When Britney Spears does anything, it’s on a large scale and is nearlyimpossible to avoid. It’s been this way since she was an underage pop starlet topping the charts in a crop-topped schoolgirl outfit cooing “…Baby One More Time.” She set the bar for early millennium pop after ’90s pop could barely hold a candle to the Madonna and Michael Jackson reign of the ’80s. She’s a living legend, an icon, and musical royalty.
And, yes, she lip-syncs live. It’s a controversy that has trailed her for years, but has never felt like much of a threat to hurting her career. That is, until now.
By now you’ve no doubt seen the viral video (above), out last week, of a leaked isolated vocal track from a 2001 Spears performance in Vegas. In it, she’s out of breath, strains for notes, and misses most of them completely. She’s buried in the mix, of course, and the crowd’s not hearing any of it, instead treated to the polished, studio-built Voice of Spears, who starts a residency at Planet Hollywood in Vegas very soon. Because of the video, and the recent near-confirmation that the residency would not feature live singing for the entirety of its run (though Brit’s camp has vehemently denied this), the money men behind the show are beginning to worry ticket sales might be affected. There have been reports they’ve called an emergency meetings at the hotel to panic about it all together in a room, and to sniff out the source of the isolated vocal track leak. With millions of dollars at stake (15 million a year, to be specific, or $310,000 a show), who could blame them. But, here’s the thing: No one is surprised by this. As the panel Monday night on Chelsea Handler’s show (we know, we know) rightly noted, people don’t pay to see Britney to hear her voice. No one is surprised by the fact that she isn’t and never has been the type of singer that’s taken our breath away. She’s never claimed to be.
As this Consequence of Sound post about the debacle points out, Spears is not an artist known for her “powerhouse vocals.” She can’t belt like Beyonce or the rival of her youth, Christina Aguilera. She is a spectacle. Her songs are perfectly crafted slices of studio-honed pop. We’ve always known there was lots of studio magic going on to get us the finished product. We go to her concerts to gaze. She isn’t going to blow the speakers out with excessive vocal runs or do particularly shocking, impromptu covers. She’s going to step on stage in a series of sparkly outfits and confirm that she is this face behind those tunes that are deeply embedded in our collective cultural consciousness.
As a teen and before a very public and heartbreaking mental breakdown, Spears had something else very important to hold over her then-contemporaries: her dancing. The out of breath 2001 lip-syncing makes sense–back then her show was high-energy, chock full of remarkable and elaborate dance routines. But after she stepped on stage for a VMA performance that nearly ruined her career, Spears has struggled to really pop back into the comfort and ease in which she once moved on stage. Reviews of her recent Femme Fatale tour run noted the stiffness in this aspect of her performance.
Since Britney’s school-girl clad introduction, a lot has changed in music, not only in how we expect more from our pop stars, but how we consume their output and hold them in our gaze. Spears, along with *NSYNC, the Backstreet Boys and Christina rose in popularity in the post-alternative ’90s when the music industry desired acts they could manufacture and control. It was the era of bubblegum, teen pop, and the revival of ’50s teen ideals packaged with a clean take on Madonna-esque edge. We see now that Britney has become the template for the stars of today–those who desire a seamless but still much-watched transition into adulthood–just like Britney publicly idolized the controversial but always poignant sexuality of Madonna.
The era Brit came up in was one of very clean production. She had to maintain perfection in every sense–from her dance moves to her politically correct take on current events (notice her post-9/11 remarks in the 2001 concert leak) and of course, her singing. As we saw with Ashlee Simpson’s 2004 Saturday Night Live travesty, lip-syncing, if caught, could end a career. This changed the game, and showed music execs that the public might be growing weary of acts like Spears, who so clearly was manufactured.
In today’s pop music landscape, there is absolutely no way a pop star could build the type of career Britney has while also hardly singing live for almost its entirety. Katy Perry and Lady Gaga cut their teeth as singer-songwriters during the beginnings of their respective careers, with songwriting especially having been recently constructed as some signifier of this imagined pop authenticity. Beyonce, in the same CoS post linked above, is used as the comparison of what we would expect to hear as the isolated mic vocal from a live performer we’re paying top dollar to see. Though she, too, came up in this same era of teen popstar perfection, her girl group had to compete racially against the most popular crop of very white stars, which means her talent had to be made a little more explicit than her contemporaries. It’s a completely loaded topic on its own but worth noting when thinking of our expectations for our top stars.
Britney is who Britney is and we are the ones who made her this way. Though pop plays by different rules today, Spears is still very much authentic to who she has always been–a Star. In concert, fans are expecting a specific package, a show, and the spectacle. It’s the same ticket they’ve always bought, but now some are trying to fit her into a new and ill-fitting mold.
Say it with us: LEEEEEAVE BRITNEY ALLLLLONNNE!!!!
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 23, 2013