In Defense of Britney

Britney Spears

“It Gets Worse”

As I begin this piece, the above is the headline at the top of widely browsed tabloid blog Below those three words are subject tags that include “Baby Blabber”, “Celebrity Feuds”, and “Kevin Federline”, a snapshot in which Britney Spears appears to be shivering while donning oversized designer sunglasses inside a car at night (with the word “mess“ scribbled across it in white Photoshop ink), and the latest details in her child custody battle with ex Federline.

This isn’t anything new, of course. On any given day, there’s as good a chance of some unflattering Britney-related snippet gracing the top spot on PerezHilton (or your celeb trash site of choice) as there is of rolling an even number with a pair of dice. “Ubiquity” is an understatement. Britney’s troubled personal life is paparazzi photographers’ and tabloid bloggers’ bread-and-butter. Because, at the end of the day, who really cares about Hayden Panettiere or Vanessa Hudgens?

The reason for this is obvious. As recently as four years ago, Britney was teflon pop royalty. Sure, she still screwed up sometimes and was momentarily scrutinized for it, but everybody was, seemingly, too busy shaking their asses to “Toxic” to bother raking her over the coals. Since then, nothing’s gone right for poor Brit. Right, you know all the reference points by heart, don’t you? K-Fed, the reality show, the messy divorce (how many divorces aren’t “messy”, especially when a multi-millionaire is involved?), the weight-gain, the head-shaving, the booze, the drugs, the VMA’s performance, the messier custody battle. The view from the cheap seats sure ain’t pretty.

Now, nearing the end of what we can only assume has been the worst year of Britney’s young life, she’s confounded our expectations one more time by releasing the strongest — and strangest — long-player of her career to date. And what are we to make of it? At this point, Britney the Public Figure is only tangentially connected to pop music, much the same way would-be recording stars and fellow tabloid queens Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton are. I’m sure Andy Warhol would have something to say about this paradigm shift if he were still around today, but instead I’ll turn to David Chase.

On the Sopranos audience’s eager anticipation of Tony Soprano’s death in the much-dissected series finale, the HBO auteur recently commented, “The pathetic thing — to me — was how much they wanted his blood, after cheering him on for eight years.” The same sense of disgust can easily be applied to our cultural fascination with Britney’s hard times. Even Hilton (Perez, not Paris) himself has confessed to having once been a big Britney fan, and yet now, he’s leading the charge in calling for her head, delighting in her decline — and no doubt making loads of money in the process. It’s more than perverse. It’s downright morbid, and arguably symptomatic of a broader, more disturbing trend in entertainment journalism.

With the possible exceptions of Michael Jackson and O.J. Simpson (who have both been legally accused of doing things far worse than binge-drinking or smoking cigarettes around children), no current male celebrity has had to endure anywhere near the level of press and public nastiness that Britney’s had to put up with this past year-plus. When Owen Wilson attempted suicide earlier this year, reportedly under the influence of drugs, legions of concerned well-wishers sprung up across the media and Internet. Most shied away from the uglier details of the incident, allowing Wilson time to “heal” in relative privacy. Can you even imagine Britney receiving such polite, courteous treatment?

For those of us who came of age in the ‘90s with some degree of investment in the music of the day, this should feel pretty familiar. While alive, Kurt Cobain received virtually nothing but concerned sympathy throughout his battles with drug addiction. After killing himself, he’s gotten the full-on suffering saint, John Lennon treatment. Meanwhile, his widow (whose records were just as good as his) has elicited consistent scorn and condescension from the day she first hooked up with Cobain through to the present. Yoko Ono never had it so rough. But I’m sure Britney could empathize.

To a certain extent in Britney‘s case, there’s an overlap with that old cliché about guys slugging out their problems while women get really vicious and call each other “fat”. So, up to a point, I, as a male (who, for the record, hasn’t slugged anything out since junior high), have to step aside and bite my tongue. When it’s men (like Perez Hilton and his peers) tossing the barbs, however, it’s time to step in with a defense that’s a touch more sober than Chris Crocker’s hysterical YouTube rant. This goes doubly when the people standing in line to praise Britney’s ex (not K-Fed — the other one) aren’t just preteen girls anymore.

Toss a rock out your apartment window and you’re bound to hit a Justin Timberlake fan. They come in all shapes, sizes, ages, and, yes, genders. Many of them write for prominent music publications. Timberlake might well be the first solo artist (a designation that foolishly underestimates Timbaland’s production prowess) since Prince unleashed Sign ’O’ the Times to make a serious bid for One-Man Only Band Matters (across-the-board critical acclaim + commercial viability) status. I think my dad might be the only person I know who doesn’t own either Justified or Futuresex/Love Sounds, but more importantly, there’s no shame attached to trumpeting Timberlake’s musical merits, at this point. He’s completely transcended guilty pleasure territory, which is pretty darn impressive for an artist formerly referred to by people over the age of 15 as “that curly-haired guy from N’ Sync”.

Meanwhile, there’s nothing but guilt surrounding Britney — guilt for secretly enjoying advance single “Gimme More”, guilt for tuning in to see what sort of trouble she’s gotten herself into today, guilt for not having her back through any of this, guilt for not having the balls to use the word “misogyny“. Look, I don’t know if the “real” Britney is the sweet, naïve Louisiana girl or the bitchy, bi-coastal club fixture hissing orders at her assistants, and I only really care insofar as her music is concerned. I’m not going to emotionally beg you to “leave Britney alone” because that’s both unrealistic and oblivious to the fact that she remains, for better or worse, an entertainer, a job that comes with lots of perks and some drawbacks. I do, however, think she deserves better.

