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What ‘90s girls knew about Britney Spears

THE WASHINGTON POST – If it’s been awhile since you watched the video for Britney Spears’ Baby One More Time, I really recommend it. It’s hard to describe the defcon-one frenzy that the song created when it was released in pre-YouTube 1998, except to say that an entire generation lost whole weekends on the sofa waiting for MTV to play it.

Even now, there’s something both jarring and thrilling about the choreography and the costuming (pleats, pigtails) worn by a crowd of beautiful teenagers. The song rivals Proust’s madeleines for its hyper-specific evocation of a time and place.

So the most interesting revelations to me in Britney’s new memoir, The Woman in Me, are not Spears’ allegations that she got an abortion because Justin Timberlake “said we weren’t ready to have a baby in our lives”, or that her father was a lousy manager and an even lousier dad, or that when Spears was in eighth grade her mom used to cheerfully buy her drinks that she called “toddies”.

The most interesting revelation is that the executives who produced Baby One More Time almost missed the boat entirely. The industry suits, those dodos, proposed a futuristic space theme with Spears dressed as an astronaut. It fell to Spears, then all of 16, to say, no, she should be dressed like a schoolgirl in class. She should be bored and staring at the clock until the bell rings and “then boom – we’d all start dancing”.

High-concept, it wasn’t. But it got the job done.

I was 16, exactly Spears’s age, when the video came out, working a high-school job as a shampoo girl. My co-workers and I would practice the moves in the basement breakroom and marvel. There she was, already known nationally by her first name alone. Here we were, sweeping hair clippings into a bucket. Worlds apart, but girls could dream.

Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake once dated. PHOTO: WIREIMAGE
PHOTO: ENVATO

The Woman in Me – I’m not going to spend much time considering it as a book. The writing isn’t great and the reflections aren’t deep, but nobody ever mistook Spears for a scholar. What she was a savant, on an almost spiritual level.

Not the most talented singer, but she had flashes of brilliance that connected her to the cultural oversoul. I read somewhere else that Britney was also the one who suggested that her One More Time costume should be midriff-baring. She allegedly proposed knotting the button-down just below her bra line, and this turned the whole performance from memorable to iconic.

How did she think to do this? What did she think the outcome would be? Her argument, throughout the memoir, is that she wasn’t focused much on any of that. She was just trying to have fun as a teenager, to look “cute” and make catchy music. What did people expect from a 16-year-old, she asks in one passage? “A Bob Dylan impersonation?”

Since I live in the future, I can clue in teenage Britney about the outcome: a lifetime of pain. A media industry that played her up as a Lolita – in her first Rolling Stone cover, she’s wearing satin lingerie and holding a Teletubbies doll – and a disapproving public who claimed to hate her sexy image but gobbled up her music. Respected television hosts asked her on air whether she was a virgin, and when Timberlake skeezily revealed she wasn’t, you would have thought she’d committed war crimes.

A rite of passage in 1999 – you can ask any female millennial, we all know – was sitting in your friend’s living room while a Spears video came on TV and realising that your friend’s dad’s face had gone a slack-jawed as he stared at her swiveling hips.

Watching grown men respond to Britney Spears was the way you learned that you, too, had reached the age of ogling. You were a sophomore in high school, but an adult’s responses to your body were already your fault. Even as a high-schooler, sweeping my hair clippings and disinfecting scissors, it was easier for me to believe that Britney must be a slut than to accept that America was perfectly happy to harangue a child. Girls could dream, and damned if those dreams didn’t sometimes turn into nightmares.

Her memoir is at its most interesting when read that way. Not as an insider account of Hollywood and the music industry (there’s not a lot new in here, and most scoundrels aren’t named), and not a detailed autobiography for Britney completionists. But rather, as a mirror reflecting what can happen to an average girl from Louisiana when society insists she exists for their consumption but takes most pleasure in spitting her out.

Eventually, she publicly imploded as we’d all essentially demanded she do – the shaved head, the Vegas wedding – and her father ultimately forced her into a repressive conservatorship, the details of which became public a few years ago.

She had no control over her own money, her own schedule and even her own body. She was forbidden from removing her IUD when she wanted more children. (And – since I’m already reading book reviews arguing that Britney comes across as someone who needed a conservatorship: Sure, she might have been naive. It’s possible she would have mismanaged her money. She readily admits she was struggling with mental health issues.

But people are legally allowed to be naive, and they’re allowed to mismanage their own fortunes, even their own vast fortunes.)

She clawed her way out of that toxic situation only in 2022. Can Britney ever forgive us? The redemption she’s experienced in the past few years is one of the most important pop-culture narratives of the decade. – Monica Hesse

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