Spears arrived as the queen of girlhood, but she was not just for girls. The boys — who were themselves expected to project a compulsory heterosexuality — quickly reached a consensus that her music kind of sucked but that she was very hot. I could sense them dismantling her, distributing her parts. The girls could have her voice, but the boys would take her body.
I was not a huge Britney Spears fan, but I didn’t have to be. Her rise felt inevitable, her power hegemonic. Her music was designed for everyone to like it, and I did. I was fascinated by the rusty edge of her voice. In friends’ bedrooms, we reenacted her videos. We pretended we were sad in a gymnasium or writhing on Mars. As we impersonated her pigtail braids and her creaky rasp, we also projected ourselves into her zone of male approval, familiarizing ourselves with its unsettling power. Britney Spears was the soundtrack to the death of my childhood. It was the time when I started to see myself from outside myself — to view my body through the monitor of judgment.
I did not register this at the time, but it was not just teenage boys who laid claim to the body of Britney Spears. When she was 17, Rolling Stone dispatched a grown man to report from her bedroom, and he returned with notes on her “honeyed thigh” and “ample chest.” On the cover, another man posed her on a bed wearing only a bra and boy shorts, with a Teletubby tucked under her arm. In newspapers and magazines, adult writers called her “jailbait” — essentially an accusation that a child has tempted an adult to sexually assault her. A People magazine cover in 2000 asked if Spears, then 18, was “Too Sexy Too Soon.” In the memoir, Spears describes her disturbed reaction as her audiences filled with “more and more older men” who leered at her “like I was some kind of Lolita fantasy.”
Looking back now, of course Britney Spears does not seem dangerous. Like me, she was a child. It was the intensity of the attention trained on her that was perverse. Through her, I learned that the bodies of women and girls had a speculative value. Men determined their worth. They invested early, but they were always ready to withdraw their attention and place it in someone new. I looked nothing like Britney Spears, moved nothing like her, but I still felt like the culture was telling me: You are as valuable now as you will ever be.
The early coverage of Spears took pains to emphasize her grip over her own career, and in many ways, it was true. Much of the appeal of her image was that it was shaped by the tastes of an actual teenage girl. In the book, she writes that the concept and styling of the “ … Baby One More Time” video were hers. And yet there was also something suspicious about how tirelessly record executives and managers emphasized her power. It is uncontroversial to think of boy bands like ’N Sync and the Backstreet Boys as engineered. With Spears, it seemed important to insist that she was responsible.