The Year Of The Three Britneys – And How All Were Transformed

Contributed by musli:

Larry Getlen concluded his book “Britney: not that innocent”, with these words:

“…with 2003 halfway over, here’s where the career of stands. The press finds her an irrelevant party girl who has lost her appeal. Teenage girls have said en masse that they not only don’t care about Britney, but they feel it necessary to write and sign petitions against her. Her image as a good girl and role model is shot to hell. The power she wields in Hollywood is down to almost nothing. And it is all but scrawled in the sky that after three albums and tours and millions of CDs sold, the only thing about her that anyone cares a lick about is her tits.”

Even as his book hit the shelves in November 2003, Getlen must have been suffering the first of many squirms of embarrassment, with a lot more in store. Such is the whirlwind of change and contradiction in the life of pop’s most puzzling princess that just one year later, Britney had turned his summation into the purest nonsense.

But he was by no means alone in his premature readiness to write her off. Although interviews and features in magazines such as W, GQ, Elle, and Q gave the strong impression that Britney, far from being over, was a dormant volcano of creativity getting ready to explode, media pundits were still churning out pieces deconstructing her “failing” career and concluding that the ongoing project of broadening her appeal to an older age group was doomed to fail.

In the UK and most of Europe, the inconvenient fact that Britney had just racked up her fourth US No.1 album in a row went almost unnoticed. On Channel 4’s T4, for example, a couple of entertainment “experts” sagely agreed that her career in music was over, and it was left to Vernon Kay to protest that she was a talented young lady who had merely suffered some setbacks in her private life.

And even though her career had been turned around completely by the launch of “In The Zone”, the stunning success of “Toxic” and first-class ticket sales for her Onyx Hotel tour, we still saw Channel 5’s “101 shocking moments in entertainment”, made in early 2004, pronouncing that “Britney Spears may not do very well at selling records, but she does sell a lot of tabloids”.

What these confused perceptions showed was that, from the end of 2003 onwards, the Britney situation was becoming too complex for the media to grasp, because there were now THREE Britneys to contend with: the woman, the musician and the celebrity, and all were going in somewhat different directions and at different speeds.

Britney the woman is an extraordinarily complex creature. Those who think they have pinned down her personality and motivations once and for all tend to be left looking foolish and superficial. As remarked in his article “The Pop Tart in Winter”, she peels away layer after layer but never really shows us anything. Far from revealing the “real Britney” at last, the events of 2003-4 demonstrated that we never really knew her at all.

As those remarkable twelve months began, Britney was unhappy, and had known only fleeting happiness for a very long time. Getlen’s book records that, just ONE YEAR into her career, she was telling friends that her work was a prison, that she never had any downtime and that the people around her were using her youth and inexperience to push her around.

What little has been made public about Britney’s relationship with Larry Rudolph tells us that Rudolph – perhaps sensing her need of a commanding father-figure – never stopped treating her like a child whose place was to be told what to do and to obey. Getlen tells a story of how shocked Britney’s friends were when she actually had the nerve to talk back to him one day! His domineering attitude set the tone for others in her entourage to follow.

The joy of success soon turned into a millstone round her neck, as her hyperactive and remarkably effective management team and record label signed her up for an endless succession of “meet-and-greets”, interviews, personal appearances, TV shows, awards ceremonies, promotional mini-tours and photo shoots. Those around her saw stress and the risk of breakdown as early as 1999-2000.

Britney’s friends have said that, from a very early age, she has always imagined her life as a fairytale, full of dreams coming true, handsome princes, love at first sight, a beautiful wedding, a big family with all its noise and fun, and happiness ever after.

It’s not surprising that such an incurable romantic would be unable to take the break-up with Justin Timberlake in her stride and move on easy. What is surprising is that those around her failed to look beneath her defensive bravado to understand just how much help and support she needed to climb out of her depression, and how difficult it would prove to be for her to regain her self-confidence.

Then, even while the anguish over the split with Justin was eating her up, and driving her to the edge of despair, came her parents’ divorce. Getlen records that she “exploded into sadness”, sobbing her heart out for days. “This is all but destroying Britney”, said one friend. So badly was she affected that she wanted to cancel her upcoming “Dream Within A Dream” tour. But, as was becoming usual, she was pushed onstage and told to get on with it.

The desire for a life as well as a career, for someone to love who would love her back, for some little glimmer of hope that her dreams could somehow emerge from the devastation of her private life – these were gradually becoming her foremost preoccupations. Career success? Been there, done that. Couldn’t handle it. Yet still the Britney Incorporated juggernaut rolled on.

