Never in the history of pop music has anyone achieved so much with so little talent as Britney Spears.
That’s a big claim, isn’t it? Five of her six studio albums have climbed to No. 1 (the other peaked at No. 2). Seven of her singles have landed in the Top 10. She’s sold 32 million albums in the United States alone. Those are amazing accomplishments for someone who can’t sing without the help of gadgetry. (I attended a rehearsal for the 2000 Grammys, and the show’s audio engineer declared her live singing “unusable.”)
She’s not much of a songwriter, either. When she writes, it’s always in collaboration with a team of professional tunesmiths. And she doesn’t play an instrument - at least not onstage.
She can’t act. Did you see “Crossroads”?
As a Mickey Mouse Club-trained dancer, she can execute the simple moves of a choreographer, but no one is going to mistake her for Janet Jackson, Paula Abdul or even one of the Pussycat Dolls.
So what’s Britney Spears’ biggest talent? Being a celebrity.
Her career - or more accurately her 11 years in the spotlight - has been, as Rolling Stone put it last year, about “the crucible of fame: loving it, hating it and never being able to stop it from destroying you.”
As with Marilyn Monroe and Anna Nicole Smith, America fell for this bleached blonde sweetheart from a small town who has tried to triumph over her white-trash background. We loved that suggestive schoolgirl cooing “Hit me, baby, one more time,” that come-hither vixen charming a snake with “I’m a Slave 4 U” and that midriff-bearing coquette on the cover of countless magazines.
But over the years, Spears’ career has crashed more often than the stock market. Drugs, bad boyfriends, trailer-trash marriages on a McMansion budget, poor parenting skills, escapes from rehab, custody battles for her two sons, managers quitting, clashes with paparazzi.
In a 2008 cover story titled “Inside an American Tragedy,” Rolling Stone said: “She is an in-bred swamp thing who chain smokes, doesn’t do her nails, tells reporters to eat it, snort it, lick it and bleep it, and screams at people who want pictures for their little sisters.”
All that bad baggage makes the fact that she lip-syncs for entire concerts seem as insignificant as a parking ticket for Bernie Madoff.
But, somehow, Spears bounces back as often as Cher does a farewell tour - and seemingly against all odds at times. After her embarrassingly druggy performance at the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards, an Entertainment Weekly cover story screamed: “Oh, the Horror! Is Britney’s Comeback Already Over?”
Heck, no. “Gimme More,” the tune she’d performed that night, danced to No. 3 on the pop parade and No. 1 on the dance charts.
Then late last year, after countless court hearings and the controversial appointment of her dad as her legal conservator, she delivered a CD called “Circus,” a fitting metaphor for her dizzying/dazzling life without a net. After the album debuted at No. 1 (selling 505,000 copies in its first week), the title track and “Womanizer” became bona fide smashes.
Now Spears is traveling with her concert version of “Circus.”
Reviews from the tour suggest the star is more magician than ringmaster, frequently disappearing from the stage to change costumes and leaving her supporting cast to entertain the crowd. Are people really paying as much as $750 (for ringside VIP seats) to watch a fashion show, or to be in the presence of a pop princess trying to reclaim her crown?
It begs comparison to Cher and Madonna, two divas who do get away with a parade of costumes in concert. While one can question their vocal abilities, both have parlayed limited talent into long and successful careers. They regularly reinvent themselves, create new images and fashion new sounds. And even though they’ve made some dubious decisions in their lives (hello, Bagel Boy and “Sex” book), they, unlike Britney, don’t make humiliating spectacles of themselves in public.
Despite so many deflating bad choices, Britney, 27, just won’t go away. America seems forever fascinated with her up-from-the-boondocks triumph turned Hollywood tragedy. Maybe we’re obsessed because we’re a nation of rubber-neckers, waiting for the next wreck.
Maybe we just love a real- life soap opera. We can’t wait for the next bizarre development or the newest jaw-dropping photograph. So we Google her more than any celeb, and she gets more hits on Perez Hilton’s gossip site than any other star.
Or maybe there’s something deeper at work - a belief in the possibility of redemption. Maybe we’re secretly praying there’s another miracle in the troubled star who once made “Oops, I did it again” sound more like a promise than a punch line.