Was there a time before Britney?

Doesn’t seem like it, does it? But no, her pop-music career is only twelve years old at this point. Which, if you’re twelve or younger, we guess is a fair question. (Do your parents know you’re here?)

So if I have my math right, she got started in 1999.

Kind of; she was in show business long before she released her first single. But let’s back up. She was born in 1981 and grew up on the Mississippi-Louisiana border, singing in local talent shows and pageants. She started her professional career before she had turned ten, appearing in commercials and on Star Search, and in 1992 she joined the cast of the Mickey Mouse Club, where she was a Mouseketeer at the same time as fellow Class of ’99 members Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake and JC Chasez.

Uh, Class of ’99?

The Spice Girls and the Backstreet Boys had begun the trend of taut, slick dance-pop, but it wasn’t until the explosion of teenpop in 1999 that American pop moved firmly out of the grunge/gangsta hangover of the late '90s and into what we think of as modern pop, all hard beats and synthetic sounds. Christina Aguilera, 'N Sync (which gave us Justin Timberlake), Destiny’s Child (which gave us Beyoncé), P!nk and Jessica Simpson were all part of that initial wave, though Britney was arguably the most iconic of them all. “...Baby One More Time” could be considered the song that started it all; even though the Backstreet Boys’ hits were earlier, none of them were quite as propulsive, or as long-lasting, as the song that conflated love and violence and set the tone for a whole decade of intense, brilliant pop.

So I heard that she started the whole sexualization of pop?

Ha ha, no. Pop has always been about sex, just like it’s always been about love and ego and heartbreak and politics and everything else important in the world. What some people have objected to in Britney isn’t the content of her songs—which address the subject through metaphor and double-entendre—but her image, from the barely-legal schoolgirl pose on the cover of ...Baby One More Time to the diamond-encrusted slithering in the “Toxic” video. Part of that image is her breathy, Betty Boop-as-softcore-starlet singing voice; on >a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CduA0TULnow">“Oops!...I Did It Again” it was a sly wink to pinup culture, but more recently, “If U Seek Amy” and “3” have gotten more explicit about their dirty intentions, which is as it should be: She’s been an adult for a while now.

When did people start taking her seriously?

Depends on the people! Some people were on board from the start; some hopeless cases still think all dance-pop is worthless. But there were two real turning points: “I’m a Slave 4 U” (2001) introduced her as a grown-up woman, still playing with fetish imagery but (ironically) very much in control, riding the taut Neptunes beat with effortless sighs. And then the surf-arabesque “Toxic” (2003) consolidated her status as the premier pop stylist of her era, heir to the legacies of Madonna and Michael Jackson and even Prince. It’s in the running for greatest pop single of the 2000s, and that was a pretty damn good decade for pop.

But can she even sing?

She hits and holds notes; do you have a different definition of the word? Her voice is a limited instrument, like many great pop stars’ voices have been, but she’s shown more flexibility with her baby-doll tones and lascivious pout than many belters (who can’t do anything but belt) ever have.

But she definitely doesn’t write her own songs, right?

Like any pop star, she works with a wide variety of songwriters, producers, and other collaborators. Max Martin has been her most famous songwriter—and if anyone’s a pro at matching song voice to performer’s personality, it’s him—but she began writing material as early as 2000, and has had co-writing credits on about half her songs ever since. But at her level, the best songwriters in the industry compete to give her material, and several of her songwriters and backup singers—you’ve heard of Keri Hilson? Lady Gaga? Ke$ha?—have gone on to successful pop careers in their own right.

Why did she go crazy?

We guess that depends on what your definition of crazy is. In 2004, when she was dealing, largely unprepared, with the pressures of being the most famous woman in the world, she married twice (the first time for only three days, the second time to Kevin Federline, the father of her two children). She would divorce Federline in 2006, and after well-publicized hospitalizations and treatment for substance abuse, lost custody of her children and a close family member. A grief-and-drug-fueled decision to shave her head, to try to shed her identity however briefly, led to a media circus from which she retreated long enough to produce Blackout, perhaps the definitive record about all-consuming fame, desire and loss of identity. The single “Gimme More” was a hit, but the record’s dark electro sound was less commercially successful than her previous work.

How’d she come back from that?

By returning to the source of her original success. Swedish producer Max Martin had made her famous at the turn of the century with “... Baby One More Time” and “Oops!...I Did It Again,” and she worked with him and his associates Dr. Luke and Shellback on 2008’s Circus. The results were the biggest hits of her career since 2000—the return of a confident, even sassy Britney on “Womanizer," “Circus” and “If U Seek Amy” marked a new stage in her career; now a pop veteran as well as a working mother, she’s shed the awkwardness of some of her early material and seems ready to stay on the same level for years to come.

But now she just sounds like everyone else!

Does she? Her 2011 album Femme Fatale was, again, largely produced by Martin and Luke, and since they’re the producers behind Ke$ha, Katy Perry and Taio Cruz’s biggest hits, sure, they’re going to sound a bit similar. It’s called having an aesthetic. But “Hold It Against Me” features a breakdown right out of the U.K. avant-electro subgenre dubstep, and “Till The World Ends” is one of the most ecstatic and assured pop songs of the year. If she no longer seems to have much of a personality outside the music, which is as rhythmically sharp and digitally coquettish as ever, it’s worth wondering whether she ever had one.