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2002 Was 20 Years Ago. Here's What We Loved Back Then.

Kelly Rowland texting some guy via Excel? We didn’t know how good we had it back then.

Posted on January 31, 2022, at 1:23 p.m. ET

What do you remember about 2002? Kelly Clarkson winning the first-ever season of American Idol? The start of The Osbournes, a shambolic yet surprisingly intimate show that gave us the model for the Kardashians? How about the total and complete dominance of Eminem’s fourth album, The Eminem Show?

There’s a good chance you don’t remember just one of those things but many of them. That’s because in 2002, we still shared many of the same cultural reference points and consumed the same news, more or less. Many of the celebrities and platforms that now saturate the landscape didn’t exist then, and we hadn’t yet hyper-customized our entertainment diets, which have been splintered so completely by personal algorithms.

Twenty years later, it’s easy to be fond of these common touchpoints, for an era when we all knew the same songs and watched the same TV shows. Nostalgia isn’t everything, of course, but when we decided to revisit the pop culture moments of 2002, what we found was joyous chaos — Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated” and Norah Jones’ Come Away With Me? The first Spider-Man and nerd-girl bait A Walk to Remember? Kelly Rowland texting some guy via Excel? We didn’t know how good we had it back then. As a reminder, here’s a retrospective: the 22 most significant pop culture moments of 2002. —Elamin Abdelmahmoud

Warner Bros.

A Walk to Remember

Jan. 25, 2002

Despite being a proudly cynical 16-year-old, I sobbed my way through most of Nicholas Sparks’s 1999 novel, A Walk to Remember. Sparks, a notable asshole, somehow managed to pen the ultimate fantasy of any God Girl (including Muslim God Girls). It goes like this: Bookish, plain, religious girl manages to pull the Hottest Guy in School by being smart, kind, and wholesome. Deep down I wanted nothing more than to marry the handsome, tall, athletic boy without putting on any makeup, then die of cancer before actually consummating the marriage, thus remaining pure and perfect in his mind.

So when the movie, starring Mandy Moore with a bad, mousy hairstyle, came out, I was livid about the casting of a gorgeous girl who crooned about missing boys like candy as this story’s heroine. If you’ve never seen it (congratulations), it’s like the sad, pure version of She’s All That. Shane West plays Landon, a popular high school jock who, as a punishment for nearly killing a friend, is stuck doing the school play. Moore plays his costar, Jamie, a very religious and studious girl who lives a totally different life, as indicated by her overalls. I watched it with my friends who loved romantic comedies but hated my running commentary. I did not shed a single tear, but I did repeatedly yell, “Shane West, take off your shirt,” because I was committed to my whole bit as a surly teenage girl. There was also a palpable lack of chemistry between West and Moore, which made it even more painful to watch.

A Walk to Remember contains a lot of perfectly cringe spots, but my favorite is Moore’s glasses-off moment: On the opening night of the school play, everyone realizes the preacher’s daughter is actually hot when she takes the stage in a shimmering blue gown and sings beautifully.

Even though stories about teens finding unlikely romance were plentiful by 2002, this one stands out because it was saccharine and sad all the way through. It also softened the trope of the uptight goody-goody (think Rachel Leigh Cook in the 1998 movie All I Wanna Do). Here, the religious good girl was just that: a religious good girl who was a bit boring but not necessarily any more judgmental than her peers.

A Walk to Remember laid the groundwork for another beloved Nicholas Sparks sobfest, 2004’s The Notebook (which is also corny and terrible but at least there’s a lot of chemistry between Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams). It feels a little hard to imagine such a heavy teen movie being made today — but if Hollywood remakes this, as Moore herself hopes, I hope it comes in the form of a horror movie starring Addison Rae. —Sara Yasin

J to tha L-O! The Remixes by Jennifer Lopez

Feb. 5, 2002

Is writing about a remix album just an excuse to expound on the power of the global multimedia conglomerate known as J.Lo? Maybe. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt that nothing captures the ambition and chutzpah behind Lopez’s early aughts dominance as much as J to tha L-O!

