At the MTV Video Music Awards on Sunday night, you could be forgiven for forgetting that Beyoncé and Britney Spears were the same age — the former artist was presented to us as a pop visionary at the peak of her powers; the latter, a legacy act who’d caught the red-eye from Vegas and was just happy to be there. Though Britney’s performance was billed as a kind of homecoming, a much-publicized return to the televised spectacle that had made her (in)famous so many times over, she seemed strangely out of place at this show. For one thing, she performed not one of her beloved hits but her relatively tepid new single “Make Me…”, which meant she had to share the stage with the undershowered white rapper G-Eazy, and even had to stoop to singing the hook to one of his songs. The star power on stage was dreadfully lopsided. It was like going to see Grease on Broadway and hearing that, though the radiant star was ready to fulfill her duties as Sandy, the part of Danny Zuko would be played not even by the understudy, but the understudy’s pimply kid brother.
At first she stood, in silhouette, behind a white screen while a giant’s hands seemed to … tickle her? Then the screen came up and she emerged in what I can only describe as a bedazzled, Showgirls-y take on Borat’s swimsuit. Still, she pulled that damn outfit off like only Britney Spears could. She did not even feign the illusion that she was singing live, though neither did several other VMA performers, so in this regard she seemed like a vanguard. Blithely and ostentatiously lip-synching on an awards show? Britney invented that shit. But, sandwiched awkwardly between Beyoncé’s halftime show and Rihanna’s (too) many serialized performances, Britney’s act felt less like a contemporary of theirs than a time traveler from a recently past era of pop. It was a little startling, how strange it was. When it was over she smiled, pageant-waved, and then left the stage. She seemed both human and not.
Listening to all of Britney Spears’s albums in chronological order is like looking at an Animorphs cover of a teen girl gradually turning not into a woman, but a cyborg. On one end of the spectrum, we have the warm, coy humanity of her megaplatinum 1999 debut …Baby One More Time, which packaged and (very successfully) sold 17-year-old Britney as the flesh-and-blood girl next door. There was, as there always is with famous women, a lot of talk during this time regarding what about her was “real” — her voice, her body, her complicity in the image she was projecting when she did things like don a Catholic schoolgirl’s uniform in a video or pose, purple Teletubby and all, like a Y2K-era Cindy Sherman on the cover of Rolling Stone.
But as her career progressed, Britney and her producers began, rather gleefully, having some fun with the fake. Her futuristic-sounding pop songs became sonic laboratories, explorations of emerging technologies in Auto-Tune, pitch-shifting, and other varieties of digital voice manipulation that we’ve since accepted as totally normal. That Britney’s singing voice wasn’t as traditionally virtuosic as Christina Aguilera’s became, oddly, a stylistic boon: She was free to stretch it out like taffy, pitch it down to a low, alien moan, or smash it into a million crystalline pieces. Spears’s second album, Oops!…I Did It Again, begins with a truly inhuman sound, like a robot doing an Elvis impression: eeehhhhhyyyyeahhh. The album’s second track, “Stronger,” fashioned her digital veneer into a suit of armor, perhaps even a sharpened weapon. “I’m not your property as from today,” she declares, and then belches a cold, Terminator-esque version of the flirty come-on that made her famous: “Bay-bayyyyy.”
Throughout her career, Spears’s voice on record has continued to shape-shift. On 2001’s Britney, it evaporated into something incorporeal, a melodic exhale, a midcoital haah-haah-haah. But 2007’s terrific Blackout was probably her most dramatic vocal reinvention: On songs like the electro-pop collage “Piece of Me,” her voice is robotized to the point of sounding posthuman. Though it didn’t get the same kind of critical attention at the time, Blackout now sounds like a spiritual sister to Robyn’s more frequently lauded 2010 Body Talk trilogy. Or maybe Robyn is too easy a comparison; for as long as she’d existed, people loved to (disparagingly) compare Britney to whatever other young blonde singer was coming up, but the voice at the center of her more recent albums is reminiscent not of Christina Aguilera so much as the imaginative robot pop of Daft Punk.
