Till The World Ends: Britney Spears And The Extended Shelf Life Of The Modern Pop Star
No one remembers Debbie Gibson. Actually, perhaps the opposite is true: Memory is the only way most people experience Gibson anymore, not as an active concern but a blast from the past. Ditto Tiffany, Gibson’s sister in late-’80s teen pop stardom. Both singers were ubiquitous from about ’87 to ’89. Gibson’s first album included four top-5 hits, followed up by another #1 off sophomore effort Electric Youth, while Tiffany scored a pair of chart-topping singles from her own self-titled debut. One moment they were pop royalty, the next they disappeared into obscurity. Both kept releasing records all the way up until the dawn of this decade, but in pop cultural terms, they are relics, nostalgic shorthand for another time.
Now, Gibson’s trajectory wasn’t exactly “Out Of The Blue” and into the void. She’s a successful Broadway actress, and both she and Tiffany have starred in a bunch of B-movies and competed on reality TV shows. Gibson’s actually got a new Hallmark movie premiering this weekend. But in order to continue an entertainment career, these singers have had to forgo pop stardom. Neither has scored a genuine radio hit in almost three decades. They’re out of the game and too old to conceivably mount a comeback if they wanted to, barring some kind of freak viral success story. You never saw former VH1 reclamation projects Bret Michaels and Flavor Flav rocking the pop charts either, nor did the boy band castoffs in last year’s ridiculous zombie western parlay it into a radio return.
That is the traditional logic of pop stardom, especially (and unfairly) among women: Eventually you age out of the spotlight, replaced by a new generation of attractive young entertainers and relegated to some less glamorous tier of the celebrity class system. Washed-up actors can suddenly swoop back into relevance with the help of one savvy casting director, but yesterday’s hit-makers are essentially banished from the pop mainstream. For pop singers past their prime, there is no McConaissance.
Note that I’m referring specifically to the kind of pop star who mainly functions as a vessel for the music industry machine — often the case among those who start out young, performing music aimed at adolescents — not someone like Madonna or Michael Jackson who writes many of their own songs and exerts powerful creative vision across the course of their careers. (Though it’s worth noting that even those two eventually watched their musical currency dwindle away; Madonna’s failed stabs at relevance last year were painful to watch.) Typically the pop singers who become career artists are the ones with that kind of agency, singers who not only surround themselves with talent but also manage to carve out a distinct persona. It’s one big reason why former teenage pop singers Beyoncé and Justin Timberlake and Katy Perry and Usher have continued to make hits well into adulthood while Monica and Mya and Aaron Carter and Jessica Simpson have not.
Now consider Britney Spears, whose career is alive and well nearly 18 years after “…Baby One More Time.” Spears is not much of a songwriter or a visionary or even a big personality, and her singing voice is more distinctive than good. She has rarely seemed to be in control of her own career and, as of 2008, is not even legally trusted to manage her own life. The woman has often been a laughingstock, and — as her newly announced Lifetime biopic will surely remind us — at least two or three times she appeared to be washed up. Yet unlike her teen-pop predecessors, she’s still a meaningful figure in mainstream pop, someone who not only looms over our entire understanding of what it means to be a pop star but is actively engaged in the process of pop stardom. Every one of her albums has generated at least one top-10 single until “Work Bitch,” from 2013’s Britney Jean, topped out at #12. And with eighth album Glory out tomorrow, she still hasn’t fully ceded the spotlight to a class of young descendants who probably grew up wanting to be her.
Most imminently, Spears will return this Sunday to the MTV Video Music Awards stage, the scene of her career’s most iconic and embarrassing moments alike, to perform the G-Eazy collaboration “Make Me.” The VMAs were where she memorably appeared to strip naked on stage in 2000 (she was actually wearing a flesh-colored bodysuit), danced with an albino python in 2001, and locked lips with Madonna in 2003. It’s also where she notoriously did not seem fully present during her show-opening rendition of “Gimme More” in 2007, setting off a press firestorm and setting up a redemption run through “Womanizer” in 2008.