It takes a lot of gumption to release a full remix project only two albums into your career. But maybe it’s easy to be that confident when you just became the first entertainer in history to score a No. 1 movie (The Wedding Planner) and album (J.Lo) in the same week (sorry, Streisand).

J.Lo was her emphatic nickname-as-rebrand moment. And after blasting onto the scene with the “Latin music boom,” alongside Ricky and before Shakira, Lopez stayed at the top by steal— um, helping herself to label mate Mariah Carey’s playbook, deconstructing pop R&B album cuts as rap collab singles, like the Ja Rule–featuring hits “I’m Real” and "Ain't It Funny (Murder Remix).” (#Justice4Glitter PSA: “If We,” Mariah’s original Ja Rule collab, is way more charming than either of Lopez’s paint-by-numbers tracks.)

The hip-hop versions became the biggest smashes of her career, after her 1999 breakout “If You Had My Love.” Unsurprisingly, the album also shot to No. 1, becoming the first remix project to do so. Aside from the hits, J to tha L-O! includes dance remixes of “Waiting for Tonight” and less well-known cuts like “No Me Ames,” her duet with future ex-husband Marc Anthony.

She’s since performed a thousand other roles, from nurturing reality show judge to Instagram romance rebooter. But this album is the perfect time capsule, taking us back to a moment when J.Lo was, quite simply, the moment. —Alessa Dominguez

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“A Thousand Miles” by Vanessa Carlton

Feb. 12, 2002

Comparison is the thief of joy and all that, but what did you do when you were 16? Did you write a song that sped into the top five on the Billboard charts, an effervescent debut that reproduced the feeling of walking down the street, the spring air brisk around you? Did you make a music video in which you rode a piano down the middle of a street, emoting like a DIY Disney princess?

We can’t all be Vanessa Carlton. Which is why her 2002 contribution to culture, “A Thousand Miles,” is so precious. Just this year, Carlton admitted she wrote her first hit about having a crush on a Juilliard student who ended up becoming famous (please get in touch with me if you know who this is, for private reasons), but the single’s youthful dreaminess captured a note everyone can relate to: needing to be around someone so badly that you would wear out the treads of your Converse just for a whiff.

With its clear tinkling and winsome second-person address, “A Thousand Miles” earned three Grammy nominations but also a place in the pop music canon. It came to epitomize a kind of high that was undeniably White Chicks–esque but also universal, an indulgence in the very good feeling of infatuation. Rappers still sample it, CVS locations still play it, and you sing along every single time. —Estelle Tang

Youtube

Crossroads

Feb. 15, 2002

Crossroads — the teen film starring Britney Spears, Zoe Saldana, and Taryn Manning — was first released in theaters in February 2002, but I didn’t see it for the first time until months later. My cousin and I rented it at least a dozen times from Blockbuster that summer, rewinding the VHS tape over and over and obsessing over the music, memorizing quotable lines, and laughing at corny scenes we still couldn’t look away from.

Talk about an all-star cast! Our leading ladies — Lucy (Spears), Kit (Saldana), and Mimi (Manning) — play childhood besties who take a road trip out to California with a hot stranger named Ben (Anson Mount). Leading up to the premiere of her first feature film, Spears had already released her albums ...Baby One More Time, Oops!... I Did It Again, and Britney. In 2002, she was at the height of her popularity, and it was a ~big deal~ to watch one of our favorite pop stars on the big screen. Kim Cattrall plays Lucy’s estranged mom and Dan Aykroyd is Lucy’s dad; Justin Long even makes an appearance as Lucy’s shirtless lab partner who almost has sex with her before heading off to college (the two don’t end up doing the deed) and Shonda Rhimes wrote the gem of a screenplay.

It wouldn't be a movie starring one of the era’s hottest pop stars without moments like Lucy dancing around in her underwear on her bed singing Madonna's "Open Your Heart," the three girls singing along to Shania Twain and NSYNC during the road trip (a nod to Spears’ early-aughts boyfriend Justin Timberlake), and a karaoke scene in which the characters dress up for their own rendition of "I Love Rock 'n’ Roll."

