Britney Spears performs onstage at the 2016 iHeartRadio Music Festival at T-Mobile Arena on Sept. 24, 2016 in Las Vegas. 
Britney Spears performs onstage at the 2016 iHeartRadio Music Festival at T-Mobile Arena on Sept. 24, 2016 in Las Vegas. 
Christopher Polk/Getty Images for iHeartMedia

The Evolution of Britney Spears

by Billboard Staff
October 12, 2016, 4:25pm EDT

Britney Spears has earned her title as one of pop’s reigning queens. Since her early days as a Mouseketeer, the Louisiana-raised singer has pushed the boundaries of 21st century sounds, paving the way for a generation of artists to shamelessly embrace glossy pop and redefine how one can accrue consistent success in the music industry.

From the time of her single-digit days, the now 34-year-old always had an itch for the spotlight, competing on Star Search and landing a coveted spot on The Mickey Mouse Club, which also counted Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera as cast members. After three years on the show, she turned her attention to recording songs, scoring a deal with Jive Records in 1997 to begin work on what would become her debut album, …Baby One More Time.

Spears offered something different than her pop contemporaries on the LP, playing up a coy schoolgirl innocence and matching the image with unmistakably catchy tunes. It was an immediate hit: ...Baby One More Time debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in tandem with the title track crowning the Hot 100. It spawned numerous subsequent hits including “(You Drive Me) Crazy” and “Sometimes,” setting the framework for what was already a fruitful career.

With a few tours under her belt, she chased her debut quickly with Oops!… I Did It Again, which arrived the following year. It sold a whopping 1.3 million copies in its first week, giving her the largest sales week for an album by a woman since Nielsen Music began tracking sales in 1991. It was a record that was only broken by Adele’s 25 in 2015, when it launched with 3.38 million. There was a shift occurring in both the music and her public image: She was sharper, sexier and singing about more grown-up fare, setting the stage for 2001’s Britney, which shed her innocent skin and ushered her into adulthood.

Britney was steamy and looked good on Spears, who brought the lead single “I’m a Slave 4 U” to the MTV VMAs stage for an iconic rendition of the song while draping a snake around her neck. She graced the big screen in 2002’s Crossroads and continued her hot streak with 2003’s In the Zone, an extension of the futuristic sound of Britney featuring the instant classic “Toxic” and introspective ballad “Everytime.”

Of course, her personal life has always been in the public eye, and Spears soon became a paparazzi target, sending her into a tailspin documented almost daily prior to the release of 2007’s Blackout, which many fans consider her best. But by the time she skated into 2008’s Circus and its excellent 2011 follow up Femme Fatale, Spears had shown she was fully dedicated to her craft and took even more chances—on the latter, which debuted atop the Billboard 200, she edged towards dance music, collaborating with certified hit makers including Benny Blanco, Max Martin and Shellback.

Today, Spears remains at the top of her game and the music industry. She spends her time supplementing her Britney: Piece of Me residency in Las Vegas by spending time with her two children and releasing projects such as 2013’s Britney Jean and her most recent work Glory, which earned 111,000 equivalent-album units in sales during its first week. With her influence still strong and career in full throttle, Spears is testament to the idea that hard work and innovation are the keys to sustaining and growing a legacy.

The Evolution of an Artist series is presented by Apple.