If the world were a reasonable place, none of us would care about Britney Spears anymore. Once deemed the new Queen of Pop as Madonna aged, Britney fell hard in the public eye and disappeared in a blaze of controversy, disgust and insanity a few years ago, only to be unceremoniously replaced by the more controlled crazy of Lady Gaga and Katy Perry.
Turning from tune-master to tabloid queen was tough for Brit, and she rebelled in a million ways (I vaguely recall an umbrella attack, the infamous haircut, and a brief love affair with a paparazzo, to name just a few). But no one could have seen Britney’s sweetest revenge coming: An all-out attack on the media through her ridiculously popular new music, taking back the clubs while she throws a couple well-aimed punches at those who dragged her down, attempting to regain control of her image in the process. But although Britney’s new music is strangely empowering and the dethroned Pop Queen seems more solidly on her feet, is this new leg of Brit’s career really revolutionary? Or is Britney once again playing into our expectations and allowing the media to drive her career?
Looking at Britney now, you may be initially unimpressed. “But where are her eyebrows?” you may ask. “And weren’t her vocal chords replaced in some kind of robot experiment? Doesn’t she still dance around half-naked like a sex-crazed monkey?” In all of these points, you may be correct, but Britney, for all her flaws, is a survivor.
Just when it seemed like her career was at its absolute end in the wake of her many tragedies, she released the biting and unexpectedly successful Femme Fatale this year, three years after her previous album, Circus. On top of that, Spears’ personal life also seems more in order, including her solid (potentially committed) relationship with former manager Jason Trawick who, despite his fatherly figure, seems a far cry from the Federline drama of years past.
But even though Britney may be forgiving, she certainly isn’t forgetting. Femme Fatale pokes at the paparrazi and other skeletons in Britney’s well-lit closet, building on what has now become a storied conversation between Spears and the media forces that first drove her to the top, then brought her to her knees. Through her music, Britney has been fighting a campaign against the tabloids, critics, and haters who labeled her insane and dismissed her as too fat and too old — a Queen destined to be overthrown.
Take, for example, her most recent single, “I Wanna Go. “ The music video takes a direct stab at the paparazzi and celebrity news media, literally telling everybody to, uh, “forget” off. In the video, the media is portrayed as a bunch of know-nothings, and Britney comes off as a badass, a pop star turned gun-toting cowboy. If you didn’t believe me about Brit using her music to battle her haters, there’s a part in this video where she literally kills the paparazzi with her microphone.
But the paparazzi soon come back to life as mutant zombie robots — unkillable and evil. Even her driver/manager/whoever turns out to be a zombie robot, both within the dream sequence and without — she can’t trust those closest to her. Both of these themes have constantly recurred during Brit’s years-long battle with the tabloids, her management, and basically everyone who sat back to watch the controversy. “I Wanna Go” is the last in a long line of anti-media videos that, paradoxically (and perhaps purposefully), drew tons of media attention. This single sees Britney adopting her new identity, taking it into her own hands and spitting it back out at us, possibly even stretching to reach beyond her “crazy bitch” status. But it was a long road that brought us here.
Up until 2006, Britney’s music career definitely lacked angst, and the public loved her. Brit’s first album was released in 1999 when the pop star was not quite 18. With singles “…Baby One More Time,” “Sometimes,” and “(You Drive Me) Crazy,” Britney was established as the sexiest kindergartner on the playground, a mix of innocence and sex appeal spoon fed to the drooling masses.
But as Brit grew into a full-blown adult and the public reacted to her youthful beauty, she soon proclaimed that she’s “not that innocent” and tore off her clothes at the VMAs. In retrospect, this may not seem like that big of a deal, but as someone who grew up in the midst of Britney mania, let me tell you: It was a huge deal. Suddenly, Brit was not only embracing her sexual side, but essentially living on it. Perhaps it’s appropriate that in the midst of this shift, Brit released the first single commenting on her overwhelming fame, “Lucky.”
Though essentially still a romantic number, implying that Lucky isn’t happy because she’s alone, the first stresses of fame can be heard through the metaphor of Hollywood actress, Lucky. Released before Britney was really all that concerned with the downsides of fame, “Lucky” maintains a sort of innocence, grumbling over early morning alarms and re-takes, almost painting Lucky as an unappreciative diva and purposefully pushing the charges away from Britney by creating a character for her to speak through.
Off of 2001′s Britney, “I’m A Slave 4 U” cemented Brit’s new sexed-up image (while raging against the sweetness of her previous “little girl” persona). At the same time, “Overprotected” and “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” hinted at Spears’ growing pains, this time coming off as much more personal. Famously managed by controlling parents, these two singles showed Brit just starting to shake the shackles. In both songs, she strives for “me” time, demonstrating the pressure of fame in a more truthful manner than “Lucky,” moving outside of Lucky’s star-driven loneliness and towards a desire for privacy, so hard to find in the spotlight.
In the Zone, Britney’s next release, came on the heels of her high-profile break-up with Justin Timberlake amidst rumors of her infidelity, made all the more believable by Timberlake’s 2002 single and music video, “Cry Me A River.” Her first major taste of public disapproval, this incident was apparently the inspiration for her 2003 single “Everytime,” accompanied by a controversial music video whose concept Spears originated.
