I Think About This a Lot: Britney Spears’s 2001 VMA Performance

Britney Spears and Banana the snake performing at the 2001 Video Music Awards.
Photo: Getty Images

I Think About This a Lot is a series dedicated to private memes: images, videos, and other random trivia we are doomed to play forever on loop in our minds.

On September 6, 2001, Britney Spears changed the course of history when she performed “I’m a Slave 4 U” at the MTV Video Music Awards while holding an albino Burmese python.

Allow me to set the scene for those of you who foolishly don’t have this memory imprinted on your medial temporal lobe like myself: The then-19-year-old starlet appears on stage in bedazzled boy shorts and a green chiffon scarf that functions as a bra. She is in a cage with a tiger who is either animatronic or heavily sedated. Meanwhile, a dancer painted in chrome hangs from the rafters with a 25-pound snake draped over her shoulders. Flash forward to Britney Spears singing the romantic hook — “Baby, don’t you want to dance up on me” — as the chrome danseuse passes off the python, who is nicknamed Banana, to our pop princess like a seven-foot-long leathery baton. Britney doesn’t flinch. (I assume because her performing instincts quell any fight-or-flight response.) She then proceeds to do not one but three twirls with the snake resting on her shoulders, even dipping before the audience to let them touch the hem of Banana. She does all this for four eight-counts before handing Banana to a man wearing zebra-print culottes and returning to a synchronized dance sequence, all without missing a step. And, as if Britney Spears hasn’t already given the culture enough, she races up a towering platform in time to pose on-cue to the ending lyric: “It’s like that.” And, guess what, it really is like that!

I transcribed this from memory because I’ve been thinking about this moment in pop history every single day for the last 17 years, 6 months, and 19 days (rolling!). Feel free to fact-check me on this, but I know my Britney Jean Spears iconography like I know myself. And not since the Garden of Eden has there been a more famous snake. I have grown to appreciate that this is the most iconic animal performance since Air Bud double-dribbled his way into America’s heart. It rocks me to my core to know that Banana is somewhere surrounded by other working Burmese pythons who don’t know or appreciate what she did on that VMA stage. According to the snake’s former trainer, Mike Hano, the legendary python is still alive, spanning 15 feet and weighing more than 100 pounds (our girl is thicc). And while she may have faded into obscurity after her brief 15 minutes of fame, her presence inspired thousands of Britney imitation costumes as well as, I assume, an uptick in python purchases in Floridian pet stores.

On a more personal level, that yellow baby Burmese python changed my life forever. I was in the third grade when I first saw her performance. As someone growing up in a deeply religious household, I was forbidden from listening to any music that wasn’t recorded by the VeggieTales. Yet I was drawn to Britney Spears like Jesus was drawn to unisex sandals, because she represented everything I wasn’t — rhythmic, worldly, a white woman. Now, I have pledged to live my days as a pop star, even going as far as having recording several singles (stream “Make It Clap for Democracy“). I’ve even attempted to rent Banana on several occasions for my live performances, much to literally every venue owner’s chagrin. And, as if navigating New York health codes weren’t difficult enough, Hano informed me that Banana has recently suffered third-degree burns and has changed owners multiple times in the last few years because no one respects her worth (my words, not his).

Yet I persist on my journey to make my childhood hero, Britney Spears, proud. And if you’re wondering why? Because at 8 years old, I saw Britney Spears — and Banana — commit to doing the impossible to put on a fantastic show. And while in retrospect Britney swears she was terrified of the snake and would never put herself through the experience again, I have committed to living fearlessly and processing the imminent danger I’ve put myself in after the fact. That’s the Britney way, and that’s the Banana way.

I Think About Britney Spears’s 2001 VMAs Performance a Lot