While the teenagers in Crossroads were grappling with way more difficult issues than my 12-year-old self could relate to or sometimes even comprehend — severe body image issues, teenage pregnancy, sexual assault, engagements to long-distance boyfriends, absent parents — I was at the very beginning of my preteen angst, so ultimately I connected with these characters’ desires to find themselves.

No, Crossroads wasn’t necessarily critically acclaimed, but it lives on in my youthful memories, having shaped my preteen years. As Lucy wrote in her infamous journal of poems, “What we have is now and right now we have each other.” —Krystie Lee Yandoli

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Rosie O’Donnell comes out

Feb. 25, 2002

Famously, anything can happen at a New York comedy club. And if you happened to be at the legendary Carolines one particular evening in February 2002, you would have seen comedian Rosie O’Donnell come out as gay.

According to the New York Times, it wasn’t part of the routine; she made the revelation as an aside to someone in the audience. (“Big whoop,” remarked another viewer.) But it might not have been as off the cuff as it seemed; O’Donnell and her team had reportedly been planting the seeds for weeks. She made an appearance on Will & Grace as a lesbian character, and news that her forthcoming memoir Find Me contained anecdotes about her relationships with women had already leaked to the press.

A few years earlier, in 1997, Ellen DeGeneres came out on Ellen; at the time, O’Donnell thought it was a risky move. “I just thought this is going to ruin her career and ruin her life," she told People just this year. Perhaps that’s because O’Donnell’s previous attempt to publicly talk about her sexuality had been thwarted: She said that she had told a reporter for Cosmopolitan in 1992 that she was gay, but her publicist called the magazine to have the line excised from the story. “Listen, this was not done out of homophobia,” O’Donnell told Ramin Setoodeh, the author of Ladies Who Punch: The Explosive Inside Story of “The View.” “It was done out of love and protection.”

It was a significant moment that landed with fanfare but little public acrimony. Just three months after that night at Carolines, O’Donnell hosted her last episode of The Rosie O’Donnell Show. Her run had changed daytime TV for good — and her coming-out proved that times had also changed for the better. —Estelle Tang

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Come Away With Me by Norah Jones

Feb. 26, 2002

It’s hard to overstate the sheer dominance of Norah Jones’ music in the early aughts and also the surprising improbability of it. Already the result of an unlikely romantic liaison between renowned Indian composer Ravi Shankar and a New York concert producer named Sue Jones, Norah went, as I wrote a few years ago, from being “an unknown 22-year-old college dropout into the media-dubbed savior of adult contemporary music.” Her debut album, the mellow, jazz-indebted Come Away With Me, went double platinum. She won eight Grammys, including Album of the Year and Record of the Year, the latter for that ubiquitous coffee shop earworm “Don’t Know Why.”

What was it about her music that had millions of Americans in a chokehold? As a former Norah Jones stan, I can only give my own theory. She has a lovely voice, distinct and mellifluous. She was pretty in an understated way while also a stark contrast to the Britneys and Christinas of the world, opting to sit behind a piano as opposed to dancing with a python (not that there’s anything wrong with that). And every so often America likes to anoint a young whitish woman singer-songwriter to improbable and untenable acclaim. Like Fiona Apple before her and Billie Eilish afterward, in 2002, Jones just happened to be that girl. —Tomi Obaro

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The Osbournes

March 5, 2002

As someone who frequently wrote “Ozzy” on her knuckles at the ripe old age of 14, having access into the world of the Osbournes during their weekly reality show, which launched in 2002, was nothing short of thrilling for me. Who could forget Ozzy’s scream — “SHAROOOON” — at the top of each episode? (Honestly, it was probably the only understandable thing to come out of his mouth.) They were, in my mind, the most fascinating family to appear on television at the time. Here was Ozzy, the Prince of Darkness, who had once bitten the head off a bat onstage, napping on the couch, peering around completely confused, and ambling around the house hoping someone would feed him. I don’t know why, but it felt extremely provocative to see the Black Sabbath frontman just being a dad while his wife Sharon tried to keep it all together. Sharon and Ozzy have definitely had their highs and lows (they briefly split after Ozzy had an affair with his hairdresser), but their former Beverly Hills home is still a stop on star tours, forever cementing them as reality show royalty. —Karolina Waclawiak