Although the actual lyrics to “Everytime,” a track Spears co-wrote, don’t reek of tabloid terrors, the video took the sad number into Britney’s world, making it the first in a long line of music videos to incorporate rumors and reality into the visual narrative. No longer playing dress-up as a schoolgirl, alien or Hollywood star, in “Everytime,” Britney appears as herself, and not just as herself singing into a camera, but as herself embroiled in her own, paparazzi-driven world.
The video depicts Britney fighting with her boyfriend, drowning after being tapped on the head by a cameraman, and ultimately being reborn as a giggling child. The lyrics all the while are sweet, slow and desperate, asking to be noticed and admitting to need someone — a victim of fame. Caught in a media circus, the video shows Britney’s regret, missing the old days of innocence, wanting to be America’s Sweetheart once more.
Unfortunately, Britney was instead destined to be K-Fed’s sweetheart. After an extremely brief marriage to Jason Alexander, quickly squashed by her family and management, Spears found Federline, one of Timberlake’s ex-back-up dancers. Down the rabbit hole she went, into a land where shoes and panties need not be worn. For four years, Britney didn’t record or release any new material, but her fame only grew as her problems with Federline, her children, and even her own sanity made headlines in every newspaper and magazine. Brit asked K-Fed for a divorce in November 2006, and then the shit really hit the fan.
In the aftermath of her split from Federline, Britney became BFFs with Paris Hilton, flashed her crotch three times, shaved her head, was forced to attend rehab and denied visitation rights for her children. Throughout all of these scandals, Britney was chased down by hungry tabloid freaks, many of whom were specifically assigned to Spears. One paparazzo, Sheeraz Hasan, told Rolling Stone in early 2008, “Everything Britney does is news — Britney pumps gas, Britney forgets to put milk in her coffee — and there’s a war going on, man!” The attention was relentless, and none of it was positive.
In the midst of this media feeding frenzy, Spears released Blackout, an album whose title seems to adequately describe her mindset at the time. Spears did almost nothing to promote the album (aside from her fantastically terrible VMA performance in 2007, prompting the media to call her fat, crazy and washed-up), instead spending her time shacked up with her paparazzo boyfriend, in and out of hospitals, ducking rumors of attempted suicide and pill addiction. But the album essentially promoted itself, as Britney asked: “You want a Piece of Me?”
The most overt dig on her experience with the media and her own fame that Britney has ever produced, “Piece of Me” indicts her parents, managers, and us, ducking any blame she may have in the perpetual scandals surrounding her and almost embracing her new “crazy bitch” image. Over a wet beat so catchy even my Dad used to rock out to it, Britney flew her freak flag, directly referencing her troubles, from accusations of her bad mothering to issues with her weight and her history as a teen queen. It’s like Britney dressed a car wreck up in a bikini and a blonde wig — how could we look away??
As Vanessa Grigoriadis wrote in her Rolling Stone Britney Spears cover story in 2008, “Britney isn’t ashamed of herself. She wants us to know what we did to her.” Written very soon after “Piece of Me,” Grigoriadis’ assertion seems spot-on. Yet, “Piece of Me” wasn’t pure punishment. It pushes us away, asking “Now are you sure you wanna piece of me?” But the lyrics pull us back in with confident justifications and an overall appeal to understand that Brit’s not that crazy — she’s a victim of the paparazzi and her own fame.
Britney’s latest tracks seem less tinged with mean-spirited vengeance. In “Hold It Against Me,” Spears still reminds us that we’ve called her crazy a thousand times, but she says: “Hey, you might think that I’m crazy/But you know I’m just your type…” And that she is. We helped create her, and we loved to watch her burn. We can’t get enough of her, good, bad or totally bat-shit crazy. Britney Spears is our pop star Frankenstein, only she knows we loved the carnage. And now she’s hoping we might just pay more to hear the epilogue.
Through her battles with the press and the music she’s made about it, Britney has made herself a martyr to stardom and a new kind of celebrity built on scandal and gossip. She’s revealed a sort of bloodlust — a desire to see the better half fail — that’s somehow been ingrained in our culture. Yet even as she pulls back a curtain and lets us peek in at the wreckage, she’s feeding the machine. By capitalizing on our curiosity, Britney is trying to control our perception of her, alter her image and maintain her fame. But because she constantly incorporates her scandalous past into her new music, part of loving Brit’s new tunes is caught up in loving the scandal. And within her media-centered music, Britney herself pulls this kind of fame closer to her by actively creating controversy and poking at the paparazzi. Years after “Piece of Me,” it’s become evident that Spears is willing to fuel the scandal, giving us that bloody (but catchy) bit of Britney we crave. Once the victim, she’s become her own victimizer.Tags: Blackout, Britney Spears, Circus, Cry Me a River, custody, divorce, Everytime, ex-Queen of Pop, Femme Fatale, hold it against me, hospitalization, I Wanna Go, I'm Not a Girl, In the Zone, Jason Alexander, Jason Trawick, Justin Timberlake, Kevin Federline, KFed, Lucky, Madonna, media, Not Yet a Woman, Overprotected, paparazzi, Piece of Me, queen of pop, Rehab, shaved head, tabloids, Till the World Ends, VMAs 2007