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With the traction behind The New York Time’s documentary Framing Britney Spears, those of us who’ve been following #FreeBritney for a while now have been able to breathe a sigh of relief as the legendary pop star’s legal battle for freedom and autonomy has finally captured mainstream attention. Everyone from Justin Timberlake to Sarah Silverman is belatedly apologising for their part in contributing to the constant cycle of media harassment that culminated in the 2007-8 breakdown which led to her current conservatorship. Since the public discourse is now re-evaluating the way Spears was mistreated in the public eye, now seems like a better time than any to look back on her classic discography.
1999’s …Baby One More Time saw a seventeen-year-old Britney make the leap from Disney Channel star to teen pop idol and has everything you expect from late 90s teen pop. Compared to the rest of her oeuvre, this type of cutesy bubble gum pop seems rather quaint, the title track being the big exception. Nevertheless, it has better production than anyone can reasonably expect from a teenager’s debut, and it introduced the killer hooks and breezy sound her later work would perfect.
Its follow-ups, Oops! I Did It Again and 2001’s Britney showed an evolution from teen pop to an edgier sound. This era spawned absolutely classic singles like ‘Stronger’ and ‘I’m a Slave 4 U’, with the latter album serving as a crossover from teen pop to adulthood. Britney received mixed reviews and sold less than its predecessors, which is a travesty since it’s frankly her most underrated album, featuring bangers like ‘Overprotected’ and iconic live performances like her dancing at the 2001 VMAs with a snake around her neck. In retrospect, ‘Overprotected’ and ‘Stronger’, both anthems of empowerment and emancipation, now have a tragic irony when you realise that her conservatorship prevents her from buying so much as a cup of coffee without permission.
This transition away from her girl-next-door image and embracement of sexuality and femininity marked a turning point in the way Spears was treated by the media and public. Suddenly reviewers were talking more about her public image than her music, but she still managed to serve more unforgettable moments like kissing Madonna at the 2003 VMAs. That year’s In the Zone has more than earned its reputation as a staple of 2000s pop and was influenced by everything from electropop to bhangra. ‘Toxic’ and ‘Everytime’ are not only two of her best singles ever, but frankly two of the best pop songs of the 2000s.
The following era was one when deriding Spears’ personal struggles was a spectator sport, when Us Weekly, Perez Hilton, and TMZ could continually invade her privacy and turn her trauma and mental health difficulties into a public joke. While her personal life was falling apart and her every public appearance was hounded by dozens of rabid photographers, Spears responded with Blackout. It was recorded from 2006-7 when the intimate details of her private life were splashed over every front page, and much of the album reads as a response to that degrading experience. ‘Piece of Me’ directly confronts the media who just wouldn’t stop with the body shaming, invasions of privacy, and goading.
It’s a miracle that we have Blackout and its follow-up Circus considering all that was going on behind the scenes, and the fact that both are classics of late 2000s dance-pop is something few could ever accomplish. She had fewer creative control over her subsequent three albums and even less control over her own finances. The damage wrought by misogynistic media and the public who ate it all up is something Britney is still living with. She deserved so much better.