What happened to you on October 23, 1998?
My mother, Beverly June, and I left our three bedroom ranch house on Slim Wilson Boulevard in Nixa, Missouri, in a gold Saturn sedan. As we drove to McDonald’s, we fussed over the radio. My mother preferred KTTS 94.7, a local country and news talk radio station. I always turned the dial to Hot 106.7, a top 40 station that on October 23, 1998, likely played Barenaked Ladies’ “One Night,” Brandy & Monica’s “The Boy is Mine,” and Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing.” But we had a deal, my mother and I, that I could choose the music if, and only if, I went inside McDonald’s while she went through the drive-thru. You see, we’re cheap, my mother and I; while she got herself a breakfast burrito and me a sausage biscuit in the drive-thru, I took two 42 oz. cups inside and refilled them with Diet Coke at the self-serve soda station without paying for them.
On October 23, 1998, my mother left the radio station on Hot 106.7 as I went inside McDonald’s to get her drinks. When I came out the other side and slipped into the car, handing my mother her morning’s worth of Diet Coke as she gave me my breakfast, the Hot 106.7 DJ introduced a new single by a former Disney Mousketeer.
It is safe to say that I have spent the subsequent years of my life trying to recreate this very moment. My mother and I in the car outside a suburban McDonald’s. Those four repeating pulses on the keyboard. That drum track that thumps along in classic rock fashion on the two and the four. And then the question that, perhaps more than any other, has defined life in the modern age: “Oh baby, baby, how was I supposed to know, that something wasn’t right here?”
Twenty years ago today on October 23, 1998, Britney Spears released her debut single “…Baby One More Time” and changed my life forever.
That sounds hyperbolic, and perhaps it is. (Especially if you’re a straight dude, one who hasn’t spent his entire life understanding his own existence through products of popular music culture.) But twenty years on, I’m not convinced the hyperbole of Britney Spears is unwarranted. Quite the contrary: it strikes me as generally understated.
Consider the music video for “…Baby One More Time.” It’s iconic, joining the ranks of such music videos as Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and Madonna’s “Like a Prayer.” And this iconography is not just my (very gay) opinion: Britney’s debut video consistently ranks towards the top of “Best Of” lists in venues as diverse as Rolling Stoneand Business Insider(outlets not traditionally favorable to “bubblegum” pop or female stars more generally, to say the least). When MTV’s Total Request Live (TRL)aired its final episode on November 16, 2008, “…Baby One More Time” held the #1 spot in their countdown of all-time music videos, and was the final video to appear on the show before it left the airwaves forever. This praise is not unwarranted. The video is a meta-pastiche of the genre that blurs both time and age. Set in the same high school where the 1978 John Travolta and Olivia Newton John smash Grease— a film supposedly set in the 1950s, though striving for the affect of every high school every where at any time — was filmed, Spears wears a traditional Catholic school uniform for most of the video: knee socks and pleated skirt, gray cardigan over white Oxford. But time and age are queered: that white Oxford is tied up to reveal her midriff, what would go on to become her signature look, and her hair is braided into two childish pigtails. She dances with others dressed just as queerly as her, a cross-racial group of women and (what I read to be) visibly queer men.
A weird as hell seventh grader learning HTML and quickly building a fan site for Britney on the web community Geocities, I didn’t know that I needed to hear this song and especially, to see this music video. But as Walter Benjamin argues, “The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses.” For anyone considered Other — whether by race or gender, sexuality or class — finding urtexts such as “…Baby One More Time,” however silly that may appear to the rest of the world, is an act of survival.
Even if we didn’t know it then, “…Baby One More Time” gave us Britney and made her a metaphor through which to understand our evolving culture. Britney’s almost 37 now, but she wasn’t yet 17 when her debut single hit our radio stations and MTV. I was barely 14, which means I’ve grown up alongside Ms. Spears, as have my fellow early millennials, the generation that was the first to adopt life on the internet as life. The generation drowning now under a student loan debt crisis. The generation that, because they weren’t excited to vote, inadvertently elected Donald J. Trump to the White House. What I’m trying to say: a generation of tumultuous times, to say the least. And all along this path, the deep discography of Britney Spears has emerged.
…Baby One More Time (1999)
Here are the songs that started it all: the title track, “(You Drive Me) Crazy,” and “Sometimes,” though in hindsight we should all be listening to the bop “Soda Pop,” a reggae-lite track in which Britney tells us over and over “open that soda pop, watch it fizz and pop.” By all accounts, this was also the time when Britney, on tour with *NSync, started sleeping with Justin Timberlake. He was, he is, a loser, and like straight men with frosted tips in general, Britney should have stayed away from his weird beat-boxing man-boy ass. She was, and is, the more interesting performer and person.
