If Britney Spears' defiantly lackluster performance of "Would You Hold it Against Me" on Good Morning America wasn't enough to re-ignite your inner Britneyspearsologist, her new MTV I Am the Femme Fatale Special certainly will. In between almost exasperatedly mundane "behind-the-scenes" footage (Britney Spears needs coffee! Britney Spears has to pee!), interviewer Sway painfully delivers a set of Jamie-Spears-approved questions including zingers like "How did you feel when you saw all the props for your video?" Behold:
Sway: "Performing on stage has to be different than shooting a video or being in the recording studio."
Britney Spears: "They're totally different things."
Sway: "How so?"
Britney Spears: "When you're in the studio you're totally focused on your head, and your ears, and on the notes and stuff like that. And when you're performing you're more of a like, tiger, more of like, you know, it's just more of — your body."
Sway: "It doesn't just happen overnight. You've got to rehearse and practice —"
Britney Spears: "Oh yeah definitely."
Britney, who seems just ever-so-slightly more bored than Sway, executes canned responses full of generalities, empty abstractions, the word "exciting," and deferrals (constantly praising her "team" but not herself). When asked "when did you first realize you were a creative person?", she rambles about her Mom's friends finding her noisy and ends her anecdote, tellingly, with "and that's when my Mom realized that I'm a very creative person."
Though nobody asks, the answer that Britney Spears seems to be delivering is "I'm over this and would like to go make cheese grits for Sean Jayden or maybe go to college or something." Rolling Stone reported that during the lead-up to her breakdown in the mid-'00s, "Britney has begged friends to help her run away, to leave everything behind and become a stylist or schoolteacher, or move to an island where she can work as a bartender." Spears has said a few times that she'd like to be a "full-time mom."
But this, now? Britney's eyes are dead and her gaze as non-committal as a bored prostitute's, her laughter is rare and forced, her passion imperceptible and her personality buried even when discussing such "exciting" topics as "tea" and "candles." Tracie from Jezebel sums it up thusly:
"Despite her canned affirmations, void of any emotion, to questions about whether she still wants to be a pop artist, there's an overt vapidity behind her eyes and in her speech that, a few years ago, came off as a lack of intelligence, but perhaps it's more indicative of a lack of interest in this path that was chosen for her at such a young age."
Yeah, we could blame Britney's disinterest on drugs or nerves or stupidity or just being spoiled, that'd be easy -- or you could be ableists and blame her psychiatric meds (I promise, it's totally possible to take Seroquel AND dance). But that's not what seems to be going on here.
Britney Spears is over it.
The only problem? She's not allowed to quit or even change her style because Dad's in charge and Britney's not legally allowed to make those decisions on her own anymore.
Britney is 29 and will turn 30 in December, which makes her about two months younger than me. Maybe that generational bond explains why so many of my peers are obsessed with Britney despite a general overall aversion to celebrity culture/pop music. And at 16, everybody wanted to be Britney Spears at least a little bit, including, hopefully, Britney herself, but now we're older and wiser and things have changed and people have grown and it kinda seems like, at 29, most of us have lost interest in being Britney Spears, including, it would seem, Britney herself.
I've always considered Britney Spears to be a fact of life, like peanut butter. I buy her albums like I buy eggs. She's a thing I care about like I care about kittens. So I cringed watching her on Good Morning America - did you? Did you wail BRITNEY NO NOT AGAIN into your hoodie? Did your stomach hurt like it does during a really bad school play? Didn't she already put us through this when she sleepwalked her way through "Gimme More" at the 2007 VMAs? Didn't your HEART BREAK FOR HER? Britney's dancing shouldn't look like me at cardio hip-hop, it should look like Brittany S Pierce.
Maybe last time the media correctly chalked up the zombie-gaze lazy-limbed thing to drugs/skipping rehearsal, but not this time. This time Britney's performance more likely accurately reflected her honest level of interest in it, which appears to be similar to "the feeling of working a double on Mother's Day at The Olive Garden 'cause you just gotta make rent."
