ENTERTAINMENT 2021

From Britney to Billie: The Evolution of Young Female Pop Stardom

Unlike Spears at the start of her career, the now 19-year-old Eilish lays everything out, even and especially the dark side of being who she is.

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As cultural awakenings continue to play tug of war with public opinion — both old and new — the lines between sexism, objectification, and misogyny have blurred, as have the actions and treatments that cross these lines altogether. In this context, a post #metoo reconsideration of Britney Spears’ professional and personal trajectory was bound to occur. The treatment the young star received from the industry, the media, and even fans was on display for all to see, and, a couple decades since her heyday, most of it has not aged well. Considering that it all led up to a full-fledged mental breakdown, it deserves to be re-examined and called out in an enlightened world.

By contrast, Billie Eilish’s rise to fame occurred within a more socially aware era, and this along with other factors has made her career thus far a case study in how to do things differently — from the organic way her music was discovered by millions to the unflinching honesty of her lyrics to her image, which eschews the stereotypical belly-baring Barbie doll ideal for something more unique.

Both women just got the documentary treatment, and while the films and the singers have little in common, their stories are very much the same — young women navigating stardom, an inimitable connection with fans, probing press that seems to never get enough, and an air of sadness about the price each has paid and is paying for fame.

The New York Times documentary for Hulu called Framing Britney Spears came out last month, but Spears has been the source of concern due to her online behavior for some time now. Thanks to the #FreeBritney movement, this developed into a full-on fight for her freedom, with protestors making their presence known at the L.A. court hearings where she’s been trying to get out of the conservatorship that was imposed on her back in 2008.

Though she headlined a Vegas residency, judged a TV talent show, and has even maintained a steady relationship (with model Sam Asghari) for the past several years, her father continues to control her affairs with no end in sight.

Add to this, the curious wonder of the star’s social media. Something has been off about Spears posts for some time now — so much so many fans have been questioning if it’s even her who actually posts. (Her social media manager recently put out a statement refuting these rumors). But she often looks disheveled; she re-posts the same photos and videos multiple times and, as fans often note, she dresses in styles that seem stuck in the ‘90s. In between the sweaty selfies, dancing clips, and corny captions, there are flowery memes and the occasional video, on which she answers questions in a childlike voice that never addresses the one thing her fans really want to know: Are you OK?

Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman

Nobody has to ask Eilish this question, because unlike Spears at the start of her career, the now 19-year-old lays everything out, even and especially the dark side of being who she is. Eilish’s rise to stardom is chronicled in R.J. Cutler’s just-released Apple+ doc The World’s A Little Blurry, which is notably as much about her family as it is about her.

“I can’t have one moment where I’m like ‘I don’t wanna do this,’” Eilish laments after someone on Instagram calls her out for being rude at a post-concert meet-and-greet. “I have to keep smiling and if I don’t, they hate me and think I’m horrible.” Mom Maggie Baird admits she failed her daughter that night by making her schmooze when she wasn’t feeling well, but Eilish’s acute awareness of what’s being said on social media illustrates a larger issue: online judgment can hurt anyone, but in the cumulative case of the young and famous, it can be devastating.

With the encouragement and support of her folks, Eilish aims for honesty — in interviews, in her music, and in this behind-the-scenes all-access documentary as well. She sings about the pain and uncertainty of adolescence in a quirky yet authentic way that’s extremely refreshing. Blowing up while living as a typical teen, making music with her brother Finneas in his bedroom in the Highland Park, CA home where they both grew up, she definitely encounters challenges adjusting to the chaos, adulation, and judgment, but you get the sense she’s going to be OK, not only because of parental involvement but because she knows exactly what to expect. In many respects, Britney, along with Billie’s childhood idol Justin Bieber, taught her all she needs to know about growing up in the public eye, and how mistakes can take a lifetime to be forgotten.

Cutler’s cameras were there to capture everything that happened the past 3 years — from Eilish’s songwriting sessions at home to touring the world with her family to her big Coachella performance to her Grammy sweep last year. We also see a bit of her dating life, the day she got her first car, and moments when she battles physical ailments including the ticks of Tourette’s Syndrome and weak knees and ankles from dance injury when she was a kid. She comes off vulnerable (just like the teary fans who mouth the words to her songs) but she is also strong-minded about her music, her image, and what she wants.

One gets the sense that Britney’s family may have loved her just as much as Billie’s, but they somehow lost control a long time ago. Whether Jamie Spears is the villain here as Framing portrays or simply trying to protect his daughter as recent interviews by his lawyer proclaim, the damage has been done either way.

