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Black Sky Thinking

Britney Spears: The Perfect Pop Star For Our Times?
Charles Ubaghs , November 27th, 2008 13:45

With the head-shaving craziness behind her, the stage is set for Britney Spears' triumphant return. Is she the perfect pop star for our time, asks Charles Ubaghs

"If there was a female Christ, it's Britney." Leave it to Russell Brand to encapsulate Britney Spears much-feted ‘resurrection’ at the 2008 MTV Video Music Awards. On face value, all she did was take part in a trumped-up meet and greet where the pop star's only perceptible responsibility was to look as toned, tanned and reasonably in-control as possible. It may have occurred on the stage where her public meltdown went supernova the year before, but as acts of public penance go, it ranks fairly low on the difficulty scale. And yet, that was it, that was all the press and fans needed to herald the second coming of the much troubled, former teen pop icon.

With the 27-year-old’s breakdown still on maximum overdrive at the start of the year, it’s a twist in her ongoing saga that many wouldn’t have believed. Yet with the star looking surprisingly focused during recent public appearances, an anticipated new album on the way and a number one single in the bag with Womanizer, the proof appears to be in the proverbial pudding. Absurd doesn’t even begin to describe this sudden about-face in the tumultuous life and times of Britney Spears, and with it comes the sinking realisation that when the votes are tallied and this musical era finally draws to a close, we’re going to have to accept the following fact: Britney Spears will bear the crown of greatest pop star of her time.

Here’s the evidence. Since the dawn of pop music, what lone trait is shared by all the great pop stars who’ve lodged themselves in the public’s imagination? Every single one of them ends up, often unwittingly, reflecting a moment in time back to the public at large. Elvis? The rise of rock’n’roll and the advent of the teenager. Dylan? The early days of the protest movement. Madonna? Take your pick. She’s just as much a byword for western meritocracies and the stress they place on individual success as she is a defining symbol of the 80s ‘me’ decade.

Britney? Extreme exhibitionism.

From the moment she erupted out of the gate in her thigh high stockings and schoolgirl’s uniform, the woman’s engaged in a 24/7 look but don’t touch policy with the wider public. Be it the carefully staged Lolita/saint shtick of her early days to announcing her sexual maturity by cavorting with a writhing snake and declaring herself to be a 'Slave 4 U', the former mouseketeer has toyed with and then struggled to forge an adult identity under the probing eye of an ever-accelerating media culture. It would be a pressure cooker experience for even the hardiest of performers and it did eventually lead to a series of poor decisions that included a whirlwind Las Vegas marriage and divorce, a second marriage to K-Fed, two children, another divorce, increasingly erratic public behaviour, rehab and finally, the infamous head-shaving incident. In her attempts to take charge of her life, Britney Spears has proven incapable of separating her public identity with her personal one.

It’s little wonder that even when she attempted to escape the cameras, she also played intentional games of cat and mouse with the rabid media and went so far as to date one of the paparazzi tailing her. Even her much touted recovery and come-back, which has occurred at a hyper speed we’ve only become accustomed to since the internet went from a novel indulgence to being viewed as a human right, has been followed by a documentary film crew for the past few months.

If our greatest pop stars do end up serving as cultural signposts for those to follow and historians to look back on, then in this decade of the status update, which has seen the rise of blogs, reality TV, social networking, web 2.0 and a drastic redefinition of what passes for personal boundaries and acceptable public behaviour, it only seems fitting that the one singer who couldn’t learn to say no and keep the public out, should take the pop queen title.

Others have and will argue that Britney is more than just an idea, she’s a human being and shouldn’t we focus purely on the music and leave the rest alone. They have a point. All she’s ever really done is play the part of pop puppet as she allows herself to be ushered around by controlling handlers while flashing a bit of leg and singing the odd manufactured ditty. These things are true. But she’s also passed that tipping point where the personal becomes permanently intertwined with the music. Together, they create a quasi-mythical version of Britney that may not have any bearing on the actual human being, but never the less takes firm root in a pop cultural landscape that informs us as much as we inform it. Only a handful of stars ever go through this. Some, like Dylan, use it to craft an impenetrable wall of mystique. Others, like Elvis and Michael Jackson, turn into the great tragic figures whose eventual fall only reinforces our terminal fascination.

It’s not a pretty idea. The woman offers little in the way of inspiration and she embodies the ugly downside of what has come to dominate our lives in the past 10 years, but Britney Spears is what we asked for. We may not have requested her by name, but we certainly did by action. Like it or not, she’s what we got.

Long live the queen.