The private Britney and the celebrity Britney were now on a collision course. Finally, during her primetime interview with Diane Sawyer, this highly professional star who had wrapped interviewers round her little finger for years was reduced to tears.

Her notorious 55-hour marriage to Jason Alexander was not meant to be a joke at the time. This was Britney, at her very lowest ebb, giving way to her by now overwhelming need to find someone to love and to marry him. The enforced annulment (starring Rudolph as the angry father) left her feeling lost, humiliated, inadequate, weak, broken in mind and exhausted in body. The last thing she wanted was a 90-date world tour, but the force that she felt was stronger than herself was pushing her out there yet again.

For a girl in such a fragile state, what happened next, one night in an LA Club, was the very best thing that COULD have happened. For someone as emotional and impulsive as Britney, intense crushes are a fact of life. But this was love at first sight, and within minutes of seeing Kevin Federline, images of candlelit dinners, exotic holidays, and sweet hours of cuddling, kissing and love-talk flashed into her mind. Just a few days later, on tour in Europe, she was thinking of marriage and babies.

In the course of only eight months, Britney’s personal life has gone from disaster to near-fulfillment. With typical energy, enthusiasm and commitment, she has bulldozed her way through a whirlwind engagement to marriage and the life of a Housewife Superstar. And this, say her oldest friends back in Kentwood, is what she wanted all along. Marriage to another showbiz superstar with a high-flying career would never have worked for her. She craved family life, stability, and constant, dependable love and support. From the point of view of Britney the woman at least, the fairytale life of Britney Spears is now fully on track.

What about Britney the Celebrity? Larry Getlen’s assessment that nobody cared about her any more may have been wishful thinking, but it could scarcely have been further off the mark. 2003-4 has seen media interest in her soar to such extraordinary heights that, if a week goes by without any news of her, the tabloids start inventing some.

Unlike other celebrity wannabees who are only famous for partying and flashing their tits, Britney is the real deal, providing the tabloids with headline after startling headline. In the last year alone we have read about her kissing Madonna, crying on TV, getting married in Vegas, crying in church, preparing a revenge video in which she kills Justin, setting off on an X-rated tour with angry mothers storming out of her shows, the miming scandal, the one-night-stand with Tom Witchey, the “suicide video” shocker….

Then she was cavorting with a man who already had a child and a pregnant girlfriend, getting engaged to him, busting her knee, canceling her tour, looking ugly and spotty, becoming trailer trash and turning into Courtney Love. Next came the revelations about her wild weekend with Jason Alexander, the “drinking whiskey in the street” story, grabbing Kevin’s bits in public, getting pregnant (many times), planning her wedding (numerous dates and venues), selling her NY apartment, buying her new house, launching her new perfume line, and getting ready to release a new single, CD and DVD all in the same month.

As 2004 entered its final phase we saw not one but two sets of stories about her surprise wedding, the first lot saying it was trashy and a fake and the second that it was beautiful and genuine. In a post-wedding interview, Britney told People Magazine’s Todd Gold to look out for a “Letter of Truth” she had written to her fans, and the showbiz world held its breath. At this point, the belief that she was retiring from music was so widely held that Todd Gold actually asked her if she was going to give up performing – she said she wasn’t, but her denial seemed so half-hearted that many drew the opposite conclusion.

Then she sacked her manager. Many stars do, but this was Larry Rudolph, the man whose contacts had opened the door to her recording contract, who had guided her career from day one, whose genius for damage-limitation had ensured that she still had a career, despite her many gaffes and blunders, and whose sense of strategy and strong focus had provided the framework in which an immature and emotionally fragile girl could function in the harsh and unforgiving music business.

The media take on her now shows their uncertainty. Disappointment in a golden princess gone bad? Amusement at this perfect example of trailer trash who got rich and is now descending into a twilight world of babies, booze and cigarettes? Grudging respect for a girl who, as she said in her song “Not a girl, not yet a woman”, will always find her way? Sadness that such a star should appear to be walking away from her glittering career at the age of only 22?

The clear-cut angles of media attack have gone now, and the force of the attack has weakened. From one week to the next, showbiz writers don’t know whether to be nice or nasty. The consensus view of Britney as a hate figure, which had been firmly embedded in UK media consciousness since the “Crossroads” premiere debacle, has fragmented, and tabloid stories about her alleged trailer-trashiness lack the triumphalism of the past. Attacking her now seems like kicking a body on the ground.

