I’m not sure when the realization hit, if it even was a realization, if it even hit me. It’s not something that came in from the outside like a tide or a blow; it wasn’t physical like that. It wasn’t even a dawning comprehension or a riddle solved, though I guess that’s closer. It’s more like I woke up early one morning and the light slanting in through the window illuminated something in my room. I had always seen it but now it was different, its shape stark and bright against the wood. And then I knew what I had always known, and I had to either run from that knowledge or allow for change.
Pop songs crystallize moments in time, cultural thought processes and ideas. They’re like camera flashes. I hear a song that came out when I was a child and I’m suddenly taken back to that place, or maybe I understand something new about the world that produced it, or both. It’s funny, because a hit song slips so seamlessly into the world that it rarely feels culturally defining in the moment. It’s not until I come back to it weeks or months or years later that I understand it not as a natural force but as a piece of art, created with intention. It was made by people, responding to other people, working within an industrial framework created by people, trying to move people — and to pocket their money. At its best, pop can be unifying and subversive, communal and full of meaning, and there’s something particularly utopian about the way women who make pop can speak directly to and about women. At its worst, however, pop music can sum up the most negative impulses of a culture that’s sexist, racist, homophobic, and transphobic. I often find that the bad parts of pop music – the exploitative or manipulative or retrograde ones – are inextricable from the good. It contains a mass of work and feeling; it’s made for the masses; it’s massive. I think about this when I listen to Britney Spears.
Britney was born in McComb, Mississippi in 1981. The story of her life is that she knew what she wanted from a young age – she started singing in her church choir and taking dance classes as a child and auditioned for The New Mickey Mouse Club when she was only eight years old. She was rejected, but that audition led to an introduction to a talent agent, which led to a role Off-Broadway, which led to more work. By the time she re-auditioned for Disney in 1992, she’d been making money for at least three years. This time, she earned the part; her castmates famously included future musical contemporaries like Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, and JC Chasez. After her stint on Disney ended, she met the entertainment lawyer Larry Rudolph, who worked with Timberlake and Chasez’s group *NSYNC. Rudolph got her an audition with Jive Records; Jive released her debut single, “…Baby One More Time,” in 1998.
This story has a sense of inevitability about it now, but it must have required so much talent, luck, and emotional resilience to withstand growing up while her every move was scrutinized and monetized, where her being was flattened into an image and then sold as a product. I imagine it was particularly hard to do this when the image that was being sold was a particular idea of what it meant to be an American girl. A lot of the press around her debut emphasized both the wholesome, girl-next-door quality that her youth afforded her and the sexuality that was latent in her image, and it’s dispiriting in retrospect to read grown men writing about a teenage girl as if she’s an adult (her Rolling Stone profile from this time, the one accompanied by that famous David LaChapelle cover photo with the Teletubby plush, opens with a disgusting, horribly drawn-out bit about her body). Watching and listening to her early work, I don’t see the intentional provocation that so many people, particularly adult men, did. What I see instead is a girl who’s made a living through performance and imitation and now gets to create the work that other girls will learn through—this tracks with what Britney herself has said about being inspired by Janet Jackson and Madonna videos when she was growing up. I see the archetypal image of a kid learning how to be an adult from pop culture, dancing along to the videos on MTV.
I’ve often wondered what it felt like for her to be on stage. I know what it feels like for me, as someone who grew up idolizing her and who’s always felt drawn to making music and theatre; it’s a place that feels strangely natural, where I’m allowed to explore and encouraged to occupy space. It’s also a place that can create stasis, since audiences expect the same show every night. You give them what they come to see; the trick is to find something spontaneous within something rehearsed. But how does a performance of youth change over time? How can someone maintain a sense of continuity, of reality, when the thing being monetized is the liminal state of young adulthood — and young womanhood, specifically? I wonder how it felt to see the industry and the world change so dramatically throughout her life while trying to keep the same things about herself intact, performing the same songs and dance routines.
I have noticed over the years that I can be really good at tolerating things that my friends or family wouldn’t blink at moving away from. I have a fairly high threshold for emotional distress, and a tendency not to walk away from relationships or situations that aren’t great for my mental and physical health. I think I’ve learned this — to survive living as someone I’m not — something I did for most of my life. I often lie to myself that things are the same as they always were, that nothing will change, that I don’t need to worry; I will do this until change shines too brightly in my eyes and I can’t see anything else.
