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“By 2004, Britney’s grip on her world was starting to slip — or maybe more accurately, Britney started to slip from the world,” writes Vox’s Caroline Framke.
“Forces within both her own circle and the salivating music industry were pulling the sweetly dorky Louisiana girl in a thousand directions, and it was only a matter of time before she broke.” Britney was treated as a passive agent in her own life, to be presented in whatever manner her management thought would be most profitable: as an avowed virgin in a tiny Catholic schoolgirl uniform, begging her listeners to hit her one more time; as a sexpot writhing around a snake.
She was packaged as a sex object, emphasis on the , and she reacted by spiraling out of control and becoming a figure of public mockery.
Timberlake, meanwhile, built his breakup with Spears into a salable image: She was the whore who claimed to be a virgin, he implied, while he was the steadfast and betrayed lover.
But many people tend to think of her as a legacy act, a pop icon whose primary cultural value is nostalgic, rather than as a vital contemporary figure who is still turning out new hits.
The music industry chewed Spears up and spat her out when it was done extracting all the profit it could from her — but it allowed Timberlake to thrive, flourish, and ultimately live on to mock his ex.
(The official line here from Jackson’s camp is that “the garment collapsed,” but it’s unclear whether they’re referring to bustier or bra and how it could possibly be said to have collapsed.) The cameras hastily cut away to fireworks, and the number ended. “They wanted me to say that, so I did.” Then she was disinvited from that year’s Grammys, where she was scheduled to present a tribute to Luther Vandross.
Britney Spears was about to flame out spectacularly in public — and Timberlake would quietly, passively make his way through the fallout unscathed. When they started dating in 1999, they quickly became one of the most well-known celebrity couples in Hollywood.
First, CBS forced Jackson to apologize to the nation, both on camera and in a written statement. Disney World got rid of a Janet Jackson-inspired statue.
And when her next album came out, Jackson was reportedly blacklisted from the major pop music radio and TV stations.
Timberlake, meanwhile, parlayed their breakup into “Cry Me a River” — whose video features a Spears look-alike as the woman who cheats on him — and rode it all the way to the Grammys.
But in the years afterward, as both teen icons began to attempt the tricky transition to respectable adult artist, they found themselves on radically different paths.