Britney Spears Is Finally Sober. So Why Does She Seem So Sad?
As a teen I fantasized a fabulous life fueled by piles of drugs. Britney Spears was my idol. But my life came apart just as hers crashed and burned. Now that we're both sober, I've never felt more alive. So why does she seem so dead?
When Britney Spears was shooting the video for her recent single, “Till the World Ends,” her backup dancers were required to sign a non-disclosure agreement that was promptly leaked to the press. Included in the document was the following clause: “Contractor acknowledges that it is essential that [Britney] not be exposed to any alcohol, drugs, or controlled substances." Ironic, given that the lyrics of the song—“See the sunlight, we ain’t stopping, keep on dancing till the world ends”—sound more like a description of a meth-fueled circuit party than the mantra of a woman who considers her sobriety paramount. (It is worth noting that the song was co-written by slut-wave princess Ke$ha, who has built her career on a platform of ironic alcoholism.) The song’s apocalyptic delusions aside, the message was clear: If you have any drugs, leave Britney alone.
I don’t envy the team of handlers tasked with the responsibility of keeping Britney protected from the temptations of modern life, successful as they might be. “Hold It Against Me,” the first single from her most recent album, Femme Fatale, debuted at #1; the album has already been certified platinum; and “Till the World Ends” has become the most successful radio hit of Britney’s career. And yet, all of these are pyrrhic victories, given that the artist herself has gone dead-eyed and slack-jawed, incapable of stringing together a meaningful sentence—in the parlance of Britney, everything is simply “cool” or “fun,” intoned with a spectacular absence of feeling—let alone of executing her still-elaborate choreography with any enthusiasm. The consensus among even her most rabid fans is that Britney is so heavily medicated, for nebulously defined issues that likely include manic depression and chemical dependence (as implied by the frequent trips to rehab), that she’s been incapacitated. Once nimble and vibrant, now Britney drools in a lithium daze, phoning in vocals and staging lackluster performances. Even the camera readily captures the weariness in her body; she drags herself across the stage, slothlike, exhausted. Maybe it isn’t a product of medication; maybe the industry just chewed her up and spat her out and now she’s a shell of a person; I can’t say with any certainty. But the fact that she is putatively clean and sober feels immaterial when she’s obviously this miserable.
It wasn’t until Britney went crazy that I began to identify with her, or even care. I needed to see that she was as lost and broken as I was.
A cynic could make the lazy, cruel argument that now-Britney is indistinguishable from then-Britney; it’s not as though her current stupefaction is keeping her from writing the Next Great American Novel, or curing infectious diseases. But it’s an incontrovertible truth that Britney, in her prime, was an electrifying performer, and much more engaged with her musical output than the critics who readily dismiss “manufactured” pop tarts like Britney would care to admit. Over the last several years, after Britney’s deterioration into abject madness, Team Britney have rebuilt her image and career with an extraordinary degree of calculated caution—I can almost hear manager Larry Rudolph whispering platitudes under the pulsating four-on-the-floor beats of 2008’s Circus and this year’s Femme Fatale. But the gift for which Britney is least frequently acknowledged is actually her artistry, especially if we consider her as a case study of a musician at the pinnacle of celebrity who nearly lost everything as a consequence of addiction and mental illness. One needs only listen to Blackout, her fifth studio album, recorded in Britney’s darkest days—a feverish blur of (alleged) cocaine and Ecstasy abuse, ugly paparazzi attacks, and as-yet-undiagnosed bipolar disorder—to hear her keen skill for self-expression. The album is drenched in a cold metallic clarity, all clattering synths and distorted vocals. It’s clearly the product of an artist who is acutely aware of her own commoditization; of how shackled she is to the cloistered, robotic predictability of her life; of how desperate she is to escape. As an independent entity, a song like “Gimme More” doesn’t exactly evoke a strong emotional response, but taken as a whole, the cumulative effect of Blackout is greater than the sum of its parts. It sounds viscerally, profoundly sad.
I should acknowledge that I have a particular soft spot for Britney—or, rather, I feel aligned with Britney as a consequence of shared life experience, despite the fact that I am not (although you may have heard otherwise) an international pop sensation. And while I’ve certainly made my share of glib comments, I’ve never found her behavior incomprehensible; if anything, I’ve related to her intimately, through good times and bad. This may be a result of careful marketing, focus-grouped image control, and meticulous management; that is, I’m willing to accept the possibility that Britney’s cult of personality has been developed with such facility and expertise that I empathize with Britney because the media machine has effectively manipulated me into empathizing with Britney.
But my affinity for Britney doesn’t follow the conventional trajectory of her ascent to fame, fall from grace, and return to form; it wasn’t until Britney went crazy that I began to identify with her, or even care. First, I needed to see that she was as lost and broken as I was, and at the beginning of her career, she seemed invulnerable. When “…Baby One More Time” was released in 1998, Britney was 16, a nasal-voiced, liplined Lolita in sex-kitten garb. The now-iconic premise for the music video, which featured sexually precocious Catholic schoolgirls gone wild, was developed by Britney herself—and what an off-kilter and subversive concept it was, reconciling the chastity of religious imagery (or style, at least) with startlingly sexual choreography. (The director had presented a treatment for the video involving cartoon characters in a bid to appeal to younger children, and the fact that Britney argued, and stranger still, won, serves as a testament to her preternaturally sharp business acumen.) In the first single from her second album, "Oops! I Did It Again," orgasmic ululating yielded to a proclamation that seemed, by that point, self-evident: “I’m not that innocent.” “I’m a Slave 4 U,” the rhythmic single from her self-titled third album, abandoned pretensions of innocence altogether; in the video, Britney dripped with perspiration, thrusting and purring in various states of dishabille against a soundtrack of asthmatic gasping and squealing synthesizers. That year, she topped her previous VMA performance (which had involved a python that caressed the curves of her body), sharing a graphic kiss with Kabbalah-mentor Madonna.