Recently Celine Dion gave an interview to Billboard in which she made an offhand comment about the songs on her new album, noting, “I’m at the mercy of the songs because I don’t write my material… but I could not believe what I was hearing.”
It made me realize how rare it is that a pop star simply owns the fact that he/she doesn’t write her own material. What’s the shame in it? I don’t expect Celine Dion to write her songs. She gave us “That’s the Way It Is” and the air guitar performance of “You Shook Me All Night Long” at VH1′s Divas Live and that’s all I’ve ever needed from her.
But Celine Dion represents her immense stardom with a phenomenal voice, a gift for song interpretation, candor, and general awesomeness. Whitney Houston, also a superstar who didn’t write her songs, was the same way. Even Katy Perry, whose recent hit “Roar” is about as anodyne a pop tune as I’ve heard in the past year, inspires fanaticism because she’s a quirky performer. This week, as I finally heard Britney Spears’ much-ballyhooed new single “Work B**ch!” and watched the inevitable onslaught of praise from her admirers on Facebook, it seemed ridiculous — here, in 2013, as she gets another opportunity to release music in which her vocal contributions feel like very last-minute additions to a recording session she may have never attended in the first place — not to question what her most ardent fans think Britney’s quantifiable merits are.
I don’t demand that pop stars have the range of Marian Anderson or even the sheer vocal power of Adele, Beyonce, or Lady Gaga. Madonna‘s vocal limits have always been clear, but that has always — always, even during the Evita era — been beside the point. Madge’s showmanship, self-possession, and nerviness are her clear and immortal gifts. Even Kylie Minogue, who won’t draw any comparisons to Mariah Carey in terms of vocal achievement any time soon, is simply fabulous because she embraces the sheer effervescence and lightness of pop. She probably doesn’t write much of her music, but she’s fully engaged and present as a pop vocalist and performer. She represents herself and her brand of glamorous cool in every bit of stylized “Can’t You Get Out Of My Head” choreography and pouty lyric of “Get Outta My Way.” As an anti-glamor hero, Ke$ha writes her nutty, purposely trashy material, and represents a sexualized and feminist point of view with each snarl of “Blah, Blah, Blah” and “Sleazy.” Britney Spears can’t claim to represent herself as a performer, a singer, a pop culture entity, or even as a judge on X Factor, where she was paid eight figures to say almost nothing and look confused as she did it.
I’ve loved certain Britney Spears songs. “Toxic” was a rightful Grammy winner for Best Dance Recording, Blackout is a great pop album, and “How I Roll” off her last disc Femme Fatale is, as one of my astute pals noted, “Janet Jackson‘s ‘Strawberry Bounce’ meets Liz Phair‘s ‘Whip-Smart’ in a Sanrio store.” Clearly Britney has amazing producers, songwriters, and handlers on her side. But it would be ridiculous to say that because of those connections I’m a fan of hers when she is such a passive participant in her own brand. Her vocals still sound like one of the Rugrats gurgling into a fan, and I’ll be damned if I’ve ever heard her vocals performed live (aside from that time on X Factor when she sang “Happy Birthday” to LA Reid and it sounded like this).
What are Britney fans holding on to? Those ‘stans’ who use the hashtag #GODNEY on Twitter and make constant references to the (admittedly funny) “holy Spearit”? Is it her 2000 VMAs performance of “Satisfaction” and “Oops!… I Did It Again” where she looked great and hit all the choreography well enough? Is it the sexy video for “I’m a Slave 4 U”? Maybe it’s just that Britney’s core fanbase has “grown up with her” at this point, but I’m willing to bet there’s a more sarcastic point of view in play.
Lady Gaga‘s “Applause” might not be her greatest single (though there’s a lot to love about it), but the recent and fiery backlash against Ms. Germanotta has had the distinct air of resentment. As in: “Stop trying so hard, lady. You can’t make us like you with your purposely outrageous ideas and self-awareness. You’re not smarter than we are.” Britney fandom seems to represent an opposing principle, a cry of “You can’t make me not love Britney Spears. She can screw up her choreography and sing terribly, but — HA! — I’ll still stan for her.” It’s as if Britney’s most aggressive fans enjoy an ironic, condescending, cooler-than-thou attitude towards their star and feel defiant about that worship when it’s actually just casual patronization.
Despite all of Britney’s fumbles, the one thing she’s never been is “annoying,” that barb leveled exclusively at female performers like Madonna, Lady Gaga, and Ke$ha, artists who choose to flaunt their self-awareness at the expense of being dismissed as obnoxious. Britney does not flaunt, and her fans feel comfortable loving exactly that fact: She’s a bland starlet who will never upset the status quo by wanting to be more than bland or by exercising the self-awareness to own being bland in the first place.
Maybe it’s that we’re so inundated with new artists, talent and music that loving Britney feels somehow quaint. But I’d prefer ’80s Madonna for nostalgic charms, as I like watching performers who take to the stage to express themselves, not unintentionally represent the boring cynicism of their supposed fans.