why do we still love britney spears?
As Britney readies her tenth album, we look into the timeless appeal of 90s pop’s most resilient icon.
After Kim Kardashian leaked that phone call last week, many of us found ourselves confronting what we really think of Taylor Swift, this generation's preeminent pop star. One website even ran a super-brutal article called When Did You First Realize Taylor Swift Was Lying To You? Coincidentally, the previous generation's preeminent pop star, Britney Spears, dropped her new single "Make Me..." just as #KimExposesTaylor was trending. Now, there are obviously many ways in which Taylor Swift and Britney Spears differ as pop stars and as people, but our relationship with the latter, though more established, is much less complex. No one really needs to analyze what they think of Britney Spears. Some people are indifferent, others a little dismissive, but many of us have remained fans as we've grown from kids to teenagers to adults to, ahem, slightly older adults. We still hope each new single will be a banger to rival "Toxic" or "I'm a Slave 4 U."
Our simpler relationship with Britney Spears partly stems from the simpler times in which she emerged. When her debut single "...Baby One More Time" blew up in 1998, Twitter or Instagram and Facebook weren't even a glint in the eye of Zuckerberg and co. Sure, we could look up pictures of Britney on the internet, but back then we'd only surf the web, as folks used to call it, for an hour or two a day on dodgy dial-up connections. The concept of an "online news cycle," a constant stream of stories and barely-stories about our favorite celebrities, had yet to be invented. When the world was becoming obsessed with Britney Spears, we had limited access to her. She was a face on Top of the Pops or MTV — someone whose grueling work schedule didn't include having to build a personal Snapchat brand.
Britney's camp must have lied to us over the years, especially during her head-shaving meltdown of 2007, but Britney herself? Of course not.
Of course, Britney Spears has since built a significant web presence — she now has 46m followers on Twitter and 11m on Instagram — but it has never been integral to her appeal. We don't expect her to be witty or insightful on social media; when she posts a basic meme like "life would be simpler if we wore more tutu's", it's enough, because Britney's guilelessness is one of the things we love about her. Britney's camp must have lied to us over the years, especially during her head-shaving meltdown of 2007, but Britney herself? Of course not.
At the time, that meltdown was incredibly distressing to watch, but nearly a decade later, with Britney looking comfortable in her skin again, it's become part of her legend. You can drink your morning coffee from a mug which says, "If Britney Spears can get through 2007, you can get through today." Before 2007, Britney Spears seemed like a sweet teenager from Louisiana who became super-famous through lots of ambition, hard work, and a genuine flair for delivering spectacular pop performances. People could call her a cypher, but because she felt less cynical and contrived than other pop stars, she could get away with draping a snake around her neck oh-so suggestively at the 2001 VMAs. But after 2007, she gained something extra: that special affection and gravitas we afford to anyone we consider a survivor. The fact that during this period Britney dropped her best and most visionary album, 2008's still-stunning Blackout, only adds to the narrative.
This collective affection doesn't just mean we want her to "slay," it also permits us to gloss over her mistakes. Joining the US version of The X Factor in 2012 probably made sense financially, but it did little else for Britney, who looked slightly terrified every time she was required to faux-emote for the cameras. She's also dropped the odd clanger over the years, like when she called her gay fans "somewhat girls" in a 2013 interview with Pride Source. Other pop stars would have been called out for this comment, but Britney pretty much got away with it. We knew she was expressing herself poorly, not being cruel or deliberately insensitive.
Admittedly, Britney has never exactly been cool, but cool people can definitely like her. Sky Ferreira and Tinashe are big fans; Lady Gaga called her "the most provocative performer of my time." Charli XCX thanked Britney in her Sucker album notes for "making me want to do this in the first place." Britney doesn't have the voice of Christina Aguilera or the songwriting chops of Justin Timberlake, but she's got a greatest hits that's better than both. Britney also deserves credit for changing our conception of the Las Vegas residency with her successful Piece of Me show, which has run successfully at the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino since December 2013. Before Britney, Vegas was a place for veteran artists to top up their pension funds; now it's a smart career move for any performer with enough hits to pull in a crowd. JLo and Mariah Carey are now following her lead.
In a weird way, Britney's journey has sometimes felt as though it mirrors our own. She told us, "I'm not that innocent," at a time when many of us were discovering we weren't that innocent either. A decade later, she managed to get her shit together after a rough patch you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy. These days, she's posting body-positive pictures of herself on Instagram because she's happy to be back in shape physically and emotionally. Just this week she's said her new album is coming "very soon," but after 18 years of singing, dancing and being Britney, she's probably due some time off. When she finally takes it, we'll be waiting patiently for her comeback single.
Text Nick Levine