Until Sunday night (August 28), the last time Britney Spears took the stage at the MTV Video Music Awards was September 9, 2007. A performance billed as the troubled star's comeback, the result was famously anything but — Britney was sloppy and unprepared, and looked like she didn't want to be there. It inarguably set her already-tanking career back even further.
In the nine years since, Britney has headlined a successful residency at Planet Hollywood Las Vegas, released hits like "Till the World Ends," "Work Bitch," and — earlier this month — "Make Me," and seemingly turned her life around after an early aughts so troubled they literally led to legalized conservatorship. But until Sunday night, even with the moderate success of "Britney Jean" and especially "Femme Fatale," she avoided the VMAs stage (and any non-Vegas performances, really) entirely.
In short, last night was a big fucking deal. But was it the big MTV comeback we fans had been hoping for?
It could have been, but instead, MTV scheduled Brit and G-Eazy's performance of "Make Me" and "Me, Myself, & I" right after a long set by Beyoncé.
Bey's 16-minute set was pretty much the lone can't-miss highlight of the VMAs, and I say this as someone who cries about Rihanna whenever she has alcohol. She performed a solid third of her "Lemonade" album with the haunting spoken word intros, and lit the stage on fire both literally and figuratively with her out-of-this-world ability to sing like a siren luring you to a watery grave while also burning 1000 calories a minute dancing.
She is the best pop performer on Planet Earth, period. Having to follow that would be like FINALLY getting the nerve to sing "Eternal Flame" at karaoke after four beers only for an off-hours Broadway performer to bring the house down with an Adele ballad right before you take the stage, only on national television. (Note: This definitely never happened to me.)
Britney's performance was far superior to 2007's, but it's astonishing that MTV thought putting her after a performer of Beyoncé's caliber — so Beyoncé, basically, because no one else is of that caliber — was a good move for Britney, or for the overall success of this year's VMAs.
"Why does MTV hate Britney Spears?" The Daily Beast asked this morning, nothing that "it’s like they were setting her up to fail" and "Beyoncé dropped the mic; Spears had to sheepishly pick it up and lip-synch into it."
They're not wrong! And it's also not like MTV owed Britney a better time slot — they didn't force her to perform before she was ready in 2007 — but VMA producers definitely knew that Brit Brit lip-syncing while dancing her toned 30-something ass off with G-Eazy would play better earlier in the night. Like, say, in the opening number, which also would have allowed Brit to go home and cuddle with Sean Preston and Jayden James which we all know she'd rather be doing.
The days leading up to the show, Brit's comeback was all anyone could talk about. And putting this TOTALLY FINE (for Britney) performance after Beyoncé was a disservice to all of us, since pretty much every millennial and Gen X-er with a pulse has been dying for a Britney resurgence since 2007.
We don't just miss Britney, we feel responsible for Britney.
If it wasn't for us eagerly buying those In Touch mags when she partied with Lindsay and Paris or clicking on Perez links when she shaved her head, maybe she wouldn't have fallen so far. Maybe she wouldn't have hit the VMAs stage in 2007 looking dead in the eyes; like she'd rather be anywhere than on that dreaded stage shimmying in fishnets for our morbid amusement. The late 90s and early 2000s gave us the perfect bubblegum pop princess, and we all let her down.
This is why we get so excited when we see Britney looking happy with her sons on Instagram, and why we freak the fuck out over her Vegas show even when artists like Beyoncé, Rihanna, Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift regularly eclipse Britney as live performers. We know she'll never be the greatest act in town, but when she's happy, healthy, and given a selection of certified bangers to lip sync and shimmy to, it's a fun time for everyone involved.
In short, Britney's loudest cry for help was aired live on national television, and nine years later, the same network that capitalized on Britney's ailing mental health let her down AGAIN by making her follow the greatest performer alive. Intentional or nah, it was a shitty thing to do.
If Brit had performed earlier in the night, today's headlines would be heralding the return of a happy, healthy Britney. Instead, we have "Britney Spears Falls Short of Stunning at VMAs Comeback" and "MTV Just Embarrassed Britney Spears at the VMAs," because apparently throwing this poor woman a bone was not as high on their priority list as allowing Kanye West to monologue about nothing for five whole minutes.
And look: I know this is all champagne problems, and that Britney has material wealth beyond our wildest dreams. But I also know that she has serious mental health issues, and almost definitely got forced into a life of insane fame due to a deadly mix of blonde genetics, dance skills, and stage parents. So when MTV makes her be the unfortunate soul to follow Queen Bey — a mindfuck situation for anyone, not just a woman with a long history of psychological trauma — after she seemingly spent so much time on the sidelines healing, I get fightin' mad.
You are on notice with Britney stans, MTV. Now all Britney has to do is air a Glory tour special on HBO.
(Note: The author of this piece previously worked at MTV News. But they had bagel Wednesdays so I'm only mad at them because of this Britney thing.)