I know that Britney Spears is designed for my pleasure, and the pleasure of millions. Some of us respond to this, some of us do not, but enough of us do that she keeps raking in millions of dollars for whatever it is that you would call her job title. Performer, let’s go with. One of the many uniquely modern things about Britney is the way that one can vaguely disparage her, like I just did, and still be one of her biggest fans. Her flaws are part of her charm. She’s not a diamond. She’s one of those pairs of jeans that you pay a fair amount for that have a tag that says something like, “The flaws are an intentional part of this garment’s design.”
I feel the need to tell you, before I continue, that I have what is considered by average-to-slightly-snooty music fans to be “good taste.” I’m not like one of those guys who worked at the record store in High Fidelity, one of those people who will hate you visibly for liking something they deem sub-par. I have some Katy Perry on my iPod like most of America. But just so you stay with me on this short blog post journey and do not dismiss me as a musical simpleton, I will tell you that I know about and appreciate such acts as Against Me!, Alejandro Escovedo, Beirut, Citizen Cope, the Old 97s, and Wild Flag.
That said, I fucking love Britney Spears. Something visceral happens to me at the prospect of a new Britney Spears album, a Britney Spears tour, a Britney Spears Vegas extravaganza to which I will obviously fly sometime in the next year. It’s difficult for me to parse these feelings; they seem to come from a place different from my other pop cultural feelings, the ones I routinely parse as my daily job. But to commemorate the release of her new album, her eighth, Britney Jean, I will try.
Here’s why I — and, possibly, several other normally smart and sane and tasteful adults — love me some Britney:
1. “Work Bitch.” This seems like a robotic (not an insult in Britney-land) club-banger with Britney doing a vague British accent at times and haranguing us to do more sit-ups. (Workout mixes must be the No. 1 use of this song, right?) But I see it as something else, too: Britney has been promoting her new album as her “most personal” yet, and while many critics have questioned this assertion, I think they haven’t taken into account the fact that this radio hit is Britney’s personal manifesto. In my journalistic wanderings, I’ve interviewed co-stars and dance teachers and producers who know her from her Mickey Mouse Club days; I’ve also interviewed some people who have worked with her in recent years. I always ask about her (because, duh). They have all said the same thing: That kid works hard. They don’t even stop there, most of the time. They want you to understand: No, really, I remember that she was a cute kid who could sing and dance okay, they tell you, but what I can’t forget is how hard she worked. She’s the American Protestant Ethic dream writ large: She may not be the prettiest, skinniest, or most talented, but she worked, bitch. That’s how she became one of the biggest pop stars in the world, and if you’re not that, it’s because you didn’t work hard enough. I happen to have a similar approach to my chosen profession, so I get it. Joan Baez wrote “Diamonds and Rust”; Britney co-wrote and Brit-rapped her way through “Work Bitch.”
2. “… Baby One More Time.” She’d be one of our most celebrated one-hit wonders if she never did a thing after this. We’d marvel at the fact that that hot-to-trot girl who seemed to know a whole lot more than she let on, who sang that perfect specimen of pop songwriting, who must confess she still believes, turned into, say, a beautiful part-time realtor with four beautiful children living in an idyllic Texas suburb. Sometimes I wish that alternative life for her as I play a sorta-punk cover version of that amazing song with my band.
3. She’s possibly the most amazing pop cultural artifact of the last decade-plus. Because Britney didn’t get that alternative life, she gave us a mess of stuff to think-piece about. There was that stunningly symbolic breakdown, during which she shaved her head (was she trying to shed that which made her beautiful to us?) and flashed her naked crotch (was she trying to force us to see that one last piece of her we hadn’t yet, but seemed to be demanding?). She’s a famous singer who rarely sings live in public, whose voice many of us deride but continue to purchase recordings of. She’s a star whose personal life we devour despite her having shared almost no discernible personality or philosophy with us. (Madonna, for all of her shortcomings, stood for something. Stood for lots of things.) Speaking of Madonna: Britney is constantly crowned “the new Madonna,” and yet if she did anything, she undid a lot of the feminist work Madge did. Not on purpose, mind you. That’s another thing: Britney has rarely seemed to do anything on purpose.
4. She seems like a sweet girl. She could never be Madonna because, as far as most of us can tell, she’s a nice, Southern girl. She’s no great intellect. That’s not something I usually admire in a person, but she does appear to be guileless in a way that’s rare for Hollywood. This is why she belongs in that alternative life I dreamed for her. This is why her handlers appear to make most of the big decisions for her. They are most definitely not guileless, or she’d be studying for that real estate exam right now. I have long nurtured a fantasy in which I get an interview with Britney, but use the opportunity instead to take her out to tea and talk about life, off the record. I blow off the assignment, give her my cell number, and tell her to use it anytime. I never publish a word she tells me. I just give her life advice, and books to read. I really wish people would give that girl more books.
5. She gains and loses weight like a normal person. I know we declared her body public property a decade ago, but it still makes me uncomfortable the way the internet takes every one of her videos as an opportunity to declare her “fitness” level up or down. That said, I know some part of me likes knowing that she’s human that way. Her early-career abs are burned on most of our brains, and there’s some comfort to be found in knowing she has to work for them now. I can’t tell you how relieved I was to recently read a surprisingly honest answer to a question in a Shape profile about how she’d been dieting to prepare for her Vegas engagement: She’s been having NutriSystem shakes for breakfast and lunch, and a “sensible dinner,” as they say, of chicken breast and veggies. She doesn’t drink anymore because, you know, rehab and stuff. She dances several hours a day for rehearsals. You guys, of course she lost weight.
6. I like the Britney Spears Brand. Even though I don’t believe Britney is the Britney Spears Brand, I do like what the folks at Britney Spears HQ have come up with over the years. “Toxic” and “I’m a Slave 4 U” were revelations. The entire Blackout album was a turning point for both the Britney Spears musical idiom and, as a result, pop music trends in general. I pine for the woman who could actually live up to the music and the promise of what her producers and handlers clearly saw in her earlier years. Her dancing and performing were off the chain when she was at her “Slave” heights. You could see that “work, bitch” gleaming in her eyes. I miss her, and I know she’s not likely to return, but I can’t help loving Brit in all her forms:
7. “I’m a Slave 4 U.” Seriously, everything about this. Everything.