I often wonder to what extent Britney Spears is a real person. Obviously, there exists the flesh-and-blood person, somewhere in the world. But since she debuted “… Baby One More Time” in 1999, we have made her a legend as we have done with few other celebrities.
There is, for one thing, her music. When she released her latest single, “Hold It Against Me,” earlier this month, listeners from all around commented on its dubstep influences, which aligned it with the pulsing club beats of today’s hits but set it apart from Spears’ earlier songs.
We can’t very well say that it breaks from her style, though, because there is no such thing as a Britney Spears style. Hers is pop music in the most general sense, created over the years by a crowd of producers, changing to blend into whatever trend is developing on Top 40 radio at the time.
And yet, throughout it all, she has always sounded like Britney Spears.
She can’t sing like Christina Aguilera, but she’s kept Aguilera in her shadow since their days with the Mickey Mouse Club because her voice has another, more elusive quality. No matter what her producers do to it, her voice always retains its instantly recognizable, slightly nasally timbre: Since the first single, she has pronounced “baby” the same way, the way no one else can. No need to say “It’s Britney, bitch” ““ we know it’s her.
Which Britney it is, of course, is a much tougher question to answer. She has been, in the last 12 years, an innocent schoolgirl, a sweet girl next door, a trashy sex object, a head-shaving mental case, a tragic victim of celebrity and a media-savvy entertainer.
“You might think that I’m crazy,” she sings in “Hold It Against Me,” and certainly, a few years ago, we did. Her recovery since that time, though, has to rank among the most successful in the history of stardom.
She did it, mainly, by letting her music speak for itself, commenting explicitly on the pressures of fame but also asserting confidently her right to make absurdly catchy pop songs about sex and love.
Spears has given us so much superficial material ““ the songs, the music videos, the tabloid headlines ““ and so little deep, revealing personal information, we have been almost forced to make a mythical creature of her.
We feel from her well-publicized breakdowns that we know her intimately, and yet she remains tantalizingly anonymous, just beyond our reach.
She is a blank canvas, upon which we can project our dreams or our fears: A fan might idolize her as the most empowering figure of a generation, while a critic could believe her to be the bane of quality music.
Spears knows what’s going on, though, or at least one of her songwriters does: Her 2009 single “If U Seek Amy” describes exactly the nature of her career. The lyrics describe an object of intense gossip and speculation; some love her, some hate her, all obsess about her. It’s a winking acknowledgment of Spears’ ability to command our attention.
The chorus of that song, though, is nothing more than a thinly veiled sexual innuendo. It’s fitting, because no matter how larger-than-life her persona becomes, Britney Spears will always be about entertainment.
Soon we should see a video for “Hold It Against Me,” and on March 15, she’ll release the accompanying album, and the myth will grow and change shape a bit.
Maybe someday, she’ll tell us everything, and we’ll realize how different Britney Spears is from “Britney Spears.” I imagine, though, that if her producers recorded enough of her voice, they could keep piecing it together into albums long after the actual person has retired or passed away. All we need are the songs; we’ll fill in the rest.
_If you think you know Britney Spears, e-mail Goodman at