In the wee hours of August 1, 2002, Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake, who had broken up the previous March after Britney allegedly cheated on Justin with their shared choreographer, ran into each other at a club in Los Angeles called The Lounge. Reports differ, but by all accounts the two young pop stars began arguing, with Britney complaining that Justin had been "using different women for media attention" and Justin calling Britney a cheater. The arguing got heated, and continued onto the dance floor of the club-where for the next 90 minutes, Britney and Justin, with the help of their respective entourages, reportedly had a dance-off.
While the significance of the Spears/Timberlake dance-off was not lost on the gossip-reading public (it made the cover of US Weekly)–or even SNL, which re-enacted the event (rather lamely) during actor Matt Damon's monologue a few weeks later (Amy Poehler played Britney)-the public soon forgot about the incident as both Britney and Justin began to morph from bubble gum pop singers into international superstars.
Both would go on to write songs about their breakup–Justin released "Cry Me a River," and its subsequent video starring a cheating Britney lookalike, and Britney returned with "Everytime," which ended with the haunting line "My weakness caused you pain, and this song's my sorry." Yet so many questions still surround the dance-off: not just the obvious and, it seems, unknowable (who won? what moves were used?) but also "How does the Spears/Timberlake dance-off define an entire decade?" Because it does. It really, really does.
Much has been written about how reality TV and the sudden easy availability of fame have made this decade what it was. And of course it's true: this was the decade when any old regular person could get famous, as long as he or she wasn't choosy about what they were famous for. Some, like Paris and Nicky Hilton, enjoyed fame before they literally ever participated in or created a product of any kind–remember when every writer smugly called them "famous for being famous" and thought he or she was the first one to think of that clever distinction? And remember when it was actually a kind of awe-inspiring observation? This was indisputably the decade in which everyone asked everyone else to come into their lives and look at them and know who they were. If the 70s were "The Me Decade," the 00s were "The Look at Me Decade" (Or, possibly, the decade in which we all realized every decade, for all eternity, would be "The Me Decade.")
Anyway, the dance-off. By the time the dance-off occurred, we already had Survivor and Big Brother (remember how long they waited to tell the Big Brother contestants about 9/11 because giving them news of any kind broke the rules of the gameshow? And doesn't that seem so weird now?) and of course we'd had The Real World forever already. We were already, as a culture, eagerly watching regular people with no talents do nothing on TV.
But the dance-off, and the subsequent respective revenge/apology songs represented the flip side of what was going on in the culture. While all around them, regular ugly people who had not spent their entire childhoods honing their performance and entertainment skills were getting nearly as famous as they were just for eating bugs or whatever, Britney and Justin probably felt a little confused, and no doubt a bit resentful. Maybe they wondered if they were the last of a dying breed. Maybe they feared that they needed each other to survive (and, indeed, they would). Maybe it was fate that brought them together at The Lounge.
So when these two trained entertainers collided at that Los Angeles club that night, they didn't just argue the way regular old ugly people would argue. No, Britney and Justin resolved their differences the only way those two child performers knew how: they got out on that dance floor and they danced.it.off.
And then, possibly mutually inspired, they staged another "dance-off" in the public stage with their song releases, making millions of dollars and changing their images forever in the process. The Spears/Timberlake dance-off was one of the moments in this decade when the talented asserted their superiority and claimed a little bit of their own space back from the encroaching hordes. The Spears/Timberlake dance-off was a signal to the bug-eaters that there's a little tiny thing called talent that should still be part of the conversation. After the dance-off, reality TV went through all of the often ugly mutations (remember Temptation Island?) it had to go through to get us to where we are now, in a TV landscape that is once again at least partly talent-based (Top Chef, Project Runway, So You Think You Can Dance, American Idol) with a little bit of cray-cray thrown in just so we don't get to cocky about our high culture (one word: Hoarders).
I'd like to think that what happened on that sultry August night in that Los Angeles club was one of the milestones on the twisted and gnarled path that was the Aughts, and one of the moments that helped keep the old value of true showmanship alive in our culture. But probably not. US Weekly probably made the whole thing up.
Lindsay Robertson has been meta-enabling on the internet since 2000.