Why the summer of 2003 was a shining moment in pop culture history

My fellow millennials, you can’t imagine how much it pains me to write this: We’ve peaked.

Worse still, it happened some time ago. Fifteen years ago, as most members of our now-much-maligned generation traversed their teens, the summer of 2003 presented us at our best — before we were accused of ruining anything (or everything), before we all became cynical tweeters or avocado-eating hipsters, political abstainers or flawed, exclusionary activists.

Our lives were full of hope. Our music was full of sparkle. Our closets were full of low-slung jeans and teeny-tiny printed purses. But that fateful summer was more than just a random assortment of bubblegummy early-aughts pop culture bonbons; the entertainment that characterized the season also marked a turning point in our own evolution, a landmark in our complicated cultural legacy. It was a grand millennial coming-of-age, and we hardly even saw it happening.

So as the summer of 2018 — our summer of Harry and Meghan and another Mamma Mia movie and Big Dick Energy — draws to a close, I invite you to throw it back a decade and a half and breathe the perfumed air of 2003, beginning in…

MAY

The summer started strong, with the release of The Lizzie McGuire Movie (May 2), which put everyone’s favorite TV tween on the big screen and sent her off to Italy, where she met a dastardly boy and her very own diva doppelganger and became an international pop superstar almost overnight. What dreams are made of, truly!

Crucial emo moment (emo-ment)! Time to stop what you’re doing and commemorate Fall Out Boy’s Take This to Your Grave (May 6)! If you didn’t spend 2003 asking everyone where is their boy tonight and expressing hope that he was a gentleman, you were doing 2003 wrong.

America’s Next Top Model (May 20) first sashayed onto our televisions and into our hearts that year, too, back when everyone was still rooting for us. This is when we learned how to smize, before we would poison the entire notion of personal photographs with duck face.

May’s not over yet, though. For everyone who had fallen in love with the M&M-pizza-eating guitarist Michael Moscovitz in The Princess Diaries two years prior, this summer was the time to graduate to swooning over Robert Schwartzman as a musician, when his band Rooney released its self-titled debut album (May 27).

JUNE

To be fair, nobody really loved From Justin to Kelly (June 20) — not even Kelly Clarkson. But can we please just take a moment to remember that American Idol required its season 1 winner to star in a movie? Can you even imagine that kind of optimism now? Can you imagine using your MoviePass to see From Justin to Kelly?

As the teens of the mid-aughts navigated the emotional crises of high school, so too did the figure with whom we have grown to collectively identify with most. The year went by without a Harry Potter movie, but the boy wizard got his angstiest chapter in J.K. Rowling’s fifth book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (June 21), in 2003, and millennials across the country eyeliner-ed lightning bolts on their foreheads and stood outside Borders all night long for the privilege of reading some good emotional turmoil to match their own.

Before she was Mrs. Carter, before she was queen of Coachella, and before she was turning lemons into sweet, sweet lemonade, Beyoncé Knowles was just a singer from a girl group trying to make it on her own. Make it she did, with her solo debut Dangerously in Love (June 23). How could anyone not fall crazy in love with it?

Millennials showed their early taste for cameo-packed sequels of remakes of beloved properties when Charlie’s Angels 2: Full Throttle (June 27) hit theaters at the end of the month, reuniting the iconic trio of Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz, and Lucy Liu (and adding Demi Moore, in a much-hyped bikini) for a triple dose of early-aughts girl power. Hey, guess what we all have to look forward to now?

JULY

Did someone say sequel mania? Legally Blonde 2 (July 2) followed close behind Charlie’s Angels. It was pretty red, white, and bad, but hey, there’s going to be a third one!

July delivered one of the greatest cultural artifacts of our generation, with the “It’s Totally Raining Teens!” issue of Vanity Fair, in which dozens of teen stars (including Amanda Bynes, the Olsen twins, Mandy Moore, Hilary Duff, Alexis Bledel, Evan Rachel Wood, Raven Symoné, Lindsay Lohan, all three Harry Potter kids, Aaron Carter, Shia LaBeouf, Jared Padalecki, Milo Ventimiglia, and Solange, among others) went on the record about their big breaks, their upcoming projects, their favorite guy’s guys and their favorite pretty boys, what cell phone they had, how many Juicy Couture outfits each of the girls owned (really), and whether they were all in favor of Britney or Christina.

