When Britney Spears flew into London just a few weeks ago, she could not have had an inkling of the storm that was about to break over her head. One minute she was the eagerly-anticipated pop princess with the brilliant number one hit record – the next the tabloids were calling her a miming cheat who showed no respect for her fans.
Yet not everyone was unhappy. Most of the fans who attended her shows in London, Manchester, Glasgow, Birmingham, Belfast and Dublin seemed to have got exactly what they expected and hoped for.
Spears, surprisingly modest about her singing abilities, has always taken a pride in her ability to entertain, to -put on a great show-. As one of the hardest workers in showbiz, she is said to have found the media reaction both extremely hurtful and confusing. But how could she ever imagine that she could mime whole shows yet not be doing anything wrong?
To understand this, it is necessary to look at her background as a forceful and determined child who knew she wanted to be famous but didn’t really care what for. In the tradition of child “wannabes” she would do whatever was required – sing, dance, act, play the piano. for a time she was even able to turn her hand to gymnastics at competitive standard.
In her own mind, she has always been more showgirl than vocalist. Even though she has been praised by many for her “unique vocal signature”, she regards her voice as a barely adequate tool of her trade, and, as a singer, sees herself as very much in the shadow of her rivals. Her records make millions for “Britney Incorporated” but she herself sees them as little more than promotion for the rest of her “package”.
At the same time, she has always had an instinctive ability to judge exactly what her fans wanted and needed from her. For the kiddie fans of her earlier years, a spectacular song-and-dance act was the vehicle for a grown-up Mouseketeer on to which they could project their own aspirations and desires to be “like Britney”.
To the huge fan base she possesses now, she is an almost supernatural presence, a woman of dazzling sexuality and desirability. But still essentially more showgirl than singer. And, if you have a beautiful showgirl on stage in front of you, what do you want her to do? You want her to dance. The music she’s dancing to is of secondary importance.
But the disappointment of a minority of fans – and all the press – is worrying for the Spears camp. Especially so, since its origins lie in her tireless efforts to leave her juvenile pop songs and kiddie audience behind. The phrase “be careful of what you wish for” could rarely be better applied, for as a result of her hits ‘Toxic’ and ‘Everytime’, and the vibey grooves and innovative sounds of her current album ‘In The Zone’, her music has suddenly become credible. But with this growing credibility come the expectations of an increasingly adult audience who had begun to think of her as a grown-up singer. Then came the miming disaster.
Where does she go from here? When her next album comes out she will probably be 24 years old, and even her hardcore fans will be past the stage of accepting a song-and-dance act from a pretty showgirl. And how much longer can she risk that vulnerable knee? If her music continues to develop, and people keep buying it in huge quantities, she will have made the transition from showgirl to singer despite herself, and perhaps before she is ready for it. And her stage show will have to make the same transition.
However, the reflex reaction of her management to cancel the summer phase of the Onyx Hotel tour because she would be unable to dance suggests that they are not yet ready to confront the key question: Would enough of her fans be ready for her to throw a few Kylie-style poses, a few Pink-style gyrations maybe, but basically just stand and sing live? Can she rest her knee from now on and rely instead on her increasingly flexible and varied vocal stylings?
Her career seems to have reached a natural pause now, and this is something she has to find out before it can move on.