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2001 and 2021: Nostalgia, Britney, ‘Bennifer,’ and things that distract us from our own lives

By Kimani Franco Published Aug 23, 2021 6:25 pm

You tend to wonder how things really are when people are collectively feeling nostalgic about simply going outside.

After two years of heeding different variations of what to wear on your face and the appropriate lanyard to go with it, the fatigue continues to set in as more coronavirus cases are reported and healthcare workers endure in the frontlines.

Only last week, in what could only be described as unthinkable, the world witnessed hundreds of people flock the tarmac of Kabul airport in a desperate attempt to flee after the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan.

In a seeming play on fate one Tuesday morning 20 years ago, the world also stopped as it saw two planes crash into the towering buildings of the World Trade Center (WTC) in the heart of the financial district Manhattan, New York.

What once were icons of international trade in the city that never sleeps turned into a fiery concrete structures that awoke New Yorkers as both buildings started to spew scorching debris and then collapse, all of which took place in under 17 minutes.

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A post shared by Jennifer Lopez (@jlo)

Much like what was happening two decades ago, the President of the United States once again faces criticism today, this time over Afghanistan, with less than a month to go before the commemoration of the 9/11 attacks.

The American spoof weekly paper The Onion published a story in 2001 in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks entitled, “A Shattered Nation Longs To Care About Stupid Bullsh[*]t Again.” It talked about how Americans look to harmless entertainment on the television like mundane Hollywood gossip about Britney Spears, Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck or “Bennifer” as the portmanteau fad that identifies “super couples” of the time.

A US Marine grabs an infant over a fence of barbed wire during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on August 19, 2021. Photo by Omar Haidiri/AFP

For better or worse, it seems that the world then and now aren’t far off from each other.

By the day, a myriad of uncertainties surround the direction of economies rebounding from the pandemic or the drastic change facing international travel after all of this—but can the public revert to a version of reality where they get to think about meaningless, harmless diversions like before? Or is it just really us wishing things go back to normal?

Twenty years later…

The short answer is yes. Twenty years after the September attacks in 2001, people look to entertainment and the performing arts to desensitize themselves from the issues that pile on as the coronavirus pandemic changed our social behaviors.

Ironically, even after two decades, the same celebrities are still the talk of the town. Spears, who was 19 at the time, sashayed on the stage of the 2001 MTV Video Music Awards with an albino Burmese python draped around her neck. In 2021, fans rallied behind the 39-year old as she battled to relieve her father's control over her estate and other aspects of her life following a court-mandated conservatorship in 2008.

Jennifer Lopez, who had her song I’m Real waning in music charts, reached the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 after the song was re-released featuring American rapper Ja Rule, which gained popularity during the week before the 2001 attacks.

That hit song in her album “J.Lo” became her best-selling record of all time. Right now, she is back with old flame Ben Affleck whom she dated 20 years ago, putting “Bennifer” back in the headlines.

Thirteen months after the September attacks, the international community had to deal with the first case of what later became known as SARS or severe acute respiratory syndrome disease. Spreading to a total 29 countries with over 8,000 infected people, it was the first instance for a long while that doctors encountered an unknown viral disease.

Uuncanny is probably the appropriate word for people still talking about the same celebrities and international conflicts that have reemerged from events deeply rooted in the past. Only this time, a persistent pandemic hangs in the background, displacing normalcy.

People tend to fixate on this type of entertaining diversions that don’t affect them rather than dealing with the reality of how unpleasant the terrorist attacks were back then—and COVID-19 this time around.

Twenty years further?

Ever since the outbreak of the pandemic, most people have heard the phrase “This too shall pass” or a variation of it.

That’s exactly what’s going to happen—but maybe not completely. Scientists are saying the virus is here for the long haul, that we need to learn to live with it.

But even when things settle in our “future normal,” we will always find the time to think about things that do not concern us—the latest TV series and the lives of movie stars.

Newly filled oxygen tanks at Quezon City General Hospital. Photo by Walter Bollozos/Philippine Star

Britney, J.Lo, and Ben Affleck and everything they represent in people’s healthy compartmentalization take our minds off of things. We are wired to deal with whatever’s in front of us but we are also wired to find solace in things that have nothing to do with us.

Much like everything, our lives have a rhythm. Right now, we’re caught in this loop that we long for what was—how life used to be good before COVID happened. But once we get back into the rhythm, perhaps two, five, but not 20 years later, we will no longer pine for what was lost but rather celebrate how precious life is in that moment.

Banner photos: Afghans trying to board a military plane in Kabul airport, screenshot from NBC News; 9/11 photos by Michael Foran on Wikipedia