But even Britney Spears can't kill Britney Spears. Her single, "Hold it Against Me," which our music editor described as a "uniform hit" with "uninspired lyrics and those predictable hooks that at first excited me but then multiplied and gradually resulted in concussion" -- is selling well and her album sales are decent. Britney's team's gotten so large that Britney Spears herself is only a small element of The Britney Spears Empire.
This is all the doing of Jamie Spears, her (allegedly) emotionally abusive recovered-addict father, who finally succeeded in his wrestle for Brit-Brit Control in February 2008. That was the year Britney's public trainwreck (detailed poignantly in this Rolling Stone article) bottomed out and, while Britney was in the hospital, Jamie's lawyers arranged the conservatorship that granted him exclusive rights to Britney's personal life and financials. It was supposed to be temporary, just 'til she got back on her feet.
But when Britney got healthy, Jamie's lawyers actually pushed for greater authority and, on October 28th of 2008, Jamie secured a permanent conservatorship. PERMANENT! So HE OWNS HER FOREVER!
Jenny Eliscu, who wrote Britney's 2008 Rolling Stone cover story, said it's "very rare for a young adult who is not extremely ill to have their rights assigned to a conservator." Furthermore:
"[The conservatorship]'s designed, ideally, to protect people who are seriously ill. We're talking about people who are non compos mentis, according to the lawyers I consulted. Or they're in a vegetative state. Or they're just so old that they can't take care of themselves anymore. But Britney? It was making less and less sense as time went on."
Even Wikipedia states clearly that "Conservatorships are generally put in place for severely mentally ill individuals or seniors with dementia or Alzheimer's."
So what's the deal? The Judge presiding over Britney's case in 2010, when the conservatorship was once again renewed, told the press that Britney remained "susceptible to undue influence." Eliscu theorizes that "political pressure on the courts to keep Britney off the streets" could be a factor. Meanwhile Britney has been "deemed unfit" to hire her own attorney (according to the Times UK), though she initially tried to. The lawyers Jamie hired -- including Britney's -- "appear to have such a strong financial interest in maintaining the arrangement."
According to The Times UK, friends of the Spears family "doubt [Jamie] is the right person to be taking care of his psychologically fragile daughter."
In the meantime, Team Britney RAKING IT IN! By December 2009, Jamie had reportedly increased the value of Britney's controlled assets tenfold, from $2,826,362 to $27,500,000. Jamie brought in more from her estate than he's ever made in his life, and certainly more than he did from the construction business he started, which went bankrupt. The conservatorship is now going on three years as it was extended again in 2010. Is this really about protecting Britney for her own sake, or is it about turning her into a money-making machine?
So why do I/we even care about Britney Spears? Is it the age thing, the music, or just because she's really really pretty?
Well, for starters, Britney Spears both reflected and created the monumentally important fucked-up teen-sex culture of the 90s/early 00s that influenced so many of our lives. She felt fucked up about sex and so did we, but Britney Spears, that raunchy cake-pop of a girl, managed to put our fucked-up sex out there in the form of sugary, futuristic, playful pop music. With costumes! Our dark feelings seemed light when Britney sang them, like 'Oops, I broke your heart but DIDN'T YOU LIKE THE MOVIE TITANIC?' or "I'm addicted to you BUT ALSO I'M A MAGICAL FLIGHT ATTENDANT!
Her personal story has been genuinely compelling and complicated, but it hasn't been as shocking to me as it seems it was to many in the media. I felt like I always understood why she did everything she did -- reasons ranging from "bipolar disorder" to "wants boys to think she's sexy." It doesn't matter if my evaluations are right or wrong because where celebrities/fans are concerned, the illusion of empathy is enough. She's lost interest in wearing sexy outfits and asking large groups of people to want her body? Oh cool, us too.
So even while intellectually scorning Brit, we were secretly really into her and felt all at once totally unlike her and intimately familiar with her. For example, we relate to the following feelings:
+ Every time I try to fly, I fall without my wings. I feel so small.
+ I'm watching you disappear, but you were never here.
+ I'm stronger than yesterday, my loneliness ain't killing me no more.
+ You drive me crazy, I just can't sleep.
+ I'm not a girl, not yet a woman.
+ There's a brave new girl and she's coming out tonight.
