Britney Offered Pop Superstardom — But It Also Sent a Message We Ignored

Britney Offered Pop Superstardom — But It Also Sent a Message We Ignored


By Ilana Kaplan

An eponymous album marks a major moment in an artist’s career. For women, owning one’s work, body, and artistry can be especially powerful, even political. Throughout Women’s History Month, MTV News is highlighting some of these iconic statements from some of the biggest artists on the globe. This is Self-Titled.

Several images have defined Britney Spears throughout her career: debuting distressed in a (then) controversial, edgy Catholic school-girl outfit about how her loneliness is killing her; steamy in white, kissing Madonna at the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards; distraught and battling her mental health and tabloid culture as she beat a paparazzo’s car with an umbrella a few years later.

But one particular scene stands out as a cultural reset for the star: when Spears performed her raunchy hit “I’m a Slave 4 U” at the 2001 VMAs with an albino Burmese python named Banana draped around her neck. It could’ve been just another awards show performance, but it became pop-music history. The set was striking — a jungle of Spears’s own making — featuring the singer and her washboard abs scantily clad in a green chiffon scarf-bra and gem-encrusted boy shorts that eventually helped fund the Halloween costume industry.

As the lead single of her self-titled album Britney, “I’m a Slave 4 U” was a hypnotic, hip-hop-infused anthem that touted a more mature sound than listeners had heard before. But it wasn’t just a single: It symbolized a new era. Her VMAs rendition further solidified it. The performance, like the song, had power. Gone were the pink-ribbon pigtails and cardigans: Spears was embracing her raw sexuality and also making a declarative response to the criticism she received for being too risqué. Whether the public liked it or not, the pop icon was growing up, and her liberated sound and provocative performances were now going to match.

Spears’s MTV performance came just two months before she’d release Britney, her boundary-pushing third album that served as a primer for pop longevity. Britney pushed genre boundaries and found the artist toying with everything from rock and R&B to hip-hop and disco. For Spears, Britney was emblematic of her pop potential, and its coming-of-age narrative paralleled Janet Jackson’s 1986 reset Control. The 12-track record flaunted her versatility via the retro-futuristic, R&B-laced “I’m a Slave 4 U” and “Boys”; the electro-ballad “That’s Where You Take Me”; the defiant dance-pop jaunt “Overprotected”; and the fiery cover of Joan Jett and the Blackhearts’s anthemic “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.”

Britney also allowed Spears to be seen as more than a performer. While they weren’t singles, Spears co-wrote five of the album’s tracks: “Lonely,” “Anticipating,” “Cinderella,” “Let Me Be,” and “That’s Where You Take Me.” She partnered once again with hit producers Max Martin and partner Rami Yacoub, who helped her transition from her first two records to a more mature phase. It also proved she wasn’t afraid of edgier production, enlisting The Neptunes to help produce what would be two of the album’s hit singles (“I’m a Slave 4 U” and “Boys”).

While Britney was contemporaneously written off as “a concept record about herself,” 20 years later, the album scans as an earnest depiction of a young star coming of age under a microscope and trying to experience life on her own terms. If 1999’s debut …Baby One More Time touted innocence and 2000’s follow-up Oops!…I Did It Again tackled the loneliness of fame, Britney grappled with wanting to have autonomy — over her body, life, and choices. Her feelings about the desire to live freely and without judgment were in plain sight. “All you people look at me like I’m a little girl / Well, did you ever think it’d be OK for me to step into this world?” Spears declares on “I’m a Slave 4 U.” “Overprotected” reflected the crushing weight of fame and Spears’s desire for normality — due in part to the overwhelming paparazzi. The Martin- and Dido-penned “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” reflected the in-between state Spears found herself in and the space she needed to explore it.

But Spears was never really given that space. The New York Times’s recent Hulu documentary Framing Britney Spears — which re-examines her career, the cruelty of the media, and contextualizes her conservatorship — recalled how Spears, not quite 20 years old when this album dropped, was met repeatedly with questions about her virginity and sex life. And Britney was a statement that required no further questioning — a portrait of a young girl reckoning with both adulthood and her sexuality. Yet this self-actualization was ignored, and Spears was not only plagued endlessly by intimate questions but christened one of pop culture’s “Lolitas,” alongside Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, Lindsay Lohan, and Christina Aguilera. Unfortunately, that gross sentiment overshadowed the pop star’s own story and haunted her career during her journey of self-discovery.

The narrative and release of Britney also lent itself to a visual component. In early 2001, Spears and her team helped craft a script for a film where the singer would make her debut in a starring role. That script became 2002’s teen drama Crossroads, which followed three childhood friends Lucy (Spears), Kit (Zoe Saldana), and Mimi (Taryn Manning), as they embarked on a road trip where Mimi could audition for a record label. The film was somewhat reflective of Spears’s own journey of growing up and pursuing her pop-star dreams. It was also shaped by tracks from Britney that shaped a blossoming narrative. “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” can seem like a schmaltzy ballad, but it was a formative moment for Spears and her onscreen character who read the song as a poem and later performed it. It remains a metaphor about a young woman at the peak of stardom who was bending and could break without the breathing room to grow up.

Twenty years since the release of Britney, the album is representative of the complexities of young stardom. For the past 13 years, Spears has been stuck in an in-between state that recalls the sentiment of Britney, in a conservatorship that has controlled her life in ways she perhaps couldn’t have imagined back in 2001. In the context of the recent Spears renaissance, the record is simultaneously a pop masterpiece, a plea for autonomy and respect, and a statement to the media. Her loneliness wasn’t killing her anymore, but the scrutiny surrounding her life and image was. While Britney helped establish a foundation for Spears’s pop superstardom, it also reflected the harrowing state of early 2000s media culture, slut-shaming, and the way it suffocated young women. Britney was a message we ignored, and we should have known better.