In our week-long series, Now and Then, GOOD writers each choose a beloved piece of pop culture from back in the day and pit it against its modern-day equivalent, with a fresh pair of adult eyes. May the best zeitgeist win.
In the summer of 1998, Brandy, Monica, and I were pretty much on the same page. All we wanted was to sit on the couch, usually in pajamas, and watch Jerry Springer. Back in the day when MTV actually played music videos, and every other network was dominated by updates on a lesser Monica and her relationship with the president’s semen, Brandy and Monica’s video for “The Boy is Mine” told a more chaste story of a sex scandal, holding cable TV, and my attention span, hostage as the summer’s top video.
The video was as much a part of my living room as the furniture that summer. I remember it clearly: The sleek outfits shimmering. The moral ambiguity of picking sides—were you for Brandy or for Monica? (The two pop stars were rumored to have a real-life feud.) And the surprise twist at the end: the joke was on “the boy,” not our leading ladies.
Thrirteen years later, the song still remains the must successful single by a female pop duo, despite the attempts of other queens-of-pop collaborations to oust it, including last year’s “Telephone” by Lady Gaga and Beyoncé. Even though I'm nostalgic for ‘90s R&B (and thrilled it’s making a comeback), this news came as a shock to me. Taking a look back at “The Boy Is Mine” reveals an epically cheesy video, full of silk pajamas and bedroom décor that makes me wish IKEA had taken over our apartments a decade earlier. It certainly doesn’t hold a candle to the over-the-top spectacle of “Telephone,” a similarly star-powered collaboration.
Unlike "The Boy is Mine," “Telephone” will not be remembered as the song of the year in 2010, or even of the summer. It didn’t win a Grammy like “The Boy is Mine,” although it did pick up an MTV Video Music award for best collaboration. But it’s important to consider one metric that “Telephone” can hold out over “The Boy is Mine”: more than 115 million views on YouTube. (Of course, YouTube wasn’t founded until 2005, nor do we know how many times the Brandy and Monica video aired. )
It goes without saying that it’s YouTube, not television, that makes or breaks a music video these days, and the lingering success of both videos derives from the way the artists exploited the two outlets. But whereas "Telephone" aggressively pushed the boundaries of the YouTube video, enticing Gaga’s audience onto the web to experience the hype firsthand, the Brandy and Monica video relied on the passivity of teens like me, bored on summer vacation, devouring the video because it was more interesting than CNN.
“The Boy is Mine” has the set-up of a soft-core flick with even less of the payoff. Two attractive young women are getting gamed by a guy, so they surprise him by waiting in Brandy’s apartment for him to show-up (cue the threesome). Their boyfriend is sleeping around, but the lyrics are all about love and don’t mention sex once. After a not-even-so-sassy back and forth, they come to the conclusion that it’s not the other girl who’s the problem: it’s the guy! They pack up his stuff (including a football and a teddy bear) and toss it to the curb. You can’t hustle these ladies! When he knocks on Brandy’s door, both women answer. Girl power, indeed.
Women uniting is often the main metaphor of high-powered female collaborations. The thread extends all the way through to “Telephone,” embodied in the absurdist style of a Gaga mini-film. Full of movie references and high fashion, Beyoncé and Gaga conjure up a nihilistic universe of semiotics porn. Beyoncé bails Gaga out of the world’s trippiest all-female prison only to involve her in another crime: a mass poisoning of a desert diner’s patrons, including a man that’s standing in the way of the bad girls. Afterward, they make like Thelma and Louise and hit the open road, fleeing the crime scene in the Kill Bill Pussy Wagon with a police helicopter hovering overhead. The male world is persecuting these two superstars. They head for the horizon in search of a safe place.
“Telephone” is as bad-ass as "The Boy is Mine" is goody two-shoes. It’s the same statement about celebrity culture that Gaga likes to make again and again: “I’m so famous I don’t even care if this makes sense or holds together.” Brandy and Monica’s collaboration (or any late-90’s collab for that matter) simply never could’ve looked liked that. And I can’t imagine any videographer pitching a concept similar to “The Boy Is Mine” video at a meeting with Lady Gaga. She would probably eat his face and then give birth to it in response.
So perhaps where “The Boy Is Mine” excels is exactly in its sticking to the rules of audiences’ expectations, however boring they may be. The narrative of the video is dictated exactly by the lyrics. It’s not the product of some ketamine-infused brainstorming session. And the video actually teaches us something about the characters, exploiting the supposed real life feud of the stars and ultimately shattering that myth with the artists’ surprise reconciliation at the end. Despite its scale, “Telephone” is not even much of a collaboration. Beyoncé, arguably the best part of the video (who knew she had such a freaky side?), only gets one verse, unlike "The Boy is Mine," which drifts back and forth between the two stars. Let’s face it: It’s hard to share the screen with Gaga.
In an age of fewer media distractions, "The Boy is Mine" didn’t need to try so hard to wow everyone. It was simply there, insinuating itself into my daily life nearly ever time I turned the TV on. Today I often miss out on cool videos entirely—they come and go on YouTube, and if I’m not glued to Twitter, the moment has passed by the time I check it out. Thus goes “Telephone,” fabulous and fleeting, and ultimately not the video by which anyone will remember Gaga or Beyoncé. Just ask Kanye West. 1998, however, will forever be the year of Brandy and Monica.