Collage by Official Sean Penn
It was the year Britney Spears shaved her head, Paris Hilton went to jail, Lindsay Lohan crashed a car, and George W. Bush drove the world economy into a proverbial tree. And now the stars' (and America's) survival has become the internet's symbol of hope.
This Week in 2007 is a weekly column looking back on Lindsay Lohan, the first iPhone, George W. Bush, and everything else we loved about the year 2007.
When 25-year-old social media editor Liza Sokol quit her job last year, she was thinking about Britney Spears, and particularly Britney in 2007. In that torrid year, Britney went to rehab, left rehab, shaved her head, went after an X17 photographer with an umbrella, returned to rehab, exited rehab a second time, bombed a comeback attempt at the MTV Video Music Awards, lost custody of her sons, wore a pink wig, dated a paparazzo, and told a reporter to "eat it, lick it, snort it, fuck it!" News services prepared her obituary.
But instead of dying, Britney spent two stints in a mental hospital. A California judge sentenced her to a conservatorship, which designates that her lawyer and father control her personal and business affairs, and then Britney embarked on one of the most successful comebacks of all time, recording more number one singles than she did during her Disney Channel/Tiger Beat heyday. "She's proof positive that you can get better and overcome," Sokol says. Before she departed her office for the last time, Sokol printed out a meme that said, "If Britney Spears can make it through 2007, we can make it through this day" and left it on her boss's desk as a "departing gift."
"My boss was a woman surrounded by stuffy white men," Sokol says. "She needed  more than me."
Sokol is not alone in viewing 2007 as a symbol of hope. Over the past decade, the year has taken on an almost mythical status in pop culture, especially to gay men and their female friends, and its stature has only grown in 2017. This year marks the ten-year anniversary of Lindsay Lohan receiving her first DUI, Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie going to jail, Jamie Lynn Spears getting pregnant, and Lauren Conrad screaming, "You know what you did!" at Heidi Montag—huge cultural events that Broadly will revisit in our new column, This Week in 2007.
At the time, the media criticized the women, and the frenzy reached a peak with the Newsweek cover story: "THE GIRLS GONE WILD EFFECT: OUT-OF-CONTROL CELEBS AND ONLINE SLEAZE FUEL A NEW DEBATE OVER KIDS AND VALUES." (This was long before discussions of slut-shaming went mainstream.) Today, Tumblr blogs and Twitter accounts, like @PopCultureDiedin2009 and @PartyLikeIts2007, chronicle the year in a cannonade of magazine covers, TMZ footage, and GIFs. (See: This clip of Paris pretending to smoke a Tampon.) Beyond 2007's celebrity drama, though, America was crumbling in the background. President George W. Bush ordered a surge of troops to Iraq, and New Century Financial Corporation, a leading subprime mortgage lender, filed for bankruptcy, kickstarting a global recession. Our country and our starlets fell apart simultaneously.
But the year also gave us beacons of hope: Apple released the first iPhone, then-Senator Barack Obama launched a presidential bid, and amidst her personal problems, Britney Spears released Blackout, her most critically acclaimed album, which coined the phrase, "It's Britney, bitch!" She went on to play a hit Vegas residency, and Obama won the presidency and restored economic growth. Now, their triumphs against 2007 serve as a hope for the internet as it faces what promises to be a much darker time.
It's hard to target an exact day when 2007 became a motivational slogan. Zach D'Shao, a gay college student in Las Vegas, recalls seeing people tweet about 2007 at the end of 2015 and throughout 2016, as now-President Donald Trump soared in the polls. "People were using 2007 as a meme because it was a catastrophic year," D'Shao says. "It reflects the times now." The Vogue writer Alex Frank only considered the year after he saw one of Britney's early Vegas shows in 2013, where she didn't even bother to lip-sync. "She made it through 2007, but what does she have to make it through now," Frank remembers thinking.
Handout courtesy of Getty Images
The bloggers who have advanced the meme date it to an earlier period. The proprietor of @PopCultureDiedIn2009 says it "was always a huge part of my life." Twenty-two-year-old Will Rebein, who now runs @PartyLikeIts2007 and has directed documentaries about Heidi Montag and Amanda Bynes, remembers finding the meme in 2010, the year when Lady Gaga only walked out of the house in avant-garde, highly art-directed ensembles. At the time, he was just another high school student with a Tumblr account scrolling through posts when he stumbled upon a trove of pictures and GIFs of Britney, Paris, and Lindsay in that fateful year. The girls wore mismatched outfits from Kitson, ankle boots, fedoras, vests, and, in the case of Lindsay, an alcohol-monitoring ankle bracelet (though that didn't come until 2010). These images contrasted sharply with contemporary, airbrushed photos of the Kardashians. Where today celebrities control their own brands by uploading retouched pictures on Instagram, a decade ago, paparazzi captured unedited footage of Britney sitting on the sidewalk crying, wearing a Fedora and holding a teacup Yorkie in her lap.
"It was such a memorable and defining year in pop culture that was very raw," Rebein says.
In retrospect, Rebein says he realized 2007 meant something to him because he lived through it in middle school as a Perez Hilton–reading closeted homosexual. "As a teenager I felt like I had to act a certain way to hide my sexuality and femininity to avoid being judged," he explains. "To see these women be heavily ridiculed while trying to live normal lives was something I identified with." D'Shao also remembers loving Britney, Paris, and Lindsay when he was 11 and in the closet during 2007. "It [gave] America a big fuck-you. It was a big-fuck you to all the people who had this false image of [those celebrities] in their minds," he says. "You don't see a lot of stans talking about whatever gay celebrities [today]. It's [still] about Britney, Lindsay, Paris."
D'Shao believes the girls acted more like gay men than the clean-cut gay male celebrities, like Neil Patrick Harris, who were forced to hold themselves to higher standards (or stay in the closet) because of possible discrimination. (By the end of 2007, same-sex marriage was only legal in one state, Massachusetts.) "The whole Hollywood rich girl thing is kind of funny to a lot of gay [teenage boys], but it's something a lot of gay [boys] can relate to because we're so petty and we like to be extra. We're kind of like Victoria Beckham when she went to the DMV," D'Shao says, recalling the time in 2007 Posh Spice claimed she was "asking about my hair" when she got caught cheating on her driver's test on national TV. Rebein puts it in simpler terms: "I was also just into the drama of it all."
The era's parallel to American politics has only become obvious in hindsight. Britney held many similarities to Bush: She was from the South, she seemed innocent in 2000, and she self-destructed seven years later. "She was like Bush in so many ways!" says Frank, the Vogue writer. "She claimed to be virginal and Christian, but there was other shit going on beneath." And as the Vegas housing boom collapsed in 2007, one of the biggest calamities of the recession, Britney experienced some of her biggest disasters in the city, which was the site of both her failed VMA comeback at the Palms Casino and her hot-tub make-out session with a college student. (She kept her fedora on.)
"Britney Spears [is] the ultimate Bush era icon," Frank says. "They were both trying to get back on their feet after the excesses of the Bush era, Vegas and Britney."
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