The emancipation journey of Britney Spears
Let’s start off with a statement: Britney Spears is a legend. Not a Michael Jackson/Elvis Presley/Jimi Hendrix kind of legend but a legend nonetheless. She’s been the idol of many girls and boys all around the world and one of the most popular symbol of the American dream. She is pretty much one of the first singers our generation think of when talking about the early 00’s. Who hasn’t heard about the many scandals that have surrounded her all along her career? She basically made 2007 a thing by shaving her head, so for that we owe her a bit of respect. But despite all the positive memories and feelings that her songs trigger, we cannot say that Britney has always spread a great image of women, on the contrary. Being a teen star comes with downsides such as having your every move watched and your image controlled in order to make a business out of it. And to sell, she had to meet all the expectations of what was requested of her as a young woman : look sexy and glamorous, sing about how she cannot live without a man - thus matching with all the macho notions that were part of the social rules then (and unfortunately still are). However, and even though she did sing stuff like “Oh baby, baby the reason I breathe is you” - which we can all agree is a bit problematic - our girl has definitely evolved with time and her hit songs’ lyrics reflect that journey to independence and self discovery.
FROM THE AGE OF INNOCENCE
1999. An important year : the release year of Baby One more time, first album of a very young and fragile Britney, wearing her hair in two ponytails while jumping around the school corridors. If you’re thinking “cliché”, you’re completely right : what we have here is the very stereotype of the basic American teen girl, enjoying time in the company of her American friends in her typical American high school.. Well, you get the drift.
Now, let’s bare in mind that as this album was the introduction of Britney in the music industry it had to portray what she was then supposed to be : a young, naive and lovely girl trying to figure out who she was and who relied on male validation to feel confident and enjoy life. She was an advocate of the so called female purity and most of all of the concept of female dependance towards men. If the first notion can be seen through the way she was portrayed in her video clips, the second one can definitely be spotted in the lyrics of the different songs of this first album.
‘Baby, I'm so into you. You got that something, what can I do? Baby, you spin me around, oh, The earth is moving, but I can't feel the ground’ Crazy
‘I don't wanna be so shy. Every time that I'm alone I wonder why. Hope that you will wait for me. You'll see that you're the only one for me’ Sometimes
‘Oh pretty baby. There's nothing that I wouldn't do. It's not the way I planned it. Show me how you want it to be’ Baby one more time
However, a turnaround situation takes place in the second album. As a reminder, in Baby One more time she sang “My loneliness is killing me” which completely fits with the image of the needy, allegedly pure young woman. But yet, in 2000, with the release of the album Oops I did it again, in Stronger she claims, “My loneliness ain't killing me no more”, which of course is a direct response to her first ever song and the proof that her train of thought has evolved a bit : she’s no longer feeling like a boy can make her whole and that her fulfillment is the result of being someone’s girlfriend. And as emotional independence is definitely a big part of female emancipation, one point for you Brit.
“I'm not your property as from today, baby” Stronger, Album : Oops I did it again
This emancipation process that’s specific to the Oops I did it again album doesn't stop here. In the eponymous song, one of the most famous line is “Oops, you think I'm in love. That I'm sent from above. I'm not that innocent”. By showcasing this more unvirtuous side of her, the album is building itself in complete contradiction to the first one and allows Britney to gain a little bit of edge, compared to the “pretty, happy, perfect” first version of her.
TO A NEW WAY TO express SEXINESS
At that point, what we have is a different Britney : same blond hair, same high pitched voice but a different view on innocence and on the character that she shows to the world through her music.
