The oldest tape of home videos my family owns is two hours long and from 2000, when I was four. We were set to move into a new house that year, so my mom wanted to document what our current home—the one that my then two-year-old sister and I were born into—looked like.
In the process, she ended up creating a sort of time capsule. The tape shows us what daily life looked like for two kids at the beginning of the 21st century, including some of the smaller, then unremarkable details. “Matilda” plays in the background as I ask my mom about her new video camera, my sister and I run around wearing jelly sandals, and I watch with my kindergarten class as a visiting dancer performs a routine to Britney Spears’s “…Baby One More Time.”
The second oldest tape my family owns brings us into 2001. We’re now settled into our new house, and my friends and I are playing with one of my Christmas presents: a HitClips that came with a one-minute sample of “…Baby One More Time.” The song had been released more than two years prior, but you wouldn’t know it from its omnipresence in these videos.
Britney Spears recorded her debut album, “…Baby One More Time,” in the spring of 1998. Its title song was released that October, which means that it recently celebrated its twentieth anniversary. She’s often recognized as a trailblazer in bubblegum pop—the type of music specifically created for and marketed to teenagers—but the song has an eerier quality to it that distinguishes it somewhat from other staples of the genre. As Alice Bolin wrote in 2014, “Its production is visceral: the opening piano chords that summon pop spirits, the wah-wah guitars, the cymbal crashes, and the use of background vocals are all distinctive.”
But it was really its accompanying music video, which didn’t arrive on MTV until mid-November of 1998, that catapulted the 16-year-old into global stardom. You can learn a lot about a solo artist from their debut music video—their performance persona, how much they care about things like narrative and aesthetics, what we can expect from them further down the line, and so on. In 1979, “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” introduced Michael Jackson to us as a natural-born dancer who wasn’t afraid to experiment with special effects—two things that came to unite his most iconic videos. In 1984, Madonna’s “Borderline”—not her first video, but the first to play on MTV—helped establish her signature look and demonstrated her obvious interest in narrative (as well as in stirring up controversy through said narrative).
With the “…Baby One More Time” video, Britney set in motion a career that’d be not only dance-heavy but defined by competing and even contradictory narratives. To some, she’s a cash cow who was manufactured from the jump to make male music industry executives a lot of money; to others, she’s a creative mastermind who’s more self-aware than she’s ever been given credit for. She’s “picky” and “reviews all creative,” but she also can’t make any financial decisions without the approval of her father and lawyer as of 2008. Her performance persona dons flesh-colored bodysuits and sings about threesomes while real-life Britney is strikingly shy in interviews and reads self-help books about vulnerability. As far as her public image goes, she’s at once fake and unfiltered, commanding and passive, brazen and shy.
There’s evidence to support both narratives—that of the Britney whose image was created in a lab, and that of the Britney who’s been running the show since day one—even when it comes to the behind-the-scenes story of the “…Baby One More Time” video. A lot of writing about her during this time pushes the former angle. It goes out of its way to highlight any details that suggest Britney’s detachment from the creative process, like the fact that co-producers Max Martin and Rami Yacoub “[pushed] for that mid-nasal voice” with the artists they worked with, rather than it being a vocal style of her own design.
But stories from the video’s set paint a different picture, one of a young woman with a specific plan for how she wanted to present herself to the world. It was her idea for the video to be set in a Catholic high school, her idea to have the dancers tie their K-Mart collared shirts up around their ribs, her idea for there to be dancing in the first place. The combo made the video as controversial as it was popular, and Britney’s hard-to-pin-down persona immediately became a hot topic. How does this square with her Bible-Belt upbringing? Is this really all that appropriate for teenagers? “Part of her ‘little girl’ act is pretending not to understand the sexual attention she elicits,” wrote Bolin, pointing to a 1999 interview in which Britney was asked about the debate surrounding the video and remarked, “All I did was tie up my shirt!”
It was easier for her to be provocative in her work once she’d officially aged out of adolescence. She started to seriously texture her image with "Britney" in 2001 and "In the Zone" in 2003, two albums that were overtly sexual and contained various lyrical nods to her troubled relationship to fame (“All you people look at me like I’m a little girl”) and even her team (“I tell them what I like, what I want, what I don’t / But every time I do, I stand corrected”). This was arguably the golden age of Britney videos; a very sweaty, breathy period that spawned “I’m a Slave 4 U” and “Toxic,” among several others. Many of the kids who’d been listening to her music since 1998 were still listening to it in this more risqué era, so there was even more confusion about who her music was for. In that spirit, my mom sent my sister and me (at six and eight, respectively) with a babysitter to see Britney’s Onyx Hotel Tour in 2004, and was shocked when we came back giggling and reported, “She was naked!” (We were exaggerating a bit.)
After splitting from Kevin Federline in 2006, Britney found herself with two infant babies and the paparazzi more interested in her than ever. Whereas another, more risk-averse artist may have disappeared entirely from the public eye during such a tumultuous period, Britney stayed shockingly visible. “Blackout,” the album that gave us such singles as “Gimme More” and “Piece of Me,” was released only eight months after the infamous umbrella/head-shaving incident. And while the media narrative created around that night—the same one that my classmates disseminated on the school playground at the time—was of a woman who’d finally cracked under the pressure of global stardom, Britney’s take on the whole thing was notably different: “I was going through a lot, but it was kind of just me feeling a form of a little bit of rebellion or feeling free or, you know, shedding stuff that had happened.”
Part of the reason why the two-decade anniversary of “…Baby One More Time” feels so momentous lies in the fact that it really means twenty years of Britney. And hers is a career that, by all logic, should not have survived the speedbumps it has. I’m only slightly older than her time in the public eye (if we exclude her Mouseketeer days), which means that she’s publicly existed for as long as I’ve been able to form memories. In the last decade, she’s found a comfortable home making (mostly) EDM hits and performing back-to-back Las Vegas residencies. Perhaps one reason that “…Baby One More Time” doesn’t feel like it was that long ago is the frequency with which Britney has referenced it in her work since then. Whether it was singing “My loneliness ain’t killing me no more” on “Stronger,” dressing her fake daughter up in the famous school-girl outfit for the “If U Seek Amy” video, or sampling clips from it in the one for “Hold It Against Me,” she’s always used it as a landmark to remind us how far she’s come and that she’s very much still here.