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Halle Berry wins Best Actress at the Oscars

March 24, 2002

Much has been discussed about this historic moment: Berry’s acceptance speech, which clocked in at more than two minutes (“This is 74 years here; I’ve got to take this time!” she exclaims at one point), her stunning copper Elie Saab dress (still one of the most iconic Oscar looks ever), and the fact that 20 years later Berry remains the only Black woman to win in this category.

Less discussed but still relevant: Monster’s Ball, the film for which she won, is utterly ridiculous. It’s telling that one of the women Berry name-checks as her contemporary in her acceptance speech, Angela Bassett (who should have won an Oscar for her portrayal of Tina Turner in 1993’s What’s Love Got to Do With It, but I digress), famously turned down the role of Leticia Musgrove, a Black woman who falls in love with the white corrections officer who assists in her husband’s execution. (I told you, this movie is absurd!)

And therein lies the problem with the Oscars. It tends to reward mediocrity. Sometimes the Academy gets it right, but more often than not it gets things wrong, and extraordinary actors win for forgettable roles or seminal movies are ignored outright. Are we really supposed to believe that in the 20 years since, no Black woman in a leading role has given an Oscar-worthy performance? But even that question confers more authority than the Oscars deserve. Winning an Oscar means increased visibility, sure, but for the few Black women fortunate enough to have received that limelight, the visibility is fleeting. The biases of the past continue to hinder the future. —Tomi Obaro

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Low-rise jeans

What Norse god did I enrage to have been forced to reach puberty at the same time every hot famous person in Hollywood was wearing jeans that slumped down to their protruding and tantalizing hip bones? Gen Z might wonder why us millennials and Gen X’ers (loath though I am to be in the same company as people who say things like, “I saw the Red Hot Chili Peppers live and they were amazing”) are so resistant to the return of low-rise jeans, but can you blame us? We went through hell trying to find pants that fit and didn’t feel like they were creeping ever so slowly down to our mons pubis. But look, for a time there, the low-rise jean was the peak of fashion — pair it with a thin, useless scarf, a tank top that said, I don’t know, “Queen of the Universe,” and a little visible whale tail, and you were the most popular girl in the sixth grade. I recently visited my parents and found a stash of old teen magazines I once loved, all filled with photos of Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan and those girls from The OC wearing bootcut jeans that showed off their belly button piercings. The same magazines were also filled with tips on how to get abs, shrink your waistline, or winnow down your muffin top. Coincidence? Sounds like something else to discuss in therapy!!!!!!

There are plenty of ways to contextualize the enduring impact of low-rise jeans, but maybe the best way is this: If whatever I’m wearing on the bottom of my body doesn't go all the way up to my chin, I don’t want to wear it. I went to war once before. I’m not doing it again. —Scaachi Koul

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Spider-Man

May 3, 2002

The cultural impact of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, starring the invariably handsome Tobey Maguire as the webslinging superhero Peter Parker, can still be felt today. For a generation of fans, Maguire became the standard by which all other Spider-Men should be judged. (If you saw the latest Spidey movie, No Way Home, the audience likely released a barrage of shouts and cheers when he appeared onscreen.)

It’s hard to believe that just 20 years ago, the film made such a huge debut in its opening weekend, demolishing an all-time record held by Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. “How did this happen? Simple, in retrospect. Spider-Man is a film franchise that appeals to audiences young and old, male and female,” Entertainment Weekly reported in 2002, also noting that the movie, as the first big blockbuster of the summer season that year, had “virtually no competition.” Beyond the film’s broad appeal, its legacy was bolstered by cinematic moments that are emblazoned in the minds of millions to this day, most notably the now-classic upside-down-kissing-in-the-rain scene, which rightfully won the 2003 MTV Movie Award for Best Kiss.