All the Good Girls Go To Hell

Eilish’s emotive music lacked the formulaic packaging of innocence and burgeoning womanhood that we’ve come to expect from pop “princesses” who get in the business at a young age, with record labels calling the shots. She favors oversized t-shirts and sweats for the most part, along with lots of punky jewelry, designer bootleg gear (which, since she became famous, has become the real deal) and minimal makeup. If Blurry has any faults, it’s the failure to emphasize how significant her style choices have been in contrast to nearly every other female artist in the game. Though she is beautiful, Eilish has never used her sexual allure to sell records (“Bad Guy”‘s suggestive lyrics aside) and her rejection of showing her body has been inspiring to legions of young awkward girls who have the same desire for defiance. So much so that she made a video about the body conversation called “Not My Responsibility” (see above) to be screened at her concerts.

Spears was 17 years old when she sang “Hit Me Baby One More Time,” styled in a schoolgirl outfit and thigh-highs, while Christina Aguilera was 18 when she sang “rub me the right way” in her own skimpy garb — which got skimpier as she sought to show the world she was growing up. Though Ariana Grande and Miley Cyrus, for example, have both have found success as grown women celebrating sexuality in their music on their own terms, they were already young adults and were clearly trying to rebel against the squeaky images they had presented previously as child stars. Spears, Aguilera, and Justin Timberlake came from Disney child stardom themselves, but while the two females were sexualized for seemingly older male audiences from their first videos on, Timberlake and his fellow boy band brood were positioned as fun and fashionable, aspirational teen boyfriend types.

Not That Innocent

Of course Justin actually was Brit’s boyfriend and for a short time the pair were pop’s golden couple, even as intrusive tabloid media continued to probe about her then much-touted virginity. When they broke up, he not only used the chatter to cast Spears as the villain in a video, but was less than respectful about her in radio interviews.

In an effort to take back the narrative (or capitalize on it) Britney joined Madonna and Christina Aguilera for a sexy, multi-layered rendition of “Like A Virgin” at the 2003 MTV Video Awards, which climaxed with some girl on girl kiss action. People only remember Britney and Madonna’s smooch because MTV panned over to Timberlake in the audience for reaction when Christina got her turn, once again making it about the male gaze rather than empowerment or sexual fluidity. (Since the doc came out, Timberlake has issued apologies to his ex as well as Janet Jackson for how he handled the backlash after their controversial joint Super Bowl performance).

Ultimately, Framing Britney isn’t just about Spears and the treatment she received, but how culture as a whole often uses and abuses the very people it puts on a pedestal, especially young females. It’s led to reckonings against crude and downright creepy interviews (David Letterman has a couple handfuls of apologies to give), the paparazzi, and public perceptions about what’s fair game. Though “cancel culture” can be a bitch, when it hits deserving targets, it is the best way to hold toxic behaviors accountable and potentially change things in the future.

Another megastar understands this dynamic better than most. Taylor Swift always had a wholesome image and even as she grew from teen to woman in front of our eyes; she’s always kept it classy. By simply writing songs about past loves — not uncommon inspiration for most artists — she finds herself the butt of derogatory sexist jokes to this day. As she shared in her own documentary, Miss Americana, she also felt pressure to conform to certain beauty standards and the public scrutiny she received led to an eating disorder and a struggle to find her authentic voice. Having opinions about men who wronged her was bad enough, but political opinions were seen as even more unsavory, especially for a young country singer.

Thankfully, she didn’t let that stop her and with a passionate network online, she took back the power. “Swiftys” as her fans — or rather stans — call themselves, like Britney’s “army” and Eilish’s “avocados,” protect and defend their queens from mistreatment online no matter what, and as Spears’ story makes clear, it actually can help.

Unlike Billie and Taylor’s doc treatments, Framing Britney is essentially an elongated news magazine segment, but it may prove to be the most effective in terms of cultural change. The star doesn’t speak apart from old footage and it leaves us with more questions than it answers (like why isn’t her mom more involved?) but it shines a light on problematic power dynamics against women and why so many are put in these kinds of positions.

Until she gets back some agency over her own life we may never know the full story and if that’s how Britney wants it, that’s how it should be. As of this writing, Britney’s dad is still in charge but the public scrutiny seems to have given the star more of a voice. Bessemer Trust, a corporate fiduciary, was added as a co-conservator alongside him and there is hope that she’ll be able to take over herself one day — something her fans want bad as she has stated she won’t record or perform as long as things stay as they are.

In the meantime, other stars are choosing to share their stories, taking cues from young Eilish’s transparent approach. Demi Lovato has an upcoming doc called Dancing With The Devil, that promises to lay everything out on the table including how pressures to be perfect led to bad choices and ultimately drug overdoses. (Look for a review here after it premieres at the SXSW Film Festival).

Here’s hoping that whatever these young women have to deal with in the future, they find the strength to resist the kind of “framing” that Spears dealt with. Fighting for freedom is, after all, the best example anyone can possibly set for fans, especially female ones.   ❖

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