Thursday 20 September 2018

One more time...with healing - how did Britney Spears become relevant again

She used to be pop's most tragic tale. Now, the singer returns to Dublin a music icon. How did she find relevance again, asks Ed Power

Fit Brit: Spears brings her Piece of Me Tour to the 3Arena on Monday. Photo: Getty Images
Fit Brit: Spears brings her Piece of Me Tour to the 3Arena on Monday. Photo: Getty Images
Ed Power

Ed Power

It was a dark and stormy night in October 2011 when Britney Spears last visited Dublin. A primordial downpour had whipped the city all evening, leading to widespread flooding.

Within the 3Arena (then The O2), the crowd was enthusiastic but the venue was far from full, empty seats visible across the upper level. How many had been put off by the terrible weather, and how many by the tornadoes that had ripped through Spears' life and career across the previous five years, was difficult to say.

A very different sight will greet the now 36-year-old as she returns to the docklands this Monday. All going well, concert-goers will not be required to travel by canoe. And the venue will be stuffed to capacity, with tickets for Spears' comeback performance selling out immediately.

After 20 years of mega-celebrity and enough controversy for several lifetimes, Britney is cool once more (not even those persistent lip-synching rumours can dim the gloss).

Curiously, this has come to pass without the world's most famous ex-Mouseketeer actually becoming a chart-topping singer again. True, 2016's Glory LP went to number one in Ireland. That, however, was very much the exception - in the US, the album, despite warm reviews, stiffed at number three.

Nor are there any indications she is interested in turning over a new leaf artistically. When it was announced in 2015 that Spears would embark on a residency in Las Vegas - earning a reported $475,000 per show - the consensus was that she was over and done as a contemporary hit-maker.

Britney with her boyfriend Sam Asghari in an Instagram post
Britney with her boyfriend Sam Asghari in an Instagram post

But, for all that, Britney, who wrapped up four years at Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino to embark on her new world tour, is undoubtedly having a moment. Let's not call it a comeback. Let's call it a Britnaissance.

Lots of stars have aligned for the singer. The 10th anniversary in 2017 of her best album, Blackout, drew lots of gushing commemorative commentary. It is also the case that her rather plastic and disposable pop is back in fashion. Max Martin, producer of Britney's biggest hit '…Baby One More Time', has influenced a new generation of musicians. You can hear echoes of his more-is-more approach on recent records by Lorde, St Vincent and Taylor Swift (whose 'Shake It Off' he produced and co-wrote). In refusing to pander to trends, Britney has stumbled into sudden credibility.

And she's become a canny user of social media. The images Spears shares with her 20.5 million Instagram followers are of a fun-loving mom and partner (she is in a relationship with personal trainer-turned-actor Sam Asghari). We see her having brunch with her sons, aged 12 and 11, or enjoying therapeutic painting sessions under the balmy LA skies. Of the troubled young woman of a decade ago, there is not a trace.

A more simple truth, however, may be that audiences respond to Britney because she's a survivor - a vulnerable person who fell apart and put herself back together. Thus, she cuts a far more relatable figure than fellow pop veterans such as Beyoncé and Swift.

Smash hit: Britney in ‘...Baby One More Time’
Smash hit: Britney in ‘...Baby One More Time’

Their images are polished and tightly controlled (see Beyoncé's US Vogue cover spread - presided over by…Beyoncé). Britney, by contrast, really did seem to be about to lose it all as, in the mid-2000s, she became one of the first victims of the then-burgeoning Internet Celebrity Complex.

A portrait of Britney as a frightened soul perpetually on the run from the paps painted in a Rolling Stone profile from that time is, with hindsight, chilling and ominous. "Every day in LA, at least a hundred paparazzi, reporters and celebrity-magazine editors dash after her, this braless chick padding around town on hilariously mundane errands - the gas station, the pet store, Starbucks, Rite Aid."

Rock bottom came in 2007. In January, an aunt to whom Spears was close died of ovarian cancer. The following month she checked into a drug rehabilitation clinic in Antigua, but left after less than a day.

Twenty four hours later, Spears turned up at a hair salon in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley, where she complained about uncomfortable hair extensions and demanded to have her head shaved. When the staff blanched, she grabbed the shears and did it herself. As her hair tumbled to the floor in thick clops, it was hard not to conclude that she was trying to exorcise demons.

At that point, it must have seemed she couldn't fall any further. But that September, Britney was pressured into what was billed a triumphant comeback at the MTV VMA Awards. Her performance was just 11 years ago but the response to it - specifically to her physical appearance - could have come from another century.

Her breach of faith, in the eyes of the world, was to go on stage with an un-toned torso. She had given birth to her second son less than a year previously and, locked in a bitter custody dispute with ex-husband Kevin Federline, had bigger things to worry about than her abs.

Yet it was by her abs she was judged. The room audibly gasped as she wobbled on; a camera cutting to another prominent female singer caught laughing at Britney.

Later, in her dressing room, Spears reportedly dissolved into tears while, outside, former boyfriend Justin Timberlake collected four gongs.

Remarkably, there was further yet to fall. In January 2008, Spears was committed to an institution after her family argued she was a danger to herself and others.

That could have been the end. Instead, it was the beginning of the second phase of her career. While she was receiving treatment, it was decided to put her financial affairs in a trust overseen by her father. That arrangement continues to this day and is credited with contributing to her stability. She also regained joint custody of her kids and, as conveyed via her Instagram, is the model of chirpy suburban mom.

Alongside the underdog aspect of her story, it is also the case that her music is now of sufficient vintage to have surfed the waves of nostalgia. A new generation of fans will remember '…Baby One More Time' from their childhoods - and may have come of age dancing to 'Oops!…I Did It Again' and 'Toxic'.

Britney, it is clear, is still following her own path. What's changed is that, rather than taking joy in her troubles, now the world is cheering her on. Expect Monday night to be a celebration of a woman who was knocked down, got up again, and refused to be defined by her haters.

Irish Independent

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