Glory, her new, ninth studio album, occasionally grasps for something a little more spiritual and organic, the kind of feat that Madonna pulled off on Ray of Light and Katy Perry didn’t on Prism. Britney’s voice is vaporous, ethereal, and totally unrecognizable on the opener “Invitation”; the aforementioned single “Make Me…” reaches for nothing short of ecstasy, so who can blame it for falling a little short. But elsewhere, Britney’s vocals are like aluminum-colored Silly Putty. “Private Show” is a cabaret number performed by what sounds like a cartoon character; “Clumsy” could very well have been sung by an alien from the same version of Mars on which the “Oops!… I Did It Again” video takes place. At one point Britney sings in Spanish; the entire closing song, “Coupure Électrique,” is in French; and during the chorus of “If I’m Dancing,” she inexplicably pronounces the word “dancing” in an exaggerated British accent. The flesh-and-blood person at the center of these songs keeps evading us, evaporating before we can figure her out, which is either enjoyably playful or disappointing, depending on what you’re expecting and what you feel you deserve from Britney Spears in 2016.
Interestingly enough, Britney’s music became most explicitly synthetic when her personal life was spinning most dangerously out of control. 2007 was the year of her highly public meltdown; to this day, it’s hard to hear Blackout’s leadoff single “Gimme More” and not have traumatic flashbacks to her catatonic VMA performance of that song. As with any artist, there’s a necessary gap between Britney Spears the person and “Britney Spears” the persona projected in her music, but throughout the past decade that chasm has become so wide that it’s impossible to add those two halves up to an even semicoherent whole. In the last 10 years, she’s lived through such intense personal experiences — a legal battle to retain custody of her children, a long struggle to get clean and healthy — but her music, as ever, plays on many of her tried-and-true themes: sex, dancing, and all manners of girly-girl stuff (there’s a song on the new album called “Slumber Party”). Earlier this year, The New York Times ran a meticulously reported piece about the fact that, since 2008, Spears has been living under a legal conservatorship (the type of agreement usually reserved for the elderly or severely mentally impaired), meaning that she “cannot make key decisions, personal or financial, without the approval of her conservators: her father, Jamie Spears, and a lawyer, Andrew M. Wallet.” She appears to be in a good place right now, keeping up her successful residency in Vegas and continuing to put out singles and videos at her normal pace, but the eerie fact of the conservatorship hints at a darker undercurrent to her life’s shiny surface.
If Glory was disappointing to critics, it seemed to be because it failed to speak directly about her private struggles, to sufficiently reconcile her persona with the more intimate realities of her daily life. The Times’ review of the album ran under the headline, “In ‘Glory,’ Britney Spears Promises Pleasure, but Offers Nothing Personal.”
I am — almost to the day — five years younger than Britney Spears, which means that at any given moment I was the perfect demographic specimen of the type of girl she was corrupting. Britney was just shy of 17 and I was going through puberty when “…Baby One More Time” sent earthquake tremors throughout the gymnasium floors of the world’s middle schools. But I have a more vivid recollection of her second hit, the sappy-sweet ballad “Sometimes,” and particularly the music video, where Britney does some glee-club-worthy dances on a pier, clad in a virginally white half-shirt. This was the moment that you knew she wasn’t just a one-hit wonder, but that she was here to stay, a girl to be reckoned with.
I distinctly remember discussing the “Sometimes” video with a couple of girlfriends in my sixth grade science class, huddled around a lab table, talking about Britney with this sighing acceptance, like we guessed this New Girl that all the boys liked better than us had actually ascended the ladder of popularity. She was the Cady Heron of the pop scene. Naturally, this was when the rumors started. “You can totally tell she got breast implants since the last video,” one of my friends said. I remember not feeling sure who to believe — my friend or Britney, who’d publicly denied it — but somehow I knew that even just the accusation was enough to make the truth beside the point. There was a grave tone to the way we sized her up back then. We judged Britney because we knew, implicitly, that these were the grounds on which we’d soon be judged, too.
