Like most other viewers, I wasn’t so much appalled as much as bored by Britney Spears’ recent MTV Video Music Awards appearance. She’s didn’t trip or stumble but she committed an even worse sin on TV- she wasn’t interesting anymore. Since this was billed as her ‘comeback,’ it was doubly bad for her to get such a horrible reception. I’m not going to tell you that she didn’t stink (it definitely S-U-C-K-E-D badly) but I still have to wonder about all the hate leveled at her.
Spears mostly shares the unwarranted media attention that Paris Hilton gets—it’s way overplayed and not justified by any talent that would make either of them noteworthy. Spears at least had a talent early on for making consumable dance pop and making a mark as a late ‘90s version of Madonna (though a lot less wise to be sure). At a recent SXSW conference, the record company gent who signed her admitted that he did so after seeing a photo of her and realizing that she was exactly the kind of young female that most guys would want to defile. At a broadcast of an early show, Spears displayed herself suggestively for the audience and then sometimes pulled back and feigned some embarrassment- it might have looked stupid and fake but at the same time, she was straddling both the teen audience who identified with her and deified her along with the dirty old man audience who just wanted to jump her bones. As a tween wrestling with the girl/woman identity and what her sexuality should or shouldn’t be, she played the role to a T and was rewarded with huge album sales.
Ideally, she would have enjoyed her 15 minutes of fame and faded away after a year or so. But here’s the funny thing—she wouldn’t go away. At first, this vexed me but as time went on, it amazed and fascinated me. How could she possibly sustain all this interest? Did she have that much talent? I never thought so. Her early hits weren’t that awful but even if Richard Thompson and Fountains of Wayne thought enough to cover her, her songs never registered with me. But the fact that they did register with the likes of great songwriters like Richard Thompson and Fountains of Wayne did mean something—while Thompson admits that he wasn’t a fan, he did admit to liking a song of hers enough to cover it (“Oops, I Did It Again”). Spears herself has never been or ever will be a songwriter (truth be known, neither was Elvis) but at least give her and her management enough credit to pick hummable tunes.
While that definitely helped to carry her on past the usual pop expiration date, so did her image. Nobody in the entertainment world epitomizes the old adage of ‘any press is good press’ like she does. Her love/hate relationship with the paparazzi (or the Pavarotti’s as her ex called them) is a fascinating little dance. For years, she’s tipped them off to where she was going to appear to drum up some interest in what she’s doing even when she wasn’t doing any kind of music per se. This worked well her as you could barely go by a week without seeing her picture not only in tabloids but also other respected publications who deemed anything that she did to be news.
The problem with this was, as she found out, that being constant tabloid fodder doesn’t mean that you always have control over the story. As a celeb, she was of interest to magazines but they weren’t always satisfied with following her around where she wanted them to go. When they caught up with her uninvited, they started to find out all sorts of unsavory details about her life. That kind of thing shifts papers much more than just a mere celeb sighting. Soon we were learning about her driving with her child in her lap without a seatbelt, her child falling on her head and not getting treated for days, her stealing thousands of dollars of dresses at a photo shot while letting her dog poop on other valuable dresses, shaving her own head bald, checking into rehab, flashing her open crotch for the cameras, and so on. As her ex Kevin Federline takes her to court for custody of her children (he already splits custody with her), beyond the subpoenas of her former assistants and managers, he can also drop a bundle of headlines on the judge’s desk to help prove what an unfit mother she is (though you have to wonder how culpable he was in the earlier incidents).
The end result was that her name was kept fresh in the press but not necessarily in the way that she wanted. You might say that her tearful interview with Matt Lauer wasn’t entirely fake- to some extent, she probably really was stung by how the coverage of her life went beyond her control and worked again her to a certain extent. That ain’t fun but that’s part of the price of fame. The problem was that instead of pulling back on her crazed lifestyle, she ramped it up and the press ate it up, feeding off of her. She’d become a bad joke.
So after putting off a new album for so many years that she might as well call it Chinese Democracy, she finally decided that she wanted to be a pop star again. But after she abruptly canceled her last tour complaining of leg injuries (but was then seen hopping around days later) and as she recently went on a recent small scale mini-tour and got less than stellar reviews, the pressure was on her to make a splash again, or else flop and add to her long list of public embarrassments (i.e. her movie flop and her reality show flop). Add to that her blowing off no less than super producer Timbaland and getting kicked off a Cyndi Lauper tour ‘cause she (Spears) wouldn’t agree to sing live and it was all the hard for her to mount a real comeback.
