The Essentials: Britney Spears
For this edition of The Essentials, I'm handing over the reins to the man I believe is the most qualified person on earth to write about his love and undying admiration for the (real) Queen of Pop. Britney Spears die-hard and my dear, dear friend—Tommy Ryan makes his case.
Like virtually everyone old enough to walk at the turn of this century,
I was enraptured by Britney Spears at the very onset of her splashy, pigtailed debut in 1998. But to love Britney—at least at the dawn of her career—was not to know why.
Maybe it was the reliable stream of delectable and clever pop hits. Or perhaps it was the way she vacillated between midriff-bearing coquette and sweet-faced girl-next-door with bewitching ease.
Truthfully, Spears’ appeal rested in the unqualifiable: an x-factor that propelled her further than her more vocally gifted peers and well beyond that of which her naysayers believed she was capable. Britney offered so much more than music; her ambition was much broader than that of a pop star. She was a cultural juggernaut at the center of a global stage. The conversation surrounding her has always encompassed more than just what she put out over radio airwaves. For every “Stronger”, there was an iconic, impeccably-choreographed music video with an impression just as lasting. For every red latex catsuit, there was a virgin-’til-marriage confession equally as buzzworthy. Britney wove herself into the eternal pop culture fabric, and she did so rapidly.
Of course, the pop star was never without controversy. Her costumes were a bit too revealing, her dance moves a tad too suggestive. And what did “hit me baby one more time” really mean, anyway? When she draped an albino Burmese python across her shoulders, her image was considerably vamped up, and upon completion of her “not a girl, not yet a woman” metamorphosis, the way we looked at Britney had also shifted. She was a little less Justin Timberlake, a little more Kevin Federline. Sex appeal was no longer an implication, it was the game. To Spears, this evolution equaled maturation, but in shredding her ambiguous innocence, she had fallen out of public favor. Unable to accept that the girl next door had grown up, I too lost interest.
What happened next in Britney’s narrative is notorious to the point where recapping it seems futile and excessively cruel. And even still, a decade removed from her so-called “very public breakdown,” it’s impossible to discuss Britney’s legacy without acknowledging this storied period of her life. Britney was in trouble, and yet we cheered her downfall. Hers was the clearest, most prominent case of mental illness in the spotlight, but we dismissed it as mouthwatering episodes of crazy. We built her up overnight and tore her down just as swiftly.
It was during this time—when so many of my peers had washed their hands of their childhood idol—that I found myself drawn to Britney once again. This time, however, my admiration wasn’t elicited by a mysterious x-factor. Instead, it stemmed from genuine compassion for a woman who finally (and understandably) buckled under unimaginable pressure, whose loved ones had routinely betrayed her for their own gain, and whose every move—from the outfits she wore on stage to the way she held her toddler while surrounded by dozens of strange men with cameras—was dissected and used against her. I saw in her a familiar woundedness, a mutual sense of entrapment.
And yet, with her career at a standstill and her personal life in shambles, she did not surrender. With the odds stacked against her and the world banking on her failures, she persevered. And when the threat of total defeat loomed, Britney triumphed. She became healthier, found happiness in her new post-storm reality, and saw some of her biggest career achievements yet. When several media outlets had begun drafting her obituary, she made a miraculous comeback in all aspects of her life. At a time when I so badly needed to learn that pain could be surmounted, Britney was living proof of the strength of a fighting spirit.
So, what makes Britney so essential to the vast landscape of music? Despite everything she has meant to so many people, Britney is first and foremost, a spectacular barrage in pop music. Over the span of her two-decade career, she has pushed boundaries and set trends, opening the door for every pop singer who has followed in her tracks. Her albums are fun and sexually liberated, but hint at deeper ambition and suppressed pain. She is the rare artist who can play hard-to-get on the cheeky “Oops!... I Did It Again”, strip down to vulnerability and heartache on the confessional “Everytime”, and affect a British accent while commanding listeners to “get to work, bitch!” and do so all with the same vigorous, earnest delivery.
Britney’s undisputed importance in the realm of music is is both hard to pin down but also quite simple. Perhaps it’s best summed up in her own famous tagline. Spears simply purrs, “It’s Britney, bitch”—perhaps the most satisfying answer of all.
-Tommy Ryan (@tommycryan)
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