Within the past week, Princess of Pop Britney Spears blessed fans with a new song and a very exciting but not very well-hidden piece of news. “Work Bitch” debuted on Sunday, a day early due to a low-quality leak, and Spears announced her upcoming two year residency in Las Vegas. The single, an EDM heavyweight-helmed dance song in the vein of her will.i.am collaboration “Scream & Shout,” is not what we’ve known from the pop star. Since Blackout, she’s been pulling away from the merely coy and sugary pop that helped her break out post-Mickey Mouse Club and become the prototype for today’s Mileys and Selenas.
More than just extracting the saccharine from her sound, Britney has reinforced another important cultural influence she’s had: her mainstay as a gay icon.
Before the single premiered, there was some speculation that it sampled drag superstar RuPaul’s most memorable single “Supermodel (You Better Work).”
Though it doesn’t, Britney does refer back to the iconic parenthetical of Ru’s song and repeats it throughout her track. And It wouldn’t have been much of a stretch for her to appropriate a little bit of drag history and culture into her song. She has a history of playing gay clubs (much to the dismay of San Fran residences when she promoted Femme Fatale outside of the Castro Theatre for Good Morning America) and has become a well-known figure to emulate in drag. Even the VMA kiss with Madonna helped bind some ties for Brit and the LGBT community, completely demolishing the “wholesome” image that had been attributed to her since the beginning of her career.
In 2011, in light of the Castro catastrophe, Oscar Raymundo described Britney’s appeal to gay men: “In terms of mainstream visibility; Britney Spears is the ultimate twink, the ultimate leather daddy, and the ultimate pervert. She may well be the ultimate gay icon.” Her ultra-feminine look found a way to appeal to more than just a teenage girl fan-base who had once easily identified with her high school day dreams she played out in music videos and songs. Like the icons that came before (Cher, Judy Garland, and Madonna), Britney is a recognizable persona with the distinct tone of her singing voice, dance moves, and outfits that are so uniquely associated with her that they are an easy and much-abused Halloween costume idea.
But what exactly does it mean to be a “gay icon”? There’s no exact formula and writers have been examining the phenomenon as recently as this week. Writer Trevor Martin compares the iconography of powerful women in gay culture to the stereotypes of heterosexual males hanging up pictures of their favorite sports stars on bedroom walls. He cites a professor who proclaims that gay men choose women because they too are marginalized. In the end, Martin specifies the difference between someone having a strong following from gay men and being “a bona fide gay patron saint.” Britney has not only become the latter, she has gone on to embrace it and integrate it into her career.
With Ru rumors swirling, Britney put out a song that will most likely be a staple at gay dance clubs across the country. It’s catchy with a gritty, blaring beat and aggressive tone. It would be almost shocking if XL Nightclub hasn’t already thrown it on loop. Unlike her early hits like “…Baby One More Time” or “Oops!…I Did It Again,” “Work Bitch” is much more ready-made for that particular scene.
Beyond that specific subset of the culture, Brit gave us all an anthem. Unlike the in-your-face message of empowerment songs like “Roar” and “Born This Way” aim to provide, “Work Bitch” is a simple yet aggro way of defending the ethos of just working hard to get what you want. The message feels even more believable from a post-meltdown Britney who had already worked her way up to pop stardom and had to fight to keep it once it seemed irreversibly gone.
It seems that Brit Brit is taking cues from another gay icon and pop legend who is preparing to release new music this year–Cher. In 1998, the same year Sonny Bono tragically passed, Cher released Believe. The album, which utilized aspects of europop and dance music, along with being one of the first mainstream efforts to bring Autotune into pop, became the type of club-ready disc Britney would later emulate. There’s inspiration and lightness to the album, and it serves as a huge departure from her folk-pop roots and later success with a much more glam pop-rock sound that would mark many of her ’80’s hits. Even this year’s single from Cher, “Woman’s World,” is a gigantic, beat-laden single made to be more than just listened to. Like Britney now, Cher produced a record perfect for the glitzy Vegas stage she performs on often.
As Spears navigates her next era, it’s exciting (and empowering) to see what she has planned next. She had already made and set the bar for the “adulthood” transition teen pop stars often struggle accomplishing, and now it’s about solidifying her status as a legend. It seems she’s realized when you become an icon to a group of people, you become immortal.