Can you imagine Vanity Fair asking Amandla Stenberg about her favorite lip gloss (as they asked all the girls, and only the girls) and Timothée Chalamet whether he prefers PS2 or Xbox (as they asked all the boys, and only the boys) but pressing neither of them on their responsibility as young people with a public platform to effect change or whether they feel morally compromised by having appeared in a Woody Allen film? And honestly, can you believe Shia LaBeouf cooperated at all? (Well, sort of: He gave a shoutout to his Panasonic cell phone — “it has a freakin’ camera on it” — but did name Eric Clapton as his choice in the battle between Britney and Christina.)

The Vanity Fair cover story isn’t so much a love letter to 2003 millennials (a group treated in the magazine as a shiny new phenomenon, with a sociological description of the term “Millennial” provided early in the piece) as it is a wish list — which, I, guess, would be a more effective love letter to the materialistic early-2000s teen described here than a sonnet might be. “The generation that the stars in this portfolio represent is the most style-conscious, splurged-upon, and media-immersed army of ragamuffins in history,” the story declared, before the questionnaires served as the most effective Lancôme advertisement that I personally, at least, had ever seen up until that point. Joke’s on you, though, splurged-upon ragamuffins! You better hope those Juicy tracksuits have good resale value in a few years when the recession hits right as you enter the workforce!

Speaking of things happening in a few years, the entire decade (-plus) following this magical summer was marked by a near-constant stream of sequels to one of the biggest smashes of 2003, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (July 9). A non-sequel with a subtitle! Truly, what a time!

AUGUST

Welcome to the ’03, bitch! That’s right, The O.C. (Aug. 5) hit as the summer started to wind down, inspiring a whole slew of TV shows obsessed with affluent Californians in the years to come. But they weren’t the only kids whose turbulent romantic lives were lighting up the small screen: Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica (Aug. 5) premiered the same day. If only we’d known, then, that their love would go the way of Marissa Cooper!

Some of our Vanity Fair cover girls hit the big screen as the summer went on. In yet another remake of a classic, Lindsay Lohan starred in Freaky Friday (Aug. 6), opposite Jamie Lee Curtis as her body-swapped mom. Lohan had been listening to her Fall Out Boy, apparently, because her onscreen persona in the Disney flick was a little rougher around the edges than we’d all seen from her before — though nowhere near the makeover Evan Rachel Wood got in Thirteen (Aug. 20), Catherine Hardwicke’s edgy Sundance movie that presented a shocking counterargument to Lizzie McGuire and “it’s totally raining teens!” as the dark “no bra, no panties” reality of contemporary teenage life. Yikes?

But this was supposed to be a fun summer! Let’s turn back to our old pal Disney, who knew, even then, that this generation would have a longtime fashion love affair with leopard print. The Cheetah Girls (Aug. 15) aired on the Disney Channel in the middle of the month, delivering a playlist of repetitive girl-powered anthems that were just barely still in vogue.

August drew to a close much as May began — with Hilary Duff. The TV-turned-movie-turned-pop star’s Metamorphosis (Aug. 26) implored us all to come clean, presumably about our Juicy Couture spending, as we entered the fall. The album didn’t mark the very conclusion of the season, however. Duff’s pop predecessors (and Vanity Fair questionnaire subjects) Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera — and their pop predecessor, Madonna — closed out the summer and truly marked the completion of this historic era when they sang at the MTV Video Music Awards (Aug. 28) in an opener that called back to Madge’s 1984 “Like a Virgin” performance and ended with a pair of kisses that shocked everyone, including Justin Timberlake.

The summer was over. The real metamorphosis was complete. Britney and Christina were no longer Mickey Mouse Club girls; the Vanity Fair teens were destined for a similar fate. Juicy would become tacky. Matte lips would overtake glossy ones. And one day, every single cell phone would have a freakin’ camera on it. For one shining summer, though, our world was truly what dreams are made of.

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