of goodwill to combat rumors of a rivalry. With her label's permission, Monica jumped on board and the single was released in the spring of 1998, quickly dominating the airwaves and climbing to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
That success, unfortunately, didn’t translate to love for each other in real life. Although tabloids blew their rivalry out of proportion, years later, the singers admitted there was tension between them. In a 2012 radio interview, Monica said, "We were young. We could barely stay in the room with each other. By no means was it jealousy or envy. She and I are polar opposites, and instead of embracing that, we used our differences as reasons not to be amongst each other."
Still, the way pop culture infiltrates our minds is such that we interpret things the way we want them to be, and not the way they are. And so, Brandy and Monica may have been "polar opposites," but for me, a young Black girl subconsciously yearning for heroines to call my own, I clung to their mutual presence. It didn’t matter what was real or imagined—what mattered was that they existed on a record together, and were made stronger for it. It was a quick, satisfying hit of representation.
What I loved most was the song's music video, directed by the talented and prolific Joseph Kahn. Dark, mysterious, and more visually sophisticated than I anticipated, "The Boy Is Mine" was a quietly radical declaration of female solidarity.
There is something beautiful, too, about the way the music video unfurls: first confusion, then confrontation, and in its final moments, solidarity. Brandy and Monica relax in their apartments, changing the channel to their favorite television programs (an episode of The Jerry Springer Show for Brandy, a black and white movie for Monica), but each girl's remote controls the television of the other. Brandy can't watch her show without disrupting Monica's viewing and vice versa. As symbolism, it proves both women are in this situation (the action of the music video and the content of the song) together, whether they like it or not.
Later, they realize their beau (actor Mekhi Phifer) is two-timing them. As he visits Brandy, she partially opens the door with a smile on her face, only to open the door wider and reveal that Monica is there, too. It's a cute and knowing moment. Why are we fighting over this man? What good has he given us?
Women are pressured to conform to contrasting ideas: We’re supposed to be the "gentler" sex, yet we’re taught to hate ourselves and each other, creating a toxic competitive atmosphere where one woman’s livelihood is a threat to another’s. In this manufactured climate of scarcity, Black women are left battling for more because we were never given our proper share in the first place. In "The Boy Is Mine," I learned a valuable lesson about what it means to be a friend and what it means to find comfort in the friendship of other women—even women I did not know or possibly saw as my competition. Now, I know that the most significant solidarity is that between women who want each other to succeed.
I didn't always take this lesson with me as I got older. I might have known better, but I also wrestled with anger, jealousy, and resentment of others. Reflecting on the last two or three years of my life—the troubles, strife, depressive episodes, fury, and passion—it was those female friendships that pulled me from my lowest depths. That’s what "The Boy Is Mine" meant to me—still means to me, nearly 20 years after the song first made an indelible impact on my life as a young woman.