There’s also the ever-enduring line uttered by Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson): “With great power comes great responsibility.” You could argue the phrase has become hackneyed, but it still makes me feel nostalgic and even reverent. Spider-Man was a comic book movie, but it appealed to its audience with gravity and sincerity, as well as the big fight scenes between reluctant heroes and tortured villains. It reminded me how fun a superhero movie could be, but also had real stakes, and it was earnest and genuine while managing not to be cloying. As Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) said, “I believe there’s a hero in all of us that keeps us honest, gives us strength, makes us noble.” —Michael Blackmon

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The Eminem Show by Eminem

May 26, 2002

“Let’s do the math / If I was Black, I would’ve sold half,” Eminem raps on “White America,” the opener to his fourth album, The Eminem Show. It was a strong overestimate from the white-rapper-in-chief at the pinnacle of his career, considering the album went on to become the second-highest-selling of the 21st century. No other rapper appears in the top 20 bestselling albums of the last 22 years.

Eminem was not the best rapper of 2002 — if you ask me, Talib Kweli was — but he was the year’s most omnipresent. After all, just six months after this album dropped, 8 Mile arrived in theaters, borrowing heavily from the rapper’s life.

The Eminem Show, a largely self-produced effort, pulled together elaborate political critiques of George W. Bush and the war on terror with painful and disturbing personal revelations. Inspired by The Truman Show, Eminem delivered potent rebuttals to celebrity culture and censorship while tangling with the consequences of fame. He rapped like his life depended on it, and he delivered the best bars of his career while wrestling with what it means to be put on a pedestal. It all coalesced to present the most intimate image yet of the “My bum is on your lips” guy. —Elamin Abdelmahmoud

HBO

The Wire

June 2, 2002

The Wire never won an Emmy. Come to think of it, it was never a ratings hit, either. But none of those contemporaneous reactions seem to matter much now, because its impact extends well beyond its time. Twenty years after its debut, there’s a near consensus that The Wire is the most important TV show of the modern era.

In theory, the show should not work. Its toggle between institutions — the police, port authorities, the education system, local media — sounds more like the premise of a master’s thesis than a TV series. But the HBO show’s greatest success was revealing the texture and drama of those institutions, showing them to be merciless machines that drained the humanity out of the people who stepped into them. The well-meaning optimists and the most cynical operators still end up in roughly the same place. It may not have been the show we wanted to see in 2002 — this was the heyday of CSI and the police procedural drama — but The Wire opened the door for challenging our relationships to our public institutions. —Elamin Abdelmahmoud

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“Your Body Is a Wonderland” by John Mayer

June 3, 2002

What to say about this absolute dogshit song. It came out in the summer of 2002, and I haven’t known a minute of peace ever since. It didn’t even go to No. 1 on the Billboard chart, but I still feel like it was fed to me intravenously against my will. I hate this song so much. It gives me lockjaw every time I hear it. It sucks. It sucked then and it’s even worse now. I don’t care how many times John Mayer makes stupid sex-guitar faces next to Bob Weir or how many times he apologizes to Jessica Simpson, I will never forgive him for singing about “one pair of candy lips and your bubblegum tongue.” This song is my villain origin story. Do you think I want to be the Joker??? I don’t. —Scaachi Koul

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Let Go by Avril Lavigne

June 4, 2002

Picture this: It’s 2002 and it’s the night before you’re starting eighth grade at a new school. There’s only one song that can soothe your 13-year-old angst: “I’m With You” from Avril Lavigne’s debut album, Let Go.

OK, so maybe, unlike me, you didn’t need to scream “It’s a damn cold night!” into your pillow 5,000 times to get out your emotional turmoil (good 4 u, as Olivia Rodrigo might say), but even if not, Let Go truly had something for everyone. To my newly teenage eyes, Lavigne offered a new and enticing kind of cool. I was and am decidedly NOT an Avril myself (I’ve never gotten down the whole “I don’t give an F” vibe), but in an era dominated by perfect pop princesses, her rebellious attitude was refreshing.

