In April 1999, a few months after the album release of ...Baby One More Time, a Rolling Stone feature about Britney Spears concluded with these words: "Teenagers are driving our culture—and they won't be giving the keys back any time soon" (source). Though it may sound dramatic, Rolling Stone magazinewas just identifying something that others had already noticed: the late 1990s marked the dawn of the teenybopper.
Of course, it wasn't the first time that teens had taken over pop culture. In the 1950s, teen-dominated pop had its first big boom with the birth of rock and roll and the rise of young stars like Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry with largely teenage fan bases.
Rolling Stone identifies and explains the connection between Britney and this bygone era:
In a distant demographic echo of the postwar baby boom, the American teen population has reached the kind of critical mass that makes the culture industry sit up and listen. Teen spending power is reshaping pop culture, filling our TV screens with teen dramas and our multiplexes with teen movies. It has also put a perky new beat on the pop charts, where the devotional vaporings of boy bands have vanquished the roiling rock angst of the early to mid-Nineties. (Source)
In other words, the teen population is where the money is, and teen pop is back to rake it in.
In the 1950s, though, the big female stars were people like Debbie Reynolds, who acted in musicals wearing shin-length skirts. The super-sexualized image of a teenage Britney in 1999 was different than anything mainstream culture had faced in 1959. The sexually suggestive image of a teenager that emerged with the release of "...Baby One More Time" was part of a trend, but the enormous mainstream success of Britney's "not-that-innocent" personal brand was something new altogether. She ruled the 1990s—and uprooted them.
Some would say that teen stars like Britney and (more obviously) the Spice Girls and Destiny's Child were embracing a sort of girl power ethic that was all about teen girls claiming control over their own lives and sexualities, at least symbolically. But in another sense, Britney's hyper-innocent yet hyper-sexual image undermined any hint of "girl power" that marked late 1990s pop by pandering to an audience that shamelessly obsessed over her body, on the one hand, and her innocence and virginity, on the other. Especially in retrospect, Spears can look like a victim of vicious over-sexualization and relentless press attention.
According to Spears and her producers, her first single "...Baby One More Time" is just a fun pop song about a crush, and doesn't necessarily carry any sexual connotations. That seems plausible enough, until you see the music video in which Britney daydreams about taking a break from her high school class to flirt with boys in the hallway. Along with the "hit me, baby" lyric, Britney's appearance in a Catholic schoolgirl skirt and tied-up belly shirt raised brows and hackles. Her subsequent controversial Rolling Stone cover didn't help, either; the photographer captured her with her shirt unbuttoned, lying down on her bed.
As a barely seventeen-year-old former Mouseketeer and current 11th grader, it seemed appropriate to many that Britney Spears' personal interests should include going to bed in time to get up for school the next day and getting her mom to cook her favorite grilled cheese. On the flip side, it seemed inappropriate to many that every time she appeared in public, she seemed to have fewer and fewer clothes on. And it wasn't just the concerned parents of America: for some feminists, it was distressing that, once again, the value placed on this particular girl was less about her talent and more about her looks and her purportedly virginal sexuality. The product being sold, some argued, was borderline pornographic. Britney's image, they said, depended on a kind of fetish with youthful, feminine innocence.
The music video's adult creators claimed total innocence. Video director Nigel Dick interviewed with MTV and was confronted with the question:
"I decided to try this idea that someone had thrown at me and they hated it—they absolutely hated it," the video's director, Nigel Dick, told MTV News. "So I jumped on the phone with Britney and she says, 'Well, now I think it should be about me in school and there be lots of hot boys around,' and that was pretty much it—oh, and a bunch of dancing. And my response was, 'OK.'" (Source)
In other words, the whole thing was Spears' idea, conceived just like any teen girl's dreams. "My idea originally was just jeans and T-shirts," Dick says about the costumes, "and we were at the wardrobe fitting and Britney holds up the jeans and T-shirts and says, 'Wouldn't I wear a schoolgirl outfit?'" (Source)
Yes, Britney, we suppose you would.
