A week ago, as I was scrolling through VOD options for a movie, I stumbled upon a blip of pop culture I’d all but forgotten about—the 2004 teen comedy about Christian and non-Christian teenagers, Saved! Though neither groundbreaking nor as whip-smart as Mean Girls, Saved! is nonetheless entertaining and offers a positive message of tolerance and self-acceptance. But perhaps the most memorable thing about the film is the primary villain, a self-righteous, bible-thumping bully played by Mandy Moore.
Yeah, Mandy Moore. You remember her, right? Back in the 90s, after the so-called alt-rock boom fizzled out, the music industry pooped out a glut of glossy bubblegum pop artists in the vein of NKOTB and New Edition (though, let’s face it, the pop boom of the 90s was overwhelmingly white). After the pop consumers’ collective appetite had been whet by a panoply of boy bands, a number of white teen-pop divas exploded onto the scene. First, there was Britney. Then, Christina. And tied for third was Jessica Simpson and our friend Mandy Moore. If Britney and Christina were Coke and Pepsi, Jess and Mandy were left to duke it out over who would be Snapple (You remember Snapple, right? Never mind.)
I was in high school at the time and let me be clear. I did NOT listen to teenybopper pop. In fact, I was one of those militant music snobs who looked down on those poor unfortunate souls who weren’t cool enough to know about “good” music. I didn’t listen to teenypopper pop because I was too busy listening to music I thought was dark and meaningful and real, man, and, like, reflected my disaffected life, or whatever. Most of that crap I wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole these days, though I’ll give my teen self props digging The Ramones and Sleater-Kinney and some more-than-respectable underground hip-hop.
I can actually pinpoint the moment I mostly-stopped being such a pretentious ass and realized the significance of the above-mentioned pop divas. As a junior in college, I took an adjunct anthropology course titled “Pop Culture.” At one point, a fellow student explained that she thought Ani DiFranco was better than Britney Spears because, “Britney’s so fake and Ani is real.” Though I still have no idea where this came from, I looked at her and said, “I just don’t think authenticity is your best critique here. It’s more complicated than that.” I sat there for a few seconds, dumbfounded that those words had popped out of my mouth. Did I really think that? Ultimately, I realized I did and the clouds parted and the sky opened up and the gods of pop music dropped a thirteen-year-old Taylor Swift on our heads. Just kidding, of course. There’s absolutely no way I can claim responsibility for T. Swift’s current domination.
That anthropology adjunct taught me that, regardless of whether I actually liked the music of those pop divas, their popularity and media treatment said oodles about the cultural climate of the day. The pop divas, in other words, were a fantastic cultural barometer.
Recalling all this while I sat on my couch and watched Mandy’s Moore shout, “I’m filled with Christ’s love,” in Saved!, I felt so damn bad for her. Because the late-90s and early-00s were a shitty time to be a teenage girl and an even shittier time to be a teenage pop diva.
Many of you might not be old enough to remember, but the early-90s were a pretty great time for women in music and pop culture in general. Riot grrrl happened. Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville went gold and Hole’s Live Through This went platinum. Both Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder publicly declared themselves feminists. Then, as it always does, the inevitable and insidious backlash ensued. New metal happened. The ridiculous shitstorm that was Woodstock ’99 happened. Limp Bizkit, who was at least partially responsible for said shitstorm, released Significant Other and sold roughly a gajillion copies. Eminem, despite recording more than one song about murdering his wife and peppering his rants with the f-word (as in faggot), became a freaking household name. I can tell you that when I started college, “feminist” was a dirty word. Before you declare me the pop culture genius of the decade, you should know that I’m by no means the first person to have observed this phenomenon (read this 2014 article from The Daily Beast or pick up a copy of Rob Sheffield’s Love is a Mix Tape—seriously, you won’t regret it).
