The Popular thread on Britney Spears’ first UK number one wandered into some depressing territory, thanks to the song’s controversial video. Here are some of my comments from it.

Britney Spears, “...Baby One More Time”, 21 February 1999

I don’t think I’d ever seen this video before—my mind was elsewhere in ’99—and was rather bemused that this is what set a thousand tongues wagging. Having moved to the UK during peak paedo-hysteria, I can see why Britney at School would have set off alarms, but really, midriffs = jailbait? Every teenaged girl in the Western world south of 50°N was baring her midriff in the late 1990s. It smacks of that episode of The Goodies where Tim-Brooke Taylor gets over his hangups and puts on a t-shirt with a hole showing off his belly-button.

The lyrics, too, sound harmless once you hear “hit me” as “give it to me” rather than “I would like some of your finest domestic violence, please”. Sure, the implication of violence is a hook, and an unsettling one if you take it literally, but as the violence equivalent of sexual innuendo it’s hardly Carry On Clobbering. It’s no more unsettling than the scores of people who proclaimed Britney Spears the Enemy of Music for daring to have a catchy pop hit, and I remember plenty of those on the mailing lists and Usenet groups of the day. Why does the implication of “hit” have to be literal hitting, anyway? Why not “this song has ‘hit’ written all over it”?


When I see the school setting it places this song squarely in amongst my own memories of high school, when I first started listening to pop music. There was plenty of teenage lust around there, as in any high school, and all this video’s imagery does is invoke that. A middle-aged man lusting after a 16-year-old specifically because she’s in a school uniform would be creepy, but how many were even aware of this video at the time, any more than I know what one of Jessie J’s videos looks like?

To place any school setting off-limits simply because some pervs out there might be getting their rocks off is to place the entirety of children’s lives ages 5-17 off-limits to any male aged 30+ (25+? 18+?). It’s the kind of message that’s driven an unhealthy separation between family and no-kids life in Western culture as a whole, leading to a situation where children can’t play outside without close parental supervision for fear of somebody calling the police out of concern for their welfare, and condemning parents to spend every waking hour watching over them like big fleshy CCTVs. Yes, Jimmy Savile; yes, Rolf Harris; but neither snared their victims at the gates of a school yard. Should we stop reading Wuthering Heights (or listening to “Wuthering Heights”) because of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley?


Nobody’s going to mistake Britney in this video for prepubescent. And that’s the point: she’s so obviously older that the objection becomes that the uniform itself is suggestive of younger children. American high schools skew older than UK secondary schools—14-18 rather than 11-16—which won’t have helped UK perceptions of this video. But we then end up with the bizarre situation where Billie Piper (b. 22-9-1982) showing a bare midriff in her “Girlfriend” dance routine in 1998 is fine, while Britney Spears (b. 2-12-1981) doing the same in this one in 1999 isn’t. So, attractive 16-17-year-olds are fine if they look like they could potentially be adults, but not if they look... well, what is the lowest estimate people would put on Britney’s age in this video? In both Billie’s and Britney’s cases, their ages were regularly mentioned in public discussions of their initial hits, so when I look at this I can’t see her as anything less than 16 or 17.

If we’re going to make slippery-slope arguments, there are other slopes to consider than the one pointing downhill to Yewtree. The age of consent is what it is, and there doesn’t seem to be any push to raise it in the UK (which would be difficult at a moment when 16- and 17-year-olds have just been able to vote on whether to break up the UK itself, and could end up as permanent voters after the next general election). In Britney’s home state of Louisiana the age of consent is 17, the age that she was in 1999. If consent is to mean anything, it must also mean that people of that age have the right to portray themselves how they wish, whether as sexy or as squares.

The crimes of Savile, Hall and Harris were about lack of consent, either because the victims were underage or, if older, didn’t consent. Dave Lee Travis’s conviction was in relation to an adult victim, but was still a case of lack of consent. If we start policing what autonomous individuals can wear, we’re potentially reinforcing the idea that victims of rape or abuse are “asking for it” by dressing in a way that turns their rapists and abusers on. If we criticise them for wearing clothes normal and appropriate for their age group, we’re implying they’re asking for it by being that age. Or being female, or blonde, or whatever. It’s unfair, and it targets the wrong people, and we should resist it.

As for all those pervs aged 18-88: we shouldn’t let ourselves be drawn into policing or preventing thought-crime. Let them think what they think; it’s actions that should concern us. Those actions could be as slight as saying “I’d hit it” in a comments thread; there’s way too much of that online, and the more we can do to challenge it as fellow commenters, the safer we make online spaces feel for everybody (I hasten to add that Popular is an exemplary space in this regard). I don’t mean banning speech, I mean calling people out on things they’ve said, so that they and others can see where the limits of social acceptability lie. If we can extend that vigilance to the wider culture, we’ll end up with a society where anyone can safely wear what they want and dance how they want without fear that it gives some sort of permission to rapists and abusers to attack them. That’s what’s sad about any dressing-down impact of Yewtree: that it implies that young people think they need to in order to feel safer. I don’t think they’re wrong in thinking or feeling that, given the current state of things, but I do think our aim should be to make a society where they feel safer to be themselves, which should include dressing up for fun at a school disco at uni in the same uniform you were wearing every day only a year or two earlier.

Depressing though its parade of household names has been, Yewtree has been a positive step towards this. One by one, high-profile perpetrators are being uncovered, sending a message to potential others that they won’t get away with it. It’s prompted all of us to look again at some of the dodgy characters with us today, here and now. Let’s save our criticism for them, for what they actually do and say, and not for the targets of their thoughts.


[The song itself is great; I gave it 8. As with Kylie and the Spice Girls, Britney was clearly an essential part of any pop education, so I picked up her albums second-hand to see what I was missing, and ended up listening to them all month. They get better and better up to Blackout, and aren’t bad after that, either, including the low-selling eighth. The first is a bit hit-or-miss, but ’00s Britney has turned out to be one of my greatest Popular revelations. When I was spurred by Tom Ewing’s posts to buy up ABBA’s back-catalogue, I already knew from their hits that it would be decent; similarly with Kylie’s post-Stock-Aitken-Waterman work; but Britney I hardly knew beyond this and one or two other songs. I couldn’t believe I’d let outdated musical prejudices blind me to such an impressive body of work.]

20 November 2014 · Music