{Maria Clara Speaks} My Childhood Idol–“It’s Britney, B*tch”–Reclaimed

Maria Clara Speaks is a sub-blog for my master’s thesis project, containing personal reflections and recollections pertaining to the research on the Maria Clara archetype. This is also where I will share some embarrassing stories about my life.

I was six-years-old when Britney Spears debuted on MTV, with her music video for “…Baby One More Time”. I remember being mesmerized by her dance moves, so in sync with the music, whether it was due to good editing or intense practices on the choreography (or both, most likely). My older brother thought she was pretty, from her face to the mid-drift-focused outfits she wore. My parents thought she shouldn’t be exposing her belly button on TV. But as for me, something had awakened but was too shy to come out–I wanted to be a pop star like Britney Spears.

The Britney Era (01 B.E.)

The late ’90s to early ’00s was an era when teen pop music was on the rise–with the likes of Spice Girls (Posh Spice was my style & attitude icon), Backstreet Boys (Brian Littrell was my first celebrity crush), and *NSYNC (Lance Bass was my second celebrity crush, long before he came out as gay in 2006)–and it seemed almost impossible to escape from the catchy melodies and vanilla-romance lyrics wherever you went.

Not to mention, the fan merchandise and product endorsements that featured these teen idols. I had a hot pink crossbody bag with an adjustable nylon black strap and two zipper compartments. It also had a small front pocket with Britney Spears’ face on the vinyl flap. (Possibly a screenshot from her music video, “Lucky” because you can peek a bit of her green tank top on her shoulder.) The smaller compartment held a mini CD booklet where you could carry your favorite CDs everywhere you went–including the 3 albums Britney came out with, by the time I had the bag. (Those albums, by chronological release: …Baby One More Time; Oops!… I Did It Again; and Britney with the blue/yellow/pink holographic cover.) The bag was one of my prized possessions, a gift from my mom who knew of my childish obsession with Britney as a teen idol. I did not store a lot of valuable items in that bag, except for the CD booklet, which I kept the albums of Oops!… I Did It Again, NSYNC’s Celebrity, and several others I cannot remember specifically. (I eventually lost the CDs AND the booklets of those two albums, a huge regret I have to this day…) But I carried that bag with me everywhere, to let the world know that I was a proud young Britney Spears fan.

I was a small sized Filipina girl growing up in the suburbs of Rockland County, an hour away from New York City. My view of the world was limited to the perimeters of my two-story ranch-style house and the television set. (By this time, home computers were slowly becoming a thing, and my older brother had a bulky black Compaq desktop that ran on Windows 98 and dial-up Internet.) In this kind of narrative, I would talk about how I wanted to be White, blonde, and blue-eyed like my favorite teen idol… but that is not the case here. Maybe I was spared from the self-loathing of my physical appearance, as a kid, but what I wanted so badly was to be a pop star like my favorite teen idol. I wanted to be admired by fans, to perform well-executed choreography to music I created, on a stage solely reserved for myself. I wanted the spotlight to shine on me, and everyone would be bedazzled by the glitter of my outfit and the swishing of my free-flowing black hair. That was the dream I had back then.

Britney (De)Evolution(?) (02-07 B.E.)

Two weeks ago, MTV uploaded a roughly 40-minute video of Britney’s VMA moments on their YouTube channel, in preparation for this year’s Video Music Awards, where Missy Elliot rightfully received the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award. The video helped me to re-freshen my memory and re-ignite my young girl excitement of Britney’s most memorable stage performances.

You had to experience watching Britney Spears on live TV, in order to understand the scope of her popularity at the time. It was always a wild experience! The 2000 VMAs is a major example. Britney’s stage performance of “Oops!… I Did It Again” is considered to be one of the most shocking performances of her career and of MTV’s history (along with the snake in 2001’s “I’m a Slave 4 U” and the Madonna kiss in 2003’s opening ceremony).

My family gathered in the dining room of our home to watch the award show. Or more like, my brother and I were tuned in while our parents sat by, eating dinner and talking to each other. When Britney was announced as the next performer, my mom reiterated the announcement to me, as if I was not already glued to the TV and excitedly waiting in anticipation for her appearance.

