Shiny teen-pop music is everywhere these days, so it might be hard for a younger generation to understand the importance of Britney Spears to us older Millennials. When she came along at the tail end of the century, we were still mired in the musical swamplands of the post-grunge era. From those first few chords and the low “oh baby, baby” growl of “...Baby One More Time,” the single was a breath of fresh air. It followed tracks laid by the Spice Girls and boy bands before it, but at the same time, it was clear we were witnessing the start of something else entirely.
The video, with Britney in that iconic short plaid skirt and cheerleader outfit, fit in neatly with the nascent teen-dominant culture that was growing out of TV shows like Dawson’s Creek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as well as movies like She’s All That, Ten Things I Hate About You and Drive Me Crazy, the underrated Melissa Joan Hart/Adrian Grenier vehicle that was named after the album’s third single, “(You Drive Me) Crazy.” Britney's own teen movie, the delightfully bad Crossroads, soon followed.
And then there was Justin Timberlake. Britney and Justin were childhood sweethearts, and they were the Prince and Princess of Pop; the Kurt and Courtney of Gen-Y. Their relationship was more than that glorious all-denim photo. It was marketed as the fairytale romance that every teenage girl dreamed of, and their ensuing breakup was, unsurprisingly, a learning moment for many a teenager, a sign that "happily ever after" may not exist IRL.
After Justin came the darker years, as Britney railed against her teen image: the Madonna kiss at the VMAs, the impetuous 55-hour elopement to a childhood friend in Vegas, the second marriage to douchey backup dancer Kevin Federline, the paparazzi photos of her driving with her son in her lap. It all culminated in the infamous Tarzana Head Shaving Incident of 2007 and its adjacent craziness, which resulted in her losing custody of her children, getting forcibly committed to a psychiatric ward, and then released under the conservatorship of her father.
Public meltdowns are fun to watch for a moment -- they're spectacles -- but they quickly become sad when you realize that you're gleefully watching a real person with something very wrong with them spin out of control. And like those of Lohan, Bynes and Ryder, Britney’s was a moment when we, the public, were forced to confront what we’d done to Britney by sexualizing her so young, by caring so much about every detail of her life that photos of her going to Starbucks or driving her kids around made the paparazzi rich many times over. Think pieces followed about the power we were assigning to paps in the years of TMZ's ascent.
Britney disappeared for a while after that, seemingly an older but wiser girl. She reappeared in 2012 as a judge on The X-Factor, and then in 2013 to announce a two-year residency at Planet Hollywood Las Vegas. That residency is ongoing, and her life seems to be stable for what's maybe the first time since she became mega-famous at 18. (An interesting corollary to her contemporaries the Backstreet Boys, whose 2015 documentary, Show Me What You’re Made Of, revealed that most of them are still dealing with the fallout of teen fame.)
Meanwhile, Britney’s just living her life, and ironically letting us in more than ever -- but this time on her own terms. Hearts exploded when she met Hillary Clinton this year. She’s got her kids, her friends, and a glass container in her kitchen that may be exclusively reserved for cupcakes. As her Instagram feed reminds me nearly every day, Britney Spears is finally doing just fine.