Since her breakout 15 years ago, Britney Spears has never really left our collective consciousness. Nevertheless, there was something about the words “It’s Britney, bitch” that acknowledged a fall from grace. After an immensely public breakdown, the flat declaration seemed like a line in the sand between the teen starlet of the late millennium and the robotic dominatrix we’ve seen ever since. You’d think this was her announcement of a transition into an elder (if not actually even middle-aged yet) stateswoman role — and it is, in a way — but there’s also an element of surrender to “It’s Britney, bitch.” The subtext: she conquered pop a long time ago, and all she has to do anymore is show up.
This year has been quiet for the pop princess, despite a few attempts to make herself heard. Earlier this year, Spears released the single “Ooh La La” for Smurfs 2, a Dr. Luke production that peaked at 54 on the Billboard Hot 100. Last winter, she had a huge hit in the form of a contribution to will.i.am’s “Scream & Shout,” but the #1 song was quickly forgotten after it fell from the charts. She recently premiered the video for “Work Bitch,” a single that leaked late last month without much fanfare. An upcoming collaboration with her clearest successor, Miley Cyrus, leaked a few days ago, but Spears was not the reason “Bangerz (SMS)” got press, and it made far fewer ripples than Cyrus’ continued attempts to overthrow Spears. Britney’s last real hit was apocalypse anthem “Till the World Ends,” but the song seemed more like a triumph for writer Ke$ha than it was for Britney. Rising star Charli XCX could make a contribution to Spears’ upcoming album, but considering her increasing value and promise, it’ll surely help her career more than Britney’s.
It doesn’t help that there’s been a substantial emptiness to the vast majority of Spears’ work since 2006. This was most perfectly summed up in her disastrous VMA performance of “Gimme More,” that first, supposedly defiant statement of “It’s Britney, bitch.” A few years later, Spears released Circus, which was less of a comeback than a PR-fueled assertion that she’d gotten herself together after all. The album was full of the sexy, confident anthems that have characterized her later career, but they didn’t seem to come directly from Spears. After her breakdown, Spears was placed under her father Jamie’s conservatorship, and he’s been in charge of her career ever since. The knowledge of how little control Britney still has over her own life makes the would-be empowering messages of Circus and “Work Bitch” a lot less believable. The flat, nearly absent vocals in the latter song reveal that “Work Bitch” isn’t so much about Britney’s work, but her mere presence. It’s not hard to imagine producers ushering Britney in for just a moment before doing most of the song by themselves.
But there’s always been a troublingly passive nature to Britney’s image. Nathan Rabin nailed this in a post for A.V. Club’s pop retrospective “Then That’s What They Called Music!”: “She was… it should be noted, fucked: hopelessly, hopelessly fucked. When you’re introduced to the public as a devoutly Christian, wholesome, all-American, chaste, insatiable teen whore who will satisfy any listener’s most depraved fantasies when not contemplating God’s unimaginable glory, a normal, sane, functional adolescence and young adulthood is out of the question.” In this, Spears immediately became the best symbol of teen pop mogul Lou Pearlman’s disconcerting roster: a pawn chosen to sell a dangerous, impossible mix of perfect innocence and wanton sexuality.
“The question wasn’t whether the doe-eyed 16-year-old pop tart gyrating in a sports bra and Catholic-schoolgirl outfit would enter the proverbial nightmare descent into booze and pills™, but when,” Rabin writes. “Similarly, we didn’t wonder whether the pressures of fame would drive her a little batty, we just asked exactly how fucking nuts she’d eventually become.” And perhaps it was not Spears’ music, but our collective curiosity of how far she’d fall that has made her so important to recent pop. God knows we can’t resist a train wreck, and despite the strength of her best songs, Britney will probably be best-remembered for crashing spectacularly.
Because of the sheer magnitude of Spears’ highs and lows, she’s achieved a level of celebrity that few modern pop stars will ever reach. But in an ironic twist, it’s these heightened expectations that prevent her from making a real comeback. Spears earned herself a Madonna-caliber legend very early in her career, and her singles have earned the same amount of cultural esteem as Madonna’s recent releases. But Madonna’s and Spears’ place in pop royalty mean they’re more likely to rest on their laurels than try anything new.
Spears is only 31, which is a pretty young age to start a two-year residence in Vegas. Her peers, like fellow bubblegum survivors Beyoncé and Justin Timberlake, show much greater ambition. This is what separates them from her: Beyoncé and Timberlake know they’re important to pop, and they’re desperately determined to keep reminding us. Spears may keep showing up, but as her vocal resignation becomes more and more prominent, it seems she only comes back because we ask her to.