The camera panned to a silhouette of someone sitting on a chair, legs apart and arms hidden from sight. Britney’s harmonizing voice could be heard as she began to sing The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”. The silhouette screen swivels around to reveal Britney sitting backwards on a chair, her arms resting on its backing, akin to a burlesque performer. She wore a black fedora hat and a form-fitted black suit that sparkled in the light. I am very sure that I screamed at the sight of her. As she sang in a sultry manner and descended down the stairs to the main stage, my eyes followed her every move. I felt every beat, every note, and every coordinated step, and imagined myself as her: drawing in my audience with my glowing power of entertainment…

…until the moment happened. When she stripped off her black suit, to reveal a sparkly nude-toned body suit underneath it, as she transitioned to her own song, “Oops!… I Did It Again.” (To this day, I still remember the stagehand guy who not-so-subtly snuck out from behind the black curtain to catch Britney’s ripped garments at that moment.) My enthusiasm wore down as I heard my brother say, “Whoa…” and my mother exclaim, “Oh my goodness… No, change the channel!” and my father sighing in dismay. But we stayed tuned to the channel, watching in silence as Britney danced and shimmied and shook her hips to an amplified version of her hit song. If it was not made clear, from her first music video, that she was expressing her sexiness to the world, this performance surely sprayed glass cleaner to our eyes.

From then on, I began to feel ashamed for idolizing her. At least, it was expected of me to think that way. Looking back on it, I am trying to understand the nuances of celebrity culture in a time before social media swayed public opinion on a particular person. But it goes beyond the time itself–in the case of female public figures, public opinion had remained the same for centuries, in asserting the virgin/slut dichotomy.

I grew up in a devout Catholic household, as most Filipino kids did. From an early age, I was taught to differentiate between moral and immoral. I attended Catholic school for four years, where I was one of very few children of color in my grade. Yet, I had classmates–both White and POC–who were also fans of Britney Spears. But I think I was the first to renounce my fanhood, following the 2000 VMAs performance, although it was not a public announcement. Whenever someone brought up Britney, I tried to express disinterest. No one questioned why I suddenly changed my mind, but I know for sure that this was learned behavior, deriving from my parents’ moral compass. They did not like me to be exposed to “women flaunting themselves” in any form of media, for the sanctity of my purity. Unfortunately, this included Britney Spears, my idol.

This became even more apparent with media itself, as celebrity gossip and paparazzi tabloids rose to public consciousness, and Britney became its most prominent martyr. Every year of the 2000s, there had seemed to be a new shocking development in Britney’s personal and public life, as the media crucified her to be sacrificial lamb for “pure” womanhood. 

When her very publicized nervous breakdown in 2007 happened, that was the end of my idolization. Looking back on that, I cannot help but feel disheartened and angry at how her situation and condition were treated by the media and public opinion. We are currently living in a time when mental health and social conscientiousness are taken more seriously than before, and it breaks my heart to think that this is how things should have been back then for people like her. Not as a famous celebrity, but as a human being.

Revisiting Britney As An Adult (20 I.B.B.E.)

As of writing this post, there is news regarding Britney Spears’ case of her conservatorship. I had not known about this before, so I researched online (i.e., her Wikipedia page). I was surprised to learn that, following her nervous breakdown, [a court order was placed to have Britney under conservatorship, in which her assets would be in the care of her father] and that this was maintained for more than a decade.

What led me to revisit Britney Spears, after all these years of fanhood-denial, was earlier this year, when I was still working a retail job. The need to cheer up after spending the majority of my days at the store pushed me to listen to music from my 00s childhood. I had a few Britney Spears-music marathons, late at nights, and could still remember the lyrics to most of her popular songs in the last twenty years.

Even though I had renounced my fanhood at age 7, I still listened to her music because it was everywhere and inescapable. The only difference was that I never identified as a fan for almost twenty years, just as a casual listener. Her songs would play on the radio or in a store’s playlist, and her music videos played on music channels.

My mom bought Britney’s first perfume, Curious, from a department store when it first came out. She also bought Fantasy, the second perfume, in the following year. Both were given to me as gifts, as my mom believed I was still a fan without me expressing it as much as when I was younger. I did not show interest in receiving either one, but I kept them out of obligation to my mother’s unconditional kindness. (I eventually wore Fantasy as my signature scent in 10th grade. I never used Curious but I really liked how it came with a perfume puff, which was strangely one of my childhood obsessions–a perfume puff signified maturity, as I had observed older women in movies using them.)

Suffice to say, I am still a fan of Britney Spears. I am admitting this now, as a 26-year-old woman who vaguely remembers the dance steps to “Toxic” from a console game (at Hard level). I think if the chance for a karaoke night, a lip-sync battle, or a dance-off came up, I would definitely select: “Break the Ice”, “Toxic”, “Hold It Against Me”, “Sometimes”, “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman”, “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll”, “Don’t Let Me Be The Last To Know”, “Circus”, and of course, “Oops!… I Did It Again” (to name a few). This is my subtle way of requesting such opportunities to arise, because somewhere within me, my inner pop star is waiting to have her comeback.

Thank you to the Writing Center at The Graduate Center, CUNY for hosting the Companionable Writing workshop, where I was able to write out a huge portion of this essay and not get distracted from playing any Britney Spears songs in a public setting!

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