Her recent single “Gimme More” so far had only generated print interest from Blender but as a last-minute addition to VMA’s and as their opening act, she finally had want she’d been seeking for years: she was getting the spotlight back her way and in a big way. Before the ceremony, all the buzz wasn’t about the parties going on there but if there were any Britney sightings. Now, she could finally dispel years and years of the bad press and insane antics by reasserting herself as a pop queen and diva all in a few minutes and then, not only extend her career for years to come but also have the last laugh with all of her detractors.
And then she blew it. Like Ashlee Simpson who also had an embarrassing lip-synching incident, blame flew around everywhere else. It was the event’s fault for canceling a large-scale magic routine that was supposed to be part of the act. It was Sarah Silverman’s fault for practicing Britney jokes backstage in ear shot of the victim. It was because it was such a big event that was so important to her career that she choked. I was waiting to hear that the cause was that she was worried about what General Petraeus was going to say in his congressional testimony about Iraq.
Of course, a more likely reason is that, as my girlfriend’s pointed out, she’s content with being a media star now but doesn’t have as much interest in her music any more. That’s why I don’t buy the argument that she was frightened—it’s not like she’s never performed in public before and she had to know how important this was so that she’d rehearse enough. She looked bored out of her mind on the VMA’s though, not even bothering to move her mouth correctly to lip-synch the words or move around much to dance. As opposed to all of her other recent public meltdowns, she admitted that this time she was actually embarrassed by what she did. But again, that doesn’t stem from doing something extremely stupid but from committing the cardinal celebrity sin of just not being interesting.
Part of the reason that audiences were so harsh is that they looked at her and thought “why the hell do I care about her?” Suddenly, it seemed that the years of press coverage were indeed overblown and a waste of everyone’s time. They pounced not only on her blasé attitude but also her weight problem—how are you gonna still be a hot young diva with a belly lump? Since she had been away from years, when people finally got a chance to see her shake her stuff again, it was a huge disappointment. No doubt, her label is fretting even more now, knowing that her odds of making a comeback with her album are pretty nil now (not that they were great even before this incident). While I watched it, I wasn’t so much struck by her laziness as much as the way the whole routine seemed like warmed-over Madonna stuff- I’d seen Madge perform on her last tour and even the slow parts of her show had more depth, feeling and excitement than Spears’ tired routine (and remember that Madge ain’t that young either now).
But I also wondered about not just the level of hate heaped on Spears but the amount of it. Why were people so vicious about this? Again, I think part of this is because the veil’s been lifted and people realize that maybe she wasn’t actually worth all the interest that they invested in her for years. There are a lot of people who also thought that she was ridiculously over-rated (or more accurately, over-exposed) and now finally had the chance say “See, I told you so!” They wanted her to fail so badly and they got their wish and now they’re going to crow about it. Loudly.
Also, let’s face it, pop culture loves to see celebs fail and make embarrassments out of themselves- you can’t deny that even if you’ve never watched Punk’d (which I haven’t), you’ve enjoyed celeb hi jinx on YouTube (I definitely have). It’s fun to laugh at not just ‘cause it brings these media stars down to our level but as an interesting new book points out, our society has a fascination with all types of disasters. As the epitome of the dumb blond, she provides us constant entertainment as an ongoing train wreck.
Nevertheless, note that even news of Spears’ flop overshadowed everything else on the show (i.e. Justin Timberlake’s multiple awards and his call for MTV to play more videos (his own specifically)). So again, she got the publicity she wanted but just as it’s been the case for a while with her, it’s not the kind of publicity she wanted. As my former boss noted, she’s starting to resemble Elvis in his declining years.
Nevertheless, her name does stay in the news and there will be anticipation for her new album (which reminds me, who said the album’s dead if we pay so much attention to things like this?). Of course, the real measure of her comeback won’t be on how good the record actually is (does it ever in pop culture?) but what the sales are like. Just like Petraeus’ assessment of another disaster, expectations for this are already being damped down, noting that in today’s market, it’s impossible for her to register sales any where near to what she had in her heyday. Most likely, you’ll see the usual trend for hyped up releases- depending on the competition for that particular release date (and assuming that the label or Spears doesn’t push it back again after the VMA debacle to give her time to recover), she may hit the top of the charts for a week and then tumble quickly down.
After that, it’s up in the air about what the future offers for Spears. She could try another tour but after VMA, she’d have to scale back on the venue sizes ‘cause now more than ever, any fans new or old would be much less inclined to see her feign some excitement onstage. She could go back to the reality TV route even if she’s failed there, hoping that a second time is a charm. Speculation otherwise is that if or when her album also flops, porn might be her most likely option. That says a lot not only the audience polled but about Spears herself and her appeal, or lack thereof.