Whoopie, she’s doing it again! Britney Spears is set to open this Sunday’s Billboard Music Awards on ABC (8 ET/7 CT) with a medley of her greatest hits. While this kind of live TV performance was a regular occurrence back in the day, she’s concentrated on her Las Vegas residency and largely shied away from the tube these past few years, so fans and the merely curious will be especially eager to see if she’s still got it (or got it back, given the lingering memories of a few rough patches in the late 2000s).
In advance of the tweet-storm that’s sure to greet Spears’s appearance, we’re diving into her TV catalog to pick her finest moments from over the years, along with some that might best be left on the YouTube cutting-room floor, if there were such a thing. Here, the best and worst of Brit-TV.
BEST: “Toxic” from the ABC In the Zone special (2003)
For anyone who might have forgotten just how at ease Spears can seem on a ridiculously frantic stage, this is the go-to moment from when she was at her absolute peak, finding just the right balance between relaxed sexiness and incredibly rigid choreography. No gimmicks, no guest stars, no snakes, no forbidden kisses… just a woman in red who is totally at one with her crew of flawless backing dancers. Yes, she’s lip-synching in this Gotham Hall-set clip, as she ultimately was in more of her TV spots than not — but if you can really hold that against her on this one, you probably just passionately hate dancing.
WORST: “Gimme More” at the MTV Video Music Awards (2007)
If Britney could erase just one night from her history… well, it might be that time she beat up the car with an umbrella, but more likely it’d be the evening she opened the VMAs with a performance so wan it made people forget the legend of Ashlee Simpson melting down on SNL. She was ill-prepared for such a big moment — from the lack of rehearsal to a last-minute, unflattering costume change — and she knew it before she hit the stage. The reaction was devastating: “She didn’t disappoint; she was awful,” wrote the New York Times. It “wasn’t enough to launch a dinghy, let alone re-launch the career of this ditzy disaster.” Simon Cowell opined that “she could have killed her career. It’s difficult to come back from that performance, for a while at least.” On The View, Joy Behar damned her with the faint praise every diva dreads most: “She’s a good role model, in that she comes out and shows she’s not skinny anymore.”
BEST: “(Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”/”Oops… I Did It Again” at the MTV Video Music Awards (2000)
To paraphrase 42ndStreet: “You’re going out there an ex-Disney kid known for sexy schoolgirl outfits, and you’re coming back an icon!” She’d already made an impact at the VMAs one year earlier, but in ‘99, she’d basically been serving as *NSYNC’s opening act in a teen-pop medley. It was at her first solo outing at the VMAs in ’00 where she instantly grew up and seared herself into our retinas, first covering the Stones in a fedora, then letting the cutaway suit drop and reveal the fleshiest of all flesh-colored outfits. And, with those copious blond locks and strong knees and athletic back, she took head-banging out of the province of Wayne’s World and made it into something like a new artform.
WORST: “Hold It Against Me” on Good Morning America (2011)
By 2011, Spears had at least gotten back into shape since her disastrous appearance on the VMAs in 2007, but the weirdly sleepy choreography in her ballyhooed GMA comeback made it seem as if she’d just rolled out of bed to do the morning show. Her biggest move was crossing her legs, during the minute or so she spends seated in a chair for no apparent reason. “Was that amazing or what?” Robin Roberts asked at the end of the number. America answered: What.
BEST: “I’m a Slave 4 U” at the MTV Video Music Awards (2001)
Mowgli’s got nothing on Britney, whose case of jungle fever climaxed in a pas-de-deux with a nine-foot snake named Banana. Far from flinching, Spears donned and doffed the Burmese albino python as if it were a feather boa. She got a little more familiar with some of the other creatures in the performance, which, fortunately, awee portrayed by human beings. Her sense of rhythm was just as captivating when Banana was offscreen, and it didsn’t hurt that she pulled off bright green better than anybody this side of the Riddler.
WORST: “S&M” with Rihanna at the Billboard Music Awards (2011)
This duet ended with the worst… pillow fight… ever. What led up to the flying feathers was nothing special, either, with Rihanna’s tropes about handcuffs and such providing one of the most tired moments in her usually lively career, and Britney not having much to add to the Kink Lite that a little bit of back-scratching pole dancing.
