Before embarking on this article, I didn't really get Britney Spears. I thought she was a fine singer; I'd work out to her music. I'd heard she was a pretty good dancer, too. But, the music world has seen many decent singers and dancers over the years. To most people, Spears is more than that. She's an icon of the '90s who also managed to make it out of the decade and have people still care about her today. No matter how many ups and downs she has faced, her fans have been by her side, and her music seems to have stood the test of time. Still, I didn't really understand how Spears could still have such a large role in pop culture in 2017 — so large, that Lifetime will air a biopic about her on Saturday, Feb. 18.
In 2016 alone, Spears released Glory (her first new album since 2013), returned to the MTV VMAs stage to perform, and told Vegas Player Magazine that she's already planning her next album. It's clear that Spears isn't going away, so I thought it was time I try to figure out what makes her so beloved the best way I know how: Through hard data. Spears is such a controversial figure in pop culture that I wasn't sure I trusted even my own opinions about her. So, this is an objective view of Britney Spears. I wanted to see if, after exploring her career, I could finally understand what's kept her career going for almost 20 years.
I wasn't allowed to listen to Spears as a teen; she's not synonymous with my youth, and I had only a cursory knowledge of her life. So, I researched 12 big moments from Spears' decades-long career that span a variety of her projects. I analyzed her music videos, performances, TV spots, and, yes, even Crossroads, to determine their impact. Is she as great as her fans would have you believe, or is she just semi-decent pop star that reminds us all of our childhoods?
1993-1994: The Mickey Mouse Club, aka The Beginning
- Spears joined the MMC revival in 1993 and stayed on the series for a year.
- According to Rolling Stone, Spears thought the cancellation that came shortly after would be the end of her career in acting and singing.
1998: "...Baby One More Time" Reinvents Her Disney Look
- It was actually Spears who suggested the Catholic school girl theme for the video, as she told People, "The outfits looked kind of dorky, so I was like, 'Let's tie up our shirts and be cute.'"
- The content of the video so disturbed the American Family Association that they called for a boycott of stores selling Spears' albums due to what they claimed was a "disturbing mix of childhood innocence and adult sexuality," according to TV Guide.
- In 2011, the single was voted the best '90s video by Billboard. It was also named the third most influential music video in pop music history in a 2011 poll, according to Reuters.
- The song sold a whopping 500,000 copies in the 24 hours after its release and today, with over 10 million copies sold, it's one of the best-selling singles ever
2000: "Oops I Did It Again" Continues Her Rise To Fame
- Spears' nasally voice and drawn-out pronunciation of words were replicated by artists like Michelle Branch in years to come.
- This video was also iconic for its totally '90s Titanic reference. And while Spears certainly didn't pioneers speaking in the middle of a song, it remains a go-to for artists today, such as Taylor Swift.
- Like with "...Baby One More Time," Spears was responsible for many of the creative decisions on the video. "This whole idea was my idea," she told MTV. "I was like, 'I want to be on Mars, dancing on Mars.'" And dance on Mars, she did.
2001: The Iconic "I'm A Slave 4 U" VMAs Performance
- In 2008, MTV crowned this performance the most memorable VMAs moment.
- The performance angered PETA (and me), but nothing could take away from the lasting iconic nature of the stunt. MTV reported that Nicki Minaj also intended to use a live snake in her 2014 VMAs performance of "Anaconda," but the snake bit a backup dancer in rehearsal and the idea was scrapped.
- In 2016, Spears called her own decision to dance with the snake "dumb" in an interview with E! News. "It's insane! Why did I do that?" she said.
2002: Crossroads Diversifies Her Talent
- Shonda Rhimes wrote the film, but not without then 20-year-old Spears who helped in its development. Between the direction she gave to her hit videos and this movie, it turns out that Spears took a much more active role in all aspects of her career than I thought.
- Despite being the second highest-grossing film on its Feb. 2002 opening day with $5.2 million, ticket sales dropped off steadily in the wake of bad reviews. Not that Spears cared. "Honestly, if critics like it, I'm going to be really worried, because everything the critics like, I freakin' don't like," she told USA Today at the time. "As long as my fans can go to the movie and be somewhat touched by it, that was my initiative with this."
2003: That VMAs Kiss
- Vice named it a truly "iconic" moment, and one of the greatest in music history. From the liplock to the quick camera shot of Timberlake, the entire ordeal paved way for other provocative moments like Miley Cyrus' "Blurred Lines" performance in 2013.
- In an interview with MTV ahead of the 2013 show, Cyrus spoke of Spears and Madonna's kiss, saying that it was a handover of the musical torch "by a passing of the tongue."
