In the spring of 2000, the American Dream demanded to go to Mars. The instructions were simple: The new blond ruler of the Red Planet wanted to dance in a cherry latex catsuit; she wanted to meet a hot astronaut; there would be no rocket ship. The rest was up to whatever a $150,000 budget and fate could afford.
Oops. You can already fill in the blank, a Mad Lib automatically answered. Britney was back. By that point, “Spears” was superfluous. “Britney” wasn’t just an icon; she’d become an idea. And this idea had a mind of its own, which envisioned with vague but unyielding rigor a video that doubled as an interstellar fairy tale. But make it sexy.
There was a lot to consider, but no one had time for that. The ’90s were only a few months gone, and a lacquered mirage of peace, prosperity, and maximal pop gleamed on the infinite horizon. In the middle of May, at the dawn of the millennium, Bill Clinton was still president, unemployment limboed to its lowest rate since the late ’60s, and Survivor was still two weeks away from ushering in the reality TV takeover. Stock in both America Online and peroxide manufacturers was at an all-time high. Gladiator, an anachronistic swords-and-sandals epic, dominated the box office. Monica had just spurned Tom Selleck to accept Chandler’s marriage proposal. The Billboard singles charts were a game of musical chairs between ’NSync, the Backstreet Boys, Enrique Iglesias, Christina Aguilera, Ricky Martin, Destiny’s Child, Eminem, and Nelly. Sisqó introduced the globe to the concept of underwear minimalism. Santana drank the blood of the Product G&B for eternal youth, and no one has heard from them since.
Towering above all pop culture totems was a 5-foot-4 ex-Mouseketeer turned teenaged Marilyn, who sold more first-week albums than any female artist ever had—1,319,000 copies—nearly triple that of the previous record-holder (Alanis Morissette). The eponymous lead single shattered ’NSync’s freshly set record for most radio station adds in a single week. In this never-ending prom of frosted-tip and puka-shell pop, Britney Spears was the queen, barely legal and the biggest star in the world. She was the vestal pseudo-virgin at the center of that neon helix between impeachment and implosion in a perfumed Abercrombie & Fitch nation, soundtracked by Swedish pop shamans and their sparkling American veneers.
A hit is a hit, but like anything that seeps into the collective memory, the “Oops! ... I Did It Again” shock and awe defined that moment. The single and album—the latter of which was released 20 years ago on Saturday—were the last successful world-conquering acts of the exhausted American century (even if the songwriting and production were already outsourced), the final classic album of the teen-pop era, a goodbye to the gilded years of the record industry. The iPod would enter the world shortly thereafter, followed by social media and forever wars. Britney would go on to produce better songs (“I’m a Slave 4 U,” “Toxic”) and remain essential to the pop culture industrial complex until this day (though her public struggles with mental health have often overshadowed the music). But this was the peak of blood-rush hysteria, the last time the illusion could be sustained. Americans are gratefully duped into believing what they want to believe, and this was the last gasp of willful delusion. Nothing would ever be that innocent again.
To be fair, it was easy to be entranced. The “Oops!” video had fire eaters, interplanetary travel, shirtless-yet-suspendered synchronized laborers, and a jiggy phalanx of silver-suited backup dancers gyrating inside a Martian space dungeon commanded by one Britney Spears, sadistically taunting a rocketeer boy toy, chained and dangling from the ceiling. An atom smasher of adolescent sexuality. Bruce Weber directing Barbarella—except this time, Jane Fonda had a motor in the back of her Honda.
No rules applied. The 25-minute gap that would theoretically delay communications between mission control and Mars? Who needs science, nerd?! Wouldn’t Britney Spears, flesh-and-blood Louisiana native, need an oxygen suit to effortlessly breathe and thrust in the cosmos? Or risk messing up the sleek space-age coif that she’d ordered styled like Elizabeth Hurley in Austin Powers? Don’t even bother asking about the arbitrary ban on rocket ships. That would’ve just been bizarre.
None of these are even the weirdest arcana about the video, which TRL tattooed into the memory of anyone who ever wore a tattoo choker (and those Accutane’d bros who pretended to watch only for the view). That would go to the Titanic interlude that doubles as the bridge two-thirds the way through the song—before the beat drops even harder, detonating back into an even more nitroglycerine hook, reminding you of the perils of getting lost in the game. Sorry Chad, your princess is in another castle.