Meanwhile, Femme Fatale is feelings-free and Britney's barely in it, like she's just one of many instruments in these dancey tracks which sound like precisely stylized music designed for picky robots (which isn't to say I don't like at least three of them). Dressing Brit in black versions of her old pink outfits hasn't make her look more mature -- instead, she looks like grown woman in a weird outfit. In that glittery context, Britney seems oddly infantile, and, ultimately, LESS empowered (although more confident) than she appeared to be in that schoolgirl outfit that allegedly scarred our generation for life.
Where's the surly gum-snapping blonde who 'wrote' "Touch of my Hand" and "I'm a Slave 4 U"?
Who's responsible for Femme Fatale's lyrics?
"I wanna go ding-ding when I hear that bass"?
"Spark and it's like gasoline / I start pumping like a machine / my heart only runs on supreme /so hot, give me your gasoline"?
WHAT? I mean seriously, I'd prefer "E-Mail my Heart" to this crap.
Compare Britney's 2011 MTV Special to her 2003 Diane Sawyer interview, in which she laughs, engages, genuinely thinks about her answers, defends her provocative photoshoots as "empowering," and starts crying when Sawyer asks about Justin.
Or compare Britney's 2011 MTV Special with Britney's 2001 MTV Diary, which opens with a bouncy Britney declaring:
"I'm living on my own, on my own terms... having a house by yourself, it's just that independent feeling of like, you know, I'm living on my own and my parents aren't here, you start feeling more confident, more in control of what I do. It's a cool feeling, it is."
Interviews like that don't happen anymore. Recently Carson Daly canceled his scheduled interview with Spears because he resented the constraints set up by her management — they wanted the interview pre-recorded & submitted for approval, for starters. "Interviews are never that restricted," Daly said on twitter."I've known and supported her since she was 15. I'm just shocked her management won't let her do a normal interview.
"Even when I interviewed Michael Jackson, it wasn't anything like this."
Britney's last (relatively) unsupervised interview happened in 2008, when MTV produced Britney Spears: For the Record in anticipation of her Circus tour. Britney wanted to "set the record straight" and acknowledge her emergence from a really complicated disaster of a few years. But that stuff wasn't nearly as compelling as what she snuck in about her life now, under the conservatorship:
"I've been through a lot, and there's a lot people don't know. Sometimes it can get lonely 'cause you don't open the gate. I'm stuck in this place, and I just cope every day."
"There's no excitement, there's no passion. Even when you go to jail, you know there's the time when you're gonna get out. But in this situation, it's never-ending."
"If I wasn't under the restraints I'm under, I'd feel so liberated."
Almost immediately following the MTV interview, Rolling Stone was the first to discover a series of defensive hoops Jamie had reflexively put in place around his daughter, what Jenny Eliscu described as "a rigorously micromanaged process." She wasn't allowed to be alone with Britney, her questions had to be submitted for Jamie's approval, and acceptable topics included "her new album, her boys, and that's about it."
When Britney first appeared on the scene, she (justifiably) terrified the Responsible Parents of America with her bubble-gum brand of spasmodic sexuality. Britney was acting out the same desires and curiosities the rest of us had, but she was doing it in front of everybody, and in more revealing shorts.
So sure -- Britney was a lousy role model from the get-go, but g-ddamn if her syrupy exhibitionism wasn't intoxicating for all the reasons it was destructive. Nobody asked you to take Britney Spears seriously, so it wasn't a big deal to grow out of it. But looking back, I'd take the naive giddiness exhibited in Britney & Kevin:Chaotic over the muzzled detachment of I Am the Femme Fatale any day.
If only the outrage over a rehabilitated 29-year-old woman (who lost it for a few years but had been way too sexy before that, so clearly she required containment) becoming the personal and financial property of a man she never even liked was half as loud as the chorus that once proclaimed her sexual 'antics' as degrading to women.
She's spent most of her career and the entirety of her breakdown begging everyone to just let her be herself or find out who that is, but it's out of her hands now. America's not into freedom for freedom's sake right now anyhow, we invented the Patriot Act.
And in the end, maybe the only person still waiting for their piece of Britney Spears... is Britney Spears.