When I was 16, this happened. The world stopped for a moment when it premiered.
Also, when I was 16, I was a virgin baby bisexual, chillin’ in an unrecognized closet because I didn’t even really know what it all meant yet. It wasn’t every one, but some girls were too pretty and made me feel too many things and I needed to ignore all of it because it wasn’t safe to explore.
When the pop princess’ beauty and badassery crashed into my insecurity, I took all of my teen angst, very real depression, anxiety, and trauma response from various things going on and channeled a good portion of that pain and anger into hating Britney Spears.
Like, to the point that I made it a personality trait. I would ask people to change channels or CDs if I heard her voice. I would bitch, out loud to others, about her being a no-talent hack blown up by the MTV Industrial Complex to make old men money and how it offended my delicate punk sensibilities. How her clothes and dancing were obnoxious but how her shitty lip-syncing made it all so much worse. I joined online groups (thankfully that no longer exist) dedicated to hating her – dozens of Millennial pick-me girls and Gen X loser men, together in meme, being toxic little shits and assuring ourselves that we were just making jokes and blowing off steam.
Did she make certified bangers that I definitely guiltily danced to at every school formal and after-game dance? Hella. I mean:
She was impossible to avoid. MTV, the Pepsi commercials, on the radio every twenty minutes, news stores, paparazzi photos – Britney was everywhere and while I did not know myself yet, I damn sure felt fine about projecting the venom and insecurity I had and blaming it on her.
When “Oops!… I Did It Again” hit just before I graduated from high school in the spring of 2000, something shifted a little. The internet groups were already rife with the Britney/Justin rumors, she had just been on SNL after finishing the NSYNC tour, and maybe something had changed for me too. I wasn’t mad at her or about her existence and fame anymore. Because watching her be a paparazzi show pony for a year and then the record company roll-out of the rest of that Blonde Squad of Britney, Christina Aguilera, Jessica Simpson, Pink, Gwen Stefani and Jewel all around the same time illustrated that she was no hack, and was either going to be the GOAT or have it all go hellaciously wrong.
Between 2001 and 2007, I grew up a lot and didn’t follow Britney’s career too closely. Pop music and I weren’t really a thing, and the only events I can really remember are dancing with the snake at the MTV Music Awards, the breakup with Justin, marrying and divorcing a couple of other dudes, and then the head-shaving and the freakout.
This was the first time I had ever identified with the venerable Ms. Spears, rather than viewing her as an object of scorn or pity.
That bitch was DONE.
I knew what it was like to be done too.
So many of my generation have struggled in new, strange ways to put boundaries in place with those around us to keep from getting taken advantage of. So when Britney’s dad got the conservatorship, we knew that those years of rumors of a controlling family were probably coming back around to visit her again. After the breakdown and everything that happened with substance abuse and the kids getting taken from her custody, it was plain to see she was going to lose what little autonomy she had built up. Was her father trying to protect his daughter or his livelihood? Why did she have to keep performing through it all?
Britney Spears never got boundaries. Her whole life – body, love, sex, art, work – had been on sale since she was on the Mickey Mouse Club as a child. She got contracts, she got fans, she got lawyers, she got nice cars and clothes and food and boyfriends and fame. But she never got herself, which is the most important thing we can have, and the thing that we, as humans, will spend our lives trying to find if it is missing or be broken in the pursuit.
Britney, from a former hater, I am sorry. As a peer in age, I should have realized much earlier what you were going through, and at least not been one in the cacophonies of voices trying to tear you down. You are not a talentless hack. You’re a beautiful, incredible woman who chose to share her art and beauty with the world, and instead, we tried to take it from you, in that way that a patriarchal society will always try to take down a woman who shines the brightest. I apologize, and I wish more people – from your parents to media and record executives to Perez Hilton and everyone else who tried to dull your sparkle – would realize their hand in everything that has happened and do the same.