“Titanic was obviously big and we needed a bridge,” explains Rami Yacoub, who cowrote and coproduced “Baby One More Time,” “Oops!,” and the rest of the second album’s hit singles, alongside Max Martin, the Smokey Robinson of Swedish pop, who has now racked up more no. 1 hits than any producer save Sir George Martin. “Because MTV was so massive at the time, we were always imagining the video as we wrote the song. The idea was pretty simple: Let’s make the bridge have a Titanic reference where Britney gets the stone from the old lady.”
The original vision called for Leonardo DiCaprio to inhabit the role of Britney’s spurned paramour, gifting the Heart of the Ocean gem before being friend-zoned for eternity. And Leo (allegedly) agreed to do it, before an indeterminate conflict arose and he canceled—presumably, because it would’ve been all too powerful. Instead, Max Martin voices the interlude, which can’t explicitly reference the movie due to copyright issues. On the record, a train whistle shrieks, the conductor yells “all aboard,” and Britney is blasé about the multimillion-dollar gem formerly owned by a deposed Bourbon monarch.
“Oh, it’s beautiful. But wait a minute, isn’t this—?”
“Yeah, yes it is.”
“But I thought the old lady dropped it into the ocean in the end?”
“Well, baby, I went down and got it for you.”
“Aww, you shouldn’t have.”
And yet he did. In the Nigel Dick–directed video, the cloned Rivers Cuomo who mans the space station somehow triggers Britney to frontflip through outer space. She changes clothes in midair into something a little more conservative, a little less aerodynamic. When the American Eaglenaut removes his space explorer’s helmet, his head expands and then shrinks to a Beetlejuice size (the astral climate and such). Still, he gives her the coveted jewel, she still graciously accepts it, and rips his beating heart out like Scorpion. It’s unclear how and why the astronaut spelunked to the bottom of the North Atlantic back to Mars, all just to bestow a fictional stone from a three-year-old blockbuster to a girl who isn’t even that into him (even if the girl was Martian Britney circa the fin de siècle). These are logical frameworks that can’t be answered. Just know it was shot on the Universal Studios backlot. In real life, the astronaut is now a Phoenix trauma surgeon.
Somehow, this perfectly explains the late ’90s. If the ’ludes and stagflation anomie of the ’70s caused a Happy Days revival for ’50s homespun corniness, the first years of the Britney Spears era applied a glossy sheen to black and white repressiveness. The boomers in charge simultaneously fetishized the rebellion of the Aquarian years and the pre–Kennedy assassination stability of their childhood. This is how you get Britney, who contained both polarities, even if the Janis Joplin dissipation was still a few years away. Of course, she wanted astronauts in the video. What else but that ultimate symbol of mid-20th-century crew-cut heroics?
Her gifts extended beyond the panting tigress “oh bay-bee, bay-bee” vocal timbre, flawless looks, and seductive-but-still-PG-13 dance moves. It was more than the Scandinavian pop Odins who wrote and produced her anthems, and the shrewd Jive A&R and marketing machine. If it was that easy, there would be another Britney Spears every year. A slew of alternative Britneys followed—Christina, Jessica, Mandy—but none could replicate the enduring stranglehold on the imagination. She was her own target audience, summoning pure brilliance from the middle-of-the-mall basic.
There are no monuments or museums consecrated to Cheiron, the greatest hit factory since Motown. It wouldn’t mesh with the Swedish concept of lagom, which translates to “just the right amount.” It’s baked into an underlying social contract that stresses teamwork, balance, and a communal approach. This partially explains why the taciturn Max Martin gives one interview every 20 years. The rest of the disciples of Cheiron are almost equally reticent. Even in recent years, no one has ever exploited the brand, tried to steal credit, or launched an ill-fated career revamp as an EDM DJ.
