No one has defined the MTV Video Music Awards in the 21st century quite like Britney Spears. In the past 15 years, she's made headlines for her VMA performances: There was the year she kissed Madonna on live television, the year she performed "Slave 4 U" while carrying a python, and the devastatingly flat performance in 2007, after her breakdown.
But many forget Spears's first solo performance at the VMAs. It was the year 2000, and she was the opening act. The routine was full of hair flipping and carefully choreographed moves. She was eighteen years old, on the top of her game, and in one moment, she came close to losing it all.
Immediately after the VMAs aired, Barry Gordon wrote for The Hollywood Reporter that Britney Spears was "perhaps the first artist ever to turn the Rolling Stones classic 'Satisfaction' into a striptease."
He was referring to the fact that less than a minute into her performance, as Spears's music switched from her cover of "Satisfaction" to her soon-to-be-number one hit "Oops!…I did it Again," she tore off the black suit she'd been wearing and handed it to a stagehand.
Underneath, she was clad in a sparkly, nude-illusion ensemble—a bra top and sheer pants—and, for a moment, it seemed like the pop princess might actually be naked.
But. There's a moment, near the end of the performance, where Spears comes far closer to a real striptease than she ever wanted to go.
She's on her knees on the center platform of the stage. She flips her body back and forth, and the camera zooms in on her upper body.
When it zooms back out, she flips her head up. As she does so, her left hand—instead of hitting the floor with her right, as it had just a couple of steps earlier—flies up to her right breast and adjusts the top of her costume.
Looking closely, it's clear that she basically fell out of the top. A wardrobe malfunction, but one that Spears never let anyone see. The dramatic hairflip and the camera angle made it an easy moment to miss. But it's there, clear as day.
Her hand reaches up, tucks her right breast back inside the bra, and stays there through the next movement, until she's absolutely sure that she's safe to throw her hands out to the side and over her head and finish the routine.
A "wardrobe malfunction," even fifteen years later, is a scandal. Nicki Minaj was boiled for a slip during her Pinkprint tour just a few weeks ago. The phrase actually saturated popular culture four years after Spears's performance, when her then-ex-boyfriend Justin Timberlake reached across Janet Jackson's body on the nationally broadcasted stage of the Super Bowl and revealed Jackson's breast, adorned with a nipple shield.
Justin and Janet's moment, many believe, was an intentional decision, meant to spark controversy. Just as Spears kissing Madonna on the 2003 VMA stage or Spears's strip reveal a sparkly suit had been. But in 2000, a nip slip could have been devastating to Spears's career. Especially since she was eagerly trying to shift away from the careful, girl next door image of …Baby One More Time.
Spears's change was a carefully constructed one. She had built a teenage fanbase with her first album, but she was on her way to becoming an interesting celebrity. She was being interviewed for major magazines.
When she posed for the cover of Rolling Stone in May of 1999, the story goes that she locked her manager out of the room, unbuttoned her blouse and lied down on the bed in her underwear to create a cover as iconic as it was risqué. Spears was seventeen years old, but she knew what being a superstar required of her, and she was absolutely willing to do it. Becoming a pop star, like her idol Madonna, didn't mean being sweet—it meant taking chances, making headlines, and making them at exactly the right moment.
And there's nothing that will make a headline more quickly for a young wannabe pop star in America than flaunting sexuality. For example: Katy Perry's first hit, the sensual "I Kissed A Girl." Or Madonna's massive rise to fame through tours where she dry humped a bed. The lyrics of Christina Aguilera's "Genie in a Bottle" ("baby there's a price you'll pay/I'm a genie in a bottle/ you gotta rub me the right way). Beyoncé's 2003 performance with Jay-Z, also at the VMAs.
Or think about Miley Cyrus's performance at the 2013 VMAs, in which she twerked with Robin Thicke. That performance had several layers of controversy (including but not limited to the massive amount of appropriation from black culture and how gross Robin Thicke is). But for Cyrus, the moment accomplished the exact same thing that Britney Spears nailed in her 2000 performance. It functioned as a kind of coming out party, a message: Here I am. I'm not a little girl anymore.
Britney Spears was a teenager at the 2000 VMAs, but she certainly wasn't a little girl, in terms of experience. She had working for years—on the Mickey Mouse Club. Her first album …Baby One More Time went fourteen times platinum and remains the highest selling artist for a solo teenage performer. She'd been on a national tour, put out a second album, and was about to embark on a sold-out world tour. She was a professional and she was calculated.
Before the 2000 VMAs, Spears did a pre-show interview, teasing and hinting: "I don't wanna give too much away," she said. "You have to watch the show if you want to see the surprise."
Smart. In rehearsals, Spears had used two different costumes. The first was a high necked white crop top; the second a sleeveless crop top with the words "Control Freak" printed on it.
Spears was a control freak at that point in her career. She was building an empire. She didn't rehearse in her "surprise" sparkly nude suit, because she didn't want the reveal to be ruined.
That's part of why this tiny split-fraction of a moment in her 2000 performance is so impressive. There she was, on stage, wearing a weave she hadn't worn in rehearsals and a costume she hadn't worn in rehearsals and nailing an incredibly tight, perfectly-timed routine, and when something went wrong, she not only fixed the problem, she fixed it so quickly, and with such ease, that instead of looking like a mistake, it looked seductive and sexy.
It's hard to say what would have happened if her breast had popped out of her top. There aren't very many parallels to draw in this kind of incident at this time in music history. The backlash to Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction four years later was swift and absolutely brutal. Jackson was forced to release a video apology for the incident. It was used as a moment to squash and shame women for their bodies and sexuality. People said it was intentional. The FCC received 540,000 complaints from Americans about the moment. People called it was a publicity stunt. There were a number of demeaning things said about Jackson. Nothing, of course, was really said to Justin Timberlake.
Granted, more people watch the Super Bowl than the VMAs. It's also certainly the case that black women in popular music are policed for their bodies more stringently and with more hate than white women are.
But had Britney Spears failed to stop that moment, had she come up from her dip and seemed scared or concerned—or worse—not noticed at all, her moment, meant to be a declaration of womanhood, would have been completely ruined. The spell that Spears casts during this performance draws your toward her, it makes you believe that she is the most powerful pop star in the world—and for a period of time, she was.
The pop industry is incredibly fragile. Because it relies on public opinion more than artistry, the ability to control what your fans think of you becomes very important.
Without that moment, without that catch, Britney Spears might never have produced 6 number one albums. Or sold 50 million albums by the time she turned 21. Maybe she would have been shamed into oblivion and forced to apologize. Maybe her public breakdown would have come before she could solidify a fan base—and a place in popular culture.
But we'll never know. Because in a snap, reactionary moment, Britney Spears didn't let any of that happen. She played it off, and breathed a huge sigh of relief when the music stopped.
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.