Britney, Christina, Jessica, and Mandy were both products and targets of the misogyny of the late-90s and early-00s. Though I hesitate to paint them as victims with zero control over their own images, imagine you’re a sixteen-year-old girl who likes to sing and, before you know it, you’re thrust into the national spotlight as a fantasy projected onto a fantasy. They got so much shit from all sides, much of which had nothing to do with their music and everything to do with their bodies and the way we, as a culture, perceived them. They had to constantly navigate the virgin-whore dichotomy. They had to juggle endless stereotypes and expectations about how they should dress, act, speak, dance, behave, exist. And they had to deal with assholes like Eminem, who thought it would be funny to say Christina gave head to both Carson Daly and Fred Durst and depict her in one of his videos as a blow up doll.
Given that we’re currently living through a glorious feminist renaissance, I hope that shocks you. I also hope it pisses you off that in 2006, Wilmer Valderrama went on Howard Stern like a smirky-faced cad and claimed he’d taken Mandy Moore’s virginity, adding, “The sex with Mandy was good, but it wasn’t like warm apple pie.” Look at me, world. I used to play Fez on That 70’s Show and I have charged the gates and slain the mighty bubblegum dragon. Conquest! He then gave Jennifer Love-Hewitt an eight out of ten on the sex-scale and claimed Jessica’s little sis, Ashlee, was “a screamer.” Just…gross.
I’d like to think that in an era when Beyoncé can stand in front of a giant, glowing FEMINIST, and Girls can become one of the most watched shows on TV, if Wilmer had pulled something so punch-worthy now we would have taken to Twitter to #StandWithMandy and declared the culturally irrelevant artist formerly known as Fez banished from everywhere.
Alas, there was no Twitter back then. A few people probably laughed and said, “Oh, boys will be boys,” and Mandy was left to smile-pretty for the camera and move on with her life. I’m sorry, Mandy. You deserved better. If I had the power to pluck that very young you out of that era and pop her into now, I would do it. We still have a lot of things to figure out in this day and age, but at least that younger version of you and Taylor Swift could go on tour together and shake off all the players and haters and Wilmer Valerramas.
(I feel compelled to note two things here. 1) Beyoncé could also be considered a late-90s pop diva, as she was the frontwoman of Destiny’s Child at the time, though they never got lumped in with the white, solo-artist pop divas. That said, she undoubtedly struggled with similar bullshit plus additional racial stereotyping and emerged a decade and a half later as an empowered and empowering powerhouse. 2) Wilmer Valderrama is apparently dating a modern pop diva, Demi Lovato. Demi, have we learned nothing?)
I’m writing this post not just because I think the pop divas of the late-90s need some acknowledgment for putting up with endless bullshit, but because, now that we’re all basking in the glow of a new and more enlightened era, we have to face a rather hideous fact. Pop culture can turn on a dime and, sooner or later, the backlash is coming. And I’m not talking about a few jerkweeds we can dismiss as fringe misogynists. I’m talking about a widespread paradigm regression that we will have to fight tooth and nail. This Slate article sums up the possibilities nicely.
And when that backlash hits, wouldn’t it be nice to have an icon or two around who came of age during a particularly nasty backlash and lived to tell the tale? I think we’ll need a few matured voices who’ve had the privilege of seeing pop culture at its nastiest. We know Beyoncé will be at the front lines, and Britney and Christina are obvious choices, as is Pink, who threw off the pop diva facade way back in 2001 with Missundaztood. But I’m here to make the case for Mandy Moore. She’s still recording, and her understated 2009 album Amanda Leigh includes a number of thoughtful and well-written tunes that showcase her stage-ready voice (think less sugarcoated pop tunes like “Candy” and “So Real” and more Elton John-influenced, country-tinged, singer-songwriter pop).
In a preemptive strike, I have an assignment for Mandy. Though I don’t consider myself a Taylor Swift psychofan, her tunes are catchy as hell and I think “Style” is a brilliant ode to both her fling with Harry Styles and the lasting endurance of mid-century romantic archetypes. But “Style” doesn’t deconstruct those archetypes. Taylor celebrates them with a Sex and the City shrug and wink, but she doesn’t question, subvert, or dismantle them. I want Mandy to write that song—a mature nod to “Style” that takes the analysis a bit further. And when the backlash hits, I want her to have it ready to fling at the mooks, like an intellectual grenade wrapped in a pop song.