ROCKTOBER 2012: 2003 - Shake It Like A Polaroid Picture

Ten years is just barely enough time to look back and see what stuck historically and what didn’t. We’re just barely moving away from the low-rise belly exposure of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera to the high-waist style of Nicki Minaj. In the same way, ten years is just barely enough time to measure the changes in music. Mostly, it’s something you notice when a favorite song comes on, and it reminds you of a favorite time before you realize it’s ten years ago – ACK.

Looking back on 2003 is entirely jarring like that. Knowing a song is 10 years old, and then realizing what that means does not get easier with repeated listens. But 10 years is the first time we have the distance to realistically look back. It starts to be clear what has staying power and what is fading, and what elements caused a sea shift that continues today.

So, what was getting under your skin in 2003? What still moves you today? Here are four categories of songs that moved us in 2003, and have the power to provoke our memories or emotions today.

Earworms destined to be “Get them on the dancing floor”

Outkast - “Hey Ya.” It’s been 10 years since this pop song burst into life, filling every mall, radio station, commercial break and music player with an infectious sound. Mixing elements of funk and rock, and sporting a video that took the format of a 1960s live telecast in the same fashion that Weezer’s Buddy Holly and Nirvana’s In Bloom did, with a well polished band comprised of 8 different versions of Andre 3000 in green playing to screaming girls in the audience, it was irresistible. 

Beyonce - “Crazy in Love.” In the Pantheon of songs that “everyone” knows, this one is a few down the list from “Single Ladies,” and just as much an ear worm. The song’s video paired Beyonce and her future husband Jay Z in a provocative tangle, with her writhing in a variety of skimpy outfits while he maintained a stoic presence. Knowing that these two were really crazy in love just makes the song that much more addictive. Winner of several MTV Video Music awards, including best R&B video. Are you dancing yet?

Sexy back then

Justin Timberlake - “Rock Your Body.” Justin Timberlake makes it look easy, effortless. Start with a beat that reminds you of 70s disco hits, and then just add a few direct pleas to get out on that dance floor. In one line he wants to respect you, in the next he promises to have your clothes off by the end of the song. All along, really, he only wants you to “dance with me.” Can you say no? No. For 10 years, you’ve been saying yes.

Driving around at night, blasting the radio

Evanescence – “Bring me to Life.” This is one of those songs that announces a powerful musical force, leaves you anxiously waiting for the follow up to that promise, and then, nothing. Oh, yes, Evanescence has created more music, but never quite matched the promise of this single. But when this song comes on the radio, the windows go down and you sing at the top of your lungs as she does, as the car speeds through the summer night.

50 Cent - “In da Club.” Hey shortie, it’s your birthday. This party song never really changes tempo, driving home a slow methodical beat that anyone can feel pretty hot dancing to.  Remember driving around singing this song with your friends with the top down, windows open? Yep, that was 10 years ago.

Try as you might, 10 years have gone by and you STILL can't avoid this song

Underlying influences that can’t be 10 years old

It’s debatable if everything in Indiepop today doesn’t sound a little like Interpol or Postal Service. There are much older influences as well, but these two groups set their footprint firmly in 2003 and continue to this day.

Drawing comparisons to Joy Division and the Smiths, Interpol's fist album saw it's influence move from critical respect in 2002 to mainstream dominance in 2003. First single "PDA" became a signature of band, with a driving beat and a somewhat droning vocal reminiscent of Ian Curtis accompanied by a jangling electric guitar. In the intervening time, Interpol released 3 more albums, but has lost some of that initial freshness. They still fill clubs like the 9:30 but don’t create the same rush as they did in 2003.  Other bands such as the National and the Walkmen continue the sound and sell outs.

Postal Service, the unlikely electronic experiment from Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard and DNTEL’s Jimmy Tamborello, success surprised everyone associated with it. The band’s only release, “Give Up” became label SubPop’s second largest selling album of all time (after Nirvana’s Bleach). The combination of electronic sounds and indie pop was relatively unheard of, yet even that doesn’t explain why this particular combination of artists and sounds did so well. Instead, we’re left to play and replay the album. Bands influenced by this sound span the pop and indie pop spectrum, from Owl City to Metric, continue to put out new music in this vein, while the members of Postal Service themselves have told the world to stop waiting for a follow up.

One-offs that you can’t forget

Johnny Cash - “Hurt.” Did you just get a chill?  It’s been 10 years since this powerful song and video were released, and it still provokes as strong a reaction. Much has been said of Johnny Cash’s interpretation of Nine Inch Nails 1996 song, but perhaps the most significant were Trent Reznor’s own words: “I pop the video in, and wow... Tears welling, silence, goose-bumps... Wow. [I felt like] I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn't mine anymore... It really made me think about how powerful music is as a medium and art form. I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in, totally isolated and alone. [Somehow] that winds up reinterpreted by a music legend from a radically different era/genre and still retains sincerity and meaning — different, but every bit as pure.” (Wikipedia: Alternative Press #194, 2004). In 2011, it was named best video of all time by NME ( It’s unclear if this version influenced other music or artists, but it clearly stands alone with its emotional power and plaintive sound. Watch it again, and see if you don’t feel the same tears and goosebumps that Trent Reznor felt.

The best video of all time? Yea...probably.

As 2003 creeps slowly into the “that was 10 years ago?” past, and we slowly accept (or ignore) our own passage of time, bits and pieces of the music that we took for granted surface as bellwethers. These songs enabled the direction that music moves in today but still have the power to send us back with a sense of immediacy or perhaps yearning for a time now far enough back to awaken the beginnings of nostalgia. 

MORE EARWORMS. The Top 100-ish hits of 2003.