In 2011 Spears received the Video Vanguard Award, a lifetime achievement trophy that used to go to groundbreaking visual artists and now goes to whichever pop superstar MTV can secure to guarantee ratings. She didn’t perform on that broadcast, though, so Sunday’s gig will surely be framed as yet another triumphant comeback, a special chance to say “Yas!” to one of pop’s longest-standing queens. “Make Me” is not exactly prime playlist material — really, nothing on Glory can hang with “Toxic” and “Till The World Ends,” though mid-album club crushers “Clumsy” and “Do You Wanna Come Over?” try the hardest — but Spears will likely nail the performance all the same. She’s had a lot of practice lately, knocking out her hits night after night in Vegas.
Piece Of Me, the show Spears performs about 50 times a year at Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino, is one way she’s been able to extend her pop cultural life span even as each successive album makes less of a cultural imprint. Before that, she stayed in the public eye as a judge on the short-lived American version of The X-Factor. Similar paths have been cut by Mariah Carey and Jennifer Lopez, both of whom did stints judging American Idol and now have their own respective Vegas residencies. Spears’ one-time rival Christina Aguilera, who kept her career afloat as a coach on The Voice, seems tailor-made for Vegas, too, though Aguilera’s manager Irving Azoff — casting enough shade to blind intrepid entertainment reporter Pauly Shore — recently said she wouldn’t do a residency while “still in her prime.”
Azoff is a well-connected industry veteran who not that long ago was named the most powerful person in music, so far be it from me to defy him, but he seems to be overvaluing Aguilera’s stock and undervaluing the prestige of a Vegas show. Maybe Sin City used to be where pop stars went to retire, but these days it’s less likely to erode celebrity status than to reify it. I was in Vegas earlier this month, and the relentless advertising for these superstar residencies was unmissable. My reaction to the building-size posters was not to file the performers away as has-beens. Rather, the advertising reminded me of their existence and stoked a desire to revisit their music. More than 42 million people visited Vegas last year; that’s a lot of positive reinforcement!
Reality TV, though, has been the real game-changer for veteran pop stars. A prominent role on American Idol (R.I.P.) or The Voice has long been a chance to broadcast your personality to millions of Americans night after night, week after week, season after season. Perhaps more importantly, whereas participating in reality TV as a contestant is an ego-crushing rite of passage for fading stars, signing on in an authoritative role affirms your position of clout. It establishes you as not just a constant presence but a credible one. For performers who otherwise might have been carried away by the pop culture slipstream, it keeps them one fire single away from a return to heavy rotation. That’s a major upheaval of the old pop-star order.
Even among her resilient peers, Spears is an anomaly. Reality TV is not a significant part of her story; the American X-Factor was such a blip that no one associates her with it the way Aguilera is linked to The Voice or J-Lo came to define Idol’s later years. And Spears kept bouncing back from the brink for years before rolling out her icon-cementing Vegas show. If the modern pop star has nine lives, Spears might have something like 900. It’s like we as a society have collectively willed her to keep going.
I have a theory about why: Everyone with investment in Spears, be it financial or emotional, is reluctant to let go. For music executives, she’s a brand too valuable to burn. And for fans, the attachment may be more primal than even the desire for money. To the generation who grew up with Spears, she will always be the truest definition of a pop star, and pop stars will always be one of the most powerful signifiers of youth. For we millennials who have aged beyond 30 and are never going back, Spears may be as much of an avatar now as she was at 17. We have psychological incentive to believe she’s still vital. Why worry about dying someday when Britney’s still out there killing it?
America has a new #1 song. “Closer” becomes the first ever chart-topper for both the Chainsmokers and Halsey, making a surprising leap from #6 to the summit of the Hot 100 and bumping Sia and Sean Paul’s four-week #1 “Cheap Thrills” down to #2. The Chainsmokers continue to boast two singles in the top 10 as their Daya collaboration “Don’t Le Me Down” lands at #8 this week. Twenty One Pilots also claim 20 percent of the top 10: They hold steady at #4 with “Heathens,” and “Ride” rises back to its #6 peak. Adele’s “Give My Love (To Your New Lover)” climbs back into the top 10 at #10. And although Drake’s “One Dance” falls to #7, he has now had a song in the top 10 for 49 consecutive weeks, passing Ace Of Base for second all-time behind Katy Perry’s mammoth 69-week run.
