The Britney Effect
Britney Spears has been locked in a battle over her conservatorship for more than a decade. The documentary, Framing Britney Spears, breaks down not only the legal issues faced by the singer, who hasn’t been in control of her finances or her healthcare since 2008 but the surreal coverage of her private life and early career that led to a 5150, a 72-hour psychiatric hold, being placed on Spears.
The discourse around the documentary has included questions about why no one said anything about the way Spears was being treated. That doesn’t feel true to me. There were a lot of things about her interactions with the media that I remember as uncomfortable, namely the Rolling Stone interview that got uncomfortably into the state of her virginity.
When I was a 21-year-old intern at MTV, I transcribed Spears’ first on-camera interview. It was January of 1999 and “...Baby One More Time” was a monster poised to take over the world. The interview was filmed when Spears was on tour with NSYNC as their opening act. The interview had been filmed a few months prior and now that she was starting to pop up on TRL, they were ready to roll it out. I popped in the tape and did my job, writing down every word Spears said. There wasn’t much to it and, if I’m being honest, I was unimpressed by my first brush with Britney. In the interview, she mostly just nodded, smiled, and said “like” and “um” a lot. She was only 17, after all, and not yet media trained.
There was no ignoring the ramp-up of MTV’s coverage of her, the sales and chart domination of the album, and, most of all, the screaming teenagers who desperately wanted to get a peek at — and a piece of — Spears. What made the biggest impact on me, however, was the way that the men I was working with at MTV reacted to the underaged Spears: commenting on her looks, her outfits, even her virginity — everything but her talent. I remember this creeping sense of dread that the Britney phenomenon gave me. I wasn’t able to put my finger on exactly why the reactions to her bothered me so much, other than I distinctly remember thinking that this heralded some world shift in what kind of girl was desirable and what performing femininity was supposed to look like. I wasn’t able to articulate why the reaction grown men were having to Spears bothered me so much until I watched Dr. Kirk Honda review it on his YouTube channel.
“It does raise a question: she’s still a minor at this point. What do we think about that?” Honda asks. “Is this condoning the sexualization of teenagers before they should be sexualized? Is it condoning abuse of teenagers? Saying that they’re asking to be objectified or their fair game to be objectified and controlled sexually? Or looked at through a heterosexual male gaze as a sexual object and that’s their only value? That’s what often is happening in a lot of contexts like this. I’m not saying Britney was doing this consciously or unconsciously, I’m just saying that when people would look at Britney, instead of seeing her as a performer and as a powerful pop artist, it was ‘how does she come across as a sexual object to men?’ And not for her intelligence or her agency or maybe the messages she was trying to say…It does raise some questions to the ethics of a family that would allow this to happen, and an industry and a society that condones it.”
Hearing the bit about the questionable business ethics around how the image of Britney Spears was a ding of recognition. Music media was largely made up of men and so was the music industry (the latter is still very much true). I’ve talked with so many women and former co-workers in the industry about the vile things we’ve heard said about women artists, opinions on their bodies and their looks that are dehumanizing. It’s had an impact on all of us. It’s disgusted us, but it’s also caused us to wonder: if these men feel comfortable saying that about someone so much more talented and wealthy than them, what terrible things must they be thinking about me?
It’s stunning to see moments in the documentary where men who are three times Spears’ age ask her about her virginity, her boyfriends, her sex life — the subtext of the question being if she understands that she’s turning them on. Almost as bad are the women who ask her variations of if she thinks it’s appropriate to perform femininity like this for teen girls.
In talking to Wendy Goldstein, now the President of West Coast Creative for Republic Records, about crafting Ariana Grande’s career in the 2010s, she told me she specifically advised Grande to hold off on even dropping her debut album until she was 18 because the number of marketing tools and songs available to her as an adult was better, the positioning was better, and the murky ethics of marketing a teenager who wants to be an adult are cleared up.
In The Sound Machine, former Jive Records A&R exec Steve Lunt recounts Spears’ audition for the label, describing her look as “old-school church meets modern-day sex,” and says the “girlish quality” of her singing voice was a part of what piqued their interest; he then describes the sexy (his word) way she rolls her eyes back when she sings as something that is going to look “great on camera.” Does it sound like he’s describing how women look when they’re having an orgasm? It does to me.
Nigel Dick directed Spears’ debut, the “...Baby One More Time” video in which she suggested donning the schoolgirl outfit. But, knowing that her parents weren’t there to oversee what was happening as the documentary outlines, was it prudent to let a teenager make that decision? I’ve long struggled to decide if that was an exploitive moment with regard to her label and Dick or an empowering moment for a young artist.
Dick also helmed “Sometimes,” “(You Drive Me) Crazy,” and “Oops!...I Did It Again” video, in which she’s dressed like Barbarella in latex for Valentine’s Day. Looking back, Britney’s red costume looks innocent. It’s skin-tight, but it covers her entirely, from turtleneck to boot cut pants. But the camera focuses on her body as a disembodied and offers multiple close-ups of her lips, highly glossed beyond the beauty shots, that mimicks another part of a woman’s anatomy. It was made for the male gaze.
There was a rule at MTV’s standards and practices: if a background dancer was shot in the way Spears is in this video, they’d ask for the shots to be edited out. You had to show the entire woman and not parts of her body because it was considered objectifying to show someone with no control that way. An artist was allowed to shoot themselves that way, however. I always thought that was interesting logic because it assumes the teenage audience at home watching music videos would know the difference.
Spears wasn’t the first woman pop star to be sexualized. But she was the first solo woman artist to follow the teen pop craze started with the Spice Girls, Backstreet Boys, and NSYNC. Spears didn’t have to fit into a mold because, by being first, she became the mold. After her success, every record label felt the pressure to sign and develop their version of Britney. And they did, with Christina Aguilera, Jessica Simpson, and Mandy Moore, who were all initially popped into Spears-shaped marketing plans where they had to be blonde, girl-next-door sexy, and sing and dance to pop songs that fit next to Spears on the radio.
At the time, everyone was talking about all those women in the same way: putting sexy and gyrating into headlines about them, asking uncomfortable questions, describing their swaying hips and tiny waist and ever-exposed midriffs. Two things I learned from reading Jessica Simpson’s memoir, Open Book: the then head of Columbia Records, Tommy Matolla, was constantly telling her to lose 10 more pounds, even at her thinnest, and she didn’t love the clothes he wanted her to wear because they weren’t well-suited to her curves. It’s notable that the men who groomed these pop stars decided they all needed to look the same; that it reinforced the message that there was one way to dress and act in order to be a desirable woman.
There wasn’t a lot of chance they were going to change the formula, though, because it worked. Spears’ debut album, Oops!...I Did It Again was released on May 16, 2000, and absolutely shattered the record for album sales by a woman. Previously held by Alanis Morissette for You Oughta Know, the first week sales record had been 469,000; Spears sold an amazing 1.39 million albums.
But it didn’t feel like a victory for women. Instead, it felt like the message in the ‘90s that women with a point of view, women who yelled, women who didn’t look perfect, women who were bitches were not only talented artists worth listening to but marketable to the mainstream was being walked back.
After years of putting up with sexism, misogyny, and being constantly objectified, Spears had a messy woman moment when she shaved her head. She was not only removing one of the biggest markers of conventional attractiveness for women, but she was also getting rid of the uncomfortable, itchy extensions she wore to make her hair longer and thicker. She was probably tired of being looked at and probably tired of carrying around the extra weight of looking like men wanted her to, quite literally when it came to her extensions. It was a distressing moment, but one I understood.