The Selling of a Myth That Can No Longer Be Bought: The 2001 Britney Spears Pepsi Commercial & Justin Timberlake Reemerging in the Present

With Justin Timberlake set to perform at this year’s fifty-second Super Bowl, the usual unquenchable thoughts of his long ago defunct relationship with Britney Spears have been cropping up with news of her re-teaming with Pepsi for a commercial that pays tribute to her iconic “Joy of Pepsi” and “Now and Then” spots. This happened in 2001, what many call the peak Spears era (though true connoisseurs know that it was 2003 with In the Zone/the VMA kiss seen round the world) and what can now be looked back upon as a final vestige of convincingly selling the American dream, filled with soda-touting pop stars as it once was.

This year’s Super Bowl is, like everything else of late, a politically charged one. In addition to the outcry over Janet Jackson not rightfully joining him onstage after the Nipplegate incident of ’04 (though, to be honest, she’s better off–both then and now), there is the general consensus from many supporters of the #MeToo movement that the disingenuousness of Timberlake “supporting” the cause with his “Time’s Up” pin at the Golden Globes is in direct opposition to starring in a Woody Allen movie and the continued fauxness of said “support” in his video for “Supplies.” That being said, it seems that, after all these years, Britney might be having the last laugh, at least in reference to this much dissected relationship.

Those who were coherent during the scandal of her cheating on Timberlake with none other than fuckboy choreographer Wade Robson will remember the subsequent media shitstorm that painted Spears as the villain and Timberlake as the loving, devoted man wronged. Looking back now, however, Spears might have saved herself the oppressive grief of persisting in a relationship with a man who clearly has no idea how to treat much of anything with respect (did he really need to be told that a Prince hologram would be an imprudent idea as part of his stage show for halftime?).

Spears herself, so long a victim of the juggernaut empire that was being Britney in the 00s, came to represent the ultimate in an “angelic virgin” torn asunder by her own sexuality. It was a sexuality that also tore others apart inside as well, creating the basis for the Pepsi commercial plot of her past being rebooted for this evening’s “festivities.” This time around, however, the boy in charge of the grill doesn’t get so distracted as to let things get to the point of setting the entire diner on fire over being distracted by Spears’ exposed midriff and classic American blonde girl aesthetic. In the original, the ogling employee didn’t care if the whole world burned down so long as he could continue gaping at Spears and her “can.”

To include such a scene now, of course, would be in poor taste when taking into account how awkward many have become about sexualizing women. The two separate commercials each hold some uncomfortable nostalgia. When watched in the present, the “Now and Then” version comes across as blithely naive about its take on Americana. Then again, what else can be expected from the girl who once said, “Honestly, I think we should just trust our president in every decision he makes and should just support that, you know, and be faithful in what happens.”? One of the later foils for Spears, Lana Del Rey, would at least know better than to wield any perception of “America as symbol of freedom and buying useless shit” with anything other than more than a tinge of “wink wink” irony.

In this way, Spears’ reemergence into our lives with this part of her past is grossly at odds with what we know to be true in the current orange-drenched tableau–or, at least, what we really can’t choose to ignore without being a further laughing stock: the optimism of the twentieth century, permitted a brief grace period of bleeding into the twenty-first, was built on a foundation of paper-thin ideals that was always destined to collapse. Pepsi, America and Britney, were once “For those who think young.” In 2018, this trifecta is merely a piece one would find in a time capsule for a once great empire. On the bright side, at least Spears will be third party present at the Super Bowl to remind Timberlake that if the 00s must be dredged up again, she’s not going to let him be the sole symbolic representation of this coda on being able to successfully peddle a fantasy version of U.S. life.

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