Pop songs deceive the listener like this. Pop structures tend to be pretty rigid; there are maybe three or four main melodies, depending on the song, and the lyrics usually circle around a refrain that comes back over and over. And yet, a great pop song will feel like a story. It might end on the same refrain, which is usually built using the same vocal take and most of the same instrumental elements, but it will feel different. If at first the performer was defeated, by the end they might be triumphant or resigned or content; I’ll know because of a new instrument or vocal layer, or because of how the lyrics in the previous section feed into the final refrain. The conclusion of the song might recast the first lines in an entirely new light, making me reach for the replay button just to understand what happened. Britney is great at this particular kind of storytelling.
For instance, “…Baby One More Time” is a narratively complete story, a song as a self-contained world that spills out into our own. It’s as if it’s so spectacular at being a pop object that it acquires a life within itself; the gendered images and tropes associated with it are so stamped in the cultural imagination that Britney—and every artist in her wake—doesn’t exist without it. She was still being asked about it 2018, two decades after its release. In 2020, I’m still listening to it.
I’m not sure why it’s still so compelling, but I have a few theories. For one thing, melodically speaking, it’s pretty close to perfect. The verses dip into Britney’s low register on the most dramatic lines — “how was I supposed to know,” “the reason I breathe is you” — and then circle back to the first note to conclude each phrase, so each “baby, baby” lands in the same place. The pre-chorus contrasts this by slipping upwards on an interjection to the melody’s highest note: “I need to know now, oh, because…” The chorus then blends those two approaches. A call-and-response structure ping-pongs between low and high Britneys (low: “My loneliness is killing me;” high: “and I…”) before meeting squarely in the middle on the hook, an invocation of the song’s title that’s multitracked to sound like a cyborg mass of Britneys. It’s as if every individual section of melody takes that hook as its cornerstone and builds around it. And just to punctuate the moment, it’s layered over the song’s instantly recognizable piano riff, so Britney’s forceful delivery of the last two words, “…more time!,” is synced to the first two notes of piano. The third note leads back into the verse, and the song’s build from verse into chorus starts… one more time. The song draws me back in at every turn, creating a kind of linear feedback loop — if I catch it while I’m flipping radio stations, I know where I am in the song’s narrative within about two seconds.
My second theory is that “…Baby One More Time” is airtight on a meta level, beyond what it does melodically. There’s a particular alchemy in pairing pop songs with performers, and the history of a hit song is usually littered with what-ifs; “…Baby One More Time,” for instance, was originally pitched to and turned down by TLC. I imagine it would’ve been a great song either way, but something about Britney’s performance — the way her throaty, nasal delivery navigates the word “baby,” or the way her ad-libs always seem on the edge of losing the note — sends it over the top.
I think her handle on the song’s emotional world has a lot to do with her specific combination of being a 16-year-old girl, with all of the end-of-the-world emotional volatility that encompasses, and being a working professional with nearly a decade of performing experience at this point in her career. It’s not just that she was and is a great performer, and it’s not just that she was at an age where everything seems life-or-death, and it’s not just that she was in front of a million-dollar marketing push from a major label, and it’s not just that her whole career — really her whole life — had been leading up to this point; it’s all of those things combined and condensed into a three-minute pop song. Consider that chorus hook again:
Hit me, baby, one more time.
This can be read literally — hurt me, baby, one more time — as a plea, an interpretation that caused some controversy upon the song’s release. Given the force with which it’s delivered, it can be read as a threat, too — hurt me, baby, one more time [I dare you] — and I lean towards this interpretation when I’m singing along into my toothbrush. It can be read as hit [me up], baby, one more time, which is the explanation Britney and producer/songwriter Max Martin gave, and that reading can also be taken figuratively as the desire to connect with her audience again after leaving Disney – the preceding line is, of course, “My loneliness is killing me.” It can also be read figuratively as the desire for a, ahem, hit song (a particular configuration she’d come back to on her other canonized single, “Toxic” — I need a hit, baby, give me it). Finally, and maybe above everything else, it exemplifies the listener’s ideal reaction listening to the song — hit me [with the chorus], baby, one more time. Britney’s career has validated all of those readings at different points; each moment contains within it the seed of another. The first time I heard the chorus, I think I was a little confused as to why she was begging someone to hit her (cf. reading 1); by the end of the song, I knew I loved it and wanted to hear it again (cf. reading 6). One line, six different colors.
