Red-carpet photos from the early 2000s have a major tell. Sure, there are tiny vests, low-cut jeans, and denim-on-denim getups, not to mention that the images themselves are a little grainy. But the surefire sign that a picture is from this era is if you can see bubble gum in Britney Spears' mouth.
Here is Britney in 2003, at the unveiling of her Hollywood star.
See how it looks like there's a glowing blue light inside her mouth? That's because her gleaming white teeth are chewing a piece of gum.
Here she is with Will Ferrell at the Kid's Choice Awards, with a big wad o' gum sticking out of her mouth!
Here's an adorable pic of Britney Spears, Natalie Portman, and another piece of blue gum.
Here she is with a seemingly normal smile, which—under close scrutiny—actually conceals some secret bubble gum, hanging out like a bonus tooth.
And now, a 2002 photo that exemplifies the early 2000s better than any other picture ever taken!
Look at that denim top! Look at the hat! Look at the necklace. Look at those LAYERS in her hair. Look at the red-eye. And look at the bubble gum!
Britney Spears loved bubble gum so much that she even licensed Britney Spears "CDs" that were actually just wheels of bubble gum.
Britney's deep love of bubblegum was so well known that it became a cultural phenomenon. In 2004, bidding for a piece of Britney Spears's old chewed-up bubble gum on eBay reached $14,000! What a time! Pieces of Britney Spears-chewed gum routinely sold for between $5 and $100, but the salesman of this particular specimen could (almost) guarantee its authenticity.
Was publicly chewing gum just a cute thing that young pop stars did? If so, why aren't they still doing it today?
Chewing gum doesn’t exactly scream fancy red carpet event, but Britney Spears wasn't the only one caught up in this literal bubble-gum pop craze. In the early 2000s, a bunch of celebrities appeared to be capitalizing on the appeal of, or at least inadvertently promoting, gum. Here's a Christina Aguilera-branded bubble-gum CD.
Look, there's Avril Lavigne! Look, there's something in her mouth!
And then there was Missy Elliot! Here's Missy on the Grammys red carpet, holding an award and blowing a bubble.
And here she is on the BET Awards red carpet, holding an award and blowing a bubble.
And here she is again, at the Shark Tale premiere! What a time!
Here's a red-carpet photo of Kimora Lee Simons spitting gum out of her mouth and into Russell Simmons' hand!
As of about 2007, the bubble gum phenomenon began to fade away. Celebrities stopped blowing bubbles in their courtside seats at basketball games. They stopped tucking wads of gum into their back teeth and smiling with crooked jaws—or worse—with their mouths hanging wide open.
As a country, we're still chewing a shit ton of gum. The U.S. chewing gum industry was valued at $19 billion dollars in 2014, with Americans going through 1.74 TRILLION sticks of gum annually. But gum has completely disappeared from the red carpet.
Maybe the golden age of bubble gum passed because cameras were getting faster and blogs were getting meaner. Every moment in public was suddenly a moment that could be permanently documented on the internet—there was no chance to discreetly spit out your gum. Maybe gum simply fell out of fashion.
There's something badass about a good gum bubble—a kind of harmless lawlessness, a kind of childish rebellion that represents a warm, human contrast to the perfunctory artifice that usually characterizes red-carpet appearances.
Maybe it's time to bring bubble gum back.
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.