The name Cheiron is largely obscure to the average pop fan, who at best knows that all the immortal Britney Spears, ’NSync, and Backstreet Boys songs were written by a bunch of long-haired Scandinavians. The most well-known is Max Martin, once the lead singer in the Stockholm glam-metal band It’s Alive, whose album art exuded big Spinal Tap energy, but whose songs bore a subtle creative debt to Prince, KISS, and ’80s synth-pop. The Berry Gordy of Cheiron was a smiling, gap-toothed video game devotee who chain-smoked Marlboro Menthols and looked like a Viking bassist for Bon Jovi. His name was Dag Volle, but he rechristened himself Denniz Pop around the time of his first hit (“It’s My Life”) with the Nigerian-Swedish dentist turned hip-house fusionist, Dr. Alban. In 1992, it played about every eight minutes on the music-request TV channel The Box, usually alongside A.B. Logic’s “The Hitman.”
The sudden ubiquity of Ace of Base’s “The Sign” turned Pop into an internationally sought-after producer. Abandoning his rock-god dreams, Martin began a mutually beneficial apprenticeship under Pop, who had a stellar ear but couldn’t play an instrument or read or write music. Belying his heavy metal parking lot past, Martin had studied in Sweden’s utopian public music academies. Cheiron lived up to its name, which referenced a mythological Greek centaur revered as the teacher of Achilles, Dionysus, and Asclepius. Pop tutored Martin, Andreas Carlsson, Rami Yacoub, and a half-dozen other semi-anonymous Swedish producers whose names are in the credits of songs that you’ve heard at every wedding for the past 20 years.
“We all came from the school of Denniz Pop, which was to leave no stone unturned and think everything all the way through,” says Yacoub. “We lived by the expression ‘kill your darlings.’ We worked every melody down to its DNA to make sure it sounded great. Even the slightest switch could change everything. And if it didn’t make you start singing; if it wasn’t a hit, we were always ready to start again from scratch.”
From the moment Britney signed with Jive Records in 1997, the goal was to get to Cheiron. At the time, the Clive Calder–founded behemoth boasted one of the most eclectic and influential rosters in history. Jive had released hip-hop classics from Souls of Mischief, E-40, Too Short, Mystikal, and A Tribe Called Quest, while R. Kelly and Aaliyah’s ’90s work redefined R&B. On the trucker-hatted end of the musical universe, they minted billions off the Backstreet Boys, ’NSync, and Britney Spears. Plus, Jive owned all the publishing and a chain of studios where their artists recorded—a vertical integration that Andrew Carnegie or Louis Mayer would’ve envied.
Although Britney was initially signed to a provisional record deal, her contract became permanent after a month of promising demos with one of Jive’s in-house producers. When she was just 16, the label shipped her and a school tutor to Stockholm, where the shaggy Cheironites were fresh off the success of “Tearin’ Up My Heart” and “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back).” By this time, Pop was dying of stomach cancer, and legend held that Martin brought in the rough versions of Britney’s first songs to his ailing mentor, seeking his Midas touch one final time.
“I remember getting a folder with a picture of a very young girl sitting cross-legged on the floor and it said, ‘Britney Spears: Get to know her on a first-name basis,’” says Andreas Carlsson, one of the Cheiron producers, who cowrote a pair of songs on each of Britney’s first two albums. “We knew right away that this wasn’t going to be making something small. We were going to be making an icon.”
It’s impossible to assess “Oops!” without acknowledging that it’s the rare sequel to live up to the original. Released just over a year prior, “… Baby One More Time” wasn’t a song, it was an awakening. It went no. 1 in more than 18 countries, sold more than 18 million copies, and inspired innumerable bad Lolita analogies from Camille Paglia on down. To sheltered millennials slowly becoming aware of the difference between love and sex, Britney twirling in a flamingo-pink sports bra on TRL might as well have been Marilyn’s white dress billowing in The Seven Year Itch. Britney Spears was the blueprint—a slithering taunt, steam-clouded mirror, and airbrushed myth. The collective unconsciousness baring its belly-button ring. Accidental siren and elusive savior. The Virgin Mary and Madonna, one more immaculate conception, one more time before the decline.
The Catholic schoolgirl and cheerleader motif were her ideas, too. (Nigel Dick’s first treatment reportedly called for an animated Power Rangers fiasco.) Without that instinctive foresight, none of this happens. According to lore, Robyn originally passed on the future anthem. So did TLC, whose T-Boz was quoted as saying: “I like the song, but do I think it’s a hit? Do I think it’s TLC? … Was I going to say, ‘Hit me, baby, one more time’? Hell, no!”