Every generation of girls has an impossible standard to which they’re held, and being a teenage girl in the early aughts meant that Britney Spears was it, the Hot Older Sister who’d always have blonder hair and whiter teeth and better abs than you. She played into the quiet, constant tyranny of trying to be the Perfect Girl — I wasn’t yet old or wise enough to blame the culture writ large, so I took it out on Britney. Recently, I found a journal I kept in eighth grade. On May 29, 2001, I took a survey in which I declared the “World’s Most Annoying Person” to be a tie between “[NAME REDACTED], from my school, and Britney Spears.”
Sometimes you hear that statistic about how if Barbie were a real person, she would fit the weight criteria for anorexia and her boobs would be so disproportionately big that she wouldn’t be able to walk upright. There’s a less fantastical version of that idea, though, that a generation of girls like me saw play out in Britney Spears: If you did everything you were supposed to do to become the Perfect Girl — did just enough sit-ups and cooed just so and showed just enough skin and kept up the lie that you were born only to make someone else happy — it all just might send you completely over the edge. I hear a strain of this idea in the macabre of Lana Del Rey’s music, which blurs the borders between life and death, between the American dream and a nightmare: “Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful?” But Britney’s music explores this deep a darkness in only its subtext; her sad songs like “Lucky” and “Everytime” strike me as so intensely devastating because even in their darkest moments, they still put on the façade of pretty, like the girl who early on learned that trick of how to blot away tears without smudging even a smidge of mascara.
Britney’s meltdown happened when I was in college, learning to hate the game more than the player, finally able to see larger and more systemic threats to my liberation than the feigned innocence of a pretty girl from Kentwood, Louisiana. Still, something about her breakdown felt too traumatic to fully process it at the time. Only when she managed to miraculously come out the other side of it could I acknowledge the terrible pain she must have been going through, could I admit that I didn’t know how Britney Spears didn’t die of it, of being a girl.
I had a lot of mixed emotions, seeing her back among the MTV A-listers on Sunday night. One of them was relief: The other performers on the bill were in so many ways more varied and diverse in their imaginings of female beauty than the ones I grew up with. Alicia Keys looked luminescent without her makeup; 20-year-old Alessia Cara was preternaturally confident in her camo jacket and high-waisted jeans. (Britney had been a whole two years younger than that when she performed in the flesh-toned body suit.) And even the female artists more explicitly expressing their sexualities did so in a way that communicated they were in control of their pleasure more than any man at home or sharing the stage with them. Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj ended their performance with two male dancers simulating cunnilingus; Rihanna successfully executed 2016’s most public cockblock.
And yet, when Britney left the stage after her anticlimactic performance (the disappointment of its confused staging seeming more like MTV’s fault than her own), I felt a rushing wave of sympathy for her, the great symbolic antagonist of my tortured adolescence. She who’d once been on top of the world now seemed displaced — a girl who’d shown up to try out for the starring role in a movie they weren’t even casting anymore. A woman who’d spent her whole life training to play a game that suddenly has different rules.
Glory might feel impersonal compared to, say, the public exorcism of Beyoncé’s Lemonade, but I don’t really need “personal” music from Britney Spears. I’ve come to see her gradual transformation into a rather distant, robotic pop star as an act of preservation, a way of having a private identity that no one can take away from her. I admire her for that, the way she now manages to be simultaneously visible and inscrutable. The gulf between Britney’s music and her personal life reminds me of Donna Haraway’s influential feminist essay “A Cyborg Manifesto,” in which she famously concludes, “I’d rather be a cyborg than a goddess.” The cyborg, she writes, is “a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction,” where the line between the two is irrevocably, and liberatingly, blurred. The perfumes of fiction and fantasy obscure the harsh outlines of Britney’s reality, allowing her to remain visible while also giving her some of the privacy she’s long sought after — only she knows what’s real.
When I watched the performance back the morning after the VMAs, I liked it better, found it to be quietly triumphant. To be a woman is to be seen, even in the moments when you wish you were invisible. But Britney has neither disappeared nor made herself wholly legible to us. In her recent cultural resurgence, she has managed something powerful and near impossible for a female celebrity: to remain a cipher in plain sight.