The first, last, and only time I kissed a girl, she was dressed as Britney Spears.
If you had asked me how I felt about Britney during the fall of 1999, the year I turned 14, I probably would have told you that I hated her. I didn’t know it at the time, but I hated Britney for the same reason that many teenagers hate many things: because, on some deep, intuitive, lizard-brain level, hatred is a useful way to define and clarify your position in the world. In that way, hatred is as valuable as love — or at least it can feel that way, especially during the long, slow, sweaty pressure cooker of adolescence, when the self seems most in danger of explosion or evaporation.
Both of these outcomes seemed possible (probable, even) on the night I kissed a girl. It happened at a Halloween party thrown by my twin sister’s friend Jamie, down in the thick-carpeted basement of her parents’ McMansion. I don’t remember wearing a costume. Certainly I was sporting my late-’90s bowl cut, and my palms were sweating, clamped around whatever red plastic cup of Coke or Sprite I had been handed but was now too scared and too excited to drink. It was my first high school party (although, blessedly, not one cool enough to involve alcohol).
I do, however, remember Jamie’s outfit: She was dressed like Britney in the “…Baby One More Time” video. Jamie and my sister Katie both went to an all-girls Catholic school where white blouses and knee-length plaid kilts were the standard uniform, so the costume was an obvious choice. All Jamie had to do was pull her thick, chestnut brown hair back into pigtails and sweep her eyelids with some shadow.
The costume was also — and I knew this with the delicate sensors that my own, all-boys Catholic high school was calibrating to an often painful acuity — a tiny bit passé. “…Baby One More Time” had first topped the Billboard Hot 100 back in February, and its famous video had been retired from MTV’s Total Request Live months ago, to be replaced by other visions of Britney: Britney in a tight, white top dancing on the beach; Britney in sparkling green, palling around (and dancing — always dancing) with a post-Clarissa Melissa Joan Hart and a pre-Entourage Adrian Grenier.
But the image of Britney-as-schoolgirl stayed with me for a very specific reason: Only a couple of months before the party, People magazine ran a story about a young man in LA who “beat out 30 real girls” to win a Britney lookalike contest with a “jailbait vixen Catholic schoolgirl costume.” The story’s easy celebration of cross-dressing thrilled me in ways I couldn’t yet explain; it hinted at the existence of a world very different from the one I lived in, as alluring and forbidden as Britney herself.
My sister and Jamie quickly disappeared into the eager sea of girls in the basement, but I hovered at the party’s edges, queasy and uncertain. Jamie must have noticed, because before long she sent over two boys from my high school — thinking, probably, that I would be able to talk to them. All three of us were freshmen, but the similarities ended there. They were taller than me, more athletic, and I was half admiring and half afraid of the easy way they stood together, sipping from their plastic cups, checking out the girls.
After I said “hey” and confirmed that we all went to Saint Francis, my words clotted in my throat. Soon there came a pause I was beginning to recognize with my new sense of the social: that particular moment when someone you’ve just met decides that you aren’t worth their time. After a few minutes of uncomfortable silence, the other boys simply walked away.
This failed interaction confirmed a suspicion that had been festering in my mind since before high school began. I was convinced that an impassable gulf separated me from what I was coming to think of as “real boys”: boys who played sports, who talked like men, who spat and swaggered and swore. Boys who liked girls.
And yet, later that night, I was the boy Jamie picked, the one she targeted with her perfectly focused pink laser beam of teenage girl attention. Who knows what we talked about? It didn’t really matter; she had decided to like me, probably even before the party began. Like the costume, I was an obvious choice: the shy and unthreatening twin brother of her new friend. I was flattered by her attention and embarrassed by it, intrigued and afraid. But this was what was supposed to happen. It was the thing that Britney had been singing about all summer from the radios of our parents’ cars and the CD players in our rooms: the boy and the girl and the kiss. It was the thing that she would sing about again and again until we would want something else from her, something not that innocent.
So when Jamie stepped closer and announced that we should kiss, I obediently leaned in. It was a chaste peck, no tongue and no teeth and no want. Still, as I pulled away, I felt a little crackle of pleasure that surprised me — awed me, even. In the post-kiss glow, my mind didn’t hold thoughts, exactly, or even words; instead, what took shape was a radiant burst of possibility. Could it be this simple? Could I feel for girls what all boys seemed to? And would that, then, make me a real boy?