The strategy used to go: provocateur on-record, ostensible virgin/innocent off-record. “…Baby One More Time”, “Not a Girl, Not Yet Woman”, “I’m a Slave 4 U”, etc. It’s a marketing scheme that worked all too well, yet looking back at it through the lens of Britney’s current state of affairs, it seems cruelly ironic. Now, it goes: sane performer on- record, human trainwreck off-record. The meanest thing I’ll permit myself to say in this piece is that, judging from the content of the new record (both the material she wrote and the material that she chose to sing), Britney still thinks she’s sexy (good for her), but I’m not sure who else would still second that sentiment.

Even with Botox and other less-than-seamless cosmetic alternatives to aging gracefully, Britney’s always had a built-in shelf-life, short of miraculous, Madonna-esque image reinvention. From “Gimme More“’s already-notorious declaration that “it‘s Britney, bitch!” (e.g., “I‘m still here!”) to probable follow-up single “Piece of Me“’s acidic self-examination (“I’m Miss Bad Media Karma / another day, another drama”), Blackout is the sound of Britney realizing that maybe she wasn’t in on the joke all these years, after all, and consequently raging against the machine.

And maybe the machine wins. Positive reviews for the album have generally praised the first-class dance beats courtesy of big-name producers, while the pans call it “overproduced”. This is proof of two crucial truths: first, that even when Britney’s name is attached to something good, the critical impulse is to award anyone credit but her, and secondly, that we aren’t yet ready to grapple with the slippery signifiers that come with Britney the Musical Artist again.. It’s “too soon”, as the line goes.

Evaluated within a vacuum, Blackout rivals Rihanna’s superb Good Girl Gone Bad as the pop record of the year. There isn’t any obvious filler here, and tracks like “Radar”, “Toy Soldier”, “Ooh, Ooh Baby”, and “Piece of Me” are among Britney’s (and 2000’s pop’s) finest moments. But we don’t listen to music in a vacuum, so, naturally, we don’t offer our appraisals from within one either. Blackout means more, for the implicit arc of our vicarious pop cultural lives and for the career (or hopes to retain one) of a once-iconic artist, than Good Girl Gone Bad could ever mean. “Umbrella” and the album’s subsequent hits simply solidified Rihanna’s A-list status. Blackout is do-or-die. If this album fails, will Britney ever recover?

Take me, for example. A couple months ago, I opined that “Gimme More” was “terrific”, praised Nate “Danja” Hill’s production, yet concluded that the “forgettable, underwhelming chorus” nevertheless prevents it from being “classic Britney”. I’m not necessarily switching my verdict, but after hearing the rest of its source album, I will concede that my assessment of the track probably has more to say about my own set of ears and expectations than it does about Britney or “Gimme More”. I’m also happy to add that, for the first time in Britney’s discography, the lead-off single isn’t one of the five best tracks on the album.

The first person I thought of when listening to the new album was Robyn (a comparison came to mind before discovering that Sweden’s finest hit-maker actually appears on Blackout as a backing vocalist). This is a very good thing for a couple of reasons. One is that Robyn is the best pop artist in the world right now, J.T. notwithstanding; her self-titled 2005 album is one of the freshest, deepest releases of the young millennium. Any artist smart enough to follow her inventive lead deserves credit.

The other — and this one’s pretty remarkable — is that I was listening to the new Britney Spears record and, somehow, thinking of something other than Britney Spears and all the baggage that comes with her. This is an album that, for the most part, sounds nothing like anything she’s made before and very little like what we expect a Britney Spears album to sound like. She goes places that are considerably darker and weirder than anyplace she’s ventured before, following, and joining forces with, Robyn in forging a new sound (“a new sound” — what an idea in 2007!) that’s icy and edgy and splendidly idiosyncratic.

The idea of “classic Britney” isn’t just a qualitative designation, you see. It’s a more-or-less precise formula that, when best deployed, milks a certain calculated persona for all its sublime pleasures and paradoxes. It’s something that Britney herself doesn’t seem particularly interested in anymore. When I refer to Blackout‘s sound as “edgy”, I don’t just mean that Britney’s saying things that she’s not supposed to say (“fill me up, fill me up, fill me up”, for starters); her last album, 2003’s In the Zone, included an unambiguous ode to masturbation. Rather, she sounds legitimately pissed off here, even bitter in parts, with something to prove and more to lose. While we refresh our browsers to laugh to ourselves about the latest trouble she’s gotten herself into, Britney Spears is palpably bored with the idea of Britney Spears [tm].

That’s not to say that she’s bored with fame or with trendy night clubs or with surrounding herself with bad influences. Or that she’s going to go the John Frusciante route and give up all her vices to focus exclusively on her art. She’s simply figured out that, while her first and last name are always going to mean something, they’re not the same cultural currency that they once were. “Britney Spears” doesn’t mean “…Baby One More Time” anymore. It means P.R. disaster. If growing up means partying less and being a model life partner and parent, then Britney‘s clearly got a ways to go. But if it means acquiring a sense of your own unique niche in the grand scheme of things, then Blackout is Britney’s stab at something like maturity.

It’s her escape hatch. Where it leads is anyone’s guess, and only time, not just early sales figures, will tell whether it constitutes a bona-fide comeback or just a startling change of pace and an exceptionally good pop record. But it can only “get worse” for so long, right? Eventually, it has to get better. Blackout is a step in the right direction. Perhaps, Britney will follow suit with a new image and lifestyle to match her new sound. I, for one, am pulling for her.