On Thursday, Spears celebrated the 20th anniversary of one of her most iconic live performances by posting a series of throwback photographs from the 2001 VMAs red carpet on Instagram, including snaps of her being interviewed with Mick Jagger.
Her first-ever performance of “I’m a Slave 4 U” at the VMAs is etched into pop culture history. At that time, Britney shocked fans by emerging onstage inside a cage with a live tiger and singing with a snake draped around her body just minutes later.
Shortly before she hit the stage, Spears teased fans on the red carpet by describing the performance as “very different” during her sit-down interview alongside Mick Jagger.
“I'm being very brave tonight,” she responded when asked about working with live animals for the number. “It’s very interesting.”
And now, two decades later, it seems Spears did a great job hiding any stage fright, as she revealed in her Instagram caption last night that she had been feeling “out of body with nerves” before the performance.
“Geez ... this is me before my VMAs performance with @MickJagger 20 years ago !!!!” she captioned the post. “I will tell you this ... before I went on that night I was feeling kinda out of body with nerves ... I mean ... I was in a cage with a live tiger !!!!!”
The singer went on to recall how her boyfriend at the time, Justin Timberlake, helped calm her nerves with a “5 minute pep talk” before she hit the stage.
“I will never forget the moment before I went in the cage !!!!” she wrote. “Justin saw I could hardly talk so he held my hand and gave me a 5 minute pep talk which obviously worked !!!!!”
And while some fans were happy to see Spears reminiscing about her past, others were surprised to see her make a casual reference to her ex in light of their history.
In case you need reminding, the two pop stars dated for three years before a highly publicized breakup in 2002, which was documented earlier this year in the critically acclaimed film Framing Britney Spears.
The film documents the singer’s rise to fame, highlighting the misogyny and paparazzi intrusion that defined much of her career before moving on to detail the current #FreeBritney movement.
Since its release in February, the documentary has attracted huge amounts of public attention and is partly responsible for the recent upsurge of the #FreeBritney movement.
The #FreeBritney campaign centers on Spears’ highly controversial conservatorship, which has seen her life and finances under the control of her father and his legal team since 2008.
But perhaps one of the most prominent elements of the documentary was the coverage of Spears’ and Timberlake’s breakup, which saw her demonized by the media for being the cause of the split.
The documentary detailed the most pivotal points of their breakup, shedding new light on the way that Timberlake treated Spears during that time and accusing him of publicly “weaponizing” the narrative of the split to boost his own career.
As well as highlighting the cryptic music video and lyrics for his hit song “Cry Me A River,” the film also brought to fans' attention multiple interview clips taken from the time of the breakup, which saw Timberlake expose private information about his and Spears’ sexual relationship.
Arguably one of the most problematic instances was when Timberlake bragged on live radio about having sex with Spears. In response to the question “Did you fuck Britney Spears?” he laughed before stating, “OK, I did it.”
Elsewhere, the singer burst into laughter when asked by Barbara Walters if Spears had “kept her promise to wait until marriage” to have sex.
Shortly after the documentary was released, Timberlake found himself at the receiving end of renewed outrage from viewers, who proceeded to flood his Instagram comments with demands for him to apologize for his past treatment of Spears — almost 20 years after their split.
And several days later, on Feb. 12, the singer shared a lengthy apology on Instagram, telling his followers that he had seen the public outcry for him to apologize and that he was “deeply sorry.”
“I have seen the messages, tags, comments, and concerns and I want to respond,” the singer wrote. “I am deeply sorry for the times in my life where my actions contributed to the problem, where I spoke out of turn, or did not speak up for what was right.”
But in light of how Spears was treated by Timberlake — and, furthermore, how the narrative of the split ultimately contributed to the intense scrutiny and misogyny that surrounded much of her career — fans have been surprised to see her make casual references to her ex in recent months.
Thursday's post marks the second time that Spears has mentioned Timberlake on Instagram in the past two months, after she shared a post in August that appeared to include some of his song lyrics.
On Aug. 17, Spears posted a photograph of an unusually large cat and wrote beneath it: “As JT would say...haters gonna say it’s fake!!!!!” The quote was referencing the lyrics from Timberlake's 2018 song “Filthy.”
This marked the first time Spears had publicly acknowledged Timberlake since his apology six months earlier.
Furthermore, Timberlake also recently made public reference to his ex by coming out in support of Spears amid her ongoing conservatorship battle.
Shortly after Spears’ devastating court testimony in June, in which she described the conservatorship as “abusive,” likened it to sex trafficking, and claimed she'd been prevented from getting her IUD removed, Timberlake expressed his support and concern on Twitter.
“After what we saw today, we should all be supporting Britney at this time,” he wrote in June. “Regardless of our past, good and bad, and no matter how long ago it was…what’s happening to her is just not right. No woman should ever be restricted from making decisions about her own body.”
“No one should EVER be held against their will…or ever have to ask permission to access everything they’ve worked so hard for,” he added. “We hope the courts, and her family make this right and let her live however she wants to live.”
Timberlake has yet to respond to Spears’ recent VMAs throwback post, but we’ll keep our eyes peeled!