As the reality of Britney Spears’ legal conservatorship comes to light, the world has begun to re-think its treatment of the pop icon. Author and historian Jennifer Otter Bickerdike re-examines Spears’ cultural impact in her book Being Britney: Pieces Of A Modern Icon. Below is an extract in which Bickerdike explores the truth behind Spears’ so-called pop ‘rivalry’ with Christina Aguilera.
From the start of her professional career, Christina Aguilera quickly became known for her astounding vocal range – a trait that became obvious the moment she auditioned for the Mickey Mouse Club. As her solo aspirations began to take off in early adulthood, Aguilera was given songs that showcased her talent, with high crescendos and demanding Mariah Carey-esque bridges that most other performers would find impossible to pull off. In contrast, many of Britney Spears’ cuts sounded like autotune had been generously applied to the final mix.
Since being introduced to the marketplace in 1997, autotune has been used by music producers “to tighten up slight pitch imperfections in a pre-recorded track” and “fix” a poor vocal performance. The use of autotune on a Spears track, some critics argued, positioned the singer as being less gifted and less authentic than Aguilera. In this equation, Christina was better; Britney, on the other hand, needed studio magic to make her sound palatable. Indeed, Aguilera, who wanted to be considered for her natural abilities, tried to separate her brand from Britney’s as much as possible.
Yet, despite how much she tried to distance herself from Spears, the two were always intertwined, with Britney usually coming out on top. Though ‘being real’ has historically been valued as a positive characteristic, it proved not to matter in the case of Aguilera. Sales figures, YouTube views, music streams and media coverage have all been dominated by Spears – a slap in the face for the purported ‘actual’ talent.
Christina’s debut album – the self-titled Christina Aguilera – was released just seven months after Spears’ …Baby One More Time. The cover is a close-up of a blonde, pouty Aguilera in a white lace shirt. While the artwork on Spears’ first record is toothache-worthy in its sweetness, Aguilera’s stare down the camera is comparatively more challenging than seductive or welcoming.
Though she may have been trying to portray herself as a more contemporary, well-rounded vocalist, everything had changed in the short timeframe between Britney’s debut appearing in the pop charts and Aguilera’s own release. Spears had heralded a new dawn of young, female, commercially relevant, money-making singers. Everyone who came after her, even Christina, could only try – and fail – to catch up. With Spears having successfully cornered the girl-next-door market in 1999, Aguilera had to differentiate herself another way – by being the risqué foil to Spears’ apparent innocence.
The ‘naughty’ Christina – or ‘Xtina’, as she christened herself for her second release, Stripped – was not fond of clothes. The album’s cover features a topless Aguilera, long blonde hair barely covering her breasts and tight-fitting trousers barely covering her pubic region. The music video for lead track Dirrty was controversial when it dropped as it featured the singer wearing a bikini and leather chaps, with heavily kohled eyes, long black hair extensions, a nose piercing and a lip ring completing the look.
It is unclear now why this was video was so shocking or how it positioned Aguilera as more provocative than Spears. Britney had already emerged as not that innocent with I’m A Slave 4 U, but critics had heralded that track a triumph, with the NME even going so far as to proclaim, “The song is funk the way God intended – hypnotic, insistent, mysterious, suggestive … If Prince was a nineteen-year-old former Disney Club host and virgin, he’d be proud to create such a record.”
Dirrty came out in 2002 – a full year after Britney had performed I’m A Slave 4 U at the VMAs and almost two years after she had stripped to a nude ensemble at the same awards show during a medley of the Rolling Stones’ Satisfaction and Oops! … I Did It Again. Perhaps Christina’s ‘face hardware’, dark underlayer of hair and collaboration with hip-hop royalty Redman were all too much for the sensibilities of the chart audience, who were still reeling in the wake of Brit’s transformation from schoolgirl to sexy vamp. Unlike Spears’ virgin/seductress duality, Aguilera was unambiguous; her song lyrics, appearance and videos were unapologetically bad-ass.
