‘Oh Baby Baby!’ How Britney Spears survived 20 years of superstardom

Two decades on from her first and biggest hit, Britney Spears remains – despite everything – a remarkable enigma, says Jonathan Liew

Friday 26 October 2018 12:59

The first thing you see is a pair of legs. Then a flash of sunlight, glinting through the windows of a school classroom. Then a foot tapping impatiently against the base of a desk. Then the ticking of a clock. Then the relentless rattle of a pen on a thick, boring book. A wild, weird and wonderful musical journey is about to begin, and precisely two decades on, these final contemplative seconds feel like a countdown: the percussion of a song about to explode into life, and a life about to explode into song.

Britney Spears was just 16 years old when her debut single was first released, and right from the three-note piano motif that begins the track, there’s a violence and a drama to it that both belies her tender years and is utterly consistent with them. Her loneliness isn’t just bugging her, it’s killing her. She doesn’t just want her spurned crush to call her one more time, but to hit her. There’s a vague undercurrent of religious devotion there, too: “I still believe”, “I confess”, “give me a sign”. It is, in many ways, the perfect emblem for the longing of our teenage years, a period of life when everything is trivial and earth-shattering all at once.

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