Sex-appeal is a great part of success in the music industry, and if that’s still true today, it was even more the case during the early 00’s. Whether it was Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera or Jennifer Lopez, every single female singer was hyper-sexualized via both her songs’ lyrics and music videos : sexiness was seen as the unique selling point for women who wanted to be successful in this industry. When it comes to Britney, she has always been portrayed as a sexy woman thanks to the red vinyl jumpsuits, short skirts or crop tops that she wore in her music videos. Of course, I am all for women wearing whatever they want, no matter how short the outfit is or how much skin it’s showing. But it is completely different when the way you are dressed is carefully designed to fit with a certain vision of how and how much a woman is supposed to be sexy : it has to raise interest but respect a certain amount of sexiness so that it’s not perceived as ‘too much’ from a male perspective. In Britney’s case, in her first album, this aspect manifested itself through short and cropped outfits that somehow, managed to be always linked to a context of innocence: she goes from a school girl in Baby One more time, to a young girl who goes to her first girl night out in Crazy. It’s the Virgin Mary wearing a denim skirt, basically - but no makeup.
However, the way she expressed her sexiness took another turn starting with I’m slave for you. We went from a chaste sexiness to a full on “this is me almost naked” kind of vibe. Obviously in that clip, she still portrays a male vision of the concept of “being sexy”, wearing a bra and a thong on top of her jeans, but at least it is straight forward and she seems to actually own it for once - there is no more attempt to try and attenuate it or justify it by a context. And as viewers we definitely get the feeling that she isn’t here to please anyone but to enjoy herself as her lyrics explain : “Always saying little girl don't step into the club. Well I'm just tryin' to find out why 'cause dancing's what I love”.
Even the male presence is different from the previous videos : they are mostly men dancers whose choreography is here to magnify her instead of emphasize the effect that her sexiness has on them. That overall dynamic, that way of linking sex-appeal to power, is something that can be seen from that clip onwards (Toxic, Me against the music ..) .
FROM DEPENDANCY TO CONTROL
Remember how she used to express how desperate she was to have a man in her life in order to be able to.. breathe? Well, with both the Britney and In the Zone albums, these days seem to be long gone. Through many songs, she affirms her will to have control over her life choices, her will to affirm the power of her sexuality and to let go of the fragile little bird she once was. In Boys, she sings “Boys, and when a girl is with one. Boys, then she's in control”. The message is pretty clear : the strength of this line lies in how it puts sexuality as a way to gain power which is in complete contradiction with the usual link that is often made between female sexuality and submission.
In Overprotected, she expresses her frustration regarding the system she evolves in while affirming her will to have complete control over her life and stop letting other people define her : Brit has had enough guys!
In Me against the music she reaches the peak of her self confidence : the whole song is an invitation to competition and the affirmation of how fearless she’s now become after all these years in the music industry.
‘I wanna get in the zone. If you really wanna battle, saddle up and get your rhythm. In a minute I'm a take a you on, I'm a take a you on’ Me against the music, Album : In the Zone
A UNIVERSAL QUEST FOR INDEPENDENCE
‘Here we are with nothin' but honesty. I've had enough, I'm not gonna stay’ Cinderella, Album: Britney
‘I'm so fed up with people telling me to be. Someone else but me !’ Overprotected, Album: Britney
‘I don't need permission, make my own decisions. That's my prerogative’ My Prerogative, Album: Greatest Hits: My Prerogative
If we take a closer look, isn’t the evolution in her lyrics/videos throughout the different albums that she’s released, the story of how most girls’ mindsets usually evolve? From the way we used to perceive femininity (make up and skirts yaass) to our sometimes obsessive way of considering that having a boyfriend is a necessity - it’s all there. Really, Britney’s career is the story of a young girl who has always defined herself according to the way people saw her and who tries to change that.
Further more, doesn’t the way Britney evolved describe the way the music industry changed regarding female singers/musicians? Once upon a time, all female artists seemed to come from the same mold of exaggerated femininity and imposed over-sexualized attitudes. Nowadays however, the industry showcases a more diverse landscape : some female artists kept on going with the sexy vibe and fully own it, while others decided to take another direction, either more masculine or neutral in the way they express their sexuality. Regarding Britney, I am not quite clear on what she is doing now. To be honest, I feel like In the Zone was her last enjoyable album - although she came back after with fun ones like Gimme more, which weren’t that good as they didn’t carry the nostalgic feelings specific to the old albums. But the point here is to emphasize how much of an icon she’ll always be to our generation because to a certain extent, every girl (and boy) can recognize a part of who she/he once was in one of her songs.