No other movie has captured the tacky, stupid, soaring national mood in the year preceding the Great Recession quite like “Hustlers,” the box-office hit written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, which opened on September 13th and has made more than sixty million dollars in North America. The movie is based on a New York magazine article by Jessica Pressler, and it stars Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu, as Ramona and Destiny—two strippers who, a few years after the recession, start robbing and eventually drugging their Wall Street clients, as a quasi-emergency measure: a new era of economic caution has dried up the club to a seedy husk of itself, and the women’s attempts to support themselves with low-paying retail jobs have not panned out.
Before the recession, on the other hand, things felt glitzy, slick, unlimited. We see shopping sprees at Louis Vuitton, a visit to a Cadillac dealership; Destiny bats her eyes at a client, saying that she doesn’t have a computer, and in an instant she’s typing, backstage, in front of an illuminated screen. “Gimme More,” by Britney Spears, plays over a montage of men shouting silently on the trading floor and women stripping for them in a black-light glow. “I made more money that year than a goddam brain surgeon,” Destiny says, in voice-over, a twinge of bitterness creeping in.
The tone and the themes of the movie—and its adherence to a sly, multifaceted female perspective—are signalled by the soundtrack. (Scafaria wrote the musical cues into the script before she’d even got the directing job.) The movie begins with Destiny’s nervous face and the strains of Janet Jackson’s “Control”; Ramona pole-dances to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal,” and, later, gets arrested in front of an A.T.M. as Lorde’s “Royals” plays. The music, like the costuming, immerses you in the temporal setting: if you’re above a certain age, 2007 is recent enough to feel like yesterday, until you see Destiny in a bedazzled top from Bebe and hear the sound of Sean Kingston’s “Beautiful Girls.”
The last really good night that Destiny remembers, she tells the audience—via the Pressler stand-in, who’s played by Julia Stiles—was the night that Usher came to the club. In a flashback, Lizzo, who also plays a stripper at the club, rushes into the dressing room, screaming that Usher is in the building. (“Ursher, bitch!”) The girls run out, resplendent in neon, patent leather, fishnet leotards, collars, rhinestones, their endless shimmering flesh. Usher walks into the club, dressed as himself from eleven years ago. It’s a slow-motion fantasia: money flutters everywhere, as if we’re inside a snow globe; pink lights are strobing all over the room; the stage is packed with strippers who are draped over poles, undulating around each other, shaking their hair back, revelling in their own beauty and charisma and the absurd construction of wish fulfillment in which they participate.
I started crying a little, because Usher’s “Love in This Club” was playing. It’s a song with synths that shudder like lasers, and a central looping riff so triumphant and brimming that it sounds like someone telling you that you’re never going to die. As the song played, a flash of pre-recession memories emerged from beneath eleven years’ worth of increasingly subdued expectations: I was in college, and things often felt that good and endless, even though the wad of bills in my pocket was a bunch of greasy ones from waiting tables and my roommates and I were blasting “Love in This Club” in our wood-panelled living room, wearing clearance American Apparel and chugging leftover keg beer, hoping that we wouldn’t see any mice. It feels unseemly and indulgent to get nostalgic about something so dumb and so close to the present, and yet “Hustlers” helped me realize how many people have begun to remember the brief period just before the recession in a similar way. The Usher scene ends, and cuts to a title card: “September 2008.”
The National Bureau of Economic Research dates the beginning of the recession to December, 2007, after the subprime-mortgage bubble burst, but September, 2008—when Lehman Brothers collapsed—was the moment that much of the country sensed the magnitude of the crisis. The ten months between these two points exist now as a suspended and contradictory zone in recent cultural history. The national financial apparatus was hurtling toward disaster; Senator Barack Obama was charming crowds all over the nation; Lauren Conrad and Heidi Montag were on the covers of tabloid magazines. An aesthetic that I think of as “empire waste” took hold—a deathless disposability exemplified by Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie, by handkerchief halter tops and two-inch-rise jeans. And the Billboard Hot 100 was full of songs like “Love in This Club,” which hit No. 1 between March 15th and April 5th of 2008, and which Usher performed, soon afterward, on the season finale of “The Hills.” These songs were mid-tempo anthems built on variations of the same basic chord structure, evoking an atmosphere of glossy, poignant exultation that now, to my ears, conjures the beginning of the end.
“No One,” by Alicia Keys, a stadium-size R. & B. ballad about love and reassurance, was at the top of the Billboard singles chart as 2007 came to a close. It uses the same well-worn chord progression as do “Let It Be” and “Don’t Stop Believin’,” moving from the one to the five, buoyant and certain, then taking a step into a yearning minor chord before settling into a comfortable major chord, two steps below. Just under “No One” on the charts was OneRepublic’s “Apologize,” a slightly darker-toned take on the four-chord anthem. MGMT’s pulsing hit single “Kids” was on the charts, too, with the same structure. Leona Lewis’s “Bleeding Love,” which follows the same chord progression as “No One,” reached No. 1, immediately after “Love in This Club.” “Whatever You Like,” by T.I., hit No. 1 in September, 2008; it has the same chord progression as “Apologize” and “Kids,” and was knocked from No. 1 by another T.I. song, “Live Your Life,” which features Rihanna, who sings “You’re gonna be, a shinin’ star / In fancy clothes, and fancy cars.”
Countless pop songs use these chord progressions, but it has become rare to see so many such tracks atop the charts at the same time. (Currently, there’s only one in Billboard’s top twenty singles, Lewis Capaldi’s “Someone You Loved.”) These songs now sound to me like the last optimistic gasp of the early aughts. The majestic Starbucks-core of Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida” hit No. 1 in June, 2008. “No Air,” by Jordin Sparks and Chris Brown, and Brown’s “Forever”—two ardent pop-R. & B. tracks with similar structures—hovered close to the top of the charts, too. That June, the musician Gregg Gillis, known as Girl Talk, put out “Feed the Animals,” a mashup album that combed through the pop landscape of the previous few decades for its catchiest snippets and rolled them together into something bionic: like all the parties you’d ever been to and could ever imagine going to, combined.
Most of these songs quickly faded into cheesy irrelevance, but “Love in This Club” holds its full powers even today. A YouTube commenter wrote, under the track, six months ago, “if I was the president of my country . . . this would be the anthem!!!” “How much money I should spend here to bring us back to this time,” another, with the username Bill Gates, wrote. I thought the same thing, for a moment, in the movie theatre, watching dollars fly like starlings under the strobe lights.