Oops!… I Did It Again (2000)
Non-Britney aficionados will usually say this is her best album. It’s not, but it’s definitely strong. Just think of that TIMELESS title track — and its music video with Britney on Mars in a red pleather jumpsuit receiving the Heart of the Ocean necklace from Titanic from a hot astronaut who is now an orthopedic surgeon in Phoenix. Plenty of her biggest hits come from this album, too, like “Lucky” and “Stronger.” Fun fact: I chipped my tooth in high school attempting to learn the infamous “chair dance” from the “Stronger” video, finally convincing my parents to let me get veneers.
Finally, Britney gets POLITICAL. This album is a direct response to the (illegitimate) election of George W. Bush in 2000. “I’m a Slave 4 U” begins with a treatise on both Bush and Gore’s ignoring of the youth vote: “I know I may be young, but I’ve got feelings, too” (and when she performed the lead single live at the MTV VMAs with an albino boa constrictor, it was clear to me that the dance was a statement on the evils of either Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, or Justin Timberlake). “But who am I to say what a girl is to do?” she pleads on “Overprotected,” in a clear statement on a woman’s inalienable rights over her own body. “Boys, and when a girl is with one (Get nasty),” Britney spins on “Boys,” “then she’s in control.” It’s clear she was returning to the fundamentals of Judith Butler, who similarly argues that “to operate within the matrix of power is not the same as to replicate uncritically relations of domination.”
In the Zone (2003)
We’re about to invade Iraq, and Britney wants to make a strong progressive statement on the possibility of collaborative thinking outside of war. She collaborates here with Madonna, The Ying Yang Twins, and R. Kelly… okay, maybe collaboration isn’t always great, and thus the real standout here is her powerful statement in favor of masturbation: “Another day without a lover, the more I come to understand the touch of my hand.” Amen.
The years between 2003 and 2007 were not good for Britney and were not good for us. During New Years 2004, Britney married a childhood friend in Vegas, only to annul the marriage in a matter of hours. A few weeks later, we inaugurated George W. Bush to a second term. The day before I turned 19 in September 2004, Britney married her backup dancer Kevin “K-Fed” Federline. They had two boys and Britney subsequently financed his “hip hop” album Playing with Fire. By 2006, however, they divorced, Britney was spotted around LA partying hard with Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan and driving with her son in her lap instead of in a car seat, and the American death toll alone in Iraq topped 3,000. I’m always aphrensive to talk about this album because I want to dispel the myth that chaos and heartbreak make for good artistry. But the album is fucking amazing as a dance album: “Gimme More,” “Piece of Me,” “Radar,” “Get Naked,” “Freakshow,” “Why Should I be Sad”… it oozes sex and regret, but with a strong synth overlay, became a club smash.
In 2008, we elected Barack Obama and Britney, post-rehab and with a height-defying bob, released Circus. “All eyes on me in the middle of the ring,” she teases, welcoming us to gaze upon her reborn as the First Family tweeted out pictures of their Portuguese water dog, Bo. Things were looking up.
Femme Fatale (2011)
Unpopular opinion, but this is my favorite of the newer Britney albums. “Till the World Ends” is an updated version of “I’m a Slave 4 U,” but this time with a lived gravitas only turning 30 can bring. “Hold It Against Me” is a sex-positive anthem that simultaneously celebrates consent and fucking. And in the video for “I Wanna Go,” Britney goes on a dance-fueled roadtrip with openly gay Cuban-American actor Guillermo Díaz driving a vintage convertible. Here. For. It.
Britney Jean (2013)
“’Work Bitch’ is a gross neoliberal anthem,” I saw a straight, white, tenured English professor write on Facebook from his second home. And that, my friends, is exactly why straight white men, even if they are my colleagues, don’t know shit. In 2013, Britney secured herself as the queen of the Las Vegas strip and the gay bar, all while the Supreme Court ruled marriage a right of same-sex couples. “Hold your head high, fingers to the sky,” she sang as gay couples wed everywhere from Alabama to Alaska, “They gonna try to try ya’, but they can’t deny ya’.” Neoliberal? Sure. But certainly not gross. Fabulous. And perfect to dance to after those gay marriages become gay divorces.
This album should have done better. “Britney Spears sounds like she’s having fun again,” The Boston Globeraved. “Slumber Party” — “I think I see confetti from this potion / Pillow fights and feathers, overdosin’” — is an absolute bop. The greatness of this album was right there in front of us, and we chose to ignore it. Huh. How 2016 of us. We should have listened to Britney.
–D. Gilson is an Assistant Professor of English at Texas Tech University. He’s working on a collection of essays on queerness and evangelical pasts.