Britney Speares: The Survivor

I am not that much older than Ms. Speares but at the time of her debut by all accounts I felt ancient compared to her. And where I was at mentally back then all I could see was person who got famous for being cute while having little vocal ability or talent outside of following choreographers instructions.

Honestly the whole TRL era at the time bothered me because it was a massive hype machine of mediocre music. I didn’t feel like the music was doing anything worthy of such screaming and fandom. I would learn later that girls basically controlled the mainstream music narrative since Elvis (and possibly even Sinatra). Whatever they screamed at is what boys decided the needed to do or be to get the girls. And when you look at the charts… most of the hits logged were logged because girls (or gays) screamed and championed the music.

The only reason music snobs are able to go on about The Beatles being the best band ever is because girls screamed and fainted over them. In the beginning most of the guys did not like them. And whether it was The Beatles at their start or The Carpenters, ABBA, Michael Jackson, Luther Vandross, Madonna, Mariah, Beyonce guys were not losing their minds, driving sales and charts. Some dudes may have secretly liked this stuff but we were just too cool to admit it, I guess. Or guys liked it only because the female lead was “hot”. This is of course a generalization but the averages in my experience check out.

For me it was probably a mix of feeling too cool for the room and the music simply not appealing to my tastes back in the late 90s when it came to production or lyrics. Ironically with all the eurodance and trance I was sweating to on dance floors with often equally insipid lyrics I can’t really judge anymore. But also considering how utterly emotionally and mentally screwed up I was at the time there was just out and out jealousy.

Looking back I see on some level I wanted to be famous… And digging more deeply I wanted to be famous not for the money or status but to prove to myself (and others) and that I was liked and was worthy and not a total failure. To get the same level hype others were receiving for what I felt was mediocre at best pop music I assumed would have validated my existence.

I cannot understate how much this ate at my spirit. It wasn’t jealous anger it was just an ache for something I felt I never had, acceptance. Strangely with Speares and I being of similar ages and now knowing more of the behind the scenes trauma going on in her career I have definitely switched out my youthful jealousy with empathy. And ironically one of my favorite songs of hers now is a remix of, “Lucky” a song about how supposedly and she should feel lucky for her success but does not. This rings even more poignant with all mental health issues and conservatorship drama that has unfolded over her career. And rings true to my own life in that I too put on the smile while feeling awful or rather to put more honestly and dourly, killing myself. And of course this being my 90s club kid dyas I preferred the remix.

I tuned out on her around the time of, “Leave Britney alone” one of the early viral “hits” of the internet and the time Toxic was a big worldwide hit. I didn’t like that song back then but now I think it is one of the best pop songs of this century, easily top ten for me. Possibly one the best of all time even she has more iconic songs. I may write on that specifically another time. But really I turned around on a lot of her songs. Yes lyrically, many are bland as a Saltine. But so what… “Love Me Do” is not exactly Leonard Cohen either. And a fun song is a fun song.

Witnessing the Free Britney campaign gain traction in the past few years, she reentered my panoramic music view. And no, there has been no great evolution in her music much. But so what… AC/DC picked a lane and road it out to the end of the line. The thing that still fascinates me though is Speares can actually sing. Belt like Broadway level singing. But she got sold on this baby voice and it became a trademark of sorts, so the public has never really gotten to see her ability as a vocalist. Also at the time she was the only one doing that vocal style. But by two years later all the young pop girls were copping her. And now most pop vocalists have their vocals so tweaked in post that you never get a song sung straight.

I’d also argue she had one of the last and few TRULY iconic music videos on MTV. I’m talking a video and song that changed the pop landscape instantly. The clock ticking, the school uniform (her idea)… People know that video and remember it like the best Michael Jackson videos or the “Take On Me” video. Britney basically severed the chord on the mainstream media coverage of grunge and gangster rap at the time. She shifted all eyes to the teen pop music scene again after almost a decade recovering from New Kids On The Block and I argue we never really lost focus on teen pop since then, with the rise of Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Rhianna, Harry Styles, and of course Taylor Swift. Teen girls (and gays) are still controlling the conversation on the charts.  And she had one of the first female “See ya later” anthems that would dominate much of the female pop singer 00s in 1999.

At Burning Man I was tasked with doing a Britney vs. Madonna night in 2019. So I was forced to go into her catalog. She is definitely similar to Madonna in that she released great singles. But I never found any one album to be defining or game changing. And I recalled how much I loathed many of these songs when they first came out and like them much better now. I don’t know if it’s a change of heart or if the modern pop landscape is so awful that these songs seem brilliant by comparison. Even so I did find many of the singles quite enjoyable and found I knew many of the lyrics despite not being a fan. That speaks to the difference in how songs were inescapable before streaming gave everyone thousands of options. So yes the songs definitely permeated the landscape if I can sing along all these years later. My least favorites were the bigger hits in the 00s like, “1, 2, 3” and “Till The World Ends”, no surprise. I really like the underrated and overlooked Kill The Lights.

So with my youthful angst and jealousy gone what of Speares now in mind? Well, I play the songs on my shows. I’d definitely play them at clubs. From the outside looking in what little amount of media circus I’ve seen since she got “free” looks messy. But what do you expect when at sixteen you are thrust into stardom as both a girl and sex object where your ultimate value is how much money you can make the record labels. Add mental illness and trauma and sexism- then when people go, “Oh my god, can you believe this?” Yes. Yes as a trauma survivor I can totally believe with new freedom she has from outside appearances, “gone off the rails”. But I say go! Go off the rails girl. You earned it. And I do hope she finds some mental sanctuary; therapy, meditation and heals herself. Assuming she has not already done so.

She definitely comes off WAY more authentic than many pop stars today who appear very calculated in how they present themselves (and their brands) to world. Britney is certainly in her, “This is who I am era. You don’t like it, sorry not sorry” working it how she wants.

And in terms of where she falls in the cannon of thequeer pop diva icons… Yeah, at this point she is definitely in the pantheon… “Baby One More Time” should’ve been a fluke, but right place right time she made a brand out that kind of song and helped Max Martin and Shellabck become the biggest producers of the next 20 years.

This ain’t Joni Mitchell music but you also aren’t banging on the dance floor circus to, “Case Of You” ever so… uh… yeah, “Hit me baby one more time”.

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