Piece of me

The rise, fall and rise of Britney Spears whose debut album turns 20

12th January 2019

“I’m Miss American Dream since I was 17,” warbles Britney Spears in the 2007 song Piece Of Me.

She wasn’t wrong. As a teenager, the archetypal pop princess skyrocketed to stardom with …Baby One More Time. The debut album celebrates its 20th anniversary today, and still holds the title of being the biggest selling album by a teenage artist ever.

I’m not that innocent

Spears’s appeal back in 1999 seemed straightforward: she was an ordinary girl with the same conflicted, transitionary teenage thoughts and feelings as most young people. Through her songs and her public image — especially her relationship with fellow ex-Disney star Justin Timberlake — the singer taught girls to defy the narrative of self-critique, to navigate the complexities of love and loneliness, and that it was OK to spend time figuring out who they were.

As an individual, she was a talented, versatile and hard working performer — something that was undoubtedly a driving force of her early success and is still true today.

Britney rolling stone
📸 Rolling Stone

But she was also a powerful brand, a manufactured pop icon whose image was meticulously honed and cynically controlled.

Her irresistible girl-next-door demeanour had an undercurrent of brazen sexuality, yet it was difficult for critics to pinpoint exactly how the teenage Spears was sexualised. The bare midriff, thigh-high socks, school uniform, pigtails — none of these things are explicit.

Similarly, the iconic April 1999 Rolling Stones cover remains her most controversial magazine appearance to date. Photographed in the bedroom of her childhood home in Kentwood, Louisiana, by acclaimed photographer David LaChapelle, the cover’s mixing of childhood innocence and sexuality was labelled “troubling” by critics. While not overtly sexual, the 17-year-old was made a provocateur, a world away from the good southern Baptist girl she once was.

The school uniform and pigtails were reportedly Spears’s own idea, though this didn’t stop the entertainer has being dubbed a fraudster and a fake by critics, an emblem of everything superficial in celebrity.

Telegraph writer Neil McCormick who branded Spears the “very worst kind of modern pop star” says: “The vulnerability of Spears is the most human part of her. Airbrushed, choreographed, produced and manipulated to within an inch of her sanity, Spears is a vacuum into which fans, producers and brand managers alike disgorge sexual and idolatrous fantasies.”

Of course she uses autotune in the studio (virtually every singer does) and clearly she’s a lip-syncer (it would be impossible for anyone to sing while performing the high-impact choreography that made her famous). But that’s neither here nor there for fans. Society’s stratospheric expectations of Spears simply endear her to us and feed back into her performances. The song Overprotected from Spears’s third studio album, Britney, is a perfect example.

Domination

Among the teenage girls and thirsty adult men, the queer community also make up a huge section of her fanbase. Being the embodiment of style, sass and scandal, she is a diva praised and celebrated through drag impersonations and Britney-themed nights, an icon that is cherished and adored by millions.

Today, her music remains a gay-bar staple. I have always loved Spears, as am I a huge Madonna fan. One of my fondest memories is attending Manchester Pride and clubbing in G-A-Y down Canal Street with Britney blasted out in the club. For fans, her music is intoxicating; press play and the whole room is electric, uniting on uplifting and timeless pop bangers. Her lyrical variety is compelling and extremely rare: Spears is arguably the only artist who has truly succeeded in combining flirty transgressive messages about frisky sexuality and held the image of being America’s sweetheart.

But at 37 years of age and in a different music industry — albeit one she helped shape — is Spears still this figure?

I don’t blame her if she’s lost enthusiasm for that early work

I saw Spears on her Piece of Me tour in Scarborough, UK, last summer. Listening to Toxic with fish and chips in my hand (yes, I was in my element), I couldn’t help but think something was lacking. The performance was technically great, choreography to a T, but her stage presence lacked magic.

Spears is, and always will be, a revolutionary icon that emerged on the scene in the late Nineties when pop music was all about grungy bands — but I do wonder whether she has grown tired of her act. She is more than a pop artist with countless hits, she’s a human being who has grown and matured over two decades, who still does what the fans want, performing music she recorded at less than half her current age. I don’t blame her if she’s lost enthusiasm for that early work.

The Britney breakdown

Her career hasn’t been a straightforward journey — 2007 was the year America’s sweetheart was in crisis as the world turned their back on the star.

Spears became subject to ridicule and torment as people watched and mocked her abrupt change in character. This wasn’t the Britney we knew.

