Each day this week, one Noisey UK staff member writes about one of their all-time faves (in some cases, one you might not expect anyone to love this much in 2017). Today: news writer Lauren O'Neill on her lifelong love of Britney Spears.
I remember where I was when the following things happened:
- the death of Whitney Houston
- the first time I heard a Britney Spears song
This is to say, I'm really into Britney.
The first time I heard her music, I was four, and strapped into the front passenger seat of my mum's car while she drove. As a kid, I loved to sing, and the two of us would perform extremely exclusive concerts along to the radio on the way to school, or swimming lessons, or anywhere really. The car was our Madison Square Garden, and we sold it out every time, even if we were only taking my nan to bingo. Before Britney, our best number was Eternal's "I Wanna Be The Only One," a Bebe Winans-featuring pop/soul track that could feasibly have been released at any point after 1970, and which ruled UK airwaves in the late 90s. And, one day, when I'd exhausted myself yelling along to that, my head lolling over as I looked out of the window, a different song – a new song – played. I didn't have the vocabulary to describe the feeling then, but I do now: it fucked me up.
"Oh baby, baby," a girl's voice sang, breathy. Except, of course, it was more "Awh baybah, baybah," and it was offset against dramatic piano – the sort of intro that promises more build and excitement in its first seconds than most garden variety pop songs achieve by the time they're over. Five syllables, a few chords. I was hooked, the barb practically poking out of the side of my cheek. Alert again, I sat up straight to listen – quite simply, before that moment, I didn't know that music could be this thrilling. I listened more, wanting to physically shove it into my ears, gliding on the wings of the chorus, sliding down the key change, and crashing dizzy into the last enormous chorus, led all the while by the distinctive vocal fry of Britney Spears, whose voice – sweet and salty, like cinema popcorn – was like nothing I'd heard before.
On "…Baby, One More Time," Britney Spears sings as though she's chewing a piece of toffee or a soft pillow of bubblegum too large for her mouth. Her Louisiana twang drips with something pleasantly sour, her lips moving around vowels the way they might navigate a lollipop, slick with its glossy sugar.
And it's funny, isn't it, how I'm immediately drawn to figure her with these references to sweet food that signal both the ability to consume, and an infantilised type of sexuality? In both sound and image, that palatable sexuality was intrinsic to what Britney Spears meant when she emerged from the Mickey Mouse Club incubation tank in 1998. That's how she was marketed: a belly button-pierced Lolita for the late 20th century (only this time, young but old enough). And that's even before you get to the music video.
If you're unfamiliar (how??) I'm talking about the Nigel Dick-directed video, the one where Britney's dressed in the exact combination of garments that's now synonymous with the phrase 'sexy schoolgirl' (gross), and which made fluffy pink hair ties a universally in-demand commodity. The first time I saw it, I decided immediately that I was obsessed, and whenever it came on TV afterward, I'd dance and sing along as if I were Britney herself, giving an intimate, no doubt slightly shonky performance in the living room, fascinated by the choreography and Britney's collection of vastly adult-seeming crop tops.
Back in 1998, she was a perfect, beautifully packaged product to be bought, a mirror to reflect the western world's desires back at it. For years, she struck the balance between sterility and sexuality, and "….Baby One More Time," as her first outing, is the purest possible crystallisation of that. The ideals she embodied made her a star, and they subsequently followed her throughout the first two eras of her career. Even when she released "I'm a Slave 4 U" and kissed Madonna at the VMAs and everyone agreed that Britney had grown up, the sexuality she displayed still toed a line of acceptability – she was more obviously sexy (oil, sweat, a snake), but she still wasn't doing anything truly subversive. Because despite a new reputation as pop's bad girl – though she was vying for attention with the similarly re-branded 'Xtina' – Britney still operated within the very strict lanes of patriarchally-approved femininity: toned, slim, rich, white, blonde. And then, as if to show us all, as if she just couldn't be bothered to shoulder it anymore, on 16 February 2007, Britney Spears shaved her head.
I grew up with Britney. She was a cultural fixture for my entire childhood, and even when my music taste started to change and expand, I still maintained a special, Britney-shaped place in my heart. I was 12 when she cut her hair, and at the time, the main thing I felt was confusion that she'd become something other than what I thought. She'd always symbolised the type of femininity that I thought of as the "right" kind, but that was exactly the problem. She'd been a symbol rather than a real person: "all things to all people," as a 2008 Esquire profile put it, alternately an ideal and a nightmare, but always just a symbol.
When she shaved her head, she did it herself. She gripped the razor in her own hand, and hacked her own hair off. Though I didn't think about it this way at the time, this felt surprising because it was one of the first times I'd registered her showing any sort of agency in a ten-year career spent largely under the control of others (indeed, she still remains under the conservatorship of her father and a lawyer). This June, speaking to Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot, she agreed that during her early career, she didn't feel as though she was in the driving seat. "My life was controlled by too many people and that doesn't really let you be yourself," she said. "There were many decisions that were made for me that I didn't make myself." In shaving her head, you might say that she made a decision. She suspended the illusion of perfect femininity that had been built up around her, and snapped us all awake.
Being a Britney stan is having a self-conscious knowledge that your fave is human, just like you. For me, realising that she's not the untouchable product that she was sold as has only made me love her – her sweet personality, her now-lazy way of executing choreography, that recognisable-anywhere voice – even more. And you can be sure that even now, whenever I hear "…Baby One More Time," I'm back in the blue Ford Escort, reliving the initial wonder that I'm not sure I've felt about music, or about anything, in the same way since. I'm back in my childhood living room, still dancing every step in my head.
Read the rest of our Fandom Week stuff here, with everything from making stans confront their worst stereotypes to an oral history of AFI's early 00s fan forum.