Back in the Spring of 2001, a boom of lucrative live-action remakes of cartoons, comics, and picture books led to the radical reinterpretation of a beloved fictional band: Archie comics’ Josie and the Pussycats. In the original comics and television show, the Pussycats performed bubblegum pop as pure as their leopard-print bodysuits were skintight. But for the band’s big-screen debut, Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont, the writing/directing team behind the 1998 teen hit Can’t Hardly Wait, wanted to parody the synthetic nature of contemporary pop music and comment on the commodification of individuality.
Conveniently, there was no lack of material for them to pull from. The unfathomable success of the Spice Girls had spurred a cottage-industry of pop stars that revolutionized the market: as of August 2001, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, *NSYNC, and the Backstreet Boys had sold a combined 76 million CDs, more than a quarter of the U.S. population at the time. On the other end of the spectrum, pop-punk bands were neck and neck with Destiny’s Child on the Billboard Top 40 and nu-metal was crawling out of the shadows to invade MTV. Riot grrrl was taking its final breaths, bands like Hole, L7, and, the Breeders were all in various states of hiatuses, and recent touchstones for female power-pop like the Donnas largely existed in the margins.
Josie and the Pussycats aimed at an audience somewhere in the middle of all this, to the teen who watched TRL but could appreciate the film’s references to Hole. Josie (Rachael Leigh Cook), Melody (Tara Reid), and Valerie (Rosario Dawson) are three passionate outcasts who live in a funky clubhouse and play gigs to indifferent audiences. After signing a sudden and suspicious record deal, Josie and the Pussycats are whisked away to New York City to be oblivious harbingers of subliminal capitalist messages. (A very prescient take on sponcon!) But because Josie and the Pussycats is a Classic Teen Movie, friendship saves the day, character triumphs over the hive mind, and everyone rocks out at the gig.
Since the Pussycats were intended to be weirdos with great taste, Kaplan and Elfont decided to make Josie and the Pussycats “an all-woman Blink-182—a power-pop band with a bit of a punk feel.” The pair found an executive producer in an unexpected fan: renowned R&B mastermind Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds. From there, they built a gigantic songwriting team of the era’s alternative stars including Adam Schlesinger (Fountains of Wayne), Adam Duritz (Counting Crows), Anna Waronker (that dog.), Kay Hanley and Michael Eisenstein (Letters to Cleo) and many others. Originally recruited to provide the Pussycats’ backing vocals, Hanley soon found herself voicing Josie after the original singer was canned. Hanley’s own band Letters to Cleo had disbanded in 2000 and the producers thought her spunky sneer was perfect for Josie.
But what makes Hanley’s work on the Josie soundtrack so exhilarating is that she is vocalizing her own awakening. In the reissue’s liner notes, Hanley recounts her anxieties about performing the soundtrack’s only ballad, “You Don’t See Me.” “I just thought I was in a band and I wrote the songs and yelled really loud and hit the notes,” she says. But a chat with Babyface sparked a punk rock epiphany much like the principal character’s in Chorus Line: “God, I’m a dancer! A dancer dances!” “It was the first time in my life that I made the connection between my role in Letters to Cleo and being a singer.”
But aside from “You Don’t See Me,” the 10 other Josie and the Pussycats songs here are classic pop-punk girl power anthems with heart-on-sleeve hooks to amplify the heightened emotions of adolescence. The “whatever, dude” eyeroll of Hanley’s voice paired with one-liners like, “The only time I’d look at you is on a rock and roll poster” pack a sweet punch that bounces in your head like Pop Rocks. Even the boilerplate earworms that satisfy various plot points like asking a guy to quit playing mind games (“Pretend to Be Nice”), ignoring the haters (“You’re a Star”), and sexual independence (“Come On”) are impossibly catchy. The soundtracks’ two covers, “Real Wild Child” and “Money (That’s What I Want)” are the only real misses; even the revamped “Josie and the Pussycats” theme with its absurd “Long tails and ears for hats/Guitars and Marshall stacks” rhyme comes off better than this pair of rock’n’roll knockoffs.
Josie and the Pussycats’ best moments are when Hanley celebrates her own self-worth. The soundtrack’s revved-up opener and montage-ready single “3 Small Words” is an ode to self-love that recalls Letters to Cleo’s biggest hit “Here and Now” in Hanley’s rapid-fire delivery of peppy word associations like, “I’m a punk rock prom queen/Brown paper magazine.” Later, on the revelatory “Spin Around,” Hanley is dizzy and drunk off the merry-go-round that is coming into consciousness. (“I’ve been staring at the sun some time/And it gets dark inside but I don’t mind” is Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” for Josie fans.) And then there’s “Shapeshifter,” a call-out of a hypocritical faker that doubles as a statement against male privilege, a song as necessary in 2017 as it was in 2001.
It would be criminal not to mention the two bonus tracks by DuJour, the fictional boy band of tacky horndogs featuring Seth Green and Donald Faison. “DuJour Around the World” and “Backdoor Lover” perfectly lampoon the nasally falsettos and the “girl I love you so much my voice is weak” warbles of *NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys. They also whip the tissue-thin veil off those band’s sugarcoated sexuality and sing a song so obviously about anal sex that it’s a wonder that Jack Valenti wasn’t sent to an early grave.
For all this, Josie and the Pussycats bombed at the box office. It was largely reviled by critics who took the film’s tongue-in-cheek satirization of consumer culture at face value. “Josie and the Pussycats are not dumber than the Spice Girls, but they’re as dumb as the Spice Girls, which is dumb enough,” wrote Roger Ebert, who clearly missed many points. Others jeered at the actress’ musicianship, which they saw as amateur. Despite this critical disdain, Josie and the Pussycats reached its ideal audience—young women—who helped push the soundtrack to No. 16 on the Billboard Soundtrack charts.
Josie and the Pussycats, both the film and the soundtrack, continue to influence people who do not identify with the aggressively male music world. Even before this reissue, female-identifying musicians have discussed how revolutionary it was for them to see women in a mainstream platform. In 2016, Brooklyn’s Charly Bliss performed a Josie cover set. Sadie Dupuis of Speedy Ortiz and Sad13 said in a recent New York Times feature on women in rock music that she directly credits Josie and the Pussycats as inspiration (she has also covered “Pretend to Be Nice”). Now on the CW show “Riverdale,” Josie and the Pussycats are performed by three black women. In that same New York Times feature, as well as a more recent one that wonders if women should make their own pop music canon, the point seems to be missed. There has never been a moment where women haven’t existed in the pop or rock world. Underappreciated and forced to work twice as hard, yes. But absent, never. Perhaps it seems simple but just making space for non-male voices can be a radical means of shifting perception. Josie and the Pussycats did that in the mainstream and its impact still reverberates today.