Though she may be almost naked, Aguilera radiates power throughout the Dirrty video. The clip kicks off with the singer sat astride a motorcycle before going into a ring to box another contender. These scenes are intercut with shots of Xtina singing to the camera in front of a crowd of sweaty, shirtless men. The message is that Christina is equal to – if not better than – the males; she is the one in control.
But not everyone saw Xtina’s new image this way. Time magazine lambasted Aguilera, declaring that she looked as though she had arrived “direct from an intergalactic hooker convention.”
In an article titled ‘Who’s Trashier? Christina Aguilera vs Britney Spears In Their Prime’, writer Brit Tobi further analyses Aguilera’s radical makeover between her first LP and Stripped: “It all started with her baring it all for the album [cover], but then Xtina amped it up several notches in her music videos and appearances … Christina’s hair and spray tan could have won her a walk-on performance on Jersey Shore!”
The piece goes on to use each girl’s origins as another point of opposition: “With roots firmly planted in the deep south, Britney has often been slapped with the label of ‘dumb, girl-next-door’ type due to her girlish southern belle style.” A 1999 article in The Guardian also made this point, contending that Aguilera’s image was “naughtier” than “Britney’s corn-fed, Midwest, wholesome look”. The narrative being created was that New York-born Christina, with her Ecuadorian father, had a more diverse – read: Dirrty – upbringing than Bible Belt-reared Spears.
The supposed ‘feud’ between the two singers really began after Spears and Justin Timberlake split up in 2002. Not long after the break-up, Aguilera joined forces with the newly single Justin for a coheadlining concert series coined the Justified & Stripped Tour.
Companies took advantage of the seeming rift between the young women. In 2000, cola brand Pepsi signed Spears, proclaiming that “youthful, inventive, optimistic and fun-loving” Britney was “on the cutting edge of contemporary popular entertainment” and was thus “the ultimate fit with the Pepsi brand”.
It was a “relationship” that Pepsi’s senior vice president of strategy and marketing claimed would “resonate in every corner of the market”. Though the exact details were not shared publicly, it was speculated that Pepsi paid at least $50 million (£36 million) to seal the deal with Spears.
However, it wasn’t a fight over Timberlake or soft drinks that fully ignited the feud between Britney and Christina; it was actually MTV’s editing. In the now-infamous 2003 VMAs performance, a blonde Britney graces the stage, dressed in a white wedding gown, singing the Madonna classic Like a Virgin. A raven-tressed Aguilera, also in frothy nuptial attire, joins Spears for the next part of the song.
It’s significant that dark-haired Aguilera is placed after Britney, literally playing second fiddle to her fair-haired counterpart. A tuxedo-wearing Madonna arrives soon after, accompanying the duo on the rest of the track.
The song then morphs into Madge’s newest single, Hollywood, and the three performers execute a choreographed dance routine together. When the tune reaches a crescendo, Madonna turns to Spears and lays a lingering smooch on the young star’s lips. The camera then cuts away to capture audience member Timberlake’s annoyed reaction to the unexpected act, thus missing the moment when Aguilera and Madonna also kiss.
Aguilera later revealed that this made her feel disrespected and pushed aside since it was deemed more important to focus on Britney – be that her actual kiss or its impact on her ex-boyfriend – than to showcase Aguilera.
It is worth noting, however, that neither Britney nor Christina was originally in the frame for the Madge smooch; it was meant to be Jennifer Lopez. Only when Jenny from the Block passed on the appearance did the two pop princesses step in. The kiss was a watershed moment in many ways: besides Madonna passing the torch (via her tongue) to the younger performers, it also opened the door for same-sex relationships and romantic interactions to be shown more widely in mainstream popular culture. “The kiss wasn’t about just Xtina or just Britney or Madonna – it was about a single, fiery, significant moment, what it meant for queer visibility and the ways in which it changed media,” wrote Jill Gutowitz on the intomore.com website.
She continued: “Sure, it was meant to be gratuitous and provocative and, yes, lesbianism shouldn’t be used to cater to the male gaze, nor should it be seen as shocking or an aberration, but it was also awesome for queer women to watch […] fifteen years ago, queer visibility in TV wasn’t just scant, it was nearly invisible […] So, when Britney, Madonna and Christina collided on stage, on live TV – it was memorable. And it was hot. Problematic undertones aside, it actually blazed the trail for future sexy gay TV moments.”
