I’ll always feel for Britney Spears. I am thrilled that Beyoncé raced past the quartet of blonde girls to be the enduring pop star of her generation–outsinging Christina Aguilera even at triple pianissimo, channelling Tina Turner’s stage presence, putting forth something of a (racially problematic, materialistic) feminist rhetoric, and, taking a cue from Janet Jackson, insisting on having a personal life. Beyoncé clearly has a support system who quake when a shy Houston girl transforms into a diva while rehearsing backstage. Does Britney? At least she had her assistant Felicia.
Remember 2007, aka Britneywatch, no doubt the worst year of her life? She was soon to turn 27. I’m not a superstitious person, but I knew many past pop icons bit the big one at that age. I worried we’d lose her, either to an overdose or a car accident or by her own hand. I was hardly alone. South Park 86ed the laffs in “Britney’s New Look” to comment on the horror show her life had become and our collective involvement in its creation (one of my contributions: I felt really good about myself when she admitted to not “getting” Sundance selections because, you see, I watched Spirited Away). David Samuels wrote on Spears and tabloid journalism for The Atlantic. Tom Ewing compared her to Laura Palmer. Tobi Vail wanted to send her some Bikini Kill records after she shaved her head, a moment Beth Ditto noted as a potentially radical stance against a public she didn’t want touching her anymore.
I don’t know the exact nature of her mental anguish. Maybe it was being raised to be a pop star and treated like a commodity for so long without developing a better sense of self. Diet pills and an intense gym regimen certainly didn’t help. I don’t believe Courtney Love’s accusation that Spears was sexually abused by her father, but I would believe Spears if she made that charge, for the same reason I’d believe you or Mackenzie Phillips. But I’m glad she’s still with us. Like Jody Rosen, I enjoyed Femme Fatale. And I hope Britney is happy and has people looking out for her. I don’t know what Britney Spears did to “get better.” Frankly, I’m not convinced she did. Her comeback registered as hasty defense to me, but I’m willing to assume the best. So it makes me sad when I see comparisons between her early and current concert performances. A friend directed me to a clip and noted that the light from her eyes was gone. My concern is the restricted movement. One thing that gets overlooked in the outlining of Britney’s downward spiral is the knee injury she sustained from the video shoot to “Outrageous.” As a dancer and maybe as a person, she never recovered.
Blowing out her knee may have been even more depressing than the swarms of paparazzi she fought off or her marriage to Kevin Federline. Like Jackson, people dismissed Spears as “just” a dancer. These folks tend to overlook that while both artists have limited vocal ranges, they brought personality to their voices (see also: Rihanna, Madonna, Diana Ross). Jackson beguiled audiences as much with her whispered soprano as with her authority over any complicated dance routine. Likewise, Spears “sang” like a southern robot working through a head cold. It worked with her frayed-wire cyborg stage persona and anticipated that she’d be cast as a femmebot. Also, have you tried to do either of these women’s dance routines? One of my favorite high school moments was watching two cheerleaders in the middle of a Britney-off at a Sadie Hawkins dance. For one, it was hilarious because those girls were so serious about it. For another, it was impressive. High kicks, shimmies, lunges, punches, intricate foot work. Doing the routine to “Oops! . . . I Did It Again” is work. I don’t remember which girl won the battle, but both were probably sore in the morning.
The considerable amount of technological intervention that goes into pop vocals may isolate the star from the voice and the voice from the listener, which may explain why many producers seem to be channeling video game music these days. The chorus to the Dr. Luke/Max Martin/Billboard-produced “Till the World Ends” charges like DDR set on expert. This is no doubt why producers Stargate and Sandy Vee made the verses to “Only Girl (In the World)” sound like the music to Mortal Combat. Instant embodiment. Power up!
But to understand Spears is to engage with her changing body and how it can and cannot execute certain activities anymore. Thus it’s weird that there’s relatively little discussion about athleticism and issues around ability when talking about Spears, as these are essential components to understanding her as a performer. Then again, female dancers’ athleticism is often minimized, if not outright ignored, especially when they’re playing hurt or risking a sustained injury. Spears always lip synced, so her understanding of a song may have resided in using her body to act out its emotional register. I hope she’s not just going through the motions now. She’s not just an avatar. She’s Britney.