Oh, baby, baby… there’s so much to say about Britney Spears!
Most of that was said on the podcast, after drinking a little too much wine (we had to get in the proper state of mind to discuss this pop music). As a pop culture columnist in a widely read Boston magazine (available for free at train stations), I chronicled Britney’s breakdown along with everybody else in what turned out to be an especially snarky moment in celebrity culture. This included savage takedowns of Britney, Paris Hilton, Tom Cruise, Lindsay Lohan — some more deserved than others — and even though my words were just a drop in the bucket of media cruelty, I’m not proud of being a part of that machine. One reason Twitter is so savage now, perhaps, is that the media first made it okay to be that mean to people you’d never met, and never would meet.
I also used to write for a pop music blog, covering Britney’s comeback era (post-breakdown, mostly around Femme Fatale). That is to say, I spent my fair share of time thinking about and discussing Britney Spears over the years, though I had always taken her “…Baby One More Time” era as a given. She was beautiful, she sang catchy pop tunes, she was an MTV icon. I enjoyed the pop culture phenomenon of the highly anticipated “Oops! I Did It Again” video, or various provocations on awards shows (usually on MTV). But this was not a period of Britney’s career that felt worthy of much scrutiny after the fact. It was squeaky-clean with just a hint of naughty, and I was only as invested as being a teenager in 1999 forced me to be. I liked Scream and Buffy and Green Day and was in the early phases of seeing truly great films. I needed some misery, death, and ironic detachment to be a true fan of anything at the time.
This episode of the podcast was fun in that respect, because it allowed me to actually consider a pop culture milestone I was very, very aware of and yet had not thought much about. As a 15-year-old myself, I wasn’t scandalized by Britney Spears’ midriff or the “come hither” faces of Mandy Moore in the “Candy” video. These girls were a little older than I was, but they also weren’t any more sexualized than actual teenage girls. Porn stars have dressed as high school cheerleaders and Catholic schoolgirls for decades, so if men are going to jerk off thinking about underage girls, why can’t the girls play along?
The most surprising thing coming out of the podcast was that “…Baby One More Time” video, and the extent to which I believe it’s empowering rather than problematic. Since the sexualization of young women has occurred throughout history, I’m not really bothered by the way it was presented here, especially since the concept for the video came from Spears herself. I think it’s important that the video is framed as a fantasy of Britney herself. She may be training the male gaze on herself, but what teenager doesn’t daydream about how to appeal to the opposite (or same) sex? I can’t be sure, but I never felt like Britney was pushed to be any sexier or more provocative than she wanted to be. As manufactured as she was, she at least appeared to be authoring the image herself.
Christina Aguilera also seemed mature enough to handle the sexual content of the music, though in her case, it felt a little desperate — like the skanky girl who can only compete with the pretty wholesome girl by getting down. (I realize the “contest’ between these girls is largely ginned up by the media, and assumptions of catfighting are demeaning to women, but it’s also obvious that Aguilera’s debut was a response to Spears.)
For me, 1999’s pop becomes problematic with Jessica Simpson and Mandy Moore, and the increasing sense that these women are not behind the choices that have been made for them. That narrative is widely known in Simpson’s case, who basically baited the music industry into salivating over his young daughter, peddling her purity in one hand and her “double Ds” in the other. It’s gross that virginity had anything to do with this pop moment, which it certainly did, and Spears was at the center of that, though her singles never really played into that the way Aguilera’s “What A Girl Wants,” Moore’s “So Real,” and Simpson’s entire narrative did. I’m fine with young women being sexy, if they want to be, but don’t also tell me that you’re too innocent to know what you’re doing. (But the madonna-whore complex has been a problem for a very long time.)
Spears early music continually placed her as the one in control, from her daydream in “…Baby One More Time” to the heartbreak vixen of “Oops! I Did It Again.” When she was mooning over a boy, as in “Crazy” or “Sometimes,” it was pretty chaste. (If Spears has a virginity anthem like the rest of these girls do, I don’t know about it.) And Spears was the first of the bunch to release a truly empowering single, too, with 2000’s “Stronger,” which is probably my favorite of her early career. It took the rest of these girls various lengths of time to find themselves, musically — if they ever did — but Spears never had to change her approach much. She debuted as herself, and despite plenty of tumult in her personal life and backstage, her music has remained remarkably consistent. Whether that’s a testament to her, or savvy behind-the-scenes career management, it justifies the image she projected in “…Baby One More Time.” She burst onto the pop scene fully-formed, which is not something that can be said about Spears’ peers.