Pandemic Fashion: Go Big and Stay Home

An MTV news segment from 1999 encapsulates that time for me. It was a report from the shoot of MTV’s TRL “1999 class photo.” John Norris introduced the segment and passed off hosting duties to Brian McFayden, a newer VJ who looked like the 6th member of NYSNC. He was sitting around a table with them, all ogling Jennifer Lopez, who was seated behind them and clearly aware. Fred Durst was floating around, as was Tyrese. But the segment changes tone when McFayden gets a few seconds with Britney Spears before the shoot starts, as if to say, “OK, here she is.” She tells him she expects craziness from David LaChappelle, the photographer. When the segment transitions to the photo shoot, it does so with a close up of Britney walking, looking at the camera and beaming as the iconic 3-note opening of …Baby One More Time plays. She then takes her rightful seat right in the front of the class of 1999.

I was a TRL kid. I didn’t watch any of the teen soap operas or the adult cartoons marketed kids that were the height of pop culture at the time. Pokémon passed me by. I was all MTV. My obsession was borne out of a seismic shift in music culture and marketing; the messy, “dangerous” MTV of the 80’s and 90’s was making way for something glossier and with more dance moves just as I was hitting puberty. Teen pop replaced the alt-rock as the dominant money maker, and MTV evolved to meet the moment, focusing on a younger, brighter aesthetic throughout. The VJ’s no longer looked like music journalists, but pop stars. Unplugged was replaced with Making the Video.

This new crew of teenage stars was sold to us through their relatability. MTV made sure we idolized them, but also got to know them; these were our classmates. A whole new set of documentary-style shows debuted that allowed fans to feel closer to our idols. With each promotional cycle, we didn’t just get a new song and visual, we watched them Making the Video. We weren’t meant to interpret their updated image, we heard the “truth” from them in the supposedly candid and raw Diary series (“You think you know…but you have no idea”). The teen pop marketing tropes of sharing favorite colors, embarrassing stories, and backstage jokes was as old as the genre, but MTV expanded it into primetime programming.

Britney Spears was the most popular girl in the MTV class of 1999. She was as good for them as they were for her, as shown through the multitude of Britney-specific programming they would air when she had a new album to promote. She didn’t just get the standard Diary and Making the Video episodes, she got full days of programming where they would all air in a marathon, culminating live events where she’d perform and give an interview. There was even a First Listen special for her Oops…I Did It Again album where she sat in a room filled with fans to listen to 30-second clips of each song on the album and tell us stories about how the album was “edgier” and “more personal.”

While watching the New York Times’ Framing Britney Spears, it was jarring to view this era of her career documented from a distance, without the personal connection fostered by MTV, and with an updated cultural understanding of misogyny and patriarchy. Each of the tests and expectations placed upon Britney felt normal to me, because they were all part of the narrative in her most recent Diary episode. Her breasts, her relationships, and her sexiness were all on the table and she was made to answer for them apologetically or defensively depending on what the high school narrative at the moment was. It’s particularly unsettling to watch the way Britney’s breakup with Justin Timberlake was framed universally in the media: “What did she do to him?”

 

These things were normal to all of us in the sex-obsessed late 90’s. In the documentary, critic Wesley Morris helpfully contextualizes Britney’s rise in the time of Monica Lewinsky, another young woman who was ceremoniously torn apart by the culture.  We were in a moment of 2nd wave (white) feminism controlling the conversation and an extreme panic among adults about the sexualization of “our young girls.” This was also the time of Sex and the City and The Vagina Monologues, which were met with equal adoration and ridicule from women demanding that they be less frivolous or less self-serious. The greater culture, however, hated women as much as always. The general perception of the former was that the ladies were stupid and slutty and of the latter, that they were weird and unsexy. Progress was being made in women’s autonomy, especially in the way they were telling their stories, but it was met with a resounding “that’s girl stuff” mockery from the culture at large.

The respectability politics of sex in the 90’s was fraught for any woman who reached a certain level of fame because she could only get there by violating them. Young women across the entertainment spectrum were expected to strip down and pout to promote their new projects and those images were then widely disseminated so we could both shame the women and remark with awe at how they were “not little girls anymore.” It was a deeply gross rite of passage for any young performer and it spared no one, including Melissa Joan Hart and both the daughters from 7th Heaven. Even Michelle Branch had a Maxim cover. 

It should be no surprise then, that Britney Spears received the same treatment. It was normal then, which made it all the more confusing to me that adults decided to place the entire morality of a generation on Britney Spears’ shoulders when she was merely doing what was expected at that time. Her Rolling Stone photoshoot from 1999 is problematic to my 2021 eyes, but back then I remember being genuinely confused as to why this bra and hot pants was somehow different. Maybe she sold sex too well for them, or was too popular, too magnetic.

What they missed was that her fans were responding to her power, not her chest. Britney’s sexiness was athletic and suggestive, not pornographic. When she performed at award shows, she would often remix her songs to have more breaks, more industrial metallic clangs or cymbal smashes during which she would throw her hips or flip her hair, as if the sheer force of her movements were forcing the song to stutter. It’s worth noting that during most of these “controversial” performances, Britney was wearing some version of a crop top, pants, and sneakers. Even her famously scandalous school girl outfit reads more cheerleader than seductress.

It was gutting now to watch Britney from a distance and not as a peer in my MTV high school. The chorus of bad faith that followed her was cruel and targeted, and we all laughed it off, we all participated. This is exemplified in a scene in Love Actually that I came across completely by accident after viewing the documentary. Bill Nighy’s old rock star is asked who is best shag was, to which he replies “Britney Spears….no just kidding…..she was rubbish.” Cue laughter. Britney was 22 then.

While the elements of her current conservatorship discussed in the documentary are illuminating and shocking, what stays in my brain is the the way the media and culture treated young women at the turn of the millennium. It really can’t be examined enough. Britney was the one we chose to take down and obsess over - her generation’s Diana or Marilyn - but she was far from the only one. For more than a decade, we watched girl after girl get blonder, skinner, and more dead behind the eyes as she ran from a mob of men chasing her with flashbulbs. And we loved it. We didn’t even think it was strange to love it. We thought they were out of touch when they complained about it. “That’s your problem?,” we all eye-rolled. We gleefully shared their mugshots and pictures taken up their dresses without their consent. And we blamed them for it. We called them “crazy” when it affected them.

A key moment not featured in the documentary also comes from the famous Diane Sawyer interview. She asks Britney if regrets any of her sexy photo shoots, to which Britney says she has no regrets. Sawyer then pulls out an 8x10 glossy image of Britney from a recent magazine and insists, “Not even this one?” Watching Britney’s face as she was forced to concede that she had gone too far filled me with a mix of rage and sadness I am only beginning to understand as I look back on that time. It makes me happy that the culture has evolved to give us Billie Eilish, a young woman who refuses to conform to the impossible, almost cartoonish beauty ideals of today, who talks about her mental health struggles, and still sweeps the Grammys.

I’m also happy that we’re reevaluating Britney. At her peak, music journalism was full of men who wanted nothing more than to make her the avatar for bad music, bad culture, sissy stuff, fake stuff, lame stuff, uncool stuff. Now, pop critics can’t escape the influence of Britney’s music and performances, which were increasingly adventurous, weird, and forward-thinking. They also can’t escape her power. Every girl in my high school was trying to serve Britney. Low rise jeans were Britney, lip gloss was Britney, those shirts that said ROCK STAR in rhinestones were Britney. She’s too much of a force to ignore or to trivialize. She was lightning in a bottle and everyone who came of age during her reign knows that no one else could do what she did with a hair flip and a purr into a headset microphone.