BEST: “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” at the American Music Awards (2002)
Britney singing live? Yes, it has happened over the years, if usually only on songs that don’t suck up a lot of breath, choreography-wise. This ballad performance was hampered by the distraction of clips from Crossroads, Spears’s first and still only non-cameo film role. But the pleasant surprise in revisiting the clip all these years later is that, despite a few pitchy notes, her live voice is not the embarrassment you might expect from how few times it’s been heard on television. Maybe it was a mistake sandwiching her between two more powerful backup singers at the end, but if she’s not yet a soul singer, she’s not bad.
WORST: “The Beat Goes On” at the World Music Awards (1999)
OK, there’s nothing truly terrible about this early Sonny & Cher cover, even if it’s obviously nothing Spears would ever include in a clip reel. Never mind the deer-in-the-headlights look she occasionally sports in one of her first screen singing appearances: Teen Brit is kind of adorbs in a Cher-homage-paying straight black wig. What sinks it is that, in 1999, she appeared to be performing in an invisible straitjacket. That wouldn’t last long.
BEST: “Like a Virgin” with Madonna and Christina Aguilera at the MTV Video Music Awards (2003)
Of course, the finest performance in this celebrity cluster came from Brit ex-boyfriend Justin Timberlake, offering a flash of skeptical side-eye in the front row. As for the women onstage, this was more of a Madonna moment than a Britney one, but Miss Spears at least established herself as a dominant second banana, versus the third place that former/future rival Christina Aguilera had to settle for. She got in the first of the two Sapphic kisses, and looked as cheerfully nonchalant about making out with Madge as she did carrying on with a snake two years earlier. She also appeared to be the only one onstage who was truly having fun. Imagine how mad Madonna must have been as the press hailed her for magnanimously passing a torch to Britney, when she clearly intended only to pass some tongue.
WORST: “Womanizer” on The X Factor U.K. (2010)
After Spears’s disastrous appearance at the 2007 MTV Awards, Simon Cowell publicly dissed her, telling Britain’s Sun newspaper: “If she had turned up and given that performance at the X Factor auditions, I wouldn’t have put her through to the next round.” That didn’t stop him from having her on that very show — the pre-American, British version — three years later, where she turned in a performance that got a standing ovation from Cowell but… yeah, probably wouldn’t have advanced her to the next round in any real TV competition. A couple of years later, with Spears seeming to be past her troubled period, Cowell hired her to be a judge on the second season of the U.S. version of the show. That judgeship was short-lived, because, he said, “I kind of booked someone who couldn’t talk.”
BEST: “I’m a Slave 4 U” on The Late Show with David Letterman (2001)
The doors of the Ed Sullivan Theatre filled with blinding white light and smoke; little did the studio audience know that the entrance through which they’d come was actually a portal to heaven, or hell. Then Spears strolled down the aisle with a disarming casualness that carried over to what she did onstage, with a sense of friendly ease that belied just how serious the choreography was. When she wandered over to Dave, the spotlight stayed off him, so we’ll never know how his reaction compared to the time Drew Barrymore jumped on his desk. But if he had any sense at all, he should have been delighted, because this was Brit at her most winning.
WORST: “Pretty Girls” with Iggy Azalea at the Billboard Music Awards (2015)
To be fair, it wasn’t Spears’s performance that hobbled this ill-fated duet. If anything, after some of the troubling appearances of her 2007-10 period, it was reassuring to see her look like she really belonged on a stage again here. That’s true of her as a hoofer, and also as a fashion plate: her seemingly painted-on outfit was a grabber. But the choreography didn’t really challenge her, and definitely didn’t give her any interaction to speak of with Azalea, beyond a token hand slap as they passed on the stage like ships in the night. Azalea came off less impressively than Spears, and any perceived lack of chemistry between the two was confirmed when Iggy started going off on Spears on Twitter after their single stiffed, in her predictable Iggy way. At least Spears gave off the vibe of someone who was back in shape and ready to pull off something more demanding… a promise we hope she delivers on when she returns to the BBMAs this Sunday.