Over on the Billboard 200 albums chart, the Suicide Squad soundtrack stays at #1 for a second straight week, tallying 93,000 units and 50,000 in traditional sales. Billboard reports that it’s the first soundtrack to spend multiple weeks at #1 since Guardians Of The Galaxy in 2014. Those two join Dreamgirls and Frozen as the only soundtracks to spend multiple weeks at #1 since Bad Boys II in 2003.
Drake’s Views holds steady at #2 with 71,000 units, followed by his OVO associate PartyNextDoor’s P3 at #3 with 50,000, which far outpaces the #15 debut of PARTYNEXTDOOR TWO in 2014. Country singer Justin Moore’s Kinda Don’t Care starts at #4 with 42,000 units; it’s his fourth top-10 album. And Rae Sremmurd’s SremmLife 2 debuts at #7 with 27,000 units, a fairly steep drop from the #5-debuting original SremmLife’s 49,000 first-week units. Just wait until they release “Black Beatles” as a single, though.
Ellie Goulding – “Still Falling For You”
Goulding’s going to turn out to be one of those singers with a big power ballad on every female-targeted movie soundtrack, isn’t she? This one, from Bridget Jones’ Baby, doesn’t hit you over the head quite like “Love Me Like You Do,” but it’s sleeker and prettier and probably better.
Shawn Mendes – “Mercy”
Am I crazy, or does the intro here smack of James Blake’s influence? Not the rest of the song, unfortunately.
Ingrid Michaelson – “Celebrate”
Michaelson, a singer-songwriter and Taylor Swift associate, released the great “Boys Chase Girls” a couple years ago, and the minimal synth-guitar bounce of “Celebrate” is just as instantly winsome.
Bea Miller – “yes girl”
If you want to destroy Bea Miller’s sweater, hold this thread as she walks away.
Bridget Mendler – “Atlantis” (Feat. Kaiydo)
Mendler is a Disney affiliate, but don’t let that dissuade you from checking out her icy post-Imogen Heap hit in the making. The rap verse is trash, but guest rap verses on pop songs tend to be trash.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Pharrell Williams, Robin Thicke, & T.I. filed their opening brief at the 9th Circuit Court Of Appeals, hoping to reverse Marvin Gaye’s family’s victory in the “”Blurred Lines”” trial. [Billboard]
- Diddy postponed the Bad Boy Reunion Tour to recover from shoulder surgery. [AP]
- Good guy Justin Bieber paid the bar tab of a bunch of strangers who were grieving for their friend who died earlier that day. [TMZ]
- In other Bieber news, his once-exclusive Purpose tour merch is coming to Forever 21 and maybe also PacSun. [Esquire]
- Justin Timberlake shared the tracklist to the Trolls soundtrack, which includes songs by Anna Kendrick, Gwen Stefani, and Zooey Deschanel. [Instagram]
- Timberlake has also been brought on as a partner to help oversee the 2016 Pilgrimage Music & Cultural Festival in Franklin, Tennessee, not far from where he bought a 126-acre patch of land last year. [The Tennessean]
- More Timberlake: He and Jessica Biel hosted a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton after original host Leonardo DiCaprio had to cancel. [People]
- Monica is happy to see her 13-year-old hit “So Gone” back on the charts thanks to #SoGoneChallenge. [WaPo]
- Michael Bublé debuted his fine fragrance for women. [YouTube]
- Madonna made a surprise appearance at MOMA’s 25th anniversary screening of Truth Or Dare. [Instagram]
- Usher’s new album Hard II Love is out next month. [iTunes]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME
Who made this, i just want to talk. pic.twitter.com/1JyZ1dCcDl
— mikey (@Michaelxbaker) August 23, 2016