It’s the spring of 1999, and I’m at a party to celebrate our family friend’s daughter’s Confirmation. There’s an ornate buffet and open bar situated around the family’s beautifully tented backyard, and there are a lot of people dressed in white. That’s essentially all I remember about this party — after all, I’m six and probably bored mad. There’s just one exception, one moment that would open up my eyes and ears to a fascination, an obsession, an addiction. Just as I follow my family out of the party to head home, I hear those three piano chords that would launch an instantly iconic career of extreme peaks and valleys, of red leather jumpsuits and pink wigs, of awards shows and rehab, of someone who was not a girl bur not yet a woman.

The high-pitched, delighted scream that follows forces me to turn around, intrigued, to look at the dancefloor. The 13-year-old belle of the ball has her hands up surrounded by all of her BFFs, and they’re dancing and singing their hearts out.

Oh baby, baby / How was I supposed to know?

This is the first time I heard Britney Spears’s “… Baby One More Time,” and, as I leave the party before the song’s end, I’m instantly hooked. With her pleading, innocently distinct voice, and her weird way of pronouncing the word “baby,” Britney instantly has my heart.

You think you know, but you have no idea.

In the years that followed, I exhibited an infatuation with Britney Spears that proved to be unrivaled by my feelings for anything else in my life. I listened to … Baby One More Time — my first ever CD — every single day on my Walkman, and danced to it alone in my room. I had my mom buy me a new copy when my original one got too scratched, and watched the music videos built into the disc (remember “enhanced CDs”?) on my family’s bulky desktop PC.

My room was covered in foldable posters of a midriff-bearing Britney from J-14 magazines. I watched “TRL” every day after elementary school, hoping that Carson Daly would announce Britney’s latest video in that day’s top spot. “Making The Video” specials and “MTV Diary” were must-watch television events. On the day her second album, Oops! I Did It Again, came out, I left a note in the morning before school for my babysitter, urging her to pick me up a copy before she came to get me from school. My brother and I dragged that same babysitter (I’m sorry, Cheryl!) to a matinee showing of “Crossroads” the day it was released. (I immediately dubbed it a cinematic masterpiece upon leaving the theater, and I still view it as such.) When Britney and *NSYNC teamed up to release a joint CD and VHS exclusively through McDonald’s, I made my dad drive 45 minutes across Long Island to the nearest location so I could have copies of both. I was crazy.

Over the years, I’ve calmed down — with age, with an expansion of my horizons, with the trauma of Britney’s meltdown — but there’s a part of me that holds onto those years of insatiable devotion to The Holy Spear-it. There’s a certain naiveté that comes with being such a diehard fan — of an artist, of a sports team, of a book series — that prevents it from turning toxic or problematic. I’d argue that it’s actually quite beneficial to follow something so closely. My love for Britney taught me to channel my emotions, showed me what it means for an artist to grow and evolve, allowed me to understand the perils of celebrity and planted the seed for one of my greatest interests: pop music.

It’s unfortunate that the same can’t really be said these days, when kids get Twitter accounts at age eight so they can join their fellow Beliebers in sending anonymous death threats to anyone who disagrees with their dubious idol. Though I’m sure those types of extremes existed in the days of peak Britney, they weren’t nearly as accessible or widespread. In those days, my biggest use of the internet came through online games and listening to Britney’s ode to the World Wide Web, “E-mail My Heart.”

That doesn’t mean that my Britney-complex didn’t fuel any intense negative feelings towards other competing artists and her fans. I lived in a household that was very much divided — as Britney was to me, Christina Aguilera was to my oldest brother — and we became genuinely heated in our arguments over who was the best. When Christina won the Best New Artist Grammy over Britney in 2000, I don’t think I could look my brother in the eyes for a few days. Of course, I secretly loved Christina, too, but I could never admit that. I told myself that I had to be 100 percent Team Britney and anything else would count as betrayal.

Being a fan is a learning experience, and, as much as you don’t want to, you begin to recognize flaws in the person you idolize. In my case, I began to see the cracks in the perfectly spray-tanned, lip-syncing Miss American Dream since she was 17. From the annulment of her shotgun wedding, to the “Chaotic” K-Fed era and the head shaving incident, it was impossible not to admit that things had turned sour, to put it lightly. But instead of moving on to the next best thing, I held onto a glimmer of hope that, just maybe, she’d be back. And, as we all know, she would be.

The Britney of recent years has been occasionally hard to watch. She shows less of her gum-snapping, golly gee personality, her dancing isn’t nearly as electrifying as it once was and her most recent album, Britney Jean is unquestionably her worst ever — but she’s trying. She’s happy. She has two adorable children. She’s performing multiple times a week in Las Vegas to sold out, adoring crowds. As a fan, it’s hard to ask for more from someone who taught you so much and remains the source of so many fond memories.

Britney’s life and career have been like a circus – there’s always a lot going on, some acts are thrilling and some you’d rather forget. But what remains constant is that she’s always in the center, keeping your attention, whether you’re six or 22. Britney’s like the ringleader. She calls the shots. If I said I’ll always be a fan, would you hold it against me?

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