Oh, what a different a decade can make. Reference Britney Spears ten or so years ago, and you conjured up an image of a teen cultural phenomenon, a gorgeous fresh-faced midriff-baring schoolgirl with a cascade of beautiful golden hair. Reference Britney Spears now, and you're taken to a different place entirely. Images come to mind of an out-of-control out-of-shape washed-up train wreck chowing down on Taco Bell barefoot in a gas station in a bathroom somewhere with an unfortunately bald head. Sure, she's managed to turn herself back around and re-reinvent herself thanks to the help of an incredibly adept mangement team and conservatorship, but the original image has been tarnished as we watched our favorite pop princess spiral into the void.
Funnily enough, whenever Britney Spears tickets go on sale nowadays, I hear squealing teenagers everywhere on the radio begging for tickets. It's as if a new generation has rediscovered our old Britney, and that period of lapsed judgment simply never happened. The Britney these kids know, however, is a very different Britney than the ones we knew. Once upon a time, girls everywhere yearned to be Britney. While you'd be hard-pressed to find a teenybopper today willing to trade places with Brit, in our day it was essentially the dream of every mainstream girl who'd ever stood in front of the mirror lip-synching in her tied-up Catholic school uniform.
Hearken back, if you will, to a time when Britney was just a fresh-faced chipper little brunette thing, bouncing around with Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake on The Mickey Mouse Club. It didn't get any squeakier clean than this. The show had been popular in the 50s and 70s, but a revitalized 1990s version brought new life to the concept. Though she auditioned at 8, Britney landed a role on the show at age 12.
Yes, Britney and Justin, the way we'd like to remember them...together.
Of course, I'm getting ahead of myself. For all the anonymous gossip blog hater commenters claiming Britney to be a talentless shill, we've got to remember that though she may have been famous for her dancing she was first noticed for her singing talent on Star Search at the age of 10.
The stage seemed set for Britney to take off in a major way. In '97 she briefly joined the dead-end girl group Innosense. Get it? Innocence...in. no. sense? These 90s music managers sure were clever. Here's Brit and the girls from Innosense, in case you can't remember. This probably was after their stint as musical conspirators, but it's still adorably vintage Brit Brit.
Just a few months after joining Innosense, Britney was signed to Jive Records, the company responsible for misguidedly catapulting manufactured and highly managed groups like *NSYNC and Backstreet Boys to atmospheric fame. Britney was cute, innocent (after all, this was pre "not that innocent" era), and had that all-American personality that endeared people everywhere to her sparkly smile and Southern accent. She was more than poised for fame, though no one could have anticipated what happened next. I do imagine her managers were pretty pleased with it, however.
In 1998, she released "Baby One More Time", becoming the first ever single released by an unknown new artist to hit number one. The video was late-90s pop at its finest, cementing a Britney Spears brand based on tongue-in-cheek naivete and latent sexuality. In it, Brittany donned pigtails, a tied-up oxford shirt, and a borderline indecent plaid schoolgirl skirt, giving dirty-minded old men everywhere a troublesome jailbait Lolita fetish and forcing Catholic schools everywhere to invest in additional security. I'm also not too proud to admit I coveted those feather pigtail ornaments with a near-religious fervor, buying what essentially amounted to a Britney Spears starter kit at Target and dutifully lacing them through my pigtails at all available opportunities. And that scene where she's got the pink sports bra, the white pants, and the half-pigtails? I yearned to replicate this look more than anything, much to the chagrin of my midriff-abhorring parents.
Britney became something of an overnight sensation, with her fluffy bubble-gum pop hits blaring from middle schooler's discmans (discmen?) across the world. Coupled with a racy Rolling Stone cover shoot, Britney Spears had solidified her semi-contradictory role as virginal teen queen and forbiddenly sexual temptress.
This image was further compounded by the fact that Britney jumped aboard the current pop sensation trend train in declaring herself a virgin, a puzzling statement in the wake of her suspiciously physical and potentially cohabitational relationship with childhood pal Justin Timberlake. Now the idea of their public declaration seems utterly laughable, but at the time it probably seemed like a fairly smart publicity move for their ever-more famous starlet. I suppose it is possible they weren't having sex. They did, after all, show up to an event wearing this grotesque denim-on-denim-on-denim set of matching ensembles. I imagine it was some form of fashion-driven sexual behavior deterrent. It's really the only explanation.
In 1999, Brit's follow up single "(You) Drive Me Crazy" was another successful record, though not on the scales of her debut "Baby One More Time." The song was featured on the Melissa Joan Hart/Adrian Grenier teen movie vehicle Drive Me Crazy.
Britney even did a crossover promotional appearance on Hart's sitcom, Sabrina the Teenage Witch. It was, well, magical.
She was nothing short of a rapid-fire hit-making machine, a year later releasing "Oops I Did It Again", a red-jumpsuited, hair-extensioned cheesefest complete with a spoken interlude chock-full of Titanic references. You just can't make this stuff up. No matter the low level of substance, it didn't deter girls everywhere from yearning to learn these dance moves.
Back in the day, Brit wasn't above poking fun at herself. Observe in this 2000 intro to her hosting gig on Saturday Night Live as she makes fun of rumors surrounding speculations over a purported boob job.
Of course, she couldn't keep up her good-girl image forever. Itching to break out of her schoolgirl shell, Britney pushed the limits with a slightly edgier image in her next album. She cemented this move with a sexy MTV Music Video Awards performance featuring dancing nearly-naked with a boa constructor. Nothing says "I'm not a girl, not yet a woman" like dancing with reptilian life.
Itching to get into film, Brit gave us a cameo in Austin Powers in Goldmember:
Followed by a slightly tragic foray into acting with her supposed movie star-making vehicle, Crossroads. Really, I don't care how big a Brit Brit fan you are. It's totally painful.
Holy crap! That is totally Justin Long, about to have sex with Brit's character Lucy n the trailer. I will hold back the mocking, though, I met him once at a craps table in Vegas and he was totally nice even though we were totally drunk. From what I remember, that is. Hence, I'm going to let it go, Justin. Just this once.
Britney stayed famous as ever, but things took a turn as she ached to break the shackles from her tightly managed life. She rebelled, dating and then marrying and then divorcing Kevin Federline, though not before popping out a few wee ones. We all know what happened next, though I'd prefer to gloss over that part. That's neither the Brit I thought I knew nor loved, and I'd prefer to just watch it on E!'s "Britney: Fall From Grace" than recount it myself.
Luckily, she's made a major comeback, though she remains a bit tarnished in reputation from her various past exploits. An MTV documentary can only reinstate you so far. Regardless, her new album is possibly her most successful since her debut, and it's likely she's more famous than ever. Love her or hate her, you've got at least admire her team's well orchestrated comeback:
Is it embarrassing to admit that as I type this, I have that bottle on my desk next to me of that Curious perfume with the atomizer she uses at the beginning of the video? C'mon don't judge. Just think of it as a crossover tie-in promotional item.