Part of ONE WORK
ONE WORK is a series of online discussion events to think more deeply about how an artwork came into being. Focusing closely on a single work, these generous discussions provide space for an artist to present a recent work and talk through the work’s creation. The events are accompanied by a month-long online screening and specially commissioned written response published on the LUX Scotland website.
Rachel Maclean took part in a ONE ARTIST | ONE WORK event with us in January 2022, presenting and discussing her work Hit Me Baby (2007).
We commissioned digital culture researcher and journalist, Mary McGill to respond to Hit Me Baby and we are delighted to publish Mary’s response below.
Dr Mary McGill is a former broadcaster and a regular media contributor in Ireland and the UK. Her work has appeared in a range of print, digital and broadcast titles in Ireland, the UK and the US including Broadly, BBC, British Vogue, VICE, Refinery29, The Pool, Sunday Business Post, Irish Independent, Irish Times, TV3 and RTÉ. From 2015 to 2020 she was a Hardiman Scholar at the National University of Ireland, Galway, where her doctoral study explored gender, surveillance and selfie-practices. Her 2016 TEDX Talk, ‘Young women, narcissism and the selfie phenomenon’, has been viewed almost 300,000 times.
Mary’s first book, The Visibility Trap: Sexism, Surveillance & Social Media, for New Island Books, was published in June 2021.
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Watching Hit Me Baby, I remembered the first time I saw Britney Jean Spears.
She was dancing in a sunny mall forecourt, surrounded by her high school friends. On screen she backflips, spins around, nailing the choreography with military precision and a brilliant smile. It is an assured performance, a professional one. Britney is just sixteen at this point but has already been working in the entertainment industry for 8 years. With her belly top, pigtails and head cheerleader energy, she embodies to an iconic degree an Americanised, pink-washed fever dream of teen girlhood. It is a heady confection of innocence, sweetness and sexuality that audiences are invited to feast upon and for those on the verge of young womanhood, identify with.
Working in show business since childhood, Britney’s actual high school experience was limited but she performed the part well. I was a teenager when MTV started playing the …Baby One More Time video on rotation. Although I did not yet have the words to express my impression of it, watching Britney dance I felt the world rearranging itself underneath my feet.
Until then, growing up in the early-to-mid Nineties meant happily subsisting on a diet largely comprised of grunge, Riot Grrl and Alanis, musicians who contested and reimagined femininity, artists who existed as much for themselves as for anyone else. Now popular culture was pivoting from Oxblood Docs to dayglo bubble gum. The era of Kurt Cobain wearing a dress without apology seemed suddenly very far away.
Twirling around in her school uniform Britney marked a point of postfeminist return, helping to make male gaze-orientated femininity cool again for a generation that had regarded it with suspicion. The troubling traditionalist underpinnings of this brand of femininity, not least the way it presents feminized bodies as sites for commodification and objectification, were skipped over by the insistence that Britney was in control, that all this attention is what she wanted.
“The concept is like, taking place at a school, it was kind of my idea,” Britney says in an interview on the set of the …Baby One More Time video. It was a convenient narrative, turning the agreeable Britney into a product that could be consumed without conscience, exploiting her without ever having to admit to it or acknowledge the potential harms. Audiences devoured this logic as intensely as they devoured everything Britney-related while young women were encouraged to believe this notion of control applied to them, too.
In the …Baby One More Time video, wherever Britney’s body goes the camera follows. While she moves her gaze does not; it remains fixed on us, the audience, a proxy for the boy she is begging to take her back. In shot after shot, the contradictions of Britney-as-image fill our eyes: bored schoolgirl, deep red lipstick, fluffy pen, bare midriff, blonde pigtails held in place by pink pompoms and ribbons, class bell ringing, short skirt, Catholic school girl uniform, doe eyes pleading into the camera, thigh high pop socks, dancing in the halls, lyrics that sound too mature for her age. How was I supposed to know, she sings, that something wasn’t right here?
Britney wasn’t singing about the cultural landscape of the decade she exploded into at its tail end but she could have been. Just as …Baby One More Time signalled a shift in tone, the proliferation of Britney-as-image reflected media trends that were about to be turbocharged by the rise of the internet and a new kind of attention economy.
Britney sold records but she also captured eyeballs on scale few artists have ever managed, reaching a 21st century level of visibility well before social media. In the early aughts, Britney-as-image supplied sure-fire content for magazine covers, gossip columns, music channels, talk shows, and the rules-are-there-are-no-rules ecosystem of a digital economy that preyed on young female celebrities. If her ascent drew audience’s attention, as Hit Me Baby makes clear, the implosion of her star trajectory took it to another, crueller level.
In 2007, the year Hit Me Baby was created, Britney ‘fell from grace’ as per the narrative that has been widely applied to her life. By then she had two children, one a newborn. In the space of twelve months, she divorced, lost an aunt she was close to, attended rehab (briefly), lost custody of her sons, fought with the paparazzi, had her performance at the MTV Music Awards panned, and released some of her strongest work with the album Blackout.
She also shaved her head, a move that was read as ‘unhinged’ rather than as an attempt to wrest back her image, to free grown woman Britney from the spectre of the dancing schoolgirl, to resist all those eyeballs, all that attention, to finally, meaningfully take control, something for which she is still fighting.
ONE WORK is a series of online events that focus closely on a single work. These generous discussions provide an opportunity for an artist to present a recent work and talk through how the work came into being. Each work is available as a month-long online screening, followed by a specially commissioned written response that serves as documentation of both the work and the discussion.