Why Do We Talk About Britney Spears Like She’s Not a Prisoner?


I’m a bit behind on this, but I came across Jody Rosen’s review of the new Britney Spears album over at Vulture, and I cannot stop thinking about it. His review begins with, “Let’s be honest: Britney Spears may be the most boring person on the planet,” explains that by way of, “She has been in the public eye for two decades and has never evinced anything in the way of a personality,” and then adds, for good rhetorical measure, that, “She’s antimatter in a belly shirt.”

Thank God for the second commenter on the Vulture post (as it stands now) who chimes in:

also it’s kind of difficult to say that britney is boring, without going into how heavily medicate she is and how she is basically under lockdown. her pr team don’t allow her to say anything… THAT’s the fascinating part. rosen you missed the point entirely.

See, it’s not the negativity of Rosen’s judgment that strikes me. I have no particular attachment to the new album, or to Britney’s music, or to Britney as a pop artist on the whole, though I’ve found her songs fun. I also don’t care if one critic disagrees with another, though I reserve the right to find the method by which they come to a particular result unreasoned and/or stupid.

But I find it baffling that one would write all of that stuff above about an artist who, legally speaking, has no control over her public image or utterances or finances or, hell, contracts, Jesus Christ in heaven. Of course I have no secret information that Britney, given the option, would be delivering intelligent, fine-tuned critiques of the American political scene. But we’ll never know, now, will we? If I were on as much stuff as she’s clearly on, with no ability to make any serious decisions about my life because a court stepped into the middle of the equation, I’d think everything was as “cool” and “great” as she’s eternally pronouncing it in interviews.

There’s always a bit of bullshit involved in rendering verdicts on the personalities of pop artists by way of their song lyrics and PR strategies. With Britney it’s much worse because she is literally the puppet of others who stepped in when her public meltdowns were beginning to threaten her “brand.” There are lots of artists who have legions of handlers and whose decisions are made for them by commercial pressures. That is not, however, the only problem Britney is confronting here: her signature is literally meaningless on a contract. If she wants to move houses or stop singing or get money for the endless Starbucks runs, as a matter of the law she has to ask her dad. As a matter of law she is not a person with the capacity to decide for herself to do anything.

Whether or not her dad or anyone else is literally frog-marching her onto those stages and into the studios is kind of immaterial here. What we are watching — literally! no exaggeration here! — when we watch Britney perform is a person being deployed by others for not-insignificant financial gain on their own parts. And if the way that she or anyone else chooses to cope with that is to succumb to the flow of things — it’s not like she has any choice, or rather the other choice is a 5150 hold at Cedars-Sinai — it is odd to take issue with that in her work without acknowledging how she got there.

Increasingly, I have to admit, I avoid the whole sideshow of “trainwrecks” because I find it too depressing. I find it too depressing that it’s almost always young women, and I find it too depressing that people think that having a nervous breakdown is still a legitimate reason to call someone “trash,” and I find it too depressing that people are actively clamoring for the next calf to go to slaughter. But most of all I find it depressing that we have reached a day and age where a person who is literally without the right to refuse to entertain us gets critiqued like she was just any old entertainer.