Britney Spears performing at the 2001 MTV Video Music Awards
Photo: Kevin Mazur/WireImage
For The Record: Inside Britney Spears' Voyage From Girlhood To Womanhood On Her Transformative Album 'Britney'
If there's a Tunes About Liminal Spaces Dept. in the Tower of Song, "I'm Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman" certainly deserves a file. In the soft-rock ballad, a then-19-year-old Britney Spears laments that, while she's no longer the saucy young star who sang "...Baby One More Time," she's got miles to go until adulthood. "All I need is time/ A moment that is mine," she sings on the former track.
"It's talking about a girl in a relationship and the boy doesn't understand what she's going through," Spears told MTV News in 2001 of "I'm Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman," a single off her third album, Britney. "Before she opens up to him, he has to realize what she's about." The song's sentiment about being caught between two epochs of life is genuine, but it belies what a forward leap Britney was for Spears.
"This is the first album I have ever really written and taken my time on," she told MTV News. "So when I actually listen to the whole album, it's just that much more special. I don't know if I'm the best songwriter in the world, but I had a lot of fun doing it and hopefully I will get better and grow."
Indeed she did: On Britney, Spears took more control of her work than ever before, co-writing six tracks — a first for the artist.
Twenty years after its release, on Nov. 6, 2001, Britney remains a seminal pop document, one in which Spears became her own artist and revealed her true essence to the pop landscape and wider world.
Spears named Britney after herself as she felt it reflected who she truly was. "I was inspired by a lot of hip-hop and R&B while I was on my last tour," Spears said in the same MTV News interview. "I was inspired by JAY-Z and the Neptunes ... I wanted to make [Britney] nastier and funkier."
The latter played a key role in the album: The Neptunes produced the lead single, "I'm a Slave 4 U," a dance-pop banger that hit the Billboard charts hard in a multitude of categories. It also clanged in the eyes and ears of conservative groups. At the MTV Video Music Awards in 2001, she performed the song with a live albino Burmese python around her neck.
As it turns out, as Spears prepared for what would become one of the most iconic performances of the 21st century thus far, she "broke out in hives" every time the snake touched her, as its handler, Mike Hano, noted.
"It's easy to screw up that kind of thing," he told Insider in 2021. "You know, it gets wrapped around your arm and doesn't want to let go. It could have been really risky, because that was a live performance, one take." But it went off without a hitch, and Spears and the now-famous serpent — later named "Banana" — were left unscathed.
All in all, the performance remains a wildly memorable VMAs moment that imprinted her new, more adult image on audiences the world over. While Spears later deemed the performance "dumb," she also took to Instagram to acknowledge its importance.
"I will tell you this ... before I went on that night I was feeling kinda out of body with nerves!" she recalled in 2021, adding that then-boyfriend Justin Timberlake helped her through it. "Justin saw I could hardly talk, so he held my hand and gave me a 5 minute pep talk, which obviously worked!"
Britney goes beyond any expected pop templates via heftier writing contributions from Spears. It also benefits from skillful interpolation of outside material — in this case, a well-known rock anthem made her own. "I Love Rock 'n' Roll," an Arrows song made a 1981 hit by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, was right in Spears' wheelhouse and aligned with Britney's newfound grit.
Plus, it fit the bill for a karaoke scene in Crossroads, her then-upcoming movie debut centering on three girls who take a cross-country road trip. "I actually sing it all the time for karaoke, so it made sense," she told MTV News between crunching potato chips. "I wanted [co-producer] Rodney [Jerkins] to come in and redo the song. It's a very girl-power song."
Elsewhere, the song "Overprotected" — which was nominated for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance at the 45th GRAMMY Awards in 2003 — addresses themes of manipulation and control, which takes on a new meaning in the light of her almost-terminated conservatorship and the #FreeBritney movement, which has been percolating from 2008 to the present day.
"Say hello to the girl that I am / You're gonna have to see through my perspective," she sings. "I need to make mistakes just to learn who I am / And I don't wanna be so damn protected."
The seemingly clairvoyant line about the freedom to make mistakes is telling when considered with 20 years of distance and perspective. Without the destructive pressure cooker of current circumstances surrounding her — a story startlingly told in The New York Times' recent documentary, Controlling Britney Spears — could she have leapt further and further artistically on her own terms?
It's impossible to say for sure, but Britney remains a pivot point: The album establishes Spears as much more than a coquettish young thing singing catchy songs, but someone more than able to take the wheel, navigating her spaceship from girlhood to womanhood with grace.
"It's not my intention to leave my young fans. I just want an older generation to pick up on it as well," she said in the MTV interview. "I couldn't do ...Baby One More Time number three. I had to change it up and pray people think that's cool."
Spears' prayers were answered: Two decades later, Britney's impact remains unassailable — python or no python.