The verses resemble any interchangeable teen-pop love song, but the hook’s indelible haziness deftly mirrored the “depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is” years. Martin swore that “hit me” was just his stilted Swedish take on American slang—sort of like when his quasi-labelmate E-40 said “if it’s major, hit me on my pager.” But by the late ’90s, “hitting it” meant something distinctly different in the hallways of American high schools (just go listen to the last four bars of “Hey Ma”). Not to mention the terminally literal Tipper Gore types, who interpreted it as a subliminal S&M manifesto.
Like Britney herself, “…Baby One More Time” had a cipher-like quality that revealed as much about the listener as the artist. The synthesizers and guitars slashed with varsity strength; the drums knocked like a head against the locker; the breakdown thundered like runaway adrenaline. Both it and “Oops” banged with an ice-glazed lust in the production and vocals. No teenager stood a chance against a lyrical confessional about how bad Britney Spears wanted them. Just give her a call. She’ll be everything you need her to be. Both clearly out-of-your league but girl-next-door realistic. Even Prince William sent thirsty emails. But subtract the video and it might as well have been DREAM’s “He Loves U Not.”
“When we signed her, we didn’t even know that she could dance. It was an epiphany when we saw the rough cut for the ‘…Hit Me Baby One More Time’ video. We were all floored,” says Barry Weiss, then Jive Records’ president. “That’s when the light bulb went off. It dawned on us that there was a little bit of Marilyn Monroe, thrown in with a dash of common-touch, Elvis Presley, middle-America appeal. That was what led to this explosion.”
Barely 17, Britney became the first artist to have her debut album and lead single simultaneously top the Billboard charts. Her fame and fortune swelled from a ravenous convergence among the factions of the dial-up-era hype machine. If Tiger Beat and Bop boosted their circulation by breathlessly chronicling which Backstreet Boy was the dreamiest, they were insatiable and waiting for Britney, the Bayou bridge between an American Girl doll and Bratz.
“The Backstreet phenomenon was very much music, song, and copyright-led—then the brand kicked in,” Weiss adds. “Whereas with Britney, it was happening simultaneously.”
Rolling Stone and the men’s magazines exploited her jailbait carnality for newsstand sales. Cosmo and Elle welcomed her as lifeblood to offset the aging of previous generational touchstones like Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, and Meg Ryan. Message boards swapped Britney JPGs; Xoom pages cropped up for the prospective “Future Husbands of Britney Spears.” She was safe enough to appease Viacom ad buyers and sordid enough to give MTV the semi-edgy illusion of youth coolness—a natural politician catering her stump speech to the taste of every crowd.
“There’s a lot of people who still believe it was engineered, like we were some scientists rubbing our hands together in a laboratory saying, ‘We have the formula,’” says Larry Rudolph, Britney’s longtime manager. “While it’s true that [Jive founder] Clive Calder was like the Einstein of pop music, Britney was always the one directing the creatives. She did what came naturally to her and had an innate intelligence to figure out what and where everything needed to be.”
From her first single, Britney’s pre–Marlboro Light singing voice was singular. It might have been baby-doll sultry to the point of easy caricature. She may have lacked the levitating octave shifts of her hero, Whitney Houston. But when you heard Britney, you knew it was Britney. Her producers drowned her natural register in Auto-Tune, which gave it a mysterious remove. The tone was immediately recognizable, somewhere between Toni Braxton and Rihanna, indiscriminately wandering between club and church, bedroom and homeroom. She knew exactly what she was doing and how to convince you that it was all an accident. Even if those were just automatic instincts, ingenuity doesn’t require intention.
“She wasn’t just some puppet who showed up and sang,” says Jason Blume, who cowrote “Dear Diary” on Oops! alongside Britney, which became her first songwriting credit.
“I actually said to her, ‘Wow, you can really sing,’ and she laughed and said, ‘Everyone says that,’” Blume adds. “What was so clear to me, and what separates someone and makes them a star, is that totally identifiable thing that you know in two seconds who you’re listening to. She wasn’t putting it on. She wasn’t manufacturing that unique sound. That’s just who she was.”
