I can still remember being in my best friend’s room after school in early 1999 blasting Britney Spears’ “...Baby One More Time.” My loneliness is killing me (and I)/ I must confess I still believe (still believe)/ When I’m not with you I lose my mind/ Give me a sign/ Hit me, baby, one more time.
We danced around with the door closed, our shirts tied up into crop tops like the ones that Spears and her dancers wear in the music video, performing some adorably chaste “sexy” dance moves and collapsing into hysterical laughter.
We were a few months away from turning 12, and newly minted teen pop icon Spears seemed like a reflection of what girls my age were supposed to naturally become — beautiful, feminine, desirable but not slutty, successful but unthreatening, in control of her sexuality while also being ignorant to its power.
To attempt to ape these teen queens felt like it would only result in an inevitable failure to measure up. So I was left with only one option: to reject them; to dance raucously to “...Baby One More Time,” while declaring that Spears and her contemporaries were probably shallow and lacking in other ways. I was smart. I was substantial. I was no Britney Spears.
I never took the time to consider whether these young pop stars felt constrained by the archetypes they had been pushed to embody; whether their own development as agents rather than objects had been stunted against their will; whether their traditional femininity was truly in opposition to “substance.” Looking back two decades later, I see something more complex than teen icons to alternately revere and resent.
1999 was a year filled with teen queen pop stars like Spears: Christina Aguilera, Mandy Moore, Jessica Simpson. They sang about craving sweet boys (Mandy Moore’s ”Candy”), being “rubbed the right way” by the right man (Christina Aguilera’s “Genie In A Bottle”), being driven crazy by a guy (Britney Spears’ “Drive Me Crazy”) and spending “10,000 lifetimes” with a man (Jessica Simpson’s “I Wanna Love You Forever”). (Beyoncé, by way of Destiny’s Child, remains a notable outlier. “The Writing’s On The Wall” is an album that holds up.)
That year, teen queens dominated the Billboard charts. Spears’ “...Baby One More Time” was the fifth-most-popular song of the year, according to Billboard, while Aguilera’s “Genie In A Bottle” followed in seventh place. They graced magazine covers; not just tween and teen publications, like J-14, Teen Beat, CosmoGirl and Seventeen, but also more adult media properties, like Rolling Stone. They were hypersexualized by the male-dominated music media, for the benefit of straight, adult male readers.
Take Spears’ famous Rolling Stone cover: She’s photographed in lingerie under the headline “Inside the Heart, Mind and Bedroom of a Teen Dream,” and an older male writer describes her “honeyed thigh” and “ample chest” in the article. A few months later, in the same magazine, a different male writer referred to Aguilera as a “kind of legal Lolita,” with “swimming-pool-blue eyes” and “a waist as big around as a football.”
Meanwhile, their music was explicitly marketed to (and made popular by) tweens and teens. In ’99, 10- to 14-year-olds accounted for nearly 10% of all CD sales, and it was their allowance money that was fueling the success of these teen pop stars. As Jon Pareles put it in July 1999 for The New York Times, “kiddie-pop has always been available to those who wanted it, but in the late 1990s, it’s turning into the only game in town … The entertainment business has clearly decided that youngsters now have decisive buying power.”
Twenty years ago, I was one of those tweens eagerly spending her limited funds at Tower Records, and I both revered and resented Spears and her pretty, famous contemporaries. I resented their flat stomachs, their carefully calibrated public images, meant to bask in the male gaze while simultaneously telegraphing that they were still “good girls.”
After all, this was the age of Spears’ widely discussed sexy schoolgirl music video get-up and Simpson’s virginity. The message seemed to be that successfully entering womanhood required walking an invisible tightrope, appearing sexually desirable to the general culture while withholding actual sex.
After a yearlong national sex scandal between the president and a young former intern, it felt obvious that to be a titillating virgin was held in higher regard than being a smart (but plain) giver of blowjobs.
“Pop culture is a huge part of how people understand the world, and in particular how young people learn what their culture values and emphasizes,” said Andi Zeisler, co-founder of Bitch Media and author of ”We Were Feminists Once.”
“[In 1999], one of the things that pop culture communicated to girls was that sexuality was something you did for other people, not for yourself. Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera didn’t invent that; they happened to come along at a time when pop culture had a bigger megaphone than ever before,” Zeisler said.
The truth is that we are all products of our time. And in 1999, the United States was enthralled with what feminist columnist and cultural critic Susan J. Douglas called “the new girliness,” a seductive “postfeminist” aesthetic that telegraphed that “women could be legally equal, but they had better be visually feminine.”
This new girliness was especially pervasive in young women, giving them, as Douglas put it, “the right to choose what they wanted, and what they always wanted and truly wanted, it seemed, was to be feminine and loved by a man. This new freedom to be feminine ... set apart the young women of the 1990s from those old feminists who cared too much about boring (and irrelevant) old politics.”
The teen queens seemed to embody this new girliness perfectly — at least from the viewpoint of tween and teenage music consumers, like me, who had little knowledge of the adult handlers who constructed and marketed their public personas. It is a startling experience to read through old interviews from ’99 and see Spears go from describing all the very “sweet” fan mail she receives to breezing through a story about a man in his mid-20s who staked out her house.
