One of the most controversial and successful female vocalists of the 2000s, Britney Spears (along with the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync) spearheaded the rise of post-millennial teen pop. She then spearheaded what looked like her own demise, with her questionable parenting, substance abuse and generally bizarre behavior becoming constant tabloid fodder. But as the 2000s closed, Spears seemed to have righted her ship and still held much of her popular appeal.
A former child actress (she, like Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera, was a regular on "The New Mickey Mouse Club" from 1993-94), Spears early on cultivated a mixture of innocence and experience that generated lots of cash. Her first single, " . . . Baby One More Time," paired a vaguely S&M lyric (the ellipse follows the words "Hit me") with a fluffy, Europop-style big beat, and a video in which the singer paraded around in a Catholic schoolgirl outfit. Released in late 1998, it went to Number One, and the album of the same name, issued in January 1999, followed suit, debuting in the top spot. . . . Baby One More Time delivered further hits in "Sometimes" (Number 21, 1999), "(You Drive Me) Crazy" (Number 10, 1999) and "From the Bottom of My Broken Heart" (Number 14, 2000).
Wasting little time, Spears, who was born December 2nd, 1981 in McComb, Mississippi, and her producers and writers — a team that included Swedish hitmaker Max Martin — returned in 2000 with Oops! . . . I Did It Again (Number One, 2000), whose title smash (Number Nine, 2000) made the titillation of her debut even more explicit, with a the chorus that insisted, "I'm not that innocent." Further hits from Oops included "Lucky" (Number 23, 2000) and "Stronger" (Number 11, 2000).
Spears' third album, Britney (Number One, 2001), delivered smaller hits, this time emphasizing raunchiness without coyness, particularly on the Neptunes-produced "I'm a Slave 4 U" (Number 27, 2001), featuring a greased-up Spears moving in a more bluntly sexual direction than ever — a maneuver made even more bold-faced when Spears French-kissed Madonna during a performance on the MTV Video Music Awards in September 2003. (At the same event two years before she writhed with an albino python.) Britney was also a maturity move on the artist's part: she helped write five of its songs and issued the image-conscious "Overprotected" as a single (Number 86, 2002). In 2002, Spears hit the big screen in Crossroads, a movie that was panned by critics but still drew her fans to theaters.
In November 2003, Spears released her fourth album, In the Zone (Number One), whose first single, "Me Against the Music," featured a cameo by the woman she'd famously kissed on TV. Despite Spears' and Madonna's combined star power, the song only got to Number 35. Spears fared better with ballad "Everytime" (Number 15, 2004) and especially "Toxic" (Number 9, 2004), which won a Grammy Award for Best Dance Recording and spawned cover versions by rock bands. The album featured a mix of producers, including Moby, Bloodshy and Avant, R. Kelly and the Matrix. Spears capped her early career with Greatest Hits: My Prerogative (Number Four, 2004), featuring a defensive-sounding cover of the Bobby Brown hit; she next released the time-buying B in the Mix: The Remixes (Number 134, 2005) while pondering her next move.
By this point, Spears had become more of a tabloid celebrity than a pop star. She'd dated Justin Timberlake for four years (1998-2002), and he'd featured a Britney look-alike in his video for the single "Cry Me a River," implying their break-up was due to infidelity on her end. She was involved in a disastrous restaurant in New York, Nyla, which closed shop within a year. In January 2004 she married a childhood friend, Jason Alexander (not the Seinfeld actor) in a quickie Las Vegas ceremony; it was annulled within three days. That September she married again, this time to dancer and aspiring rapper Kevin Federline, who would later record a widely panned rap album; the pair starred in a reality show for UPN called Britney & Kevin: Chaotic that chronicled their raunchy relationship via home-video footage shot while Spears was on the European leg of her Onyx Hotel Tour. Spears hurt her leg during the filming of the video for In the Zone's "Outrageous," which featured Snoop Dogg, and had to cancel the rest of that tour. Shortly afterwards, she and Federline had a son, Sean Preston; just shy of one year later, she gave birth again, to Jayden James. Two months later, in November 2007, Spears filed for divorce.
Celebrity weeklies pounced on the news of Spears' domestic breakdown, and the paparazzi, who had always closely tailed the star, amped up their coverage of Spears. Everything from her parenting to alleged substance-abuse issues made headlines, and after a brief stint as Paris Hilton's party buddy, Spears spent one night at an overseas drug-rehabilitation facility before flying back to California, where she stopped at a hair salon and shaved her own head in full view of paparazzi cameras. As she continued to battle with Federline over custody of their two sons, Spears returned to rehab, this time for a month, under the advisement of her parents and longtime manager, Larry Rudolph. When she emerged, Spears cut ties with Rudolph and others who had urged her to seek professional help, and began to act erratically in public, hooking up with a paparazzo named Adnan Ghalib, and spending time with a new manager figure named Sam Lutfi.
In October 2007, Spears released her fifth studio album, Blackout (Number Two), which was mostly produced by Nate "Danja" Hills, the Timbaland protégé. Though she barely promoted the album, it generated the first-single smash "Gimme More" (Number Three, 2007) and the paparazzi kiss-off "Piece of Me" (Number 18), as well as "Break the Ice" (Number 43, 2008). Expectations were high for Spears' return to the MTV Video Music Awards stage the month before the album's release, but Spears' show-opening performance of "Gimme More" was seen as a disaster that failed to feature Spears' signature dancing skills.
In January 2008, Spears refused to relinquish her sons to Federline's bodyguards and barricaded herself in her Los Angeles home. After being hospitalized twice in psychiatric wards, her divorced parents — who she had shunned since her month-long stay in rehab — returned to her life and her father, Jamie, was granted legal conservatorship of her affairs. In the months following, Spears appeared to tame her wild ways and was once again granted visits with her children (Federline won custody in October 2007). She made two appearances on the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother, and returned to the studio to work on tracks for her sixth album.
Circus arrived on Spears' 27th birthday and debuted at Number One in 2008. The album's high-profile release was preceded by a documentary called Britney: For the Record that aired on MTV and examined Spears' experience grappling with fame and preparing to return to the spotlight. Circus included the buzzing first single "Womanizer" (Number One, 2008), the title track (Number Three, 2008) — which addressed the public's never-ending fascination with watching Britney — and "If U Seek Amy," a saucy uptempo with a Rated R chorus (say the title fast). Danja returned as a producer, along with Max Martin, Bloodshy and Avant and Guy Sigsworth. In March 2009, Spears hit the road for the first time since her aborted 2004 outing on the Big Top-themed The Circus Starring Britney Spears tour. Spears faced widespread criticism for lip-synching onstage, but completed the nearly 100-date jaunt — one of the top-grossing tours of 2009 — without major incident.
Spears released her third compilation, The Singles Collection (Number 22, 2009), to mark a decade in the record industry. The disc featured one new song, "3" (Number One, 2009), which strived to cement Spears' commitment to controversial lyrics (the track describes the singer's apparent proclivity for threesomes). Spears didn't do press to promote the album's release, and remained uncharacteristically quiet since the conclusion of her Circus tour.
Caryn Ganz contributed to this article.