Despite the shared exposure, Aguilera would go on to criticise Spears’ actions leading up to the VMAs, saying that Britney had exhibited “strange behaviour” during their rehearsals for the gala. “Every time I tried to start a conversation with her – well, let’s just say she seemed nervous the whole time, someone who desperately needs guidance,” Christina claimed. In a rare public reaction, Britney responded to Aguilera’s assertions with the comment, “A lost girl? I think it’s probably the other way around. I can’t believe she said that about me.”
However, the dispute seems to have been left in the ’00s. When asked more recently about the feud, Aguilera commented, “We were very close and our paths have always crossed and, interestingly, they will continue to cross.” This was certainly the case in 2012 when it was announced that Spears would be a judge on Simon Cowell’s US talent competition The X Factor. Britney’s debut was scheduled to run just two days after the start of Aguilera’s third season judging rival series The Voice. The old comparisons were soon resurrected – this time, by the media and the producers of the respective shows.
When The Voice executives became aware of the date of Spears’ premiere, they announced that they would be running a special edition of their Aguilera-starring show in the same time slot as Cowell’s series launch of Britney. Taking full advantage of the historic feud, Cowell slammed The Voice and Aguilera with a statement suggesting that “Christina – who has been a bit of a rival – isn’t allowing Britney to have a night of her own”. (Despite his apparent advocacy for Spears, Cowell later publicly criticised her performance on The X Factor, claiming that he “booked someone who couldn’t talk, which is a bit of a problem when you want someone to judge”.)
Aguilera, however, did not fall for Cowell’s bait, but instead responded with support and grace towards the arrival of Spears on the reality television scene. She referred to Spears as “a pro” who would “give great advice” to aspiring entertainers, adding, “I don’t know the formats of other shows, I only know the show that I’m on, but I welcome these very talented women.”
Though Cowell and company seemed keen to rekindle old clashes, Christina appeared to have turned a page. “I’m not down with [pitting women against women] at this point of my life,” she said. “I have no patience for it, so I’m like, ‘The more the merrier.’ It’s a fun thing to be a part of and I think she’ll have fun with it.”
This olive-branch offering from Aguilera was extended again during a 2018 appearance on the American talk show Jimmy Kimmel Live. Aguilera told the host how she felt social media had provided celebrities with more power to communicate between themselves instead of relying on the press and media.
“When I was coming up, it was very obvious, you know? Me and Britney were definitely – there was the Britney/Christina considered rivalry thing,” Aguilera confided. “Back in the day, whenever people were comparing me to other artists, I would have just loved to squash it before having an interview,” Aguilera continued. “You do an interview and, back then, it was just like the media was the storyteller for you, rather than being like, ‘This is what it is, here’s a picture of us right now hanging out in our pyjamas eating popcorn,’ or whatever.” She concluded the interview by saying, “If we had social media back then, we would have probably done a song together and just squashed it.”
The tragedy of the Britney-versus-Christina controversy was not only the personal strife it brought to two young women who could have been each other’s best support system, but also how female rivalry was played out in the media for a generation of girls to witness. It became part of the pop narrative to tear down your contemporaries, not raise them up – once again at odds with the ‘girl power’ motto stamped on T-shirts and pencil cases at the time.
While Britney and Christina themselves have moved on, there is still a public fascination with a rift that may have been a media creation in the first place; a rupture that never actually existed until the press saw an opportunity to sell papers and products while exploiting the insecurities of their newest pop stars.
Being Britney: Pieces Of A Modern Icon by Jennifer Otter Bickerdike is published on 11 November by Nine Eight Books, an imprint of Bonnier Books Ltd.
Images: Getty/Frank Micelotta Archive/Contributor, Getty/Frank Micelotta/ImageDirect, Getty/Stuart Mostyn/Redferns, Getty/Scott Gries/Staff, Bonnier Books Ltd.