Those are not the kind of stories that I remembered about Spears. My memories of her tend to skip right from sexy schoolgirl to her dancing with a snake on the VMAs stage to jarring paparazzi images of her shaved head.
There is a (not quite straight) line that can be drawn from the explicitly political, decidedly non-mainstream feminist punk Riot Grrrl movement of the early ’90s, to the explosion of the Spice Girls in ’96, to the popularization of pop stars like Spears. Whereas the Riot Grrrls largely rejected girlishness, by the mid-’90s, to be girly was to be empowered.
The Spice Girls had taken a nod from the far more radical Riot Grrrls when they turned Girl Power into an idea that could be mass-marketed and commercially viable. But pop stars like Spears and Aguilera took this one step further, decoupling female empowerment from any actual power and instead focusing primarily on individual happiness and satisfaction.
In an October 1999 interview with EW, Aguilera explicitly describes “Genie in a Bottle” as a song about female empowerment. But, like, chill female empowerment.
“It’s almost like a female-empowerment song, but still keeping it fun, though, and not like in your face,” she said. “It’s all about just waiting and playing hard to get, which I think is a great message for girls.”
I was a member of the cohort that went through elementary school loving the Spice Girls and buying mirrors for my bedroom emblazoned with “girl power.” But by the time we were going through middle school, the Spice Girls had faded into the background (who even remembers Geri Halliwell’s short-lived solo career?), largely overshadowed by solo female pop stars who were far closer in age to us.
“You look at the Spice Girls, just two years before, and they’re called the Spice Girls, but they’re all grown women,” Elizabeth Keenan, feminist musicologist and author of ”Rebel Girls,” told HuffPost. “The messages that they were sending out to girls, they really did have an empowerment message. Whether or not you think it was effective or whether or not you think it’s ‘real feminism,’ [‘girl power’] was saying ‘girls can do anything!’” To a 7-year-old, ‘girl power’ and ‘you can do anything’ probably suffices.”
“You have to think about how Britney [Spears] and Christina [Aguilera] were positioned because they were both teenagers. They were highly sexualized teenagers,” Keenan said. “You have 7-year-olds looking at the Spice Girls and being like, ‘Oh my god. They’re great.’ All the sexual stuff flies over their heads. But then Britney and Christina were positioned as [artists] that tweens and teens were into. That becomes a different issue because those girls who were expected to be their fans aren’t seven. Maybe they’re 12. Things were not going to fly over their heads.”
The story of these teen queens shows how young women try to exert agency and become the subjects of their own lives with varying degrees of success. In 2019, Moore has had a resurgence as an actress in NBC’s “This Is Us” and has reclaimed her narrative fully in the wake of her divorce from Ryan Adams. Yet Spears has been under financial conservatorship for more than a decade following a very public mental health breakdown. It’s also a story about young women writ large, and what it means to grow up in a culture hellbent on commodifying and objectifying you.
The story of these teen queens shows how young women try to exert agency and become the subjects of their own lives with varying degrees of success. It’s also a story about young women writ large, and what it means to grow up in a culture hellbent on commodifying and objectifying you.
In the two decades that have passed since 1999, the world has transformed. Social media facilitates instantaneous reactions to cultural figures as well as mainstream media coverage of them in real time. Teenagers are hyper-connected to each other, and their biggest celebrities can operate outside of the bounds of traditional cultural gatekeepers. We have an entire feminist media ecosystem ready to take down any writer who creepily describes a teenager’s body and calls it journalism. We all have access to platforms that allow us to craft our own carefully curated selves, to become commodities and to view each other as aspirational “influencers.”
Since ’99, Simpson has been open about how the music industry worked to “define” and “box in” its young women for public consumption. Aguilera has long since shed the image of what she labeled the ”cookie-cutter sweetheart” and even teamed up with feminist electro-rock band Le Tigre in 2010. Moore has spoken about getting out of a marriage at a young age that stifled her music career.
There may not be any neat lessons from the year that exploded with teen queens, but reexamining our own ideas about the public figures who grew up alongside us — in our cars, and on posters in our bedrooms — still matters.
As a tween, I felt nothing but a gulf of space between myself and these slightly older successful girls. Now, as a woman in her 30s, that image is much more complicated. I understand that young women, famous or otherwise, in 2019 and in 1999 are all just trying to figure shit out, trying to telegraph a public-facing self that doesn’t betray the private one. In some ways, the bounds of the conversations have mercifully changed ― no one seems preoccupied with Billie Eilish’s expression of her femininity. And in some ways, the challenges that the young female pop stars of the late ’90s faced are still very much present, even amplified.
“Looking at the ways [teen pop stars’] images and their sexuality was used to define them, and the impact it had on their lives (particularly Spears’s) is important,” Zeisler said, “because that mediation — the prioritizing of image, the pervasive sexualization of girls, the way that consumers feel entitled to decide who a public figure is ― has only gotten more pronounced.”
To all the teen pop stars I alternately loved and resented before, I see you now in a way I never could then.
“For The Love of 1999” is a weeklong series offering some totally bangin’ essays and analysis of some hot — or not — TV, music, movies and celebrities of 1999. Keep checking back this week for more sweet content.
(Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty)
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.