Let’s take a stroll back in time to a simpler era, when LiveJournal was in its heyday; MSN, ICQ, and AOL were all important acronyms; and a TV show on Canada’s national broadcaster let me write a segment where I openly bashed Britney Spears. In case you weren’t a teenager in Canada in the 90s/early 2000s, there used to be a show on the CBC called Street Cents that gave youths a platform to do reviews, discuss important topics, and occasionally rant about something totally inane. Back in 2002, I ended up on the show after writing a letter to them about how Britney Spears’ “I’m a Slave 4 U” video was The Worst Thing Ever. I was 14 years old, I had a lot of feelings, and gosh darn it, all of Canada was going to hear them.
They filmed the segment mostly at my school and brought along a Britney doll that I used to really emphasize my feelings (“Waggle the doll at the camera! Now look mad! Yeah, take that, Britney!”) The description of the segment said that I felt the video was “disgusting” and that it “made me want to puke” (NOTE: I don’t remember saying that, but a copywriter at CBC certainly felt like that was something I’d say. To be honest, I prefer the word “barf“). After it aired, I basked in my 15 minutes of fame (localized entirely within my grade 10 class) and then promptly moved on to debating people about what really constituted punk music, because I also had a lot of feelings and opinions about that at the time as well and Twitter had yet to be invented.
Looking back, the early 2000s were a deeply weird time to be a young woman, especially a young teenager. Britney was a huge figure on the pop culture radar and an easy target for misguided teenage angst. She was the epitome of popular, blonde, and sexy at a time when young blonde pop stars were frickin‘ everywhere. There was a Playboy Bunnies TV show on the horizon, reality TV was incredibly popular, and Paris Hilton was at the height of her unexplainable popularity.
These years also saw the release of three albums that really defined what pop music was at the time: Britney’s eponymous album, Christina Aguilera’s Stripped, and – the easily packaged antithesis to these two – Avril Lavigne’s Let Go. As Britney and Christina came off their hugely successful first few albums, they tried to be seen as more “adult,” which meant shedding their relatively clean images for something more gritty and dirty. In response, labels started pushing “alternative” music, consisting of young women playing guitar or piano (i.e. Avril, Michelle Branch, Vanessa Carlton, Fefe Dobson, etc), pop punk or folk pop artists who acted as simple morally righteous weapons against the overt sexuality of people like Britney.
This didn’t mean that they also weren’t weirdly sexualized (even Avril had a Maxim cover), but the era had this incredibly adversarial air to it. Britney had gone from her coy, midriff-heavy teen years to her I’M A WOMAN, I APPEAR TO BE WEARING MY UNDERWEAR OUTSIDE MY PANTS BUT NO BIG DEAL and that was just gross to me. You were either gyrating along with all those sexy hussies or you were hiding in your room playing guitar and perfecting your side-eye. It was basically the video for Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me,” but spread over an entire decade.
If there’s anything 14-year-old me was good at, it was righteous indignation. With Britney, I had real trouble handling the almost tawdry sexuality she put on display. Sex is not a nuanced thing when you’re a tween, and what Britney was doing felt sticky and dirty and weird and almost threatening.
Sex was taught as something mechanical that resulted in babies, so the idea of just wearing about half an outfit while panting and talking about how you’re a “slave” for someone made some unfinished part of my brain go, “Is THIS what sex is? Is this what people want? Do I have to wear just a bra? Oh god, I hope it’s not this oily!” It’s only as I got older, read more sex-positive feminist literature on sex and sexuality, and spent time figuring out my own likes, dislikes, and sexual preferences that I gained the ability to look back at the video and see it for what it was: a music video, not a How To Be a Sexy Lady tutorial, rather than my own projected discomforts.
I’ll note here that my objection to the video didn’t come from any sort of conservative beliefs (my parents are and were both quite left-leaning) or fear of sex itself, per se, but more of just a teenage obsession with the idea of authenticity and a lack of understanding of how one could actually own their sexuality. To me, But Britney was a sellout. She was up there rubbing up on people and young girls are watching this and young girls shouldn’t be sexual or exposed to sexuality! Except, you know, they are, and it should be an open dialogue. Me standing there shouting about how she should have put a shirt on and learn how to play the bass didn’t change things.
As I got older and got more comfortable with myself (and just sex in general), the video no longer felt as uncomfortable and damply threatening as it once did. It (and others from that era) felt less like evidence of pop stars failing to be proper role models for teens. I look back and kind of wish that I could take the younger me by the hand and tell her that no, I don’t have to wear really low-slung pants if I don’t want to, but that you can be sexual and still be worthy of respect.
I now know that Britney was not, and is not, a bad person for doing these things. She’s not the downfall of society or even of music, she’s just a person. Shaming her for grinding in a music video only helped to continue the idea that it’s an us vs. them sort of scenario, with all the “good” people (me because I listened to RIOT GRRL) on one side and all those floozies on the other. While it’s embarrassing to think about my young self going on TV to rant and rave, I sort of used that as a lesson to myself: Think before you speak and try to look at things critically, rather than just moving on pure emotion. I mean, unless sports are involved. Then it’s ALL EMOTION ALL THE TIME, GO NASHVILLE PREDATORS WHOOOOO.
Last summer, I actually went to a dance class to learn the routine from “I’m a Slave 4 U.” Almost 15 years after filming that rant, I was in a 30°C dance studio looking less like the glistening dancers in the video and more like a sweaty pile of trash, trying to learn the choreo from the video (SPOILER: I was very bad it). It was fun, silly, and I felt good doing it, even though I looked about as sexy as a tree caught in a thunderstorm. 14-year-old me might have felt betrayed, but I’m glad I’ve been able to come this far. Young women are told for so long that their sexuality is scary and deviant, and it’s natural to want to rebel against that by openly owning it rather than shying away. I can’t fault Britney (or other pop stars of that age) for it.
So if this somehow makes this to Britney’s computer screen, let me just say that I’m sorry for going on a ridiculous rant on national television back in 2002. You didn’t deserve that. Also, if you’re ever in Toronto, feel free to drop me a line. 29-year-old me would love to hang.
Have you ever felt intimidated by the sexuality of pop stars or celebrities? Share your thoughts in the comments!