I’m not sure if I ever saw Jamie again after that night. My sister stopped bringing me along to her friends’ parties, and after her freshman year, she transferred to a different high school. But if my time with Jamie — my first and only girl kiss — was over almost as soon as it began, then my time with Britney was only just beginning.
Over the years to come, I would watch Britney transform from sex symbol to imploding star to somewhat resurgent pop princess. Each incarnation of Britney would teach me something new about desire: about the yearnings of the boys I grew up with, and about my own wants, my own stubborn needs. But most of all, Britney would make me think about what it means — and what it costs — to survive in a world that can’t quite stop hating you.
It’s hard, now, to remember a time before Britney was famous, before her face was on everything from T-shirts to prayer candles to a $26 “couture” lollipop with a pale pink rhinestone-studded stem. But you can still uncover glimpses of the days when she was just beginning to command national attention. The New York Times’ first in-depth article on Britney is an odd one, a disgruntled review of a concert that she headlined in July of 1999 at Woodstock, of all places. (Neither Britney nor any of her opening acts, music journalist Neil Strauss sniffs, “said a word in praise or recognition of Woodstock’s legacy.”)
The article also includes many of the themes that still dominate pieces written about Britney today. Strauss complains that Britney doesn’t really sing, she only lip-synchs — and briefly, at that. Then, of course, there is the problem of her sexuality. Britney was only 17 at the time, and her look, he writes, is “simultaneously sexual and presexual.”
Her songs only compounded this ambiguity. There’s the teasing suggestion that maybe Britney wants you to slap her in “…Baby” (the ellipsis in the song title concealing the “hit me” in the hook), and the hint in her second single “Sometimes” that, although she’s scared of you, she really just wants you to keep chasing her. Strauss dismisses this line of thought by concluding that the darker implications in those lyrics “are not so much intentional as they are evidence of careless songwriting, glitches in the pop machine.” I didn’t read this article at 14, but even then I would have called bullshit. Because Britney’s appeal was always rooted in sex — but sex that could be disavowed. In her videos she would smile knowingly, eyes locked on the camera; and yet in interviews she seemed sweetly down-to-earth, even artless (a “down-home Southern girl,” as one interview from this period puts it).
Of course, that ambiguity didn’t matter much to the boys in my high school: Britney entranced them, shimmered through their brains like a collective fever dream. During my junior year, the only guaranteed moments of silence in the entire day came during the 120 seconds of Britney’s “Joy of Pepsi” commercial, which aired every morning during breaks in the teen-oriented news show Channel One. "Ride, just enjoy the ride," Britney sighed, gyrating in her flared jeans, her abs taut and tanned and perfect, and the 20-odd boys in my homeroom — in every homeroom — stared at the dingy little TV mounted in the corner, her image burning through the fine layer of dust that coated the screen.
All of this only stoked the jealousy that bubbled in my heart. Because by my junior year, I was able to admit something to myself that I couldn’t quite acknowledge at the start of high school: that I would never want to kiss another girl. That the right look or grin from the right boy could kindle a light inside me that would glow for hours. But there was no way I could find to act on these feelings. Instead, I watched the boys around me the way they watched Britney: armpits damp and throat tight, yearning for the impossible.
My teenage hatred of Britney was a largely private experience. I rolled my eyes at her dewy-eyed magazine covers; I quietly coveted the “Spear Britney” T-shirts sold at the local Hot Topic; I mentally rewrote the lyrics to “Lucky” so it was instead titled (in a sad attempt at wit) “Sucky.”
Hating Britney was easy. It was a way of announcing — to the world, in theory, but in practice only really to myself — that I was different from the other boys in my high school. Better, more refined. Their desire was common, sloppy, relentless; mine was rare, secret, forbidden.
But after I graduated from high school and came out as gay, my feelings toward Britney started to become more complicated. Freed from some of the fear that Saint Francis had brought, I wanted to do more than look at the boys that I liked; I wanted them to look back. I wanted to make them look back. And Britney had always been an expert in that.
So, for Halloween during my first year of college, I borrowed a friend’s schoolgirl kilt and a white blouse, tugged on black tights and leather boots with a formidable heel. I pulled my hair back into (what else?) spiky little pigtails. I smoothed raspberry-flavored gloss over my lips, concealer over any zits, and a smudgy, smoky cloud of shadow over my eyelids.