When Britney arrived at Cheiron studios in the last months of the millennium, the pressure and expectations went far beyond the music; this was a nascent billion-dollar brand. Almost a million Britney dolls had been sold (they sang when you pressed their belly button). There were endorsement deals with Pepsi, Polaroid, Skechers, and Got Milk?, and an inspirational autobiography cowritten with her mom. Despite her public avowals of Jesus and abstinence, morning-show hosts across America attacked her perceived immorality. Press rumors ran rampant about whether or not she’d gotten breast implants and if she was dating Justin Timberlake (which she still denied). In the wake of her iconic bedroom photo shoot with David LaChapelle and the velvet Teletubby, the American Family Association indicted her “disturbing mix of childhood innocence and adult sexuality” and launched a call for “God-loving Americans to boycott stores selling Britney’s albums.” It aligned her with her idol, Madonna, and her sponsor, Pepsi—whom the AFA tried to cancel for using “Like a Prayer” in a commercial.
“My anxiety has just been crazy,” Britney told Rolling Stone in the May 2000 cover story that surrounded the release of Oops! I Did It Again. This time, she Mona Lisa’d in front of an American flag, wearing a matching red, white, and blue midriff. A near-perfect inverse of the gasoline dreams metaphor that Outkast would project on the cover of Stankonia, which dropped that Halloween.
“At the beginning of last year, when everything was rolling and everything was good, it was so new and exciting to me,” Spears continued, in a harbinger of future unrest. “Maybe I’m just changing and getting older, but I find I need to have my downtime just to myself or I’ll go crazy.”
The Swedes, meanwhile, were typically unruffled. Cheiron existed in a figurative and literal bunker. Yacoub only discovered that “…Baby One More Time” topped the American charts three weeks after the fact. Even then, it occurred via an offhand conversation with Martin. It was the first U.S. no. 1 for either producer.
“[Max] was like, ‘Are we supposed to do something to celebrate?’” Yacoub remembers, laughing. “I said, ‘I guess we should.’ So we show up at about 8:30 at this restaurant that turned into a club later. He was like, ‘Should we order champagne?’ I said, ‘I guess so.’ We weren’t really drinkers. Then he was like, ‘Should we order a cigar, maybe?’ So we did that. And by 11:30, it was getting crowded, so we decided to go home because we had to work in the morning.”
Despite the Nordic forbearance, the Cheiron alumni remember it as a fun and harmonious environment, a “playhouse for adults.” In this basement on an island in the middle of central Stockholm, the dozen or so producers obsessively sculpted the sound of modern pop music. A craftsman’s meticulousness merged with a sense of chromatic excess. Martin’s hair-metal roots and furtive adoration of KISS, the Beatles, and Prince manifested themselves in huge arena-stomping hooks as sticky and colorful as fruit-stripe gum—alongside lyrics that seemed almost mystically bizarre (“Sadness is beautiful / Loneliness is tragical”). The beats, many of which were handled by Yacoub, synthesized American hip-hop and R&B through a distinctly Swedish lens, an inheritance of the trans-Atlantic exchange that had spurred the rise of continental house and techno earlier in the ’90s. In the country whose biggest export was ABBA, there were no stigmas attached to aiming for mass appeal.
The bulk of Oops! I Did It Again was recorded during this 13-day stretch in Sweden without entourage or distraction. In this inconspicuous, communitarian, white-brick Brill Building, Britney bopped from studio A to B singing the bespoke songs that the Cheiron team created. The producers adhered to a strength-in-numbers philosophy, so it wasn’t unusual for one to walk into the next room and offer a tweak or suggestion. Beyond musical aptitude, they made for ideal pop songwriters because there was no ego to trip them up. No private jewels to covertly squirrel away for their own solo projects. The narcissistic interiority of the American mind-set was absent. They were completely free to imagine Britney.
