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Britney Spears: How she became the defining icon of our age

Through the highs and lows of her career, Britney Spears, for better or for worse, has been a defining paradigm for the modern era. Since she first burst onto the scene to her current unfurling court case, she has in some shape or form always embodied the zeitgeist of our times. Along the way, she has enamoured a legion of fans and occupied as many column inches as anyone, but what is most peculiar about her rise is how the history books will look back and almost certainly see her life as a measuring stick for our current cultural climate. 

When Britney Spears emerged in 1998 with ‘…Baby One More Time’ she was only sixteen years old. In an instant, she both revived teen pop and raised controversial questions about whether someone so young should be so highly sexualised by the commercial mainstream. This all seemed to explode in a blur of knotted shirts, fanfare and media enthrallment.

In truth, everything about it had been bubbling away in the welter for some time. Britney herself had been geared towards a life of fame since long before she turned sixteen. When she was eight years old, she travelled with her mother Lynne to Atlanta, Georgia to audition for The Mickey Mouse Club and so began her long march to a commercial peak. Her juvenile rise to stardom was also mimicked by the evolving storm of MTV. This entwinement of paths is symbolised by the fact that if you think of Britney, the first thing that springs to mind is most likely the iconic video. 

Music in this era was a multimedia affair. As someone who had attended gymnastic training camps, dance schools, acting troupes and singing classes, Britney was primed to exploit this age where image just about usurped music itself, and sadly, she was also primed to be exploited for commercial gain. As such, her schedule was far too frantic for a sixteen-year-old to have to endure. She was geared for maximum profit and the story of her wildly successful debut is indicative of that. 

When she was signed to Jive Records in 1997, they set about making her “another Madonna, another Debbie Gibson, or another Tiffany.” Shortly afterwards Spears met with the Swedish pop music mastermind Max Martin at the behest of Jive and soon after she travelled to Stockholm to begin making music with him. “I had been in the studio for about six months listening and recording material, but I hadn’t really heard a hit yet,” Britney recalled in an interview with Billboard.

Adding: “When I started working with Max Martin in Sweden, he played the demo for ‘Baby One More Time’ for me, and I knew from the start it [was one] of those songs you want to hear again and again. It just felt really right. I went into the studio and did my own thing with it, trying to give it a little more attitude than the demo. In 10 days, I never even saw Sweden. We were so busy.”

Indeed, the track was a catchy pop masterpiece and coupled with the provocative video that attracted the eyes as well as ears of millions while the media fuelled the fire, a reverse bonfire of the vanities was born. With the imitable knotted shirt, you had kids all over the world getting home from school and doing their best Britney impression in front of MTV. This was a craze the likes of which the world had never seen before. 

It was a craze, however, that Britney’s label could ill-afford to put on ice and let their phenom settle into stardom. There was cash to be milked. At the heart of all of this was commercialism. Some of the early songs were hits with great musicological backing and Britney’s performative skill was clear, but even the most ardent fan would agree that artistry was second place. 

This was something that David Bowie mused upon a few years after the dawn of Britney when he opined: “However arrogant and ambitious I think we were in my generation, I think the idea was that if you do something really good, you’ll become famous. The emphasis on fame itself is something new. Now it’s to be famous you should do what it takes, which is not the same thing at all. And it will leave many new artists with this empty feeling.”

There was a prescience to his thinking that Britney tragically embodied. It would seem that Britney was indeed interested in artistry, however, many of those around her were more interested in fame. As a result, the image of a troubled star pushed around by labels became a central part of her image, particularly in songs like ‘Lucky’. This was something that the kids who had grown up with ‘… Baby One More Time’ clung to, as they entered their angsty teenage years and Britney’s stardom endured into the next chapter. 

(Credit: Instagram still)

However, the irony was that she was still heavily controlled by labels and management as a product and even this new angle of a troubled star was manufactured by them like some MTV Kafkaesque version of the Truman Show. She had tricky public breakups with other former Mickey Mouse Club stars in the form of Justin Timberlake and her plights were heavily publicised for profits. In an era where angst was fetishized with pop-punk and moody teen shows, this all seemed part of the appeal. 

For years, the hits continued and as she got older the sexualised element of her act was less controversial and more readily at the forefront. During this period Britney embodied the prime entertainment that ran alongside the rather more questionable elements of the MTV pinnacle. She was, in short, a star. She had everything in her arsenal in an era where you didn’t just need to be able to tick every box but invent new ones or push the limits of existing ones as you went along. Tracks like ‘Toxic’ were not only rousing bops, but they had unforgettable videos to go along with them and the live TV Madonna snogs to keep them relevant.

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As Britney got older and her continued success reached overwhelming heights, she grew more concerned with gaining control of her own life. This proved to be a fractious process and the first rumblings of controversy began. During this period, she became engaged with the dancer Kevin Federline in a whirlwind three-month romance. Even this process was broadcast for profits with the reality show Britney and Kevin: Chaotic. The star would later reflect on this in 2013 and call it “the worst thing I’ve done in my career.” The show and the sorry aftermath embodied the reality side of reality TV. This wasn’t merely chaotic entertainment; it was frenzied happenings of someone’s life. 

Soon after Britney became pregnant and thereafter the stresses of motherhood only made matters worse for her. In the intervening months, she hit headlines for driving while holding her son in one arm and thereafter the infamous head-shaving moment occurred. The subsequent media attention gave very little thought to potential, if not highly probable, postnatal depression, indicative of the highly salacious nature of the press in the pre-phone tapping era. In fact, even 20 years prior, this almost would’ve been seen as standard reckless superstar behaviour and put down as a titbit on page nine.

Up until this point, Britney’s fame had proved unassailable, however, now the same forces that had built her up were happy to leave her behind and move on. Her stardom was saved by the ardent core fanbase that she had built up over the years. This legion of supporters not only loved her music and performances, but they identified with her struggles. 

For years, Britney has since sustained this core fanbase without ever really rising to the top of the pop circles as new blood came through. Recently, however, she defined our cultural narrative once more as her conservatorship case unfurled publicly. More so than the case itself, what was most notable about the trial from a sociological point of view was how much of the impetus came from the internet and fan groups. The hashtag FreeBritney movement was a central force showing how the axis of power has switched towards social media in the modern age. 

Hopefully, her recent success in court can bring some much need calm to a life that has been beleaguered by the grubby hands of commercialism that have pushed and pulled at the star since she was 14 years old, if not before. As a performer, she offered up a boon to millions who celebrated not only her music but her resilience amid an unforgiving society and as such, she became a true icon of our age like Marilyn Monroe before her. In an era where the notion of celebrity has almost outstripped conventional forms of social mobility and artistry, the buzzword for her life is undoubtedly: fame.