Footage emerged of Spears driving with her eldest child on her lap and radical behaviour changes put her under the spotlight for the wrong reasons — the infamous head shave being the most notable, the picture plastered over the front of tabloids.

Spears aided her own downfall, feeding the press with public displays of destruction

Despite being an expert in using tease and raunch in her performances, it was this moment that Spears was finally exposed.

Whether an act of liberated defiance or simply to avoid drug testing during a heated custody battle with ex Kevin Federline, the moment was as instantly iconic as anything else she’s done.

Reduced to a laughing stock, she was as addicted to the press as it was addicted to her. To an extent, Spears aided her own downfall, feeding the press with public displays of destruction which made her an easy target; it was chaotic. Was this a genuine cry for help or was Spears just offering bait to ensure her name stayed in the spotlight?

At the time, to see past “bald Britney” and hope for her comeback seemed far-fetched and unattainable.

And yet, redemption was only months away.

Her breakdown era and edgy appearance was reflected in her album Blackout, released in 2007, with the two leading singles, Gimme More and Piece of Me.

Spears’s turbulent behaviour in public had interfered with her image and, for people who’d had no belief in her and her music because of what they saw in the media, Blackout was a surprise triumph.

If Britney can survive 2007, then you can get through today

It’s one of her best albums to date, daring to be bold; not the blonde and pop princess that emerged onto the scene in ’99. It also elicits sympathy. It foregrounds her very public battle with the press: the paparazzi features prominently, with both the song and video of Piece of Me explicitly attacking press intrusion and ramming home the extent of the scrutiny Spears was under.

Though ridiculed and critiqued, never has Spears been painted the villain, unlike many stars who came a decade later, such as Taylor Swift.

In popular culture, it’s common to see the phrase: “If Britney can survive 2007, then you can get through today,” which is popular for its comedic and #relatable factors. But it’s not mean or critical, it’s empowering and redemptive.

Whether this is about the changing relationship between the public and stars or simply the wholesome power of Britney Spears, the icon has largely managed to escape demonisation.

Stronger than yesterday

Post-breakdown, Spears bounced back with her 2008 album, “Circus”. The Britney that we once knew was restored with the single Womanizer — it was her first to reach number one in the US chart since …Baby One More Time.

Though this was not free from controversy either — using elephants and other wild animals for her Circus music video, she was called out by animal welfare organisation PETA.

It’s a contrast to perhaps her best-known performance which nobody would criticise. Remember her 2001 MTV Video Music Awards performance of I’m a Slave 4 U with live python draped around her neck? Of course you do.

These days she promotes body positivity and shares her fitness journey

Though iconic, Spears today regrets this stunt. “It’s insane! Why did I do that?” the mother-of-two told E! News while promoting her upcoming new single, Make Me.

Would she ever dance with a snake again? “Hell, no!”

“It’s so dumb. No! Never!”

These days Spears is keen to show us the normalities of her life through social media — her home, family and the real person behind the Britney Spears persona. These days she promotes body positivity and shares her fitness journey, continuing to inspire and empower young women.

Her residency in Las Vegas last year performing her Piece of Me show has been one of her recent highlights. Last week, it was announced that Britney: Domination, her upcoming 32-date second concert residency, is postponed due to her father’s ill health.

She founded The Britney Spears Foundation that has donated proceeds to victims of Hurricane Katrina and over a million dollars to the Twin Towers Fund

Despite it not being typically “cool” to be a fan of Britney Spears, her shows consistently sell out.

Part of this might be the perception that she gives a lot back to the people that made her who she is today.

Over the years, Spears has used her platform to help those in need. She founded The Britney Spears Foundation that has donated proceeds to victims of Hurricane Katrina and over a million dollars to the Twin Towers Fund, as well as financially supporting the LGBT+ community.

She has the money to do so, of course — Spears’s name against pretty much anything will sell. Having released more than 20 perfumes in collaboration with Elizabeth Arden since her first perfume Curious in 2004, Britney’s perfume empire has grossed over $1.5bn. Spears is business savvy and opportunistic, she understands her consumers perfectly and her brand is one of the most established celebrity lines to hit the market.

Two decades after …Baby One More Time and the whirlwind that could have destroyed her, Spears is as strong as ever.

As she sings in My Prerogative: “People can take everything away from you, but they can never take away your truth.” Long reign the Princess of Pop!

12th January 2019