Contributed by musli:
“Blonde, beautiful, great body. Sweet natured, ditzy, maybe not too clever. Pretends not to use sex to sell her records. Fair singer, no Whitney or Mariah.” Neat, concise description. But I’ve just described Jessica Simpson, not Britney Spears. The very last thing you want as a megastar celebrity is that the media and public can put you in a box that actually fits you. If that happens, you won’t be controversial – you won’t even be interesting. And fortunately it has never happened to Britney.
Nobody has yet managed to nail her down. Is she really beautiful? Has she really got a great body? Is she one of the most memorable and distinctive pop voices of the last ten years or one of the worst? Can she act or are her Oscar dreams a hopeless fantasy? Incredible though it may seem, even after six years of maximum visibility most of the fundamental questions about her remain unresolved.
If the weight of evidence could ever cause the scales of judgment to thump down decisively one way or the other, the resultant demystification could end her reign as Princess of Pop. But this long-anticipated event has never happened. The little girl from small-town Louisiana continues to keep us fascinated, intrigued, maybe even enthralled. So much so that even after 6 years of media scrutiny, speculation and hypothesis she’s still number one searched-for celebrity on Google.
Each time she emerges into public view, there’s a media frenzy. That wouldn’t happen if she always looked nice and dressed nice. But every picture of Britney Spears is worth money because it comes with its own storyline attached. Trashy Britney. Crazy Britney. Pregnant Britney. Fat Britney. Badly-dressed Britney. Bra-less Britney. Or, if the photo agencies capture her at an awards night, a swimming pool or on the beach, it’s sexy Britney, curvy Britney, stunning Britney.
Everything about her is conflict and controversy, and whether consciously or unconsciously (and there’s another question!) she seems to feed it. Perhaps we need to remind ourselves of something she once said: “I don’t want everybody to love me. That’s boring. I don’t want everyone to hate me either. I like the in-between thing. That makes it interesting!”
She agrees that part of her job is to generate publicity. Yes, she very much appreciates it that people buy her CDs and DVDs and come to her shows, and she genuinely loves her audiences. She knows being famous comes with the territory – “Don’t pity me!” as she has said. But one of the biggest conflicts in her life is the one that comes from being a celebrity. She has never enjoyed it, and actually seems to think celebrity worship is wrong.
“If I’m a good performer, if you want a night of fun and entertainment, come to my show”, she seems to be saying. “I’ll play the part of an energetic, sexy young blonde showgirl and I’ll dance for you, but off stage that’s not who I really am. Why get so excited about a regular-looking girl who’s shy and kinda dorky and just wants to lead a normal life?” She can’t understand why anyone would think the real Britney is even worth photographing. Throughout 2004, her hyper-casual appearance in front of the world’s cameras was her way of saying “Look, I’m ordinary. VERY ordinary!! Why bother with me?” Unfortunately, the tactic didn’t work and she’s still paparazzi Target No.1.
Showbiz writer J. Randy Taraborrelli wrote in July 2004 “I have watched Britney for many years now and all the signs are that she is increasingly unable to reconcile her talent, her fame and the demands of her career with her one true goal: to enjoy a traditional life.” And this tension is the biggest issue in her life right now. On the one hand, her lifelong drive and ambition to perform in front of big crowds, make records and be a star. On the other, her wish that between performances she could simply disappear. Every now and again, it all becomes too much for her.
And so we get those breaks. Not just breaks between promotions and tours like most artists have. Britney’s breaks are frequent bouts of total revulsion at the whole business of being a star. At such times, her dissociation from the part she plays becomes so complete that she actually begins to hate her public alter ego. “The point of taking a break is to be out of the public eye and not to see my face on TV because I am sick of myself”, she once explained.
The UK’s Robbie Williams is another big star who finds it hard to cope with fame and celebrity, and who also falls victim to periods of self-loathing. Robbie’s coping mechanism is to behave like a grotesque, overblown caricature of his own image as he perceives it, and invite all comers to laugh at him just as he laughs at himself. Although Britney has made fun of herself on TV, and sent up her own image mercilessly on Saturday Night Live, her more natural reaction is to withdraw. “I’m in denial that I am ‘Britney Spears'”, as she put it.
It’s ironic indeed that three of the most criticized pop stars of recent times – Robbie Williams, Victoria Beckham and Britney Spears – are so far from being the monsters their bad press would have you believe. All three are sensitive, self-aware individuals who know their own faults and weaknesses very well and don’t need snide showbiz columnists to point them out. In the video for Victoria Beckham’s single “Let your head go” she skitted herself as a crazy diva having the hissiest of fits, but the tabloids chose to ignore the irony.
It’s almost as if the celebrity press, so accommodating to media whores famous only for being famous, have a devil put aside for anyone who declines to play the fame game or to take it seriously. Britney may have thought her efforts to transform herself from slick corporate entity into independent young woman prepared to grow up and take responsibility for her own life and career would have earned her some respect, but not a bit of it. If she’s not in the game she must be some kind of wacko eccentric trying to sabotage the entire starship enterprise.
