Happy 30th birthday, Britney. It’s safe to say you had the awesomest 20s of any pop star ever. Ten years ago, Britney rang in her 20s by wearing a python to do “I’m A Slave 4 U,” a song about seething party-girl desperation that compares her vagina to a kitty cat; she rings in her 30s with “How I Roll,” a song about seething party-girl desperation that compares her vagina to a kitty cat. If you don’t think that’s artistic integrity, there’s something wrong with you.
When Britney turned 20, in her “I’m not a girl, not yet a woman” days, it already seemed crazy she’d stayed famous so long. Little did we know how much more we had to look forward to. We’d never met K-Fed, with their love immortalized by the Britney and Kevin: Chaotic DVD currently going for $4.89 on eBay. We’d never met the other guy she married in Vegas for 55 magical hours. We’d never seen her snap her gum at Matt Lauer, with one of her fake eyelashes dangling sideways, and drawl, “I think everybody should be pro-love, you know?” We had yet to inhale the heady fragrance of Cosmic Radiance while slurping Cheetopolitans and watching the Crossroads “hi Kim Cattrall! I’m your long-lost daughter! What’s for dinner?” scene.
But the really astoundo thing is we hadn’t heard her best records yet. Just look at her output in her 20s: “Boys” in 2002, “Toxic” in 2004, “Do Somethin'” in 2005, “Piece of Me” in 2007, “Womanizer” in 2008, “3” in 2009, “I Wanna Go” in 2011. She just never fucking stops, and never should. She’s been easily the most influential pop singer of that timespan, expanding her signature Brit-growl into the distorto-robot glitch-glam computer-blue vocal style that everybody else imitates now.
In her teens, she was the midriff-disco princess of the stellar TRL Class of ’99, but who guessed she’d be the one left rocking at 30? Backstreet Boys, NSync, Ricky, Xtina, Monica, Brandy, O-Town: all those people, all those lives, where are they now? Only Justin’s had her staying power, and he did it by ditching music for the movies. (Part of why I loved him in The Social Network, as Napster co-founder Sean Parker, is because when I interviewed Parker in 2000, he kept arguing with me for giving Britney’s latest album a rave review. If only I’d had the prescience to tell him, “Someday her boyfriend will play you in a movie.”)
Britney always gets underrated as a hitmaker, because people like to assume she has nothing to do with her own music. That’s understandable but not necessarily persuasive, given the freakishly consistent sicker-than-the-remix excellence of her musical output. She keeps nailing the fizziest, splashiest, bestest synth-pop records of the moment, in a deceptively quasi-anonymous robo-voice that any pop fan can recognize in seconds. If she gets snaps it’s for being a star, or (that most chickenshit of compliments) an “icon,” but how many brilliant hits does she have to release before people give Mrs. Oh My God That Britney’s Shameless credit for doing it right?
Only Beyoncé’s had a comparable impact on how music sounds, and of all the countless weird things these two killer B’s have in common, the weirdest is that they’re still making their best records in 2011. Whether you think Brit’s “I Wanna Go” makes a better countdown-to-ecstasy rave than Beyoncé’s “Countdown” is pretty much a coin toss. Brit’s most recent single? The bizarro Ray Davies pastiche “Criminal,” which starts with a flute playing the Kinks classic “I’m Not Like Everybody Else” and then gets all Village Green Preservation Society. Why does she get away with crazy shit like this? Because she’s not like everybody else.
The winter she turned 20, the New York subway system was plastered with posters of Brit in a white Elvis jumpsuit, advertising her Vegas HBO special. (She did an Elvis impression in the TV ads: “Thank you. Thank you very much.”) But the comparison doesn’t seem like as much of a joke as it did then, because she rode her teenage-rampage beat into a pop career for the ages. From “I’m a Slave 4 U” to “How I Roll” is a decade’s worth of seething party-girl desperation, but no singer-yes-I-said-singer has ever voiced that emotion so intensely. She always augurs the pop future. Remember how her 2004 wedding to K-Fed had a cash bar and a Journey song? (Their first dance was “Lights.”) We all should have known that meant an impending economic catastrophe. Plus an impending Journey revival.
We’ve seen so many pretenders to her throne come and go. (Thanks for the memories, Miley! Don’t ever change, Bonus Jonas!) We’ll see more of them. People keep waiting for Britney to be over. They can keep waiting. When people stop claiming she’s over, I guess that’ll mean she’s over. But they won’t. And she won’t be. So happy birthday, Britney. And gimme more.
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• Britney Spears, Teen Queen: Rolling Stone’s 1999 Cover Story