Watching myself transform in the bathroom mirror at a friend’s house, I felt a wild excitement ripple through me, not so different from what I’d felt after kissing Jamie. It was a feeling that was all about becoming — a sense that a thousand possible selves waited before me, a thousand possible lives. Britney understood. In “I'm Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman,” she sang, All I need is time, a moment that is mine, while I’m in between…
That Halloween night, my friends and I went party hopping, wandering through suburban kitchens sticky with spilled beer and down into finished basements where girls dressed like sexy angels and sexy devils and sexy cats were giggling into their red plastic cups. I knew my costume was a success on my way into the first house, when a girl I’d just met heard me speak for the first time and snatched at my arm, exclaiming, “Holy crap — you’re a guy?”
Everywhere I went that night, boys watched me. They looked at me in a way I had never experienced before: slowly and unabashedly, as though it was their right to look for as long as they pleased. At my high school, no boy looked at another for more than a few seconds; any longer would have been an insult, a provocation. In the wider world, too, men’s eyes met only for the space of a brisk handshake. But the usual rules dissolved when I pulled on the schoolgirl kilt. Even boys who already knew me let their eyes travel over my body — over my slim waist and sock-padded bra — before arriving at my face and blinking hard, their surprise giving way to rueful smiles.
On one level, it was thrilling to command attention that way. There was a power and a fierce pleasure in it. But beneath my excitement ran a chilly trickle of fear. Some cautious part of my brain couldn’t help asking, What if someone doesn’t like being fooled? And, as it turned out, more than one boy didn’t. When they learned the truth about me, some guys clenched their jaws and held tight to their cups, mouths setting into hard, thin lines; one barked out, “That’s gay!” — as though the others needed to be warned.
That night, if I learned what it felt like to be wanted, then I learned, too, how quickly desire could curdle into something ugly. Something destructive. It was a lesson I’d be reminded of again and again in the years to come, as the real Britney transformed from glittering teen queen to walking punchline.
There’s a Britney meme you can find in less than a second on Google Images (type in “if br…” and autocorrect will do the rest). It’s a photo of Britney in a gray hoodie, her head clean-shaven and her teeth bared with fury. IF BRITNEY CAN MAKE IT THROUGH 2007, the white block text around her face reads, THEN I CAN MAKE IT THROUGH THIS DAY.
The photo, of course, was taken during what tabloids like the New YorkDaily News called her “meltdown,” and magazines like People called (with puzzled decorum) “a period of strange behavior.” We all know the details. In February 2007, Britney checked herself into and out of rehab, shaved off all her famous blonde hair, and — in photos that will never, ever leave the internet — attacked a paparazzo’s car with an umbrella.
This last event, in particular, seemed to serve as the high-water mark of her crazy. In YouTube videos of the attack, you can hear the single dull thud of what must be the umbrella hitting the car, and her livid “Fuck you!” — but you can’t actually see it happen. What you can see clearly is Britney in the moments before: She’s sitting in the passenger seat of her car, the paparazzi’s cameras flashing relentlessly around her. There’s no mistaking how angry she looks, or how trapped.
Watching what was supposed to be Britney’s comeback performance at that year’s MTV Video Music Awards is hard for different reasons: Britney seems dazed and disoriented, shuffling through the choreography a half beat behind her dancers. The song she’s lip-synching to, “Gimme More,” only adds to the ironic pathos: The lyrics promise a Britney who savors the spotlight, who is supremely confident in her appeal. They want more? she asks during the bridge — voice drowsily pleased, like a dictator’s wife who wakes to find crowds chanting her name beneath her palace window. Well, I’ll give them more!
Critics trashed the performance. The New York Times bluntly announced that “she was awful” and quoted Sarah Silverman’s post-performance joke that Britney “is amazing! I mean, she is twenty-five years old and she’s already accomplished ... everything she’s going to accomplish in life.” For a time, you couldn’t find footage of the actual performance on YouTube. The top result instead was
No one ever hears Britney Spears’s music and thinks, “Wow! That girl really just nailed those vocals.” Britney Spears has always been an entertainer more than she’s a singer, and that’s never been a bad thing or an insult. She’s excellent at what she does, and what she does has never been—let’s be honest—considered “singing,” in the purest sense.
So why are we shocked when something leaks that suggests Spears is not a great singer?
