I think a lot about “Lucky.” Not just because the single from Britney Spears’s Oops!… I Did It Again is impossibly catchy; or because the singer’s vocal tics are absurdly fun to imitate; or because the production from Swedish pop maestros Max Martin and Rami Yacoub establishes a weird sort of robot simulacrum of the plucked strings from Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me” in a textbook millennium-era computerization of culture. “Lucky” is striking as a ballad sung in the third person about a pop star feeling boxed in by the demands of fame, who, by outward appearances, seems to have the world at her fingertips but quietly aches for the one thing she can’t have: time to herself. Sure, Spears didn’t write the song — the majority of the songs from her first two albums were written by the Swedes, who helped to usher in the ’90s teen-pop revolution — but it feels a little on the nose for what would happen to her throughout the decade between her debut 1998 single, “…Baby One More Time,” and the breakdown and conservatorship that has left her father, Jamie Spears, in charge of her career and finances since 2008. Perceptions and misconceptions complicated Britney’s journey. Her art was dismissed as sentimental pap. Her pain was mined for content on television and in magazines. The belief that she could handle this, and that life was sweet on the other side of the cameras, was a horrible miscalculation that’s come into focus in the wake of The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears, a documentary examining how a harsh, mercurial entertainment industry mocked and inflamed the singer’s struggles. We thought we knew her; we were only projecting.
There was a disconnect almost from day one, when Spears exploded onto the scene with the 1998 video for “…Baby One More Time” dressed as a schoolgirl with a hint of attitude, singing of a teenage crush in the apocalyptic urgency with which such things make themselves known. This instantly scrambled people’s circuits as the song caught fire on charts, radio playlists, and video countdowns. Spears was wholesome and demure with a touch of coy distance, all hallmarks of a southern Christian upbringing. Her quest to please a growing constituency was a savvy balancing act; she understood what was expected of a teen star at the time: family-friendly entertainment that didn’t rock anyone’s boat. (Some of this knowledge was gleaned from a stint on Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club in the mid-’90s, where she met friends and sometime rivals Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera and honed her showmanship to a fine point before the show was canceled in 1996.)
Spears handled this feat impressively well in those years. She became a vessel for our intense emotions, but in the process, she would also become a lodestone for criticism of an entire generation’s tastes and habits. Some thought “…Baby” was too sexual. Others dismissed it as shlock. The two-star Rolling Stone review of Baby One More Time called the singer a “jailbait dynamo” and commended the producers and writers for the hits but called the rest “pure spam.” Her 1999 RS cover, a suggestive shot by David LaChapelle, American photographer and videographer with a penchant for making the surreal seem serene, depicted the singer lying in bed in mildly revealing loungewear, hugging a Teletubby made to appear to be ogling her breasts. From the first paragraph, the cover story fixated with laser focus on her body, making note of her “honeyed thigh” and “ample chest.” Spears’s profilers accentuated a sexuality that had been carefully restrained, and she paid for it in backlash and questions about her appropriateness as a role model. The intense scrutiny of her image and the rush to categorize this almost deliberately uncategorizable persona yielded years of ridiculous conversations. In early interviews, she is often calmly explaining to a journalist that their instincts about her are wrong, or else avoiding attempts to get her to say something damaging.
Britney seemed baffled by these lines of reasoning, insisting that she’d only ever been having fun playing dress-up, that she never felt that she was giving off the sensual airs parents had accused her of exposing their children to. “I know I’m not ugly,” Spears told Entertainment Weekly in 2001, “but I don’t see myself as a sex symbol or this goddess-attractive-beautiful person at all. When I’m onstage, that’s my time to do my thing and go there and be that.” The complaints about her wardrobe and the lewd snark in her media coverage continued. The conversation stayed on sex. Was her image too risqué for her audience? Were her fans being led astray? Was she using sex to mask a lack of talent? Was she “all natural”? Was she a virgin? Was she regretting telling people she was a virgin? As Spears grew older and made calculated, necessary adjustments to her public-facing persona, seemingly in service to losing the demands of being the perpetually upbeat spokesperson for a demographic that no longer included her and speaking more directly to more adult interests, she drew more fire, more ridicule, and more creepy, unwarranted sexism, all of it rooted in a profound misreading of the changing youth culture Spears and her music represented.
