Yesterday I glimpsed a TV clip of Britney Spears and James Corden in a car and could not believe it. The former 90s teen queen and champion Vegas working mother appearing in a future episode of Carpool Karaoke?
Clearly a major breakthrough. Carpool Karaoke seems to be largely unscripted, it relies on the alchemy established between Corden and guest, it lends itself to sparring partners who don't act like post-lobotomy patients lacking in personality. In the well-documented world of Spears where interviewers often have questions pre-approved and nobody ever really 'gets into it' with her the chance to see Britney in this capacity is a gift. Tonight she'll have to let loose, relatively speaking.
With that in mind, it's a stressful gift (let's not bring back those repressed memories of 2005 mini-series 'Britney & Kevin: Chaotic'). All Spears's new contributions to the world come accompanied by tear-stained pangs of nostalgia for a time before her public meltdown in February 2007. We recall the glory days when she mastered the art of live TV performance with her rendition of '…Oops I Did It Again' at the 2000 MTV VMAs in a nude sparkle jumpsuit, with Barbie crimped hair, pillars of fire, dancing inside a silver phallus. Time moves on, shit happens. Much shit happened to Britney. Under the microscopic lens in which she exists it's a miracle she looks to be comfortably handling the limelight. So – to reiterate – this is a gift.
Moving closer to the TV screen, however, I noticed the ticker on the bottom of the news feed. It read something like: “Britney Spears: LIP SYNCHS CARPOOL KARAOKE?” Social media, gossip sites, even broadsheet newspapers were also rampant with allegations that Britney might not be singing karaoke live (to be fair, Brit singing live is the only rule of karaoke). A preview clip of her and Corden attempting 'Toxic' looked to be showing her mouthing along rather than projecting. The dig for a negative angle had already begun, the episode yet to even air.
As a long-standing Britney acolyte, the knee-jerk response here is anger. Ever since she performed 'Baby… One More Time' on the National Lottery in February 1999 – a seismic moment that changed my life – I've felt a need to defend her honour, even though she hasn't been that pop star for at least a decade and will never be that same pop star ever again. Looking beyond that personal fandom, there's something even darker at play that should disturb even the most apathetic. The tendency to immediately paint Spears as damaged goods reveals a desire to always see the worst in her. Why?
On this occasion, it's the tired lip-synching debate. Who knows if Britney can sing any more. Listen back to some of the deep cuts on her first two records and you'll hear that she definitely once could. The truth is that in today's hit-making factories, autotune can and often does make a pop star out of any voice. Exposing Britney for lip-synching in this instance is as pointless as telling a six-year-old that Santa isn't real on Christmas Eve. Personally, I'm not one of those die-hards who'll drag Britney into heels and corset just because she's still breathing. I'd rather she took herself to a private island and lived out the rest of her life in peace. That said, there seems to be a change to Britney's 2016 persona, and if there's a time to be a little kinder towards her, it would be now…
It's difficult to conceive of a modern celebrity who gets a harder time than Spears. Since her emergence in 1999, she's been celebrated, scrutinised and demonised and still now some 17 years on the public continue to celebrate her successes through the tragic lens of her enforced entrapment in a sordid entertainment industry. I'm awaiting the arrival of ninth album 'Glory' this Friday with an optimism that's been missing for nearly 10 years. It probably won't be a return to the likes of 'Stronger', 'I'm A Slave 4 U' or the 'Blackout' album but her new single 'Make Me' is more relevant than Britney's material has been in a minute. She appears 'better', her Vegas shows have kept her on the straight and narrow for two years, and she looks healthy. Her Instagram is a mix of inspirational mantras and videos of her sons being goofy. It seems to reflect her true voice.
Looking beyond that personal fandom, there's something even darker at play that should disturb even the most apathetic. The tendency to immediately paint Spears as damaged goods reveals a desire to always see the worst in her. Why?
Rewind a decade and Britney was losing her dignity, self-control and mental stability in a very public way. Reports stated that the authorities were on suicide watch. For the younger generation, their entry point to Britney is a meme we'll text or tweet one another whenever we're having a bad time. The one that displays a picture of a newly shaved-headed Spears looking deranged and threatening, accompanied by the words: “If Britney can make it through 2007, we can survive today.” It's my best friend's iPhone home screen.
Instead of being satisfied with her newfound productivity, we continue to run her down. We've been projecting our own fears and insecurities onto Britney for too long. She's our ultimate rags-to-riches aspiration story, and yet also a subject for ridicule, focusing attention away from our own struggles. The rhetoric is that whatever happens we'll never be as badly off as Britney, a shining example of how not to ruin life's golden opportunities. Then again, who's to say what any one of us would have done in her pressure-cooker position, aged 16, propelled to sudden fame and record-breaking success, under the thumb of a man's machine, hyper-sexualised yet instructed to preach chastity and the importance of having an understanding heartthrob of a boyfriend, one who nonetheless continues to milk her alleged discretions to this day.
The really fucked-up part is that Britney's tragedy has also been her making. That's the reason her music, her performances, her history endures. She didn't become a multi-faceted, interesting figure until she unravelled and proved herself nothing but an everyday, flawed human being. It's a double-edged sword she'll never escape. No matter how hard she tries to pull herself out of it, the media relentlessly seeks to keep Britney lip-syncing in the gutter. You wonder to what end…