Such is the case today, after a video leaked that allegedly included Spears recording vocals for the track “Alien” off her latest album Britney Jean without any auto-tune enhancement. It sounds pretty much how you would expect a Britney Spears song to sound before it’s been auto-tuned. In other words, it does not sound great!
“Not meant to be heard,” is The Huffington Post’s assessment of song. “Painful” is Business Insider’s summary. Perez Hilton is embarrassed for Spears and the culprit who leaked it: “WHO IS THIS PERSON AND WHAT HAS SHE DONE WITH OUR POP PRINCESS?”
Objectively, the raw vocals on this track sound like when you would take long road trips when you were a kid and your sister would loudly sing along to her Discman, but would be unable to hear herself because headphones were too loud and sounded so off-key and flat that you’d want to jump out of the minivan window, lay on I-95, and let fate take its course. But there’s a big difference between your little sister and Britney Spears, and that difference is that Britney Spears gets to use auto-tune.
In fact, Britney Spears’s entire thing is that she uses auto-tune. We don’t just forgive her for it, like we do other singers. We want her to do it. It’s how she get’s the supersonic, sort-of -extraterrestrial, almost inhuman sound that’s so interesting and cool and uniquely hers. Does anyone hear a Britney Spears song and think it’s not auto-tuned? If anyone does, that person is a fool. You and I, though, we’re not fools! So why are we so surprised that, without the help of auto-tune, Spears sounds almost unrecognizable? Guys, that’s the point of auto-tune.
William Orbit, who produced “Alien,” recently came to the defense of Spears after the Internet started ridiculing her vocals, explaining that the version of the song that leaked is a vocal warm-up session and shouldn’t be considered indicative of Spears’s actual vocal performance while recording the track.
"I'd like to affirm that ANY singer when first at the mic at the start of a long session can make a multitude of vocalisations in order to get warmed up," Orbit wrote. "Warming up is essential if you’re a pro, as it is with a runner doing stretches, and it takes a while to do properly. I’ve heard all manner of sounds emitted during warm-ups. The point is that it is not supposed to be shared with millions of listeners.”
He goes on to clarify that Spears isn’t a bad singer, she’s just a good person: "A generous singer will put something down the mic to help the engineer get their systems warmed up and at the right level, maybe whilst having a cup of herb tea and checking through lyrics before the session really kicks off. It’s not expected to be a ‘take.'"
OK. So let’s just take all of this as fact and assume that this leaked track is Spears just goofing around, and that her actual take was spectacular and in-tune and on-key and not as reminiscent of a chorus of cats being murdered as this version is. Can we really believe that? It all goes back to the question that’s sort-of followed Britney Spears since those first “bab-ay, bab-ay”s in 1998. Can she actually sing?
It’s not just the incessant (and, again, perfectly acceptable) auto-tuning that has people suspicious. It’s the fact that she has lip-synched pretty much every televised performance in the past decade. It’s this live vocal recorded at a concert in Las Vegas that went viral because it was so atrocious. Even though the general consensus was that the video was fake, with so few examples remaining of what Spears sounds like live without any vocal enhancement the video served as funny commentary on the rampant speculation that she can’t sing.
So in my official duties as one of the industry’s foremost pop star apologists, I have surfaced these few videos that prove that Britney Spears can, in fact, sing. Listen, she’s no Whitney Houston. Hell, she’s not even a Carly Rae Jepsen. But she can sing. And I think we all need to cut her some slack.
Here’s her singing “Everytime” live on n ABC special in 2003. It’s actually quite pretty.
Here’s American hero and YouTube user Derek Logan’s impressively thorough supercut of all the examples of Spears singing live since making her comeback.
And because a television so moment at once so cringe-worthy and so glorious should never be forgotten, here’s a video of Britney Spears belting her heart out to “Happy Birthday” for L.A. Reid during her short-lived stint as an X Factor judge.
As a life-long “Happy Birthday” whisperer who stands shyly in the corner barely making a sound while everyone else sings around him, because it such a goddamned hard song to sing (that one high note in the bridge…woof), I am legitimately impressed by her rendition of it.
The moral of the story here, though, is that Spears isn’t as bad of a singer as this leaked version of “Alien” is suggesting. Though we’re not suggesting that Spears abandon her career-long marriage to auto-tune, because that’s a relationship ripe with all kinds of happily ever afters. Especially for our ears.
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