Victim? Survivor? After 20 years of Britney Spears, the jury’s still out| Bidisha

The pop star has often seemed like a hired hand for people behind the scenes. But there’s still time to find her true voice

Twenty years ago a teenage Britney Spears launched herself – or, to be fair, was launched – by a song and video made by middle-aged men. … Baby One More Time was a catchy (but morally wrong) song set during a long golden-hued afternoon at the tail end of summer term. A school uniform-clad Spears daydreamed in class about expressing her love for a boy through the medium of dance.

Looking back on it now, from the 2018 endtimes, that mobile-free, pre-9/11 world looks strangely innocent, bathed in the artless glow of pubescent pheromones, neon-bright sportswear and dance montages in High School Musical-style sports halls. The video and song were a world away from school mass shootings, rapist frat boys and youth activism. The platform-heeled shoes and knotted school shirt make it the 1990s fashion sister of Clueless, Never Been Kissed and Ten Things I Hate About You, and the bubbly, optimistic friend of The Craft.

From that spectacular start, Britney became the US pop princess. And what must a princess be? Well, white and Aryan preferably, but also ever-smiling, pure, gracious, grateful and – above all – well behaved. Dating her childhood friend and career contemporary, Justin Timberlake, in a sumptuous duophony of frosted highlights and double stonewash denim, Spears was the good girl in a trashy world. Remember Paris Hilton’s Barbie Girl schtick? Remember celebrity magazines so shiny they used to slip and wilt on the news stands? Remember when Victoria Beckham liked a silicone boob and a crystal trim on her strapless party frock? Those were the Spears years.

Britney Spears in 1999.
‘She came through it …’ Britney Spears in 1999. Photograph: Larry Busacca

Of course, the reality had always been much darker: Spears was not a teen discovery but a factory-grade product who underwent a long entertainment-biz hazing period as a Mickey Mouse Club presenter on TV, alongside Timberlake, Christina Aguilera and Ryan Gosling. These kids were not innocent; they had been through the mill and were probably jaded by the time they were 20. I’d be interested to know what was really going on behind those glossy white, bright-eyed smiles.

While Timberlake controlled his career with the steely-eyed calm of a Terminator, turning himself (by now) into a top actor/musician/family man/capitalist, Spears’s public image was more troubled and troubling. She was represented as a Marilyn Monroe figure: unstable, reactive, weak, mere steps away from a meltdown, a dumpster fire or a ransacked trailer. This is wholly unjust: her well-documented “breakdown”, in which she impulsively shaved her head and confronted paparazzi, is a completely understandable and logical reaction to years of being stalked, hounded, goaded, baited and violated by creeps with cameras. Britney was only “mad” in the sense of being incredibly angry. She demonstrated the effects of decades of abuse and was further abused for it. Her video for the beautiful song Everytime, in which she portrays a suicide attempt, was dismissed by fans and critics alike.

But she came through it. Global success, sustained across decades, takes incredible effort and is extremely isolating. I remember watching a tour documentary about her, around the time of Me Against the Music, her Madonna collaboration song, in which she said that despite continually writing about and performing her sexuality on stage: “I haven’t even had a kiss in like two years.” I absolutely believe her. Her life looked empty, exhausting and repetitive.

Spears has suffered as an artist despite having many singles to her name. She has never quite owned her own narrative or defined her artistic identity or personal viewpoint. Indeed, in Me Against the Music, Madonna sings to her: “Hey Britney, you say you wanna lose control … sexy lady, I’d rather see you bare your soul.” She is a great singer and dancer, and clearly a trouper in terms of work ethic. But even on her most fantastic dance-boosted electro-pop singles, like Toxic, Womanizer, I’m A Slave 4U, Do Somethin’, If You Seek Amy, Gimme More, Boys and Work Bitch, she has seemed like the hired collaborator of the people behind the scenes – usually prolific, hit-making men – rather than the main artist calling the shots.

Britney Spears, Madonna and Christina Aguilera during the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards.
‘She has lived through many dramatic shifts.’ Britney Spears, Madonna and Christina Aguilera during the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards. Photograph: Scott Gries/Getty Images

I am interested to see what happens next. Spears is young, strong, rich and experienced, and there’s still plenty to play for. Despite mockery, harassment and fluctuating critical fortunes, she has survived and maintained a family life. She also has a fantastic Instagram feed and an amazing workout regime. In February she will take up a residency in Las Vegas, which she’s calling Domination. Previously a resting spot where once-major stars’ careers went to receive palliative care, following residencies by Celine Dion and Jennifer Lopez, Vegas has become a glittery crucible in which established artists are rejuvenated and bank a wackload of cash.

Spears has lived through many dramatic shifts in the wider world, and in entertainment, over the past 20 years. The new pop world is one of short careers, video and music made expensively but streamed for free, fleeting success and a dizzyingly fast turnover of hits. A 90s pop star’s heritage and personal journey don’t count for much with phone-addicted millennials. This is also a time when women artists in particular are expected to have substance, to take a stand, to nail their colours to the mast whether they are talking about #MeToo or Trump, their personal relationships or Black Lives Matter. They can’t just perform the songs and dances of others, as Britney seems to have done, even if she didn’t. It would be great if, after Vegas, Spears went back to the studio, got up to speed, found her true voice, took command and hit us one more time.

• Bidisha is a journalist and author



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