Josie and the Pussycats is not a movie that has any right to be prescient. Released in theaters in April of 2001, it features several bits that I’m confident declaring no studio would have signed off on just a few months later, which is to say that its inciting incident is a plane crash orchestrated by a sinister entity striving for total ideological control, and it culminates in an impeccable joke about that same entity collaborating secretly with international governments to encourage teenagers to enlist. Key plot points hinge on a Discman, a Captain & Tennille episode of VH1’s Behind the Music, and Carson Daly being perceived as hot. It would make a killer double feature with The Wolf of Wall Street, if you for some reason felt inspired to host a double feature themed around movies that feature those Steve Madden big-head girl ads. And yet, in spite of the Total Request Live and low-cut bootleg pants of it all, the film captures—and then eviscerates—the bizarre contours of early-2020s culture with more clarity than any piece of contemporary media to date.
Adapted from the comic book series of the same name, the movie’s plot (insofar as there is a plot; it’s more accurate to think about this as the conceptual parameters that structure less than 90 minutes of bits and riffing) is as follows: the Pussycats—a pop-rock band that features amiable vocalist and guitarist Josie (Rachael Leigh Cook); justice-minded bassist Valerie (Rosario Dawson); and drummer Melody (Tara Reid), important representation for those of us who’re (for better or worse) just coasting on vibes at all times—are struggling to make any professional progress in their hometown of Riverdale. Their days of playing for apathetic bowling alley patrons and splitting packets of ramen three ways come to an abrupt end when they’re discovered by MegaRecords executive Wyatt (Alan Cumming), who instantly offers them a record deal and flies them off to New York City. There, they encounter nefarious MegaRecords CEO Fiona (Parker Posey), record their first single, and quickly ascend to fame with all its attendant risks—ego inflation, collaborative conflicts, dull parties with ice sculptures—while gradually coming to realize that they’re industry plants whose tracks are a vehicle for subliminal messaging that brainwashes teenagers into buying more stuff.
The movie’s foresight isn’t in its depiction of the music industry, which feels distinctly ‘90s/‘00s in presenting a few key power players dictating the course of mainstream culture as a whole. (Although, what we see of the Pussycats’ musical output would, I think, be embraced by today’s poptimists for its big Olivia Rodrigo energy. Olivia, if you’re reading this, I have an incredible business proposal for you: cover “3 Small Words”.) Declaring that any popular woman artist is an industry plant seems to be a fun Twitter hobby for some, and those initial hot takes that the digital music economy would lead to a more interesting musical landscape and disrupt traditional industry power structures have proven grossly overstated. But, in spite of what some viral Twitter threads suggest, I don’t know that the music industry in its current state is focused or influential enough to pull off a conspiracy with a grander scale than that of streaming platforms effectively committing wage theft against artists. It feels like labels and producers are largely taking direction from the culture, seizing upon anything they believe echoes what the kids already think is cool rather than defining cool itself.
And, of course, what the kids think is cool is defined by the sprawling, fragmented ecosystem of Online—and how that ecosystem structures cultural and material consumption feels as insidious, surreal, and inescapable as everything that emerges from the MegaRecords basement in Josie and the Pussycats. A movie that features landline phones shouldn’t manage to capture the sensation of living with modern technology so adeptly, but by projecting its story onto a backdrop of an endless barrage of advertisements delivering non-stop pressure to consume the newest, latest, most on-trend things, it echoes current pressures to divide our attention between a small screen that features an endless, often monetized social media scroll, and bigger screens on which we struggle to keep up with a bottomless well of streaming content. There’s always a new trend for MegaRecords to coerce the Pussycats’ teenage fans to follow by leveraging their desire to fit in with their peers; there’s always a new Instagram-advertised product or TikTok meme or streaming binge or Twitter main character for us to consume so that we can both assert our senses of self and have something to talk about with other people.
At age 32, I like to think that I’ve opted out, accepted that my washed brain can’t keep up with any of this and doesn’t find any pleasure in trying. I manage my device settings with an obsessive focus on remaining a mystery to the algorithms, deactivating all voice features and most push alerts, and marking every paid advertisement that appears in every social media feed as irrelevant to my interests. I let TikToks come to me through trusted group chats rather than seeking them out myself. A good day is one where—whether by conscious choice or by virtue of having too many other demands on my attention—I succeed in treating my iPhone as a machine that only lets me text my friends, call my grandmother, and continue to whittle down my New York Times Crossword times.
But most days aren’t that good. I catch myself watching Zara try-on hauls while idly scrolling Instagram and struggling to resist the temptation to buy miniskirts I have no occasion to wear now that I live in the Upper Midwest and work from home every day. My discipline usually wins out, leading me to scratch the shipping-tracking itch by buying only things I’ll actually use, but that self-control has nonetheless led me to become the owner of multiple SKIMS underwear sets. I regularly contemplate spending my precious free time watching things that don’t appeal to me in the slightest just because I have no idea what the fuck anyone on Twitter is talking about, and I only recently stopped feeling guilty not watching subsequent installments of streaming series and movie franchises whose initial entries I forgot immediately after watching.
Which brings us, I’m sorry to say, back to the comic book movie of it all. I know! I’m not happy about it either! But, while it predates the Marvel Industrial Complex, Josie and the Pussycats is technically a comic book movie—and its spooky prescience on the subject isn’t limited to depicting a system of relentless, overlapping pressures to consume content and products, or even the self-referential, wink-nudge comic sensibility that some contemporary superhero media tries to replicate with varying levels of success. After the climactic unmasking of MegaRecords’ nefarious plot, a nondescript, suit-wearing government representative tells a betrayed Fiona and Wyatt that someone has to take the fall for everyone’s wide-reaching crimes—and they’ve discovered that movies are a better vehicle for brainwashing the public anyway. The frame freezes, and the screen is overtaken by text declaring, “Josie and the Pussycats is The Best Movie Ever”—and then, in smaller red text just below that: “JOIN THE ARMY.” Weeks of Scorsese quote-inspired Film Twitter discourse couldn’t generate a take so concise, vicious, and spot-on, yet here it is, literally spelled out onscreen, seven years before Iron Man made the general public familiar with noted war criminal Tony Stark.