Britney Spears and the Price of Pop
My love of Britney Spears runs deep. It’s a love so strong that it reminds me that I have the ability to actually love at all. People are often bewildered by my love. She is seen as an act who is past it or irrelevant when the fact is that she changed the landscape of pop.
Between the release of ‘…Baby One More Time’ on October 23, 1998 and ‘Everytime’ on May 10, 2004, and again, briefly in 2007 when she released Blackout, she was the be all and end all. She came in with the bang that pop needed in 1998 and became part of the soundtrack sound of the early noughties, with R&B undertones, feverish hooks and overt sexuality that shocked the world then but is simply part of the pop narrative now.
Since 2008, anything she has been done has been hailed as a comeback but she never really left. Even when she went on hiatus between 2004 and 2007, she never left but we watched her unravel. Her big comeback, The Big Comeback, was of course the disastrous MTV VMA performance in 2007, when she performed ‘Gimme More’ and revealed just how far our pop deity had fallen. That was a performance that should never have gone ahead and somehow, everyone who was on her team watched her crash and burn. Up until that point, we saw the photos, we read the headlines. We knew that our Britney was not well at all.
Alarm bells started ringing quite early for Britney, especially when she got married for 55 hours in January 2004 and then cut The Onyx Hotel Tour short in June due to complications with an old knee injury (To all Britney stans, The BritKnee Injury is the exact moment where it went wrong, devastatingly affecting her iconic dance abilities forevermore). But it’s the year 2007 where we all know that things were definitely not right.
Between 2007 and 2008, rumours of drug addiction were rife. She lost custody of her two children, she shaved off her hair, she was chased by paparazzi and filmed hysterically crying in fast food restaurants and outside her home – Google ‘Britney crying’ if you want a piece of your heart to chip away – but the scariest event was yet to come. In January 2008, four months since that VMA performance and three since the release of Blackout – the album that had ‘Gimme More’ and the so aptly-named ‘Piece of Me’ – she was photographed by paparazzi strapped to a gurney and held down by a team of paramedics.
The then 26-year-old was put on involuntary psychiatric hold, often referred to as a 5150, in the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Centre. Eight months later, her father James Spears became her conservator, meaning that Britney was not mentally fit to sign any contracts or access her bank account or have any control in her own life. Her father had to approve everything and today she is still under this conservatorship. Even though she is not legally allowed to own a credit card, in those eight years she has released four albums, embarked on two world tours and has held a three-year Las Vegas residency in Planet Hollywood with her show Britney: Piece of Me. In the space of eight years, we’ve seen Britney Spears go from literally being dragged into hospital to slowly but surely getting back on her feet.
In a world where most celebrities have to check into rehab for exhaustion when they simply need a break, mental health doesn’t seem to be taken seriously in the pop world. In their industry they have to look hot, smile 24/7, dance and sing like it’s their last day on earth and, oh yeah, be a good role model. In the wilderness years of Britney Spears, the pop game changed. While she was in and out of rehabilitation and hospital and fighting for the custody of her children, there are four pop stars who used this time to shine. They are Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, and Katy Perry. 2008 was the year that pop started using steroids and became stronger and scarier all at once and it has kept on growing ever since.
Since the release of I Am… Sasha Fierce in 2008, Beyoncé appears to have drank the blood of young virgins and has become, by all means, a pop monster, going on to dominate every area of the game. In that same year, Lady Gaga’s debut album The Fame completely shook up the pop world with ‘Poker Face’, ‘Just Dance’ and ‘Paparazzi’ fast becoming ironclad pop anthems until she revised the whole game and released ‘Bad Romance’ in 2009, one of the greatest pop songs of all time. Rihanna didn’t sleep a wink between 2008 and 2012, releasing albums almost every year and going on an endless world tour, taking a short break only to crash her way back into our lives with Anti earlier this year.
In 2010, Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream became the second album in history to have five number ones from one album (‘California Gurls’, ‘Teenage Dream’, ‘Firework;, ’E.T.’ and ‘Last Friday Night’), after Michael Jackson’s Bad. She kept herself busy touring the world non-stop, marrying and then divorcing Russell Brand and then releasing her Part of Me documentary that showed all of the blood, sweat and tears that goes into putting on a large-scale pop show.
The pop world that they have created is nothing like the one that Britney stepped into in 1998, as they continue to release singles and albums and surprise singles and secret albums at pill-popping speeds. Even though Britney was worked to the bone from an early age and pushed so hard that her personal life spiralled out of control, it seems now that the method for pop success is to work as if you have no personal life at all. The level of work that pop stars churn out makes you question when they have time to focus on themselves, their relationships or, I don’t know, take their dog for a walk.
Even though they are multigazillionaires, as Beyoncé sings on ‘6 Inch’, “She works for the money, she works for the money”, but at what price? What are these pop stars giving up to put in the time for such spectacular tours, choreography and videos? How many hours in the gym? How many restricted meals? Do they even close their eyes when they sleep? I’m not going to even go into Taylor Swift’s regime because… that’s exactly what it is. A regime. The price that these massive pop stars are paying is not one that Britney Spears should ever have to take again because she did that before and it didn’t end so well.
In recent years, we’ve become more educated about mental health and know how to talk about it but when Britney was at her lowest, she was openly made fun of in the media. So, as a result, she isn’t as sparky as she used to be. Shunned by the media for so long, she has to be cautious. You know that meme ‘If Britney can make it though 2007, I can make it through today’? The thing is, she was lucky to make it through 2007 and she’s lucky to be around at all today.
On Sunday night, she performed latest single ‘Make Me’ on the MTV VMA stage, nine years on from ‘Gimme More’. It was a fine effort. Not much pizazz to it, cringeworthy in parts, especially when G-Eazy came out for his verse, and whoever is picking out her wardrobe needs to be sacked immediately. But she was there. She made it. After being so publicly ridiculed after her 2007 turn, she could have packed it all in, never to put trust in MTV again, but she didn’t. To place her – or anyone at all, actually – after Beyoncé’s medley of songs from Lemonade was a cruel move by MTV and it felt like another jibe at Britney because she is an easy target. This is a woman who very openly had a mental breakdown and the entertainment industry doesn’t know how to treat its survivors.
There is no doubt that Britney is not the performer that she once was but in the last couple of years the light is creeping back into her eyes, instead of that dead stare she gave when she was strapped to a gurney or shaved her hair off in the middle of the night. Professionally, she’s doing great. Her Piece of Me show was voted the Best in Vegas in 2015, new album Glory is a success and ‘Do You Wanna Come Over?’ is the best thing she’s released since 2011’s ’Til the World Ends’. In her personal life, she has shared custody of her two boys again and while she does not have control of her finances, she has full control of her Instagram account and we see glimpses into the happy life of a mom who sometimes plays the role of a pop star. And, as a massive Britney fan, that’s actually enough for me.
We cannot compare Britney to other pop stars because the pop stars that have gone through what she has, like Michael Jackson and Amy Winehouse, are no longer alive. She is a rarity and over the course of the last 18 years, she has proved that she has more than staying power, she is indestructible. She has defied the odds that were stacked so highly against her and while it might seem like I am piling on the excuses to defend my favourite pop star, she has earned the right to to play by a different set of rules. The Britney we see today may not stronger than yesterday but she is certainly stronger than 2007* and that’s stronger than some of us will ever be.
*That was the finishing line of my Headstuff Lecture which you will see in video form at some stage this decade. Hi, Alan Bennett.
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