Britney tries to play it cool. She denies that those dramatic breaks are symptoms of anything deeper. Her 2002 break, she said, was just time off to recover from a heavy work schedule. “I’ve needed this break from music to rejuvenate spiritually, and just to play! But everyone’s writing that I’m having a meltdown. I just don’t get it. I needed some downtime to myself or I’d have gone crazy.” Similarly, her 2004 injury was God’s way of telling her to slow down because she’d been working non-stop for too long.
Shania Twain supports the view that her young friend is a survivor and her breaks aren’t breakdowns but therapy. “I know Britney’s going to do really well,” she predicted. “She’s not going to go haywire and be all eccentric, she’s going to get back into things and get on with doing what she does best. She’s growing up and she’s going to come back stronger than ever. She’s a special girl.”
Some of Britney’s friends have said she is a lot tougher than people think. And her mother says the torrents of press abuse seem to run off her daughter like water off a duck. Adds Britney, “The media and people are going to say what they want to say – no matter what you say. It’s just sad you have to deal with it in this business. You hear things and you laugh about them, but then things get blown way out of proportion. I’ve just learned it’s a part of the business, I have to roll with the punches.”
All well and good, but it’s notable that for one who so dislikes the cult of celebrity, she’s often seen reading celeb mags herself. Okay, we know she has an endearingly humble and generous appreciation of other stars. But it would be foolish of us to believe that she isn’t anxious and worried about the things she reads about herself. Her instant reaction to the “whiskey drinking in the street” story and the leak of her private honeymoon pictures shows she isn’t fireproof. She bruises easily. She hurts and she cares.
In an ideal world, she knows how to handle things. As she told OK magazine in April 2004, “This is not my life, this is my career. My family is my life. My friends are my life. One day – I hope – a man will be my life. All the pressure you feel is the pressure you allow yourself to feel. You do this and do that, you want to be the way people want you to be. And that’s when your life can become dangerous. I think that some people handle their careers so wisely. They understand the need to separate your career and your life”.
Yet, as her history has shown us, the inner conflict is not so easily resolved. When she’s on tour, away from friends and family, she pines for the simple values of home. When she stops working, she talks as if she’s in Heaven and never wants to work again. But that inner pull is still working away. If there’s one thing that has characterized her entire life, it’s her remorseless drive and energy. The girl is a workaholic. That’s why in 6 short years her output has been enormous compared to her contemporaries, but it’s also why the chill-out spaces that naturally occur in the lives of most stars have not, until recently, occurred in hers.
We knew she was in the studios recording In The Zone within weeks of starting one well-publicized break. What we didn’t reckon on was that, when she began her next big break after her knee injury in 2004, exactly the same thing would happen. All the signs, and all the things she said, suggested that she was done with performing for the foreseeable future. When she said in her Letter of Truth, “the next time you see my face, hear one of my songs or even if I’m the topic of your next conversation” it sounded like Britney Spears was about to become a name in history and that this was Goodbye.
Yet within a few weeks many Britney forums were reporting rumors that she had already begun recording a fifth studio album and had eight tracks already in the can! This all seemed so unlikely that the story was swiftly dismissed by her fans, yet as we should know by now, in Britneyland the unlikeliest stories often turn out to be true, and at the start of 2005 she herself confirmed that she had been beavering away on the “Original Doll” project.
On hearing that news, many fans, knowing Britney’s hyperactive tendencies, will have given a knowing nod, but things ARE different this time. The signs of a Britney resurgence seem to have been a false dawn, and since then the Princess of Pop has gone under deeper cover than ever.
She really does seem to want an end to all the craziness and hype and unreality in her life. Perhaps marriage has robbed her of all ambition, but it does seem as if her preferred coping strategy has been derailed. Far from managing to separate the two worlds of Britney, her life and her career, as she previously hoped, she is now bringing them into a very much closer convergence, but in a strange way. She wants work and play to feel the same – no pressure, no stress. If she sees stress in an upcoming situation, she simply bails out.
She wants to manage her career herself, so no one will push her to do anything. And she wants to manage it on a level where she will sell some CDs, do some shows, merchandise some products and bring in some money….but all at a level far below the one she operated on in the past. She still wants to be a performer, because that’s what she loves doing, but she doesn’t want to be a megastar or a glitzy celebrity. What she fancies now is to be scarce, reclusive, mysterious, and elusive – like an old-style Hollywood icon.
But is it a delusion? Can you carry on a showbiz career in steady state? A wise old businessman once told me that in any business if you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backwards. Even if you don’t notice it at the time. Show business is the same – you’re either rising or you’re falling. But if Britney is deliberately engineering her own fall, can she stop it before she slips right off the map? When the last of the paparazzi says “Screw this for a game of soldiers – I’m off to stalk Lindsay Lohan!” Britney may be happy but it will be a very bad sign.