I get the sense that Britney wrestled with these shifting meanings when I watch the different performance treatments she gives “…Baby One More Time.” In 1999 and 2000, when the song is new and her image particularly rests on a white American wholesomeness, she largely performs it as recorded, give or take a dance break and a more syncopated bassline. But as time passes and her tastes — and the tastes of her audience—change, the song begins to shift. On her Dream Within a Dream Tour in 2001, she performs it during her encore as a dramatic ballad that morphs into thumping techno over the course of six minutes. She’s costumed in a see-through cowboy hat, jeans, and a jewel-encrusted bra; rain cascades on her from the rafters, and at the song’s climax she’s attached to wires and lifted above the audience. It’s an almost operatic treatment that deepens the song’s intensity and suits a moment in time when her celebrity was beginning to peak: if the original was for Britney-as-teen-girl, this version is for Britney-as-career-woman, more driven and more glamorous than ever. By contrast, her performance of it on her Onyx Hotel Tour in 2003 places it in the middle of her set and reimagines it as an absurdly sensual cabaret number. By de-modernizing the song, she gives herself free reign to exaggerate her performance of femininity, leaning into the shimmying choreography and sexualized costuming even while she plays many of its most submissive lines for comedy. Watching it, I get the sense that Britney was chafing against the expectations the song and her celebrity placed on her — she doesn’t even sing the hook that’s so central to the original single until the end of the song, and because the melody and structure are shifted, it doesn’t land as the big, crowd-pleasing moment it was before. It feels like she’s reasserting control over something that, to that point, has belonged to everyone. It’s like she’s transforming it, and herself, into something else.
This is projection, sure — I don’t know Britney Spears personally and probably never will. But like these shifting interpretations, what I’ve projected onto the song has changed as my relationships to the world and to myself have changed. The pleasure I get from it now isn’t as uncomplicated as it was when I was four hearing it on the radio for the first time, but what’s replaced it is a sense of warmth, almost a homecoming. The neon pink fantasy that the song projects, its murderous loneliness transformed into endorphin rush and its femininity inverted into power, feels like something of a roadmap for me.
I grew up surrounded by women. I have an older sister, who would pull me along with her in her wagon when she sold Girl Scout cookies on our street. I had a babysitter who I loved, a teenage girl who lived two blocks over, who went to Catholic school and dated the quarterback and was the prettiest girl I’d ever seen. I had a best friend named Hannah, who loved Titanic and stuffed animals. There were girls around the corner who played with my sister and me who always had Kool-Aid in their kitchen. There was a young woman named Irina who looked after us each summer, who showed us Star Trek and taught us assorted Russian phrases. And there was my mom, who would come pick us up after school at 6; I always knew when she arrived because I could hear the clicking of her heels on the tile floor before I could see her. Above it all, there was Britney, the pop cultural girl who ruled the world at sixteen, whose music activated something in me.
It wasn’t a realization, exactly, but it took a long time for me to decide it was worth transitioning at all. Think about the image of teenage Britney as somehow both a knowing, fully adult seductress and an innocent all-American girl, and how those competing impulses played out over the course of her career. I didn’t know if I could navigate the particular contours of American womanhood; in 2007, those contradictions nearly destroyed Britney’s career. If that could happen to her, someone who built a life on her ability to integrate the conflicting demands that being seen as a woman places on a person, how could I handle it and keep myself intact?
The answer, of course, is that I couldn’t, and staying intact — imagining that I could somehow change myself and stay the same — was never the point. Womanhood is something I do, not something I endure. It’s an action I repeat every day when I take my estrogen pills; every morning and night is a new opportunity to imagine myself into existence, and to reaffirm or reintegrate what being a woman means to me. It’s like listening back to my favorite song, or seeing the sun rise again.
When my body started to change, I felt like the world suddenly became more real. The walls slid into themselves and became solid; the sky was deeper and bluer. Everything in my room became more physical. It was the same as it had always been, but the light had shifted and revealed some internal solidity that it had always possessed but that I had never been able to see. Day after day, week after week, year after year after year I came home to a place that didn’t exist, until I made a choice and saw things change — my interior world spilled over into my physical world. I didn’t have control over who I was, how I was seen, or how people thought about me; and then, suddenly, I did. I was made by the world around me, but it doesn’t mean I’m powerless to make the world in return.
I wonder if Britney’s ever gotten tired of performing “…Baby One More Time.” I imagine she must, since it’s been with her since the start of her career, and so much meaning and symbolism has been funneled through it — including my own. But I hope she still gets a thrill from the piano riff, and I hope she enjoys the effect it has on her audience. I hope she sees what it means to filter through those emotional states, and to relive them — to know that two verses and a chorus can still feel revelatory even after 20 years. You have to know where your home is in order to leave it. But it still feels good to be reminded one more time.
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