#RSFlashback: When Britney Spears Dropped ‘I’m A Slave 4 U’
Twenty years ago, the dance-pop track debuts on the charts and premonitions the future of Britney Spears
“I’m A Slave 4 U” (a Prince title if there ever was one) was the lead single for Britney Spears’ third album Britney. She premiered it just days before September 11th, 2001 at the MTV VMA Awards for the first time. The now iconic performance marked a departure for the girl next door image Spears had established, courtesy of her team. The performance featured the singer wrapped with a live albino Burmese python on her shoulders. The image would forever live on in our now meme-based world.
The dance-pop/R&B funk song actually didn’t really impact until October as the first few weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks had radio stations hesitant to push new songs and listeners were requesting patriotic hits of yesteryear and songs like Enya’s “Only Time” and Enrique Iglesias’ “Hero” seemed to comfort the nation.
So when the time came to push the single to radio, the track, written and produced by the Neptunes (Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams), had a slow start. The song generated mixed reviews from critics and as tame as the song may seem now, it irked The Parents Association of America and other conservative groups so much, they actually tried to boycott “I’m A Slave 4 U” and Spears as they shamed the singer for being a “bad role model for young girls.” While the group would like to believe they partially succeeded, many have actually speculated the cold shoulder Spears received on radio for the album was due to the singer (more likely her management) opting to use Concerts West to promote her next stadium tour rather than use Clear Channel Entertainment, the radio station giants of the time. Globally, the song was a hit, reaching the Top 10 in nearly every market it was released, showcasing the very real fact that something was not right Stateside.
While the song and its legacy were engraved in just one live performance, the complementing music video, its choreography and the singer’s new sexy avatar have forever become embedded with Spears’ legacy.
Bizarrely enough though, the song (which actually was written for Janet Jackson, who famously turned it down) in many ways premonitions the state of Spears for the years that followed. “I’m A Slave 4 U” was written and intended as a love song depicting the lengths a lover will go to please her man while killing it on the dancefloor. Of course, as we’ve now seen and has been documented over the course of the last many years, Spears herself was enslaved by her family and her “team.”
The intro lyrics “I know I may be young, but, I’ve got feelings too” carry so much more depth and heaviness now knowing all the challenges the singer faced towards actually being able to do “what I feel like doing.”
The song in many ways became a rally cry of the “Free Britney” movement that played a pivotal role in raising awareness for the “slaved” Britney. Whether it was the press, her family, the label, her sponsors or her boyfriends of the time, Spears experienced a level of pressure and publicity that would be challenging for anyone to cope with — she literally had become the most famous female pop star of the time. And just being in the vicinity of the star brought financial benefits that clearly no one wished to see suffer even at the expense of the singer.
While we can celebrate the singer’s freedom today, there is no denying that we enabled much of what Spears faced, and only when we look at ourselves in the mirror and accept that and not “deny it” or “try to hide it,” will we make sure no young artist ever is or feels enslaved again.