As I watch the video to “3” in my university cafeteria, I shake my head in disbelief. Most would not be shocked, but I figured Britney Spears would be passed the point of overtly sexual gimmicks in her career. I mean, after all, she’s done it all when it comes to sexual gimmicks: she’s appeared topless on magazine covers (nipples conveniently covered of course), she’s given the illusion of nudity on stage (i.e. MTV Video Music Awards 2000), simulated sex (both heterosexual/homosexual) on tour, kissed another woman on stage, and made songs about masturbation, one-night stands, drunken sex, bi-sexual sex, and now threesomes. Hell, her first cover with “Rolling Stone” in 1999 featured her at just 18 in her underwear with a “Lolita” theme (according to “Rolling Stone,” that was her first major magazine cover). Call me crazy for expecting more out of Britney Spears artistically after 11 years in the industry and an ENTIRE EXISTENCE characterized by hell, high water and life-changing events like childbirth.
Nonetheless, Britney remains successful. Her latest album, Circus, has gone platinum and many of her tour dates have sold out. “3," despite being controversial, is selling well too. I sit back in awe and intrigue and wonder “How on earth did she pull this off? How on earth does the formula still work?” This is “The Curious Case of Britney Spears.”
You gotta admit, when you think about it, her career is fascinating. She herself probably wonders how she’s pulled it off this far. Think about it. Britney was not supposed to last THIS long. She was DESIGNED and MADE to be a trend; a flash in the pan. The phenomenon known as Britney Spears came during the “pop wave of 1999,” when little pop-tart divas and boy bands were coming out left and right. Sound familiar? Yeah, this happened in the 1980’s with Debbie Gibson, New Kids on the Block and crew. Some survive the “wave” and go on to really impact music; Britney Spears was never expected to be one of those people. Out of all the pop-tarts, Britney relied the MOST on gimmicks and had the most limited vocal ability. She had the weakest lyrics. She lacked substance. If it wasn’t bubblegum, it was straight sex. Yet, somehow, she outshined all of her contemporaries (regardless of the fact that some of them were more talented) and her star kept on rising. So much to point that she was being deemed “the next Madonna” by media. And it didn’t hurt that Madonna adopted her for a second; introducing her to Kabala, sucking face with her at the MTV Video Music Awards and appearing in Spears' music videos.
But Britney managed to fail to be the “next Madonna.” Shortly after being orally christened by the “Queen of Pop,” the “Circus” began. In between “In the Zone” and “Circus” (“Blackout” was between those) was five years of gradual, mysterious drama that left people wanting to be a “fly on the wall”. Still, despite not rising to the occasion of Madonna artistically, and being scrutinized, criticized, chewed up and spit out, Britney still did well. Her greatest hits album and DVD released during that period, “My Prerogative,” went platinum and all of the singles from “Blackout” were certified either gold or platinum by the RIAA.
“Circus” arrived in 2008, with hardly any mention of her personal struggles or changes. It was classic Britney: sexed up, substance-less pop slush. And yet, it and its concert tour sold like hot cakes. After being deemed YEARS AGO musically as a factory sealed, assembly line, flash in the pan, talentless lip-syncher and industry puppet who brought nothing to the art of music. Long after being dubbed in the media over the years a “bag girl”, a bad influence and “too sexual.” Circus showed that Britney hadn’t grown an OUNCE artistically. Everything was as it was in 1999. And people LOVED it. In pop music, this doesn’t happen. Even without all of the media drama, her fans were supposed to outgrow her and move on; at least that’s what usually happens. WITH media drama, fans are REALLY expected to move on: the parents confiscate the records and your sales go down. Furthermore, Britney was labeled all sorts of horrible things by the media. She was ejected and exiled; thrown away. And yet, her star rose.
Come to think of it, she doesn’t even need her original fan base. That’s right: Britney has a NEW fan base. The teenagers now LOVE her. That REALLY doesn’t happen in pop music. The next generation is not supposed to be your main fan base. Maybe, a PART of it- which is a HUGE MAYBE-but not the main. When Britney presented at the Teen Choice Awards in 2006 pregnant with her second child, in the middle of media hoopla, she got a standing ovation and lots of “we love you Britney!!” from teens who were in grade school when “Baby One More Time” came out. Fast forward 3 years later, regardless of even more overt sexuality, Britney is loved by teen Disney darlings like Selena Gomez and Miley Cyrus. Selena listed “Circus” as one of her favorite albums in an interview, and Miley expressed finding solace in hearing Britney on the radio in her song “Party in the USA.” Whoa.
Britney having the support of the next generation of teens is intriguing, perplexing and unique for several reasons. #1, as mentioned before, this is not typical in the industry, particularly when you’re built with a “pop-tart” prototype. #2 Typically, music execs change your sound as an artist to appeal to the next generation. Britney’s “sound” has not changed at all. #3 The new generation of teens are not familiar with Britney pre-In The Zone. The main version of Britney they’re familiar with is the 2003-2008 drama version. And yet, they may have more loyalty than the fans that knew her during her “glory days”. #4 again, usually talking about “seeking Amy” and having threesomes would keep you from reaching the youth market. Yet, Britney has penetrated and conquered. Britney has come a long way and kicked a lot of butt. Nothing says “kiss my butt” than still selling records. Britney broke all the rules. She was designed to blow up and blow out all before 2002; maybe even earlier than that. Make a lot of money for the execs and then disappear. But she didn’t and she hasn’t. Her star is still rising and far from burning. And she’s not even trying that hard. How did she do it?
Perhaps the answer lies within the formula. Britney’s formula artistically (although not very artistic) has worked well for her. Remember when I mentioned how execs change your artist sound to “update” it and appeal to the younger crowd? Well, that plan is SUPPOSED TO work, but as we see with many examples, it often doesn’t. Look at Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Madonna and Janet Jackson. In one way or another, an “updated” or changed sound has not benefited them in the same ways their original sound did and many fans end up saying “I still like them, but I prefer their older stuff.” Britney, for better or worse has remained consistent. All the way to the bank. And possibly a lasting impact.
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