More than any other single artist, Britney Spears was the driving force behind the return of teen pop in the late '90s. The blockbuster success of
the Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys certainly paved the way for her own commercial breakthrough, but Spears didn't just become a star -- she was a bona fide pop phenomenon. Not only did she sell millions of records, she was a media fixture regardless of what she was (or wasn't) doing; among female singers of the era (many of whom followed in her footsteps), her celebrity star power was rivaled only by Jennifer Lopez. From the outset, Spears' sex appeal was an important part of her image; the video for her debut single, "...Baby One More Time," outfitted her in full Catholic-school regalia, and sent her well on the way to becoming an international sex symbol. Yet Spears' handlers seemed to be trying to have it both ways -- there was a definite tension between the wholesome innocence Spears tried to project for her female audience, and the titillating sexuality that enticed so many male fans. Those marketing tactics made Spears a somewhat controversial figure, the subject of endless debates concerning appropriate role models for teenage girls. Early on, Spears tried to defuse the controversy by preaching abstinence until marriage, and even denied that she was consciously cultivating such a sexualized image. Of course, the more provocative and revealing her on-stage wardrobe became, the less plausible that claim seemed. But apart from her ability to tiptoe the line between virginal coquette and brazen tart, Spears had a secret weapon in Swedish pop mastermind Max Martin, who had a hand in the vast majority of her hits as a writer and/or producer. With Martin crafting the sort of contemporary dance-pop and sentimental ballads that made stars of the Backstreet Boys, Spears kept on delivering the goods commercially, as her first three albums all topped the charts.
Britney Jean Spears was born December 2, 1982, in the small town of Kentwood, LA, and began performing as a singer and dancer at a young age. With a nationally televised appearance on Star Search already under her belt, Spears auditioned for the Disney Channel's The New Mickey Mouse Club at age eight. The producers turned her down as too young, but one of them took an interest and introduced her to an agent in New York. Spears spent the next three years studying at the Professional Performing Arts School, and also appeared in several television commercials and off-Broadway plays. At 11, she returned to The New Mickey Mouse Club for a second audition, and this time made the cut. Although her fellow Mouseketeers included an impressive array of future stars -- *NSYNC's Justin Timberlake and JC Chasez, Christina Aguilera, and Felicity actress Keri Russell -- the show was canceled after Spears' second season. She returned to New York at age 15 and set about auditioning for pop bands and recording demo tapes, one of which eventually landed her a deal with Jive Records.
Spears entered the studio with top writer/producers like Eric Foster White (Boyzone, Whitney Houston, Backstreet Boys) and Max Martin (Ace of Base, Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC). In late 1998, Jive released her debut single, the Martin-penned "...Baby One More Time." Powered by its video, in which Spears and a troupe of dancers were dressed as Catholic-school jailbait, the single shot to the top of the Billboard charts. When Spears' debut album of the same title was released in early 1999, it entered the charts at number one and stayed there for six weeks. Once the ubiquitous lead single died down, the album kept spinning off hits: the Top Ten "(You Drive Me) Crazy," the near-Top 20 ballad "Sometimes," and the Top 20 "From the Bottom of My Broken Heart." By the end of 1999, ...Baby One More Time had sold ten million copies, and went on to sell a good three million more on top of that. Its success touched off a wave of young pop divas that included Christina Aguilera, Pink, Jessica Simpson, and Mandy Moore. Spears was a superstar, drooled over in countless magazines, including a Rolling Stone cover that prompted immediate speculation about the still-17 year old having gotten breast implants.
By the time ...Baby One More Time finally started to lose steam on the singles and album charts, Spears was ready to release her follow-up. Oops!...I Did It Again appeared in the spring of 2000, and the title track was an instant smash, racing into the Top Ten. The album entered the charts at number one and sold over a million copies in its first week of release, setting a new record for single-week sales by a female artist. Follow-up singles included "Lucky," the gold-selling "Stronger," and "Don't Let Me Be the Last to Know," which was co-written by country diva Shania Twain and her producer Mutt Lange. A year after its release, Oops!...I Did It Again had sold over nine million copies. Rumors that Spears was dating *N Sync heartthrob (and fellow ex-Mouseketeer) Justin Timberlake were eventually confirmed, which only added to the media attention lavished on her.
For her next album, Spears looked ahead to a not-so-distant future when both she and much of her audience would be growing up. Released in late 2001, Britney tried to present the singer as a more mature young woman, and was accompanied by mild hints that her personal life wasn't always completely puritanical. It became her third straight album to debut at number one, although this time around the singles weren't as successful; "I'm a Slave 4 U," "I'm Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman," and "Overprotected" all missed the Top Ten. In early 2002, Spears' feature-film debut, Crossroads, hit theaters, but its commercial performance was somewhat disappointing; moreover, her romance with Timberlake fizzled not long after. Spears next made a cameo appearance in Mike Myers' Austin Powers: Goldmember, and contributed a remix of "Boys" to the soundtrack. Meanwhile, sales of Britney stalled at four million copies, perhaps in part because a new breed of teenage female singer/songwriters, like Michelle Branch and Avril Lavigne, was emerging as an alternative to the highly packaged teen queens. Spears took a break from recording and performing for several months, and began work on a new album in early 2003. The results, In the Zone, reflected a wish to be taken seriously as a mature (though still highly sexualized) adult. Predictably, it topped the charts and launched several singles into orbit, including the musically adventurous "Toxic," "Everytime," and "Me Against the Music."