Baby braids, scarf tops, velour tracksuits as status symbols—the early aughts gave us so much that it’s no wonder nostalgic millennials and FOMO-addled Gen Zers have been fighting to bring back that simpler-but-still-digitally-connected time. It was an era when TRL and Pop-Up Video reigned supreme, when you had to pay $2 to $4 to watch the latest Destiny’s Child bop on Box. Music videos were Art, especially to any tween with a Teen Vogue-wallpapered locker.

Looking back at that glorious time in pop music, we started to notice a few things that made us wonder what our kids would think of our lives then: Why were deserts the coolest place to hang out? What’s with all the CGI? Did you really have to text people via Excel like Kelly Rowland did in “Dilemma?” And what’s more, some of those elements appeared so frequently in Y2K-era music videos that they became motifs. But why?! Why?! Here, our analysis—and the things that leave us still scratching our heads.

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1. Deserts Were as Popular as Clubs

If there was a handbook for shooting an edgy music video in the mid-‘90s through early 2000s, rule number one would be: Film in the desert. Seriously. That sunny, beige backdrop has served as the stage for songs ranging from the Spice Girls’ “Say You’ll Be There” to Mya’s “Case of the Ex” to Shakira’s “Whenever, Wherever” to Shania Twain’s “That Don’t Impress Me Much.” It’s become such a cliché that it even sparked a Reddit thread questioning why the desert became so, well, hot—beyond being aesthetically pleasing, it was a logistical goldmine: You don’t need as much lighting equipment, filming costs are lower and, at least according to one former production assistant, some locations don’t require permitting, so it’s less red tape all around.

It's not so surprising, then, that as music videos waned—we had streaming now, legal or not!—desert music festivals continued to rise in popularity. After years of watching celebs dance, stomp and, uh, pose atop luggage wearing head-to-toe leopard print, our minds were primed to equate scorching days in the sun with bops (and, OK, over-the-top outfits).

2. Boybands Loved Hanging Out in Warehouses with Wind Machines

Bonus points if they’re wearing all white. Again, this is a question future generations will ask us: Why were abandoned warehouses so cool? And how much mental energy did guys devote to coordinating the color schemes of all of their outfits? (Psh, children, they had stylists for that.) *NSYNC had “Tearin’ Up My Heart,” the Backstreet Boys crooned “I Want It That Way” and “As Long As You Love Me,” and B2K gave their warehouse a CGI wrapper, combining two trends into one (more on that in a sec). And while 98 Degrees starts out “Because of You” with a stark, warehouse-y backdrop, they saved the all-white ‘fits for the moments when they sing, longingly, in a field of wildflowers and on the shore near the base of the Golden Gate bridge.

These videos symbolized crushes—and the manufactured nature of boybands in the aughts. The guys were mostly alike (at least clothing-wise) but with key differences, so you and your besties could each have a favorite to pine over, whether you were into more sensitive types or bad boys or guys who prioritized orthodontal care. Everything had to fit a formula, so a video would climb to the top of the charts and a band could sell a million copies of their CD the week it launched, while teens camped outside of Ticketmaster kiosks to score floor seats to their next show. Times have changed…though scoring concert tickets hasn’t gotten any easier.

3. We Imagined CGI-Heavy, Futuristic Societies

The turn of the millennium was thrilling—even if, when the clock struck midnight, life was pretty much the same (thankfully, given all those Y2K bug fears). We were living on LiveJournal and Xanga in this pre-MySpace existence, and The Matrix had just blown all our minds. So, naturally, we explored the tech-driven, potential world we were creating via pop music videos. TLC showed us an empowered, cyborg-like future with “No Scrubs,” the Backstreet Boys envisioned us dancing amid our robot overlords in “Larger Than Life,” Jessica Simpson thwarted bad guys and maybe saved the world while dancing in pleather from a rooftop in “Irresistible,” just to name a few. It may seem like overkill to call these vids harbingers of the future, but who knows what the Zuck’s metaverse will bring?

4. You Had to Show POB: Proof of Bellybutton

Were you even allowed on TRL if your midriff wasn’t showing? We’re all cursing the return of low-rise jeans, simply because of the emphasis they put on having a toned stomach—which was very, very emphasized in the early aughts. Listing every ab-baring video that ran during the Y2K era (which some define as, surprisingly, 1995 to 2004) would cause your thumb to spasm from scrolling. Suffice it to say, we’re all still dealing with the emotional baggage our obsession with living up to those standards caused—stars included.

5. Main Character Syndrome Was Rampant

Social media is blamed for giving millennials main character syndrome—aka the belief that they’re the center of the world, and everybody else is just extras—but we’d argue that influence has been in play way before Instagram entered the App Store. Sure, singers are the main characters of music videos, but in the aughts, they weren’t just the main characters—sometimes, they were every major character. Who can forget Mariah Carey duking it out with herself in “Heartbreaker,” an “I’m the protagonist and antagonist” move later echoed by Taylor Swift in “You Belong With Me?” Though Ashlee Simpson’s “Shadow” was all about living in the wake of her older sister’s fame, she played both roles. And in Kelly Clarkson’s “Behind These Hazel Eyes,” the singer delves deep into her Into the Woods-esque subconscious to confront her rockstar self and determine whether she should leave her fiancé at the altar (spoiler: she does). Don’t even get us started on the dissertation we could write on Britney’s “Lucky.”

6. We Had a Love/Hate (But Mostly Hate) Relationship with Technology

Millennials grew up with the advent of cell phones and social media, so it’s only fitting that so many of the biggest songs during those formative years highlight the allure and horror of being always connected. It’s something MTV first pointed out, and once you notice it, you can’t unsee it: There’s Brandy smashing pagers and cellies in “What About Us?” (in a CGI-heavy, futuristic society, BTW). Pink chucking her phone before sending a motorcycle through her ex’s window in “There You Go” (while baring her midriff in a CGI-heavy…warehouse?). Destiny’s Child’s “Bug-A-Boo” is all about a stage-five clinger who won’t stop calling and paging them (ah, remember pagers?).

Interestingly, most of the examples feature women who are sick of the men in their lives using phones to manipulate or control them—even Backstreet Boys’ “The Call” features all five boybanders playing The Main Character (!), a guy who tries to cheat on his girlfriend, only for the girlfriend to seek revenge (while baring her midriff in a futuristic, dystopian world that looks like one big warehouse). These women are smashing the patriarchy, one Nokia at a time. And people say pop music isn’t deep.

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