Sure, “Sk8er Boi” is kind of a pick-me anthem, and I never really got the tie thing, but Lavigne was doing something different. It didn’t really matter if you weren’t a self-described tomboy sk8er like her; her willingness to be totally herself was a revelation to many awkward 2000s teens. Even if the most punk I ever got was putting black laces in my pink Converse shoes, Lavigne’s confident embrace of the things that made her feel like herself was a lesson we could all learn from. (Plus, “Complicated” did, and will always, slap.) —Stephanie McNeal

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American Idol

June 11, 2002

When American Idol premiered in June 2002, I remember the feeling of witnessing a television event that I just knew was special.

There was the audition phase, where superstar hopefuls would sing their heart out in front of industry veterans Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul, and Simon Cowell; audiences would watch with glee when someone did incredibly poorly or be stunned when a singer’s voice turned out to be a pleasant surprise. The stakes felt so high when that funky theme song played, because we, the audience, would be choosing the nation’s next singing sensation. Season 1 primed millennials for devastating disappointments, like when fan-favorite Tamyra Gray was eliminated, as well as exhilarating highs, like when Kelly Clarkson nabbed the title of American Idol over Justin Guarini, singing through tears and sporting her memorably aughts curly hairstyle with super-blonde highlights.

Though Idol no longer shines as brightly as it once did, it has never been matched by the multitude of shows that followed in its wake. That first season of American Idol reminds me of a time when a competition show truly was appointment television. Oddly enough, it seems like the country collectively choosing Clarkson to win was the last time we all agreed on, well, anything. —Michael Blackmon

Youtube

“Dilemma” by Nelly feat. Kelly Rowland

June 25, 2002

We can’t talk about 2002 without talking about Nelly and Kelly Rowland’s R&B duet “Dilemma.” Coming out just a year after Destiny’s Child took a break and cementing Rowland’s solo career, the song was part of both Nelly’s Nellyville and Rowland’s Simply Deep. (This was the same year “Hot in Herre” was released, so it’s safe to say it was a very good year for him.)

“Dilemma” came out in June 2002 and went on to win the Grammy for Best Rap/Sung Performance; I feel like it was played everywhere I went. I grew up in the Netherlands in an area that wasn’t very diverse at the time, so hearing a pop song by Black artists on the radio and seeing the video on TV so frequently was a huge deal.

The entire song is amazing, but a special mention has to go to the “oh” sounds in the background. You know: “No matter what I do (oh) / All I think about is you (oh).” They are the most infectious part of the song, and even just hearing them alone you would recognize the track instantly.

In particular, the video has withstood the test of time. It could have been released last week and thrived. Even aside from the fact that Rowland is shown texting on an Excel spreadsheet, it also birthed dozens of memes and several Halloween outfits. The video reached 1 billion views on YouTube last July, after it was uploaded in 2009. From the Band-Aid on Nelly’s face to Rowland’s red hair, the wardrobe and makeup is the perfect Y2K capsule. TikTok kids, take note. —Ikran Dahir

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The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

July 3, 2002

When Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones came out in the summer of 2002, it became one of the biggest literary successes of the aughts. With millions of copies in print by the end of the year, it was a rare debut novel that earned critical praise as well as monster sales. In the novel, 14-year-old Susie Salmon (“like the fish”) tells her story in a manner both sweet and forthright, which only renders the circumstances of her narration even more horrific; she is dead, reflecting from the afterlife after having been raped and murdered. The conceit allowed Sebold to explore the aftershocks of loss among a family and community in an accessible and sensitive way.

