Few musicians have had a career as wild, overpraised and destructive as Britney Spears’. While I consider her marginal as an artist, she is of interest to me because her story and downfall reflect the excessive celebrity culture of her nation better than almost anyone else’s. Beginning as a sparky girl who strode into the eye of an empire, she was gradually consumed by fame until she became a shadow of her former self. It’s not surprising that Lana Del Rey, who fetishizes melancholy in the same way the media exploited Spears’ sadness, admires her. The way an ordinary-looking Spears was described as a great beauty in her early years reflects America’s desire to mould her into their idea of perfection. While at the beginning of the century Madonna and (to a lesser degree) Beyoncé asserted their sexuality boldly, Spears’ attempts to be sexy appear forced. So controlled by her label, so lost in the glare of fame, in contrast with her empowered peers she seems of a much earlier era of the female star. In the first decade of her career, a tragedy unfolded.
Her first three (and best-selling) albums are poor. Their success relied on exploiting the nascent sexuality of a teenage girl, as in the “…Baby One More Time” video which disturbs me due to Spears’ evident vulnerability and the sexualised, male fantasy it represents. When compared to her (inexplicably) less successful contemporary Christina Aguilera – whose lavish eras, colourful videos and fierce, melismatic songs conduce to an impeccable pop act – Spears’ anonymous voice and minimal charisma seem all the more wanting. As we’ve seen, she’s annihilated by Madonna in the “Me Against the Music” video, and while her “Toxic” video from 2004 does display an increased artistic agency, it’s ultimately an attention-seeking, flawed production. Her surface confidence still fails to convince, although her feminine appropriation of science fiction – which suggests a dislocation from reality mirroring her life in the spotlight – compels, and its influence in the music video field must be acknowledged.
Blackout (2007-8) is Spears’ one flash of brilliance. The hook of “Gimme More”, ‘It’s Britney, bitch’, marks an extraordinary if momentary transformation from victim into defiant and autonomous woman. The strip club video, while on the whole unimaginative, reflects the burgeoning internet with its lurid lights – the utopian system through which celebrity moments such as Spears’ earlier mental breakdown were increasingly experienced. The following single “Piece of Me” is her sole masterpiece. Auto-tune reflects the erosion of her private life, but also knowingly obfuscates the true Britney, reclaiming her right to privacy and encapsulating the paradox of fame. The forthright lyrics which narrate her surreal, remarkable life could not be better. The video certainly could be, but the constant flashes from the paparazzi successfully define her as America’s most famous woman, and the high-trash style celebrates whatever beauty there was of that small corner of time when Spears, Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan captivated millions. Other atmospheric electro-pop tracks from the album – “Radar” and “Break the Ice” – achieve a similar effect. The animated “Break the Ice” video cleverly employs the secret agent persona from the “Toxic” video, demonstrating how pop stars can enliven their oeuvres with such self-reference and mythology building, to which glittering music videos lend themselves so well.
Break the Ice
Sadly Spears then drifted into indifference and triteness. Circus (2008-9) is nothing more than a confection, albeit with a rather dazzling tour. As far as I’m concerned the odd and sunny “How I Roll” from Femme Fatale (2011) is her only song from the last ten years which achieves beauty. Despite apparent happiness and health, whatever light Spears might have possessed has been extinguished. A footnote artistically, the great lesson of her career is monitory.