Britney Spears Received “Dangerous” Backlash As A Teenager

“I never said I was a role model. All I wanted to do was sing and dance.”

Britney Spears at the 2000 VMAs. Photo via Getty Images
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In Britney Spears’ new memoir, The Woman in Me, the musician reflects on her performance at the 2000 MTV Video Music Awards and the way it shaped the trajectory of her career — and the kind of criticism she’d spend years grappling with.

To recap: Spears was 18 when she sang both the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and “Oops!... I Did It Again” for the awards show audience, sporting a nude, bejeweled bra top that would go down in pop fashion history.

Spears’ Polarizing Performance

In her memoir, Spears praises choreographer Wade Robson for helping her “look strong and feminine at the same time.” But despite being proud of her work, Spears soon came face to face with criticism — literally — when MTV asked her to respond to street interviews about the performance.

“They said that I was dressing ‘too sexy,’ and thereby setting a bad example for kids,” Spears recalls of the 2000 special, When Sex Goes Pop.

Conscious of the MTV cameras watching for her reaction, Spears wondered if she did “something wrong.”

“I’d just danced my heart out at an awards show,” she recalls. “I never said I was a role model. All I wanted to do was sing and dance.”

A Lasting Impact

Spears characterizes some of the strangers’ comments as claims that she was “corrupting America’s youth.” Hearing this criticism at a young age “shook [her] up,” Spears writes, adding that it was her “first real taste of a backlash that would last years.”

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In 2007, MTV itself looked back on the show as the arrival of a “full-grown, supremely sexy woman.” But in her memoir, Spears points out that she was very much still growing up — and not trying to set a standard for anyone else.

“I was a teenage girl from the South,” she writes. “I signed my name with a heart. I liked looking cute. Why did everyone treat me, even when I was a teenager, like I was dangerous?”

To “protect [her] heart from criticism and to keep the focus on what was important,” Spears writes, she began reading religious books and taking medication.

Revisiting Spears’ MTV Special

Though a young Spears tried to defend herself during the special (“I’m not the children’s parents,” she said), critics didn’t necessarily get the memo. A Washington Post review of the 2000 program, for example, was fairly dismissive of her input: “She defends the barely-there ensemble ... and then talks about ‘being a girl.’ Or something like that.”

In recent years, the rise of #FreeBritney led many people — public figures and otherwise — to reckon with their treatment of Spears.

One former MTV VJ, Dave Holmes, was interviewed for 2021’s Framing Britney Spears and said revisiting the era made him feel “ashamed” in an essay for the Los Angeles Times. Though he didn’t work on the special, Holmes said it was heartbreaking to watch today.

“She puts a good face on it, because that is her job, but you can tell it hurts, because what you know now is that she’s a human being,” he wrote.