This may sound strange, but even though Britney Spears is three years older and vastly wealthier and more famous than I am, I’ve felt for years like she was my pop-cultural little sister. Maybe it was the video for “Lucky,” which felt like the confessions I heard from cheerleaders in high school about how miserable they were — I know, I know, but pretty blondes have problems, too. Maybe it was the very public meltdown, that left her, a grown woman with two children, under her father’s conservatorship. And maybe it’s the perpetual sadness that seems to haunt so many of her subsequent music videos: her smile at the end of the video for “Circus” felt like the happiest we’d seen her in performances — or in life — in years.
But it’s also fascinating to me the way post-breakdown Britney and the folks around her have aestheticized her vulnerability. Take her new video for “Criminal”:
It’s not that we don’t see female pop stars put themselves in a position to be manhandled in their own videos — Rihanna suffers a much more brutal and extensive assault in “Man Down.” But in this case, we’re attuned to Britney’s vulnerability, we believe she really would choose a guy who would do something like this to her. And even though her bad behavior once she ditches him isn’t directed at her nasty ex, the fact that he treated her badly becomes a form of narrative permission for her to hold up convenience stores and get steamy with her real-life boyfriend on film.
She doesn’t need any such permission in the video for “Toxic,” where she’s a totally confident troublemaker (And the nodding white, male business-class passengers actually feel like a call-out, whether it’s intentional or not, to OutKast’s circus audience in the video for “The Whole World.”):
That same sort of permission narrative is at work in the video for “I Wanna Go,” where the obnoxious questions of celebrity journalists and persistence of paparazzi photographers (also, the fact that they’re terminators) justify Britney’s decision to lash out against them violently and go for a joy ride:
The invasiveness of celebrity journalism is a common theme in Britney’s conservatorship-era videos, whether she’s critiquing their voraciousness in “Piece of Me” or punking the folks who are camped outside her sex den by baking them pie and presenting herself as an All-American housewife in “If You Seek Amy.” It’s a smart ploy, letting Spears present herself as a victim rather than complicit in an industry that’s ugly but that helps her make a lot of money. But part of what’s interesting about the story in “I Wanna Go” is that it neutralizes her rebellion in the end. The agent of her escape, the guy who tells her he loves dreams and seashells, is one of the same Terminators who were harassing her with cameras earlier. She can never really escape. Her rebellion is sexy, but ultimately futile.