In songs like “Lucky,” “Overprotected,” “What U See (Is What U Get),” “Stronger,” and “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman,” Britney Spears sang about the disorienting distance between who we are and who others think we are, and the experiences that drive us to be better versions of ourselves. As much as Spears’s music focused on dewy love and painful breakups, her grappling with identity and expectations resonated loudly. When the internet became more prevalent in the home lives of younger and younger audiences, it also became possible to create a brighter, shinier persona for yourself, to explore interests not dictated by where and when you grew up and what you were allowed to experience through television and the radio. Spears’s refusal to be easily categorized was both the function of a well-oiled star-making machine and a very modern act of sampling styles and ideas to find what suited her best. But the aughts were draconian times, still beholden to outmoded and restrictive ideas about sex, sexuality, gender, and language, worse than any noisy left- or right-wing “free speech” advocate, “cancel culture” opponent, or cranky, reactionary “PC police” critic could say of the new ’20s. When you didn’t fit a certain mold, peer pressure set about sanding down your rough edges. These were times where a simple wardrobe malfunction could damage a career permanently, and untoward public remarks drew not just letter-writing campaigns but even fines and censures. The passion of Britney Spears is the story of a public too accustomed to sharp contrasts not knowing what to do with her noncommittal grays, of a singer being criticized for bristling at the prefab notions of how she ought to carry herself, and of the concerted weaponization of dying cultural norms.
When Britney made mistakes, she met a delighted audience in the people who felt her genteel Louisiana charm was a carefully constructed front. When she pushed the envelope, the invisible hand of America in its “family values” years pushed back. As she grew into the sex-positive artist people seemed to want to make her out to be much too early on as a teen, she was accused of selling sex in lieu of substance. This animus was expressed in spectacularly unusual ways: The new wave of young women finding success as pop singer-songwriters in the middle aughts — like Avril Lavigne, Michelle Branch, and Vanessa Carlton — was lumped together by publications like Spin as “anti-Britneys,” as though “Britney” were shorthand for something vapid and stilted that needed to be deposed. In 2002, CBS News commended this new class for “challenging the notion that you have to bare your navel and cavort in tight clothes to be sexy and successful in pop music,” at once attributing Britney’s success not to her personality or the electronic teen symphonies her best early songs presented but to “the three B’s: blondness, beauty, and bustiers,” framing singers who frankly had fuck all to do with each other beyond their more reserved fashion senses and the prevalence of guitars and pianos in their music as a kind of resistance movement. It was an idea rooted in the old-fashioned belief that more organic-sounding music is more authentic and in the lofty notion that anything was ever wrong with how Britney dressed (her garish 2001 American Music Awards denim dress notwithstanding). This was unfair pressure on Carlton and Branch, too; both hit parades had fizzled out by 2004. Britney addressed the Avril phenomenon by simply having Let Go co-producers the Matrix work on a track for 2003’s In the Zone because, as her further dalliances with hip-hop/R&B and dance music would later bear out on the charts, there was never any single, static “Britney Spears sound” in the first place.