- Not everyone was a fan of the performance, though, with Stevie Nicks saying it would be the death of Spears' career. "Britney should be smarter than that. Hopefully, she will figure a way out of this hole she has dug for herself," Nicks told the Associated Press. "Madonna will be fine. Madonna is Madonna. She does what she wants. She will get over this. But will Britney get over it? I don’t know.”
2007: The Criticized "Gimme More" VMAs Performance
- This performance came on the heels of a very public breakdown, and, rather than being the comeback people expected, it only seemed to sink Spears lower.
- The lackluster performance gave way to the infamous "Leave Britney Alone" video where a sobbing Chris Crocker defended the singer and demanded that others support her as well.
2008: The Series-Saving How I Met Your Mother Cameo
- The HIMYM creators have credited Spears with saving the show when it was in a ratings slump. "By golly she put our show on the map. It can't be overstated," Carter Bays told E! Online. "Britney Spears rescued us from ever being on the bubble again. Thanks Britney!"
- Her episode brought the series its highest ratings at that point with 10.6 million viewers, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
2009: Britney's Back, B*tch... With The Circus Tour
- Everything that "Gimme More" wasn't, the Circus Tour was. Spears' first tour in five years, it was generally well-received and as a Washington Post reviewer put it, "The show wasn't a concert. It was an over-the-top spectacle in which Spears — considered a major popwreck just a couple of years ago — made a compelling case for herself as the current queen of pop performance art."
- Billboard reported that the tour grossed $94.8 million and was the seventh highest grossing tour of the year.
- Though a success, it also marked the change in tide for Spears' future projects. She would seemingly be in a perpetual state of "coming back," according to the media. At what point does it stop being a comeback and just start being her career again?
2010: Glee Tackles An Icon
- At the time of its premiere, the series' Spears tribute set all kinds of records, according to MTV. It garnered 13.3 million viewers and brought the series' highest rating in the 18-49 demo to date.
- Showrunner Ryan Murphy told Zap2It, "Spears is arguably the most important female [musician] other than Lady Gaga in the last 10 years."
2013: "Work B*tch" Brings Back The "Old Britney"
- If there was ever a return of the Britney that we first met in the '90s, this was her. She was busting moves, singing a catchy song, and generally entertaining anyone who heard this song or saw its video.
- This marked an effort on Spears' part to downgrade the sexiness in her videos, as she told radio station AMP 103.3., "I have children, and it’s just hard to play sexy mom while you’re being a pop star as well. I just have to be true to myself and you know, feel it out when I do stuff."
- This video also renewed Spears' focus on dancing. Perhaps as a side affect of moving away from more sexual content, her moves shine like they hadn't in a long time. "A lot of sex goes into what I do," she told the radio station. "But sometimes I would like to bring it back to the old days when there was like one outfit through the whole video, and you’re dancing the whole video, and there’s like not that much sex stuff going on ... It’s about the dance and it’s about being old school."
2013 — Now: Queen Of Las Vegas
- Spears' residency helped shape the new entertainment scene in Vegas, according to the Las Vegas Sun. Travel Vegas also credited her with helping draw a younger crowd to the city. She set a precedent for other artists to follow her to Vegas, and the Backstreet Boys are starting their own residency soon
- Nov. 5 is hailed as "Britney Day" in Vegas, and she has a key to the city. By the end of her five-year run, she'll have performed 250 shows.
So, Is Britney Really That Great?
When I started this piece, I thought I would remain apathetic towards Spears, her music, and her entire career. I doubted that she'd had any positive effect on the industry. But I couldn't have been more wrong. Not only did I rudely and wrongly assume that Spears had nothing to do with the creative decisions behind the scenes of her career, but I wrote her off as a silly pop star when she actually changed the game. We might not have artists like Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, or Taylor Swift today if not for the impact Spears had on pop music.
I thought I could measure Spears' career with an objective eye, but the thing about Spears is, you really can't be objective about her. You can't just evaluate the dance moves and lyrics without considering the culture in which they were produced and the impact they'd have. If you did, you would miss the larger picture and deprive yourself of one of the most inspirational "comeback stories" in decades. Spears came of age, flourished, and failed in front of all of us. She may not be the greatest singer and dancer in history, but she rose above any controversies or setbacks to keep doing the thing she loves, even though every time she steps on stage, she knows she'll be unfairly compared to "the old Britney."
After immersing myself in the highs and lows of Spears' career, I found myself rooting for her because of all she's been through, and how many struggles she overcame to succeed. So, maybe it's OK to not "get" Britney — it's more important to respect her.