In 2021 — almost 20 years after it was published — Sebold’s books reentered the public consciousness, but not because of their success or artistic significance. Sebold made headlines once more when Anthony Broadwater, who had been convicted of raping her, was exonerated after spending 16 years in prison. Her 1999 memoir, Lucky, details the assault and the criminal investigation that followed. After Broadwater was exonerated, the memoir was pulled from shelves and a planned film was scrapped. The Lovely Bones and Lucky, twin works by the same author, were written contemporaneously and deal with similarly devastating themes. They also now share a fate, irrevocably colored by a damning reexamination. Now, Sebold’s personal tragedy seems retrospectively entwined with the persistent biases of racism and the failures of the criminal justice system. —Estelle Tang

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“‘03 Bonnie & Clyde” by Jay-Z and Beyoncé

Oct. 10, 2002

Here’s a short story: Once upon a time, Jay-Z said to Beyoncé, “You ready, B? Let’s go get ‘em.” And they did.

Allegedly, “‘03 Bonnie & Clyde,” the first collaboration between Jay-Z and Beyoncé, came out before they started dating. Allegedly, it was not until a year after its release that Jay mused to Playboy about Bey, “Who wouldn't wish she was their girlfriend? Maybe one day.” Allegedly, when it was just Young and B cruising down the West Side Highway, they did not yet have the plans for their “billion dollars in an elevator” empire.

I say “allegedly” because, having the benefit of knowing where the story goes, it seems inconceivable that there was a time when Jay and Bey weren’t inevitable, that there was ever a question mark about the most successful musical power couple of their generation. This song was the start of Beyoncé’s solo career, and it was already abundantly obvious that she could command the world’s attention whenever she damn pleased. Their love story — its ups and downs, its joys and vulnerable moments — have given us some of the brightest moments in pop music. But when you consider the beginning, it was all right there in the matching mean muggin’. They were never going to be stopped. —Elamin Abdelmahmoud

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Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears break up / Justified by Justin Timberlake

March 2002 / Nov. 5, 2002

I loved Justin Timberlake — like love loved, like “I started writing because I wanted to write dumb stories fantasizing about him falling in love with a Muslim middle-schooler in North Carolina” loved. This applied to any and all boy bands, but Justin Randall Timberlake was my pick for both life partner and most likely to make it as a solo artist. Yet the year his solo career took off was also the year all my love for him began to melt away, and it did have a thing or two to do with his freshly shaved head, the absolute creepiness of the “Cry Me a River” music video, and eventually, his treatment of Janet Jackson after their Super Bowl performance.

When Justin and Britney first got together, I absolutely hated Britney for “stealing” him (although I still saved up my lunch money to buy her first album). I had processed the news of their relationship on the playground at school, bitterly saying that she had far less star power than her ramen-haired boyfriend. A few years — and the best matching denim outfit — later, news of their split broke (along with allegations that Britney had cheated with one of her choreographers) and Justin was framed as the victim, a characterization he has clung to over the years. This was 2002 and not 2022, so most of the vitriol was reserved for Britney, while Justin leveraged the breakup for promoting “Cry Me a River.” In the video, he gets back at a Britney lookalike via an encounter with another woman in her home (and he films the whole thing on a camcorder). By that point, I had become a 16-year-old budding feminist, and watching Justin playing the victim soured my feelings.

But the moment that definitively cracked my love for him came 1 minute and 30 seconds into the “Like I Love You” music video, when Justin, in a fedora and wide-legged black leather pants, attempts to seduce a woman via his dance moves. I was already eager to bury my pubescent crushes, and that outfit encapsulated everything I hated about men’s fashion in the early aughts. It was the final transformation of Justin, a blank slate for all of my adolescent fantasies, into his ultimate, final form: a sentient fedora. —Sara Yasin

MTV

Clone High

Nov. 27, 2002

In 2002, a good show was made, and then television was never good again. That show was Clone High, a single-season, 13-episode animated series that aired on MTV and Teletoon for six glorious months.

I could probably sing you the entire theme song by heart, which explains the plot entirely, but HR told me I have to stop forcing people to listen to my singing. Clone High follows a group of genetic copies of famous people who are entering high school in the early aughts: Abraham Lincoln (hapless protagonist), Cleopatra (vain and hot), Joan of Arc (irritable goth in love with Abe), John F. Kennedy (horny popular asshole), and Gandhi (party animal). Every episode of Clone High was introduced as “a very special episode,” a send-up of issues-based high school programming. In “Litter Kills: Literally,” Juan Ponce de León is killed by litter, literally. In “Raisin the Stakes: A Rock Opera in Three Acts,” a new drug — raisins — takes the school by storm.