“When a previously unknown artist comes back as a mega-celebrity, the stakes are always really high and there is usually an army of yes-men, record executives, and managers that need to have their input,” Carlsson says. “But on [Oops!], it was still a lot of fun because she was still so available to us. She got so famous so fast that we could play with her stardom. It’s almost gimmickier in a way; she’s playing different characters on the record like with ‘Lucky,’ ‘Stronger,’ and that Titanic dialogue in ‘Oops!’ that no one really understands.”
“Oops!” is as close as you can get to the original without shameless imitation; it’s almost like a Warhol Campbell’s Soup canvas, where if you stare closely enough you can see a slightly different lettering in each variety. Pop art at its finest. Yacoub spent two weeks tinkering with the snare from “…Baby One More Time,” but ultimately, Martin just told him to sample the original for “Oops.” The decision revealed a deeper self-awareness: Rather than compulsively strive to reinvent themselves to validate their own sense of artistry, they stuck to what worked. A creative intelligence that allowed them to avoid the self-sabotage or pretensions that plagued so many of their peers. In the case of Britney, who was often dismissed for not being as artfully shapeshifting as Madonna, she had a dancer’s intuition. If it made her shake, so went the rest of the world.
“You have to be a genius of some sort to see what creative steps to walk in and what traps to avoid,” says Robert Jazayeri, who wasn’t on the Cheiron team, but coproduced “When Your Eyes Say It” off Oops! “She may not have had the voice that Christina Aguilera did, but she was more intuitive and trusting in her team and producers and ran them better than anyone else. It wasn’t a blind ‘take me there’ thing either. When she needed to, she’d speak out.”
In promoting the Oops! album, Britney frequently described it as “edgy,” “diverse,” “mature,” and “full of attitude.” Although she received cowriting credits only on the puppy-love ballad “Dear Diary,” it’s clear that the lyricists sought to reflect her own personal evolution. If “…Baby One More Time” is an infatuated plea for another chance, “Oops!” is a shrugging dagger to the chest—with a video that runs the jewels on an astronaut and sends him back to Earth. The album’s second Martin/Yacoub single, “Lucky,” peaked at no. 5 on the domestic charts, and found Britney in a thinly veiled and foreshadowing narrative about a lonely movie star named Lucky who cries herself to sleep every night, afflicted by the hollowness of her own existence. Its third salvo, “Stronger” (no. 11 on the Hot 100), found her flipping the lament of her debut single to proclaim that “my loneliness ain’t killing me no more.” Like her fellow class of 2000 peer, Alice DJ, she sneers about being better off alone.
In a rare interview with The Guardian last year, Martin hailed Britney as “a genius. So much had happened to her in that [early period] and she had to grow up quickly. We had conversations with her about what she wanted to do and what she wanted to say.”
It’s the type of genius that exists outside any traditional definition of the term. Nonetheless, it’s a word that crops up constantly in interviews with her collaborators and business team. They all echo additional praise on her Oops!-era focus, work ethic, kindness, and sense of professionalism. She may not have written her songs, but neither did Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley, and they were never derided with the sexist tags often ascribed to Britney. Maybe “genius” isn’t the most precise word, but it’s the closest one in the English language to describe how a teenage girl from a poverty-stricken backwoods hamlet in Louisiana became the center of American pop culture for a solid decade. Even skeptics had to admit that Britney had kairos, what the ancient Greek rhetoricians described as “a passing instant when an opening appears which must be driven through with force if success is to be achieved.”
As with nearly all aspects of American life, the question of race was inextricable from Britney’s ascent. The mythmaking that presented her as the “All-American girl” was conspicuously absent from the marketing of Brandy and Aaliyah, two preternaturally gifted teen stars barely older than Britney, whom radio programmers, television executives, and editors often slotted into the “urban” lane, a racially loaded phrase used historically to ghettoize black artists in the music industry. Around the same time that Oops! I Did It Again shattered pop records, Destiny’s Child was amid a similarly canonical run. But despite similar chart domination, mass media magazine editors weren’t rushing to put Beyoncé, Kelly, and Michelle in the stars and stripes. For all of its riffs on new jack swing and R&B, the boy band and teen-pop era was glaringly white (although the half-Ecuadorian Christina Aguilera did immediately follow up her debut with a Spanish-language album). While the musical themes may have stressed inclusion, the marketing and presentation were implicitly geared to white America.