On the other hand, if you see a body on the ground it still seems okay to poke it with your toe, looking for signs of life. This the tabloids and – especially – the celeb weeklies continue to do. But the minute she makes her next formal public appearance, or announcement about her plans – in fact, the next time she shows that she hasn’t been killed off after all – it will be “game on” for the full media circus once more.

For the time being, a strange tug-of-war seems to have developed, with Spears apparently trying to get away from the spotlight and the media continually trying to drag her back into it. For all the talk of over-exposure, the only person who seems truly tired of Britney is Britney herself.

But here’s the true measure of her celebrity status – when the TV stations in LA mistook her “My Prerogative” video shoot for her real-life wedding, they actually interrupted programming with the news. You can’t get more famous than that.

And finally we come to Britney the musician.

Back when “Me Against The Music”, the lead-off single for her fourth album, was released to the media, Larry Getlen must have thought he had got it spot-on. Reviewers scarcely bothered to listen to its innovative structure and complex rhythms, or even to Madonna’s guest vocals. Instead they delivered what they thought was expected of them – review after sneering review of Britney the fallen teenybopper. Many of the reviews of “In The Zone” took a similar line.

What Getlen and most of the media had failed to grasp was that Britney’s career no longer depended on being either a good girl or a role model to young children. The change that most of the experts considered impossible had already happened right under their noses. Britney had indeed brought her maturing audience with her and, what is more, had also begun to appeal to an older age group. Her key demographic had made the remarkable leap from 10-14 years old to 16-26.

Some writers have claimed that “Toxic” was a career-saver. This is an exaggeration, since her career didn’t need saving. What “Toxic” did was to accelerate the change in perception of Britney’s music among the wider music community, and show the skeptical what she was capable of. Established images of her as a purveyor of kiddie-pop to a kiddie audience were suddenly and unexpectedly demolished.

To follow that up with “Everytime” was an act of pure genius. Not only was this a quality song, it pierced the hearts of many listeners. A quick trawl on the web reveals thousands of comments along the lines of “I used to hate Britney Spears till I heard this”. In just two singles she showed that her grasp of top-quality pop music ranged from one end of the genre to the other.

Both “Toxic” and “Everytime” sold many copies to those who had previously been non-fans, and extended Britney’s fan base to the point where “critical mass” seems to have been achieved – any song she releases can now be assured of a placement somewhere near the top of the charts, and every one of them is at least in contention for the top spot. How different this is from the days of “Boys” and “I love rock and roll”.

And, although “Toxic” received massive promotion (which it rewarded with massive sales), “Everytime” showed that, by mid-2004, Britney was quite capable of hitting the No.1 spot without any promotion whatever.

The critical climate has changed totally. Where the critics used to go into instant-dismissal mode at the very mention of her name, Britney Spears is now recognized as the gold standard for quality pop music.

Where once to be “the next Britney” was to be a disposable bubblegum three-month wonder, every up-and-coming white female singer from JoJo to is now compared to her. Anyone who wants to take a tough rock-chick line is an anti-Britney.

Where, once upon a time, each new Britney single was the opportunity for further satirical mischief-making among reviewers, it is now the subject of eager anticipation. As we have seen with the wonderful reviews of “My Prerogative”, the plateau of quality on which she operates is now assumed, the only questions being those of style and direction. To reach this level is to enter the kingdom of the giants.

As ITV’s Teletext put it last week, “We kinda consigned Brit to the pop dumper. But then came In The Zone….her best album ever. It spawned two No.1’s and now Brit, despite all the media controversy, is once again pop’s hottest property.”

How strange, then, that Britney should have chosen this moment to walk away. A rich seam of public and critical acceptance was there, just waiting to be mined. If she released an album of new material now, the critics would not be laughing – it would, at last, be given the full measure of its worth. It would go to No.1, even in the UK.

Her coronation as the new Queen of Pop is ready to take place, but she will not be there. Is she doing the right thing? Maybe she is. She’s leaving the sport at the very top of her game. After a year of brilliant music-making, the fans and the media are “missing her already” and will be more eager than ever to see her return. The excitement and anticipation surrounding her next album will be extraordinary.

If she had taken a break after “Britney” and its final, disappointing singles, it’s quite possible that only her most diehard fans would have even wanted her to come back. Now she can afford the luxury of a couple of years off, knowing that she will be welcomed back with open arms.

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