GG‘s Number Ones column reviews every Billboard Hot 100 #1 single of the last 10 years.
Few artists have achieved the spectacular success and cultural impact of Britney Spears. She arrived in a whirlwind of youthful energy in 1999. Her debut single ”…Baby One More Time‘ captured the imagination of a generation. For a decade Spears was everywhere. She was the backdrop to millions of fans’ childhoods and teenage years. Spears was an idol, a pop superstar, an innocent schoolgirl, a sex symbol, and an all-American teen queen.
There was no shortage of things the world had wanted Britney Spears to be. The demands of fame and public obsession pushed her to physical and emotional extremes. By 2006 she had been pulled into a whirlwind of never-ending dramas, breakdowns, and impulsive life decisions. Britney Spears was thrust into the limelight at age 16 and by 30 her life was in tatters. It was, in short, was no fairytale.
Rise to Fame
Britney Jean Spears was born in Kentwood, Mississippi in 1981. Her mother worked at a daycare centre and her father was a steel and construction worker. She began performing professionally at the age of 8.
Spears first caught the attention of the US public after coming second in the television talent show Star Search in 1992, also appearing on The Mickey Mouse Club. During these early years, Spears learned to dance, act, sing and smile for the camera. Her talent caught the eye of record executive Lou Pearlman who auditioned her at age 13. The meeting paved the way for a label deal with Jive Records in 1997. Spears was 15.
On November 3, 1998, Brtiney released her first single ‘…Baby One More Time’. It sold 500,000 copies that very day. The song debuted at Number One in the US and across the world. Spears became a pop superstar overnight. She cemented her status as pop’s newest superstar with a celebrated 1999 performance at the MTV Movie Awards. Her 1999 ..Baby One More Time Tour, which visited Canada and the US, would last more than a year. At 17 years old, Spears was a musical force to be reckoned with.
Oops! She Does It Again
The only problem with making a strong debut is that often a pop star fails to top it. Spears was an exception. Britney Spears proved her staying power with ‘Oops!… I Did It Again‘.
The song’s impact was helped by Britney’s first major image change. Dressed in a red spacesuit she transformed from an innocent schoolgirl into a strutting and confident entertainer. It was a striking transformation. The first of many.
Spears then released ‘Slave 4 U’ in 2001. Its snake accompanied performance at the 2001 MTV Video Awards made clear the innocent schoolgirl fans had seen before was gone. “I know I may be young,” Spears sung. “But I’ve got feelings too and I need to do what I feel like doing.”
Spears dominated pop culture for the next four years. She even earned a Grammy along the way. Then came the tipping point.
Behind the glamorous scenery of the pop star’s lifestyle was trouble. Spears had begun to attract a massive amount of media attention. Paparazzi chased her every move. Often her privacy, if she had any, was invaded.
A hasty marriage to childhood friend Jason Alexander in January 2004, caused a scandal after the pair divorced after just 55 hours. Her second marriage to Justin Timberlake’s backup dancer Kevin Federland in September the same year did little to improve the public’s perception. Gossip magazines labeled her personal life as “messy” and “chaotic”. In 2005 a 23-year-old Spears announced she was pregnant.
Fame and Family in a Tabloid World
Several scandals followed. In February 2006 she was labeled “erratic” when spotted driving in LA with her infant son in her lap. After giving birth to a second child Spears divorced Federland in November 2006.
Then in December, a group of paparazzi who had been hounding Spears captured an embarrassing photo of her exiting a car without underwear. Spears now had a new title in the pop media, “an erratic trainwreck”. Millions across the globe twisted in pleasure at the alarming turn her life was taking. Others worshipped her like a saint. In fans and the public imagination, Spears could seemingly be anything. Except one, a real person.
She checked out of drug rehabilitation the following February. The media frenzy continued when she famously shaved her head. Her career had often been bolstered by memorable appearances at the MTV Music Video Awards. This came to an end in 2007 when Spears’ 2007 performance of ‘Gimme More’ fell flat. She was widely criticised. Several speculated she was once again suffering from drug addiction.
Brittney Loses Her Senses
In response, Spears locked herself inside her home. When she failed to comply with a court order to return her two children to the care of ex Kevin Federline in 2008 police beat down her door. Her children were taken into custody. Spears herself was strapped to a stretcher by paramedics and committed to a Californian psychiatric hospital. On release, she was placed into a controversial “conservatorship”.
A conservatorship occurs when a judge appoints a “responsible person” or organization to care for another adult who cannot care for themselves or manage their personal finances. The legal arrangement gave her father Jamie Spears complete power of attorney over all of Britney’s legal affairs. And, her 75 million dollar fortune.
Britney Returns with ‘Hold It Against Me’
Britney Spears’s singles and albums, all the while, continued to sell in staggering numbers. By 2011 Spears had not released a new album for two years. ‘Hold It Against Me’ was the lead single from Femme Fatale, Spears’ first new album release following her 2008 breakdown. Britney Spears wanted it and so did the public, it was time for a comeback.