To Britney and Cheiron’s credit, what they created extended well beyond shameless appropriation. If Britney’s chief vocal inspirations were Whitney Houston, Toni Braxton, and Michael and Janet Jackson, she created her own soubrette purr. She used Janet’s old choreographer for the “Oops!” video, but the fast-twitch athleticism and extraterrestrial allure was all Britney. Maybe it made sense that the cover song on Oops! was a breathy Jumbo’s Clown Room–ready rendition of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” originally by an obscure British rock ‘n’ roll outfit who became famous by recording old blues songs that they didn’t write. For the rework, Britney’s team recruited Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins, the producer behind some of the biggest hits from Braxton, Brandy, and Destiny’s Child.
“She always sounded organic. Britney grew up with and still listens to R&B and hip-hop. Plus, she could really dance,” says Jerkins. “A song is a song, but it becomes something different when you connect with people. There were so many different girls with blond hair at that time, but Britney made girls feel like she was one of them in a unique way. I don’t think we’ve seen a pop sensation like that since.”
The specific dates are probably foggy, but people old enough can remember the MTV VMAs by what Britney Spears wore and did. 2003: That was the year she came out in a white wedding dress singing “Like a Virgin” and kissed Madonna; it made the front page of the USA Today international edition. 2002: She dressed like a leather dominatrix and presented the “Artist of the Millennium” award to Michael Jackson; the King of Pop told her she looked wonderful. 2001 was the python year, when she was accompanied by tigers and Doc Antle. As she lip-synced “I’m a Slave 4 U,” entire college dorms lost consciousness.
2000 is the age of “Oops! ... I Did It Again.” Opening the show itself, her performance starts slowly, purposefully. She straddles a silver chair backward before a purple and red stage set that looked like a Las Vegas imitation of a Marc Chagall stained glass. In a low-slung fedora and a pinstripe tuxedo with an unbuttoned white shirt, cabaret Britney sings her Rolling Stones cover, languidly descending a stairwell. As she comes to the bottom, the beat thuds. An aggressive grab of the stairwell, a head swivel, a 180 spin, a popped collar. Vamping around a metal stepladder, she does a Michael Jackson power strut and some “Smooth Criminal”–era moves. Then pandemonium sets in.
Ripping off her jacket and slacks, Britney appears to be completely naked. Within seconds, it becomes apparent that it’s actually a flesh-colored bra and sheer bell-bottoms, which seem about as close as anyone but Justin Timberlake is ever likely to come. The snares pop into “Oops!”; Britney throws her hands up gladiatorially. Suddenly, a horde of shirtless, shredded male dancers sprint out behind her dressed like the Ultimate Warrior. They pantomime what looks like a PG-13 orgy. The questions about her virginity seem to become moot. She’s not just legal; she’s an adult.
This is one of those Rubicon moments. A Henny-fueled Kanye telling Taylor Swift that Beyoncé made one of the greatest videos of all time. Clinton playing the sax on Arsenio. Neo taking the red pill and inspiring a lifetime of accursed metaphors. But it is September 7, 2000. This same week, Cheiron will leave a note on its website announcing that the studio is closing its doors because “the hype has become bigger than [the studio] itself… it’s time to quit while we’re ahead.” However, this era will never end, because the end of history has been declared. Everyone won. And even if you lose, technology, or at least the Supreme Court, can solve it. The terror of the unforeseen is what happens to other people in other places. It’s clear that something has ended, but what’s next has to be better.
Inside a spinning mobius strip, Britney coos “I’m not that innocent”—the “that” in the chorus seeming instantly superfluous. She shakes, writhes, skips to the front of the catwalk and drops down to her knees, possessed. Pounding the stage, she thrusts her hips into the sky, throwing her back out as the synthesizers throb. A Dionysian ritual dropped into midtown Manhattan. You expect her to burn some sacred resin or drink sweat from the horn of an oxen. But instead, Britney looks to the camera, smiles sneakily, and shakes her chest. The beat drops out and she moans, “Ooh, I did it again,” arching her back and throwing her right arm triumphantly into the sky in a gesture of infinity—and I’m pretty sure that’s how her story ends.
Jeff Weiss is the founder and editor of POW. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and GQ.