In the spring of 2000, the American Dream demanded to go to Mars. The instructions were simple: The new blond ruler of the Red Planet wanted to dance in a cherry latex catsuit; she wanted to meet a hot astronaut; there would be no rocket ship. The rest was up to whatever a $150,000 budget and fate could afford.
Oops. You can already fill in the blank, a Mad Lib automatically answered. Britney was back. By that point, “Spears” was superfluous. “Britney” wasn’t just an icon; she’d become an idea. And this idea had a mind of its own, which envisioned with vague but unyielding rigor a video that doubled as an interstellar fairy tale. But make it sexy.
There was a lot to consider, but no one had time for that. The ’90s were only a few months gone, and a lacquered mirage of peace, prosperity, and maximal pop gleamed on the infinite horizon. In the middle of May, at the dawn of the millennium, Bill Clinton was still president, unemployment limboed to its lowest rate since the late ’60s, and Survivor was still two weeks away from ushering in the reality TV takeover. Stock in both America Online and peroxide manufacturers was at an all-time high. Gladiator, an anachronistic swords-and-sandals epic, dominated the box office. Monica had just spurned Tom Selleck to accept Chandler’s marriage proposal. The Billboard singles charts were a game of musical chairs between ’NSync, the Backstreet Boys, Enrique Iglesias, Christina Aguilera, Ricky Martin, Destiny’s Child, Eminem, and Nelly. Sisqó introduced the globe to the concept of underwear minimalism. Santana drank the blood of the Product G&B for eternal youth, and no one has heard from them since.
Towering above all pop culture totems was a 5-foot-4 ex-Mouseketeer turned teenaged Marilyn, who sold more first-week albums than any female artist ever had—1,319,000 copies—nearly triple that of the previous record-holder (Alanis Morissette). The eponymous lead single shattered ’NSync’s freshly set record for most radio station adds in a single week. In this never-ending prom of frosted-tip and puka-shell pop, Britney Spears was the queen, barely legal and the biggest star in the world. She was the vestal pseudo-virgin at the center of that neon helix between impeachment and implosion in a perfumed Abercrombie & Fitch nation, soundtracked by Swedish pop shamans and their sparkling American veneers.>