I watched Clone High for the first time when I was 11. It opened my eyes to how stupid and gross and horny television could be, while also looking age-appropriate to my parents, who did not understand why I thought it was so funny that JFK was ordering a pah-ty plah-taaaaaah. My niece is on the cusp of 12, and I have begged her dumb, loser father to let me show her the glory of Clone High. “She’s not even going to get any of the jokes,” he told me. But that’s the whole point of a show like Clone High, which lets you appreciate a lowbrow joke until you can appreciate the highbrow version.

Clone High premiered in the US in 2003, but in my native Canada it started in 2002. Americans already get everything (rippable money, whatever Florida is), so we’re counting it. It’s what Gandhi would have wanted. Saaaay whaaaaaaaaaaat! —Scaachi Koul

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Ben Affleck: People’s Sexiest Man Alive

Dec. 2, 2002

Well before the Sad Affleck meme, a fresh-faced and buff Ben Affleck graced the cover of People magazine as 2002’s Sexiest Man Alive. He was already dating Jennifer Lopez (one of the coverlines teased “What his mom thinks of J.Lo”) and had appeared in the iconic “Jenny From the Block” video, ogling a sexy J.Lo who was rolling around atop a yacht. (They had not yet tarnished their image with Gigli.) And while we’re all super excited (aren’t we???) about their recent reunion, perhaps more endearing is the yearslong “feud” the cover honor set off between Affleck and George Clooney. Clooney, a fellow Batman, was named Sexiest Man Alive twice, in 1997 and 2006. What’s the truth? Let’s be real. It’s Ben. —Karolina Waclawiak

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Charmbracelet by Mariah Carey

Dec. 3, 2002

As the resident lamb on the BuzzFeed News culture desk, I’m thrilled that in recent years there’s been a reappraisal of Mariah Carey’s “flops.” Carey was unfairly maligned by the press throughout much of her career; her biggest trainwreck, the Glitter era, may immediately come to mind. The film performed dismally at the box office, and the star was quickly written off after her public breakdown at the time. Say what you want about the film, which was certainly a slog, but the accompanying album is stellar, filled with covers of danceable classics like “Last Night a DJ Saved My Life” and “Didn’t Mean to Turn You On.” It’s a gorgeous homage to old-school disco and R&B, and easily a top-three album in Carey’s illustrious discography.

But I want to talk about another Carey album. Charmbracelet came right after Glitter and before 2005’s The Emancipation of Mimi firmly replanted the singer in her rightful place atop the music charts. Released on Dec. 3, 2002, Carey’s ninth studio album was given short shrift by critics. Rolling Stone called the album “strangely muddy,” adding, “Tempos plod, and hooks are few.” I don’t know what album that reviewer heard, but I’m not sure it was Charmbracelet. How could one characterize songs like “You Had Your Chance,” which samples Leon Haywood’s 1975 hit “I Want'a Do Something Freaky to You,” or the dreamlike and self-referential “Lullaby” as “muddy”?

The album was, at that point, one of Carey’s most personal to date. Because it went largely ignored, a treasure trove of beautiful and catchy songs didn’t get the credit they deserved. I blame the lead single “Through the Rain,” which is a great ballad for hardcore fans but likely alienated casual listeners who may have felt it was just another schmaltzy, run-of-the-mill diva anthem. But it was followed by “Boy (I Need You),” a bop featuring Cam’ron that still knocks today. You’ve likely heard that one many times before, as it’s become a club and kickback staple, but if you’re never checked out Charmbracelet in all its glory, I implore you to do something about it. —Michael Blackmon

Correction: Mandy Moore's gown in A Walk to Remember is blue. A previous version of this post said it was a different color.



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