Anticipation was high. Fans were excited to see The New Britney. There was much speculation over what type of genre-bending anthem would be her next hit. ‘Hold It Against Me’ presented a fusion of synth-driven dance track and pop ballad. It was a high impact comment on the pop star’s struggle with fame and the public’s obsession with her body.
Once again, Britney was innovating, but still with the same charm that made the world fall in love with her in the first place. Spears expressed her frustration with a world she could not escape. ‘Hold It Against Me’ was a song about being trapped in the public eye.
It hit the mark. The response to ‘Hold It Against Me’ was massive. The song instantly topped the charts in five countries and sold more than 400,000 copies. It was her second album to debut at Number One on the Billboard albums chart in the US. (2009 single ‘3’ had topped the charts in 2009.) It was her fourth Number One alongside ‘3’, ‘…Baby One More Time’ and ‘Womanizer‘. These were, of course, dwarfed by her cultural impact. More than a decade since her debut, Britney Spears was still the world’s number one pop fixation.
Spears spent two years working on Femme Fatale. “I worked really hard on it and spent almost two years recording it,” she told V Magazine. “There’s nothing to say. I’ll let the music speak for me… The bitch is back and better than ever!”
These changes were more than musical. “I think things through a little bit more,” Spears shared with one media outlet, “and I worry a lot. I’m more straightforward, and I speak up more than I did before. When I was younger, I wouldn’t speak up as much, but now that I’m a mom, things have changed.”
Spears supported Femme Fatale with a year-long international tour. The Femme Fatale Tour was attended by more than 400,000 fans. It grossed $38.3 million.
The ‘Hold It Against Me’ Music Video
Part of what brought Britney to her legendary status are her always iconic, sometimes controversial, music videos. ‘Hold It Against Me’ was no different. Again a highly celebrated team came together to record a lavish video with high visual impact. What made ‘Hold It Against Me’ different was that it told a very personal story.
The ‘Hold It Against Me’ video included flashy action sequences and energetic dance breakdowns. Upon closer inspection, there was more to be seen. Short scenes represent key moments in Britney’s career. It details her rise, fall, and 2011 return. There is also an overwhelming allusion to the pressure that fame placed on her.
The clip was very personal and very expensive. Breathtaking custom pieces were made for the ‘Hold It Against Me’ video, including boots and ornate jewelry adorned in Swarovski crystals, and a ceiling length wedding dress. While it was costly to make, Spears also made an alleged $500,000 from product placement. A key sponsor was dating website Plentyoffish.com. Though only depicted on a computer screen for a few brief seconds the site received a 20% spike in traffic within a day of the video’s release.
Today, it is hard to mention Britney Spears without highlighting the conservatorship she has been forced to live under since 2008. As ‘Hold It Against’ was released a few fans appreciated just how restrictive the arrangement was and how it was affecting nearly every aspect of the star’s personal and professional life. Though many of the details of Spears life under the conservatorship are unknown or unconfirmed, speculation has arisen about Britney’s wellbeing being negatively affected under father Jamie Spears‘ control.
Spears’ own strange and unnerving social media posts, led to the founding of the #FreeBritney movement in 2009. Many questioned if the conservatorship, which restricted simple things like leaving her home and spending money, was necessary. Fuel was added to the fire in 2019 when father Jamie publicly stated he and his daughter’s relationship had “always been strained”. Those within the movement argue Spears has been placed under an unnecessary restraint.
Conspiracies abound. Some speculate she has been forced into mental health treatments as a means of control. Most heartbreaking of all is the fact that her children have been taken away.
In 2019 Jamie Spears stepped down from his role as Spears guardian after he was alleged to have been abusive towards his now 14-year-old grandson. Britney herself unsuccessfully applied to a US court to have rules of her conservatorship rolled back in 2020. At the time of writing the controversial conservatorship continues to remain in place.
‘Hold It Against Me’ Still Rings True
The perception is that as Spears life spiralled out of her control so to did her career. Nothing could have been further from the truth. 2007’s Blackout was her biggest selling album and Femme Fatale was, likewise, a blockbuster. Later releases have continued to delight to millions of fans.
After reports that Spears will ‘never perform again’, it is hard to say what the future holds for her. It goes without saying that she is a music legend. Despite her media image, her popularity remains massive. Her legacy will continue long into the future.
Currently, almost 23 million people stream her songs each month on Spotify alone. Spears has proven time and time again that she knows how to make a killer comeback, and the world will always be ready for new music from one of the undisputed Queens of Pop. While the circumstances of Spears life may have changed her relationship with the public has not. The feelings expressed in ‘Hold It Against Me’ remain all too relevant, not only for Spears but a generation of pop stars who follow in her footsteps.
‘Hold It Against Me’ Chart Positions
US/Billboard 100: #1 (17 weeks on chart)
Australia/ARIA: #4 (12 weeks on chart)
UK/Official Charts: #6 (13 weeks on chart)
Britney Spears' 'Hold It Against Me'5
Captured the moment
A comment on fame
Didn't improve her situation
Doesn't hold a candle to early hits