...Baby One More Time was among the best-selling albums of 1999; to this date, it's the best-selling album by a teenager and the single sold 500,000 copies on its release day. People loved the sound of Britney, and teens in particular loved her clear connection to youth culture and her interesting blend of youth and womanhood. As she was getting more and more risqué in her public appearances, Spears announced that she hoped to stay a virgin until marriage and spoke about the values of church and family. Some people might think her performances and costumes were inappropriate for a girl her age, but these concerns were trumped by the sheer success of the business enterprise and perfect image that was Britney Spears.
Music critics didn't exactly love the music itself, but, they had to admit, it was catchy stuff: "Penned with songwriter-producer Max Martin, the Swedish pop powerhouse behind Britney's early albums, it's a symphony of teenage lust as fully realised as anything Brian Wilson ever wrote," wrote NME of "...Baby One More Time." They called it "a truly grand pop song that overwhelms any lingering undercurrent of Lolita pseudo-creepiness through the sheer fanatical earnestness of its delivery." (Source)
That seems like a pretty fair assessment. Spears' public image might have seemed over-sexualized to some, but she was sincere enough in her youthful innocence to pull off the image without driving off the crowds. Also, to be fair, being judged on "innocence" is a strange paradox confronted by all child stars, especially girls, who want to transition to a more grown-up career. They can't succeed in pop or the movies without becoming adults in other people's eyes, but watching a pubescent child become an adult in the public eye can be a troubling experience. It's possible to become a sex symbol without even reaching the age of consent—and instead of criticizing a culture that seems obsessed with youth, critics tend to go after the performer themselves. If you decide to play the game (as Spears did), it's something of a lose-lose arrangement.
Young Britney Spears seemed to completely believe that she was not at risk of being objectified, even as she made millions off of her image. Writer Chuck Klosterman tried to pull apart Spears' "good girl" ethos in an early interview with the young singer, to no avail:
No one has ever packaged that schism like Britney Spears. She is the naughtiest good girl of all time [...] What makes Spears different is her abject unwillingness to recognize that this paradox exists at all. She never winks, she never cracks, and she never relents in her abject naiveté [...] This is the crux of her genius. (Source)
In other words, Spears might or might not have known that she was becoming a sex object in some people's eyes, but she feigned total innocence. It was acting totally innocent that made her performance so engaging. Here's how Klosterman describes questioning Britney about her controversial music video:
"I was wearing a freaking Catholic school girl's outfit!" she exclaims, which is (of course) exactly why everyone else in the universe views it as the hyperdriven exploitation of an unabashed taboo. But there is no subtext in Britney World [...] Spears wants everything to look like an accident, and this is crucial. (Source)
He says Britney's image depends on a lack of ironic self-consciousness: "If Britney were to forfeit anything, if she were to even casually admit that she occasionally uses her body as a commercial weapon—all of this would be over." (Source)
Britney might never have admitted that she was living a contradiction, but the rest of us know where this story goes. The fun, successful teenybopper Britney Spears of the late 1990s suffered dramatically in the public eye, eventually undergoing two failed marriages, several trips to rehab, and the loss of custody of her two children. Adulation turned quickly to criticism as she was smeared as an irresponsible party girl and a bad mother. Almost ten years after they first elevated her image as Teen Queen, Rolling Stone did an exposé on the train wreck that was Spears' personal life and career, depicting her as bitter, possessive, jealous, and exhausted from being used by one after another manager, executive, and boyfriend.
A little harsh, Rolling Stone.
Perhaps without choosing it, Spears went from being the image of innocence to the image of lost innocence—living out in real time the stereotype that says that if you're not a good girl, you're automatically a bad girl forever. And, to be fair, her career ultimately embraced that dichotomy, self-consciously depicting grown-up Britney as a "bad girl" who's never going back.
But for "...Baby One More Time," Britney maintains, she was just being a teenage girl, period—no good, no bad, and apparently no self-consciousness about how others perceive her. "It's a song every girl can relate to," she said at the time. "She regrets it. She wants him back." (Source)