“Having an incredible birthday – thanks to my fans for all the amazing wishes & videos! Still trying to watch all of them. I love all of u!!!”
Who was that, celebrating a landmark birthday last Friday?
It was Britney. The Queen of Pop, or Godney (as one entranced fan called her) was on her Twitter site, where she was being courted all day.
Spears turned 30, and the event was feted in the media; by her famous buddies; and by sad, grasping former friends desperate to curry favour. I am referring to the wretched Paris Hilton. She once dismissed Britney, calling her an “animal” out of hand. Still, she posted a sanctimonious birthday-tribute video online (shot, with due sense of occasion, in her hotel bathroom). Even the imperious Nicole Richie sent a short, gruntish tweet.
You know you’ve truly arrived, or returned, when the cruel girls who once played tricks on you start attaching themselves to you like limpets.
Why all the excitement over this birthday? Because Spears, once seemingly destined to fail and fall harder than Frances Farmer, has not so much reinvented herself as she has simply, and glowing with health, seized back her superstardom.
Spears’s career began, according to biographer Christopher Heard, when at the age of 3 she sang, pitch-perfectly, a Sinead O’Connor song on a trampoline in her Kentwood, La., backyard. She went on to become a teen superstar, a gifted singer, dancer and performer, and the very image of the new American blonde: a femme fatale. Also the name of her new record, Femme Fatale has matched 2000’s smash hit Oops…I Did It Again in popularity, and with even better critical reception.
When Britney said “Oops ... I did it again,” she meant it: A year earlier, a tender 17, and channelling Janis Ian’s polar opposite, Britney had released the provocative (Hit Me) Baby One More Time, viewed at the time as a regressive and dangerous model for young girls. This fury was utterly wrong-minded. To keep it simple for the attack dogs who see themselves as guarding the notion of innocent youth: Art is not a series of instructions, and transgressive art is all too useful for young girls.
Dirty old men (let’s face it: most men) fetishize teen girls in Catholic-school uniforms. In Baby One More Time, Spears challenged the fetish: If the lyrics are fairly intriguing (lovesickness considered as an erotic prelude to violence), the video shows exactly what would happen if a barely legal girl stepped out of a magazine – and out of her shy, withholding posture – and moved aggressively toward her beholder.
Chances are, he or she would run. Schoolgirl fear and trembling lies at the heart of the fantasy. Here, and in so much of her music, Spears, in that odd demotic that is young-girlese, stammer-whispers her aggressive discontent with how watching and being watched usually goes in the erotic realm.
Watch her on YouTube performing The Way You Make Me Feel with Michael Jackson at Madison Square Garden in 2001. Originally choreographed as a highly masculinized seduction dance, its meaning is completely altered by Spears. Not only does she sing half the lyrics; she repudiates all the sexual advances that constitute the legendary Jackson performance, before taking the microphone to end the song. Throughout, she receives and rejects attention; she offers her beauty, and pulls it away.
At the end of their duet, Jackson clasps his hands together and bows. Of all of the artists who ripped him off, she is the only one who used his moves and music in a revisionist, forward-looking way. (Think of T.S. Eliot using Shakespeare.)
But two years later, Spears’s life – until then a huge, pink, gooey cake – would begin to implode.
There were the Federline years. Pregnant and barefoot in a gas-station bathroom. Letting Madonna act like her cruel pimp at the MTV Awards. Drugs, grotesque undergarment crises; bloated and wan appearances, self-injury, breakdowns, harrowing interventions.
Then the slow road back, with her father acting as her guide. The first thing he did? Had the pink party wig, which she always wore when she went out catting, removed from her home. There are photos online, still, of it being solemnly carried away by handlers, as if it were a blunt-cut biohazard.
She lost custody of her two sons in 2007. That was the year before, with some actual care and support, she went back to work, releasing Circus, and touring in full recovery mode. By 2010, she would appear to the kids on Glee as a vision, and feel like one. Her stardom is too big for puny TV, but her stardom is, at long last, back and intact.
Femme Fatale, happily, is not – like Eminem’s good but jammed-on-step-number-eight Recovery – a mea maxima culpa CD. Britney’s new songs are for people who like to dance, and their message is direct. Filtered, it is as follows: Shame on me for hiding while everyone maligned me. That and “DJ, what you waiting for?”
One feels a sense of awe seeing and hearing the adult Spears, and is reminded of poet Ted Hughes’s recollection of first seeing that hot blonde tamale, Sylvia Plath: “So this is America, I marveled/ Beautiful, beautiful America!”