All the while Spears dealt with a chauvinistic press, a fickle public, snarky comics, prying TV personalities, opinionated peers, and puritanical news pundits (as well as exes like Justin Timberlake, who finally gave a statement last week expressing regret for manipulating public perceptions of women in music he did wrong by, to his benefit and their denigration — enabling him to maintain the kind of slippery solo career they’d attempted and been denied, such was the discrepancy in criticism for men and women then as now), paparazzi ramped up tensions to dangerous levels stalking the singer for scoops. Daniel Ramos, the celebrity videographer in Framing Britney Spears who is perhaps best known for the 2013 incident where Kanye West tackled him outside Los Angeles International Airport, feeling that he was looking out for Spears by asking how she felt between invasive camera flashes, speaks to the toxicity between tabloids and their famous targets at the time. Before social media restructured discourse, celebrities kept up a carefully constructed façade, and gossip mags poked holes in these narratives with tea and unflattering candids. This fed into a cycle of dehumanization. They were joke fodder for us. We reduced Britney, Whitney, Mariah, and so many others to punchlines in moments where they seemed to be genuinely unwell, and it should sting when we look back over the era. We failed them. Insatiable thirst for Britney drama only resulted in even more unnecessary scandals, like the chase that yielded a shot of her driving with her son in her lap or the night she lost her cool and went after paparazzi with an umbrella.
If the tale of the sheltered star told in “Lucky” was fiction, it was a prophetic one. Fame became a trap. Demands were deeply conflicting. When Britney wore tight clothing, it was too revealing, not wholesome enough. When she became a mother, her parenting skills were called into question. When she took pop music and culture by storm, she was dismissed as cookie-cutter factory product with a fast-approaching shelf life. When she took time off, paparazzi gave chase. When she was coy, she was called an airhead; when she spoke out, she drew criticism. It’s a wonder that she held it together as long as she did in this climate. There was no peace for her in it, no happy medium she could find to appease us. Spears herself is not free of blame for how this turned out. Some responsibility for bad plays like her widely-panned 2002 film Crossroads or the 2005 UPN series Britney and Kevin: Chaotic — where she and then-husband Kevin Federline put their messy private lives on display through home movies with endless bad camera angles, unintentionally priming the rapper and dancer for backlash that hit when they divorced a year later — rests on her. No one made her grab the umbrella, though the catalyst for the incident was a lack of boundaries and simple decency part and parcel of an entertainment industry that commodified and violated its subjects. It shouldn’t have taken ten years to realize that the discourse had been hurtful and unhealthy. (To be fair, the fandom was hip to this all along. Adult actor Chris Crocker, who made waves with his 2007 “Leave Britney Alone” clip, recently opened up about death threats he received for it. The dedicated members of the Free Britney movement continue to protest and picket outside hearings. Even Crossroads has gotten a softer reassessment in this climate. It was never as bad as it was made out to be, and more recently it’s being reclaimed as a free-spirited piece of the cinematic universe of director and writer Shonda Rhimes in a similar fashion to Mariah Carey’s lambs sending Glitter back up charts.)
It’s impossible to know what other mitigating factors were at work, and this makes the subject of Spears’s conservatorship a tricky one. We only know what we’ve seen, and in spite of prying, we’ve been at arm’s length since 1998. The question of who should run her estate is perhaps beyond our station, though it’s painful to see her denied her desired resolution, and to try to decode her feelings from chipper, detached Instagram video dispatches, though, arguably, this has always been the nature of our relationship to Britney Spears. As much as this might seem like a uniquely 2000s pickle in retrospect, an indictment of the hypocrisy of a culture that prioritized decency but lashed out indecently when it felt its standards had not been met, the conditions that made this saga uniquely awful haven’t much changed.
Our standards are still steep, and our vengeance for those that fail to meet them is still swift and uncompromising. Women still face criticism for being comfortable in their bodies and free in their expression. Complaints about the lyrical content in Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “W.A.P.” from supporters of the notoriously crass Donald Trump show a double standard prevails. Jokes about Megan’s shooting over the last six months stand as disconcerting proof that women’s trauma is still taken lightly. Phoebe Bridgers sparked an entire week of arguments just by banging a guitar on a monitor during a Saturday Night Live performance. Did we learn anything at all? Chatter around Framing Britney Spears has reportedly inspired Netflix to follow Hulu’s lead and make its own documentary about the singer in a repeat of the streaming services’ warring Fyre Fest coverage in 2019. The market for dissecting Britney Spears remains lucrative as ever.