In honor of the Skillshare class I just started about Finding Your Writing Voice, which includes Britney- and Beyoncé-related lessons, I’m sharing this little essay I wrote about these two central figures in my life. This also reflects the lessons of voice: I can’t imagine any piece that’s more “me” than this.
Even though Beyonce and Britney Spears are two of the biggest pop stars of our time—and have been for more than 15 years!—it’s hard to imagine the two of them breathing the same air, or even living on the same planet. Beyonce is an untouchable deity to whom we all aspire, in every aspect of our lives, but do not expect to ever reach; she is the closest thing we have in modern America to ancient Greek goddesses, but with fewer flaws and weaknesses. Britney is the sweet, Southern girl next door who just happened to become a pop star, like an adult Hannah Montana; she is like your high school friend who’s always been kind-of a disaster, but you love her just the same.
And yet, both women clearly know something about major accomplishments. Beyonce has been dominating pop culture since her 2013 Super Bowl performance and proved her power with a surprise album drop that became iTunes’ fastest seller ever. Britney’s Planet Hollywood Las Vegas concert residency, which launched in December 2013, has now been extended another two years to 2017 after helping to boost the hotel’s annual earnings by about $20 million.
Separated by just three months in age, Beyonce and Britney typify every peril and triumph awaiting modern young women who grow up wanting desperately to succeed and willing to make every sacrifice necessary. Their most recent albums both articulate their visions of success. From Beyonce’s “***Flawless”: “I know when you were little girls/You dreamt of being in my world/Don’t forget it, don’t forget it/Respect that/Bow down, bitches.” From Britney’s “Work Bitch”: “You want a hot body? You want a Bugatti? You want a Maserati? You better work, bitch.” Beyonce demands respect and knows she deserves it; Britney wants to earn, and believes she’s made her millions by working harder than everyone else.
There’s a reason I respond viscerally to these songs—and sometimes play them just to get psyched up for work: I’m a lifelong overachiever, and I see myself in both of them. At this point, of course, it’s clear that any of us with Type A tendencies would be better off following Beyonce’s lead than Britney’s. But the particulars of Britney’s public struggles—and Beyonce’s lack thereof—illuminate what is to me the most important lesson for any massive overachiever, especially one who’s female: People who benefit from your hard work will always want more from you, but you don’t have to give it to them.
Beyonce figured this out in the last few years to spectacular effect. She fired her own father as her manager so she’d be the only one making decisions about what she would cram onto her packed agenda or what kind of songs she’d write. Starting with her 2011 album 4, the catchy, girl-power radio anthems she could write in her sleep gave way to artistic risks and vulnerable, raw lyrics. Her profile only rose as a result, climaxing in a superior 2013 that started with the Super Bowl and ended with her album Beyonce changing the record industry and being declared a “masterpiece.” I can think of no better idea to aspire to: making a masterpiece. I remind myself of this whenever I’m working on a book now. Someday maybe I’ll get there.
Poor Britney, on the other hand, continues to be run by a management team that has groomed her to behave like a good little money-printing robot. Even as she shattered before our eyes in 2007, shaving her head and swatting at paparazzi with an umbrella and flashing her panty-free crotch, her team propped her up in the music studio long enough to record an album, Blackout. Granted, the result was her riskiest and best record—thanks to some next-level production by Danja and The Neptunes, not due to any efforts of Britney herself. Then her people pushed her into a way-too-soon “comeback” performance at the MTV awards that proved disastrous when she wandered, zombie-like, across the stage, not even bothering to lip sync.
Perhaps most disturbingly, none of this prompted a major change in the way business was done at Britney HQ. They shipped her off to rehab—robot broken, must fix!—but then she was right back into the recording studio and on the road. She’d never again display the same gleam in her eye and primal desire to entertain that had made her instantly famous with her first single, “… Baby One More Time,” and the accompanying video that bled star quality. We all know “Peak Britney” is likely gone for good, but as long as Britney keeps selling, she keeps performing, almost as if she’s unaware that stopping is an option.
I’ve been rewarded a lot in my life for doing what I was told and working hard. I got good grades, went to a fancy college, and worked my way up from an assistant to a senior writer at Entertainment Weekly. When asked to take assignments, I said “yes.” I got promoted. I said “yes” some more. I even got my first book deal by saying “yes” when a publisher was looking for someone to write about the 1950s Mickey Mouse Club; I was qualified because I’d written a lot about the Disney Channel boom of the Miley Cyrus era. I’d written a lot about it because I’d been asked to, and I’d said “yes.” The book was a great learning experience, it paid well, and I’m glad I did it. But I eventually realized I was on my way to losing that gleam in my eyes, too, if I didn’t take Beyonce-style control. I got a new agent, proposed my dream book about The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and quit my job to freelance so I’d have more say in the assignments I took. Even though the income isn’t as steady, it’s way more fun than doing what people want you to, as it turns out.
Being Beyonce is harder—it requires long-term vision and deliberate decision-making, rather than simply saying “yes” until you break. But being Beyonce is worth it, and nowhere was that more clear than in their most recent albums, Beyonce and Britney Jean. Out within a month of each other, they couldn’t have been more different while still competing on the same record charts. Britney Jean was clearly the weakest of all Britney’s releases, with only two memorable songs, “Work Bitch” and “Perfume,” which served as the singles. (At least her debut album had the transcendent smash “… Baby One More Time,” even if it also included first-album duds like “E-mail My Heart.”) Britney Jean smacked of a slapped-together effort, retreading trends (how novel, a rapper cameo!) instead of setting them the way her previous records did. Accordingly, it sold the worst among all of her albums, even though it was hyped as her “most personal” ever. (Why? Because its title contained her middle name?)
Beyonce, on the other hand, got so personal it would’ve been uncomfortable if the music hadn’t been so good. We got play-by-plays of Beyonce’s every sexual fantasy, from getting it on the back of a limo to receiving cunnilingus to calling her lover “Daddy” to doing it on the kitchen floor to exactly what she does with that ass during foreplay. We learned of postpartum mood swings and jealousy and divorce talks. We heard her declare herself a feminist and tell us, via a Frenchwoman in voiceover, that feminists can love sex. We heard her sing less-than-pretty for effect and get really fucking weird in the best way possible (“surfbort, surfbort …”). It sold great, moving four times as many albums in its first hour than Britney Jean did in its first week. It also turned Beyonce from the pop queen who’s always good for a hook to a respected artist on the order of a Prince or Michael Jackson, an artist whose career outlook is stellar even if she ever wants to give up the dancing in stilettos and wearing fancy leotards on stage.
Despite tabloid rumors that Britney was nearing another epic meltdown after being so soundly trounced by Beyonce on the charts, Britney said in an interview after both albums’ releases that she “looks up to Beyonce.” There’s something so honest, and maybe a little sad, in the wording there: Despite having been a solo artist for longer than Beyonce and selling more solo albums than Beyonce, Britney speaks of Beyonce like a role model. If they were equals, she might say that she “admired” what Beyonce had done with her album, or that she was “impressed” with her.
But Britney should, in fact, look up to Beyonce. They started very similarly, with very similar work ethics, goals, and even entertainment styles. But one figured out how to use her own striving perfectionism to find herself, express herself, and change the world. The other just used hers to please and pay those around her for 15 years running. I can only hope that someday, somehow, Beyonce and Britney end up having a little career chat, and Beyonce drops some serious knowledge. Maybe Britney will read Lean In and invite Beyonce out for coffee to ask for advice? Maybe Beyonce will produce Britney’s next album?
Until then, I’ll be enjoying my Britney playlist as much as ever. But, like Britney, I’ll be looking up to Beyonce.