Background and development
Spears performing "Me Against the Music" at the
In November 2001, Spears released her third album, Britney, which portrayed more adult and provocative themes and featured the lead single "I'm a Slave 4 U". The album has sold over four million copies in the United States; nevertheless, it was viewed as "poor-selling" in comparison to her previous efforts. The following year, her relationship of three years with pop singer Justin Timberlake ended after months of speculation.
After the Dream Within a Dream Tour in support of Britney finalized in July 2002, Spears announced she would take a break from her career for six months. In November 2002, she revealed that she had started working on her next studio album. She explained, "Well, actually, I just said that I wanted two or three weeks off. [....] And the whole world was like, 'Ohmigod, [sic] she's gone..."
While in Europe, Spears met with William Orbit and Daft Punk about possible collaborations, and originally confirmed Darkchild and The Neptunes as producers. When asked by The Hollywood Reporter about the direction of the record, Spears responded it was an organic evolution, adding, "It should just happen naturally from the way you feel. [...] Whatever happens, happens". Additionally, Spears scheduled meet-and-greets with Timbaland and Missy Elliott in an effort to help evolve her sound. Elliott would also enlist in further production work with Nisan Stewart for Spears' project, however none of the initial material saw the light of day. Spears also held a writing session with James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem. Murphy stated, "We were both lying on the floor, head-to head, working on lyrics in a notepad. She seemed eager to please, but it went nowhere. She went to dinner and just never came back." Fred Durst was asked by Spears' management to submit material, and he wrote and produced three trip hop tracks that were recorded by Spears in January 2003. However, after news of an affair between them broke, Durst told Jive Records he was not going to let them use the songs for the album. In March 2003, Lauren Christy from The Matrix spoke about the development of the album with MTV News, and likened their work with Spears to Madonna's 1998 album Ray of Light. Scott Spock, also from The Matrix, continued comparing her to Madonna, saying,
"She's taking it to the next level in her career. Madonna constantly takes what's in the club and puts what she does on top of it and makes it mainstream. I think Britney is starting to embrace that concept where she's looking to work on different stuff, instead of using the same familiar, and applying it to her. [...] I don't think [her fans] will be freaked out or upset. I think they'll be really into what's going to happen."
Spears also previewed several songs to Quddus Philippe of MTV in May 2003, including "Touch of My Hand", "Brave New Girl" and "Everytime". Spears commented, "I've really been able to take my time and have creative control and make [the new album] special, special, special." On August 27, 2003, Spears opened the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards performing a medley of "Like a Virgin/Hollywood" with Madonna, Christina Aguilera and Missy Elliott. The performance started with Spears appearing on stage on top of a giant wedding cake while wearing a wedding gown and veil; she sang the first few lines of "Like a Virgin" before Aguilera appeared from behind the cake and joined her. Madonna then emerged from the cake wearing a black coat and a hat and started singing "Hollywood" before proceeding to kiss Spears and Aguilera on the lips. Missy Elliott came out from a wedding chapel to sing her song "Work It" halfway through the performance. The kiss generated strong reaction from the media. The performance was listed by Blender magazine as one of the twenty-five sexiest music moments on television history. MTV listed the performance as the number-one opening moment in the history of the MTV Video Music Awards.