It’s a common cliche: the pop princess is a puppet being played by a team of much wiser men exploiting their pretty little investment. Britney Spears’ coiffured blonde hair, glistening milky white skin, and gravity-defying breasts seem to represent the antithesis of empowerment to millennial feminists. Even today, Pop Queens surprise us when they are not only implicit in this model but are the ones profiting. Unlike her contemporaries Ms. Perry and Lady Gaga, Britney does not write her own music. I’m guilty for criticizing her earlier songs and taking sadistic pleasure in watching her public nervous breakdown(s). I hardly reevaluated my opinion until recently when Till The World Ends came on at a party and I found myself jumping up to her defence as a group of men dismembered her body of work and laughed at the pieces.
Pop music has always been my guiltiest of pleasures. Sure, I read pitchfork and genuinely like classical compositions. I used to be painfully aware of what music was worth liking on my Soundcloud account and which future bass songs were up and coming trends. But in order to be a part of this exclusive boy’s club, I needed to obliterate the other half of my taste: the nihilistic dance music that I love. These were the songs that would get me off my chair and into the middle of the dance floor with alcohol-tinged tears dripping from my face. It wasn’t until recently that I learnt a jacket could be so Katy Perry or my hair so Britney circa 2004. Each female pop star had a different sphere of connotations and I was desperate to learn this secret language. As “cool” music became increasingly harder to locate, popular music started making more sense. Even though there are more women musicians than ever, I found so many alternative producers and djs sampling female voices for their tracks. Then these men would receive greater cultural currency precisely because they were talented enough to exploit the efforts of another person’s talents. I couldn’t understand why these pop princesses were so uncool and yet it was magic when a male dj plundered her work for hooks and samples that mirrored the cooing and moaning of a female orgasm.
Once I became honest with myself – that I loved pop music and it was ok – things became a lot murkier. I felt at odds with myself. How could a feminist love an artist who profits almost exclusively on her body? Is she even a real blonde? Has she gotten work done? These were the stupid and superficial questions I was asking. The problem with questions like this is they reflect me more than her. What the frick does it matter if Britney is half-cyborg with entirely artificial breasts and teeth? How is this a positive assessment of her work? No one seems to question the bodies of male pop celebs. They are allowed to age in peace and seem immune to the type of body-criticism being aimed at their female contemporaries.
Britney’s privilege has more too do with the culture we live in than her physical body. In fact, Britney’s body has changed in her decade-long reign of popular music. As an aging woman with a noted psychiatric condition, a survivor of addiction, a child celebrity, a mother stripped of custody of her children, she’s been one of the most vulnerable people in the public eye. And yet, we all care far too much about her body. The “untouchability” of her material being drives fans and haters wild enough to obsess over images of her. We assume she deserves the public humiliation perpetuated by tabloid culture because she is entitled to fame. Her life is so easy, and we’d all be that thin if we had that kind of money.
Britney gives us insight into the potentials of the body. In Politics of Touch: Sense, Movement, Sovereignty, Erin Manning presents a body’s potential and its ability to reach toward. Instead of being in a material stasis, the body is constantly evolving. None of us are truly human beings, we are humans becoming. This notion extends Judith Butler’s concept of gender as performative, (a constant process where we establish gender through our performing bodies), towards the notion of engender. Engendering bodies are always moving. Like the chaotic world around us, they are in motion and constantly evolving to their environments. This suggests that Britney’s body is more than just skin, teeth, bones, and hair. Her body is highly political and in transformation. And I think Britney knows she’s a little more complex than most of us insist she is.
With Britney’s new motivational single, “Work Bitch,” she speaks to what her body can be. Teasing us at first with her lyric “you wanna,” Britney dives in head first to the sticky relationship between desire and material culture. Her iconic use of the word bitch speaks to the language directed towards woman in power. Being an assertive female sometimes means being a dick and being ok with that. She knows you want her hot body, her luxury cars, and party lifestyle but you can’t obtain these things unless you “work bitch.” Here is my favourite part:
Bring it on
Ring the alarm
Don’t stop now
Just be the champion
Working hard like it’s your profession
Watch out now
‘Cause here it comes
Here comes the smasher
Here comes the master
Here comes the beat, beat
Beat beat to get ya
Britney represents a call to action. These words coming from her mouth are meaningful precisely because of the body she has. Her words are in dialogue with the politics of sexual workers who have historically been degraded, smashed, dominated, and exploited by their puppet masters precisely because they had a commodifiable body. The message is one of antagonism, struggle, and resistance. But also, there is a sparkle of hope that illuminates the song. You can have it. You just need to work. Even though Britney was handed everything, she has worked hard her entire career to stay on the top. She’s consistently come back after each dramatic tabloid story, and once again she’s come back to WORK.