Britney One More Time

Her singing is meh, and the dancing’s not much better. But ask almost anyone — Britney Spears is a gay icon. What draws us to her, and why can’t we just leave Britney alone?

BY Matthew Breen

March 06 2014 4:00 AM ET

Illustration: Justin Miller /  Photo: Andreas Rentz (Getty Images)

How many times has Britney Spears been declared a gay icon? In the last year alone, both the Village Voice and the Guardian did so, and those were just in response to her “Work Bitch” single, in which Spears exhorts the listener: “You want a hot body? / You want a Bugatti? / You want a Maserati? / You better work bitch.” Six songwriters are credited on that track.

As to the quality of the singing, it’s hard to say. “Work Bitch” doesn’t actually involve much. And not once in the two-hour E! documentary I Am Britney Jean, an extended infomercial for her new two-year Las Vegas residency, does Spears sing on camera, warm up her voice, or rehearse any new arrangements.

Her dancing, at least since “Toxic,” has seemed on the order of a fembot — sexy but wooden, ultimately joyless. So much emphasis is placed on her dancing in the documentary’s lead-up to her Vegas show that the result should approach the hype. I haven’t seen the live show, but the past few years of Britney watching don’t indicate that the dancing will thrill. Besides, is she enjoying any of it?

My purpose isn’t to bash Brit, but to examine the turn-on. Pop stars needn’t always be great technicians in singing or dancing, and I don’t dispute the fact that she churns out massive hits, hits that get dance floors thumping and people wailing along to the choruses — me included. So if it’s not the sheer quality of her performance, what makes her so beloved by so many (but certainly not all) gay men?

What constitutes her gay icon status, and is it deserved?

Britney talks about us. “Work Bitch” is the song she claims that she included on Britney Jean, her “most personal album” yet, in honor of her gay fans. She says it’s this one, the one that samples RuPaul’s “Supermodel (You Better Work),” that is her homage to gays, rather than “Alien,” the song about feeling like an outsider and not fitting in. A missed opportunity to strike a literal and figurative chord with her gay fans, perhaps, but maybe she’ll strike it when “Alien” is released as a single.

In a recent radio interview on San Francisco’s 99.7 FM she described her affection this way: “A lot of my hair stylists and my beauty team that I work with are gay, so I hang out with gays a lot and I just think they’re adorable and hilarious.” The same could be said of puppies.

In 2009 when Carrie Prejean, then Miss California, essentially said that if it were up to her there would be no marriage equality, Britney tweeted, “Love is love! People should be able to do whatever makes them happy!” Not exactly an endorsement of the merits of equality under the law, but it’s a platitude that may have been truly felt, and it’s nice that she did it.

This is all to say she doesn’t always nail it when she’s talking about us. She doesn’t lead marches and give speeches, like Lady Gaga did over “don’t’ ask, don’t tell.” She doesn’t adopt aspects of our culture and wind it up with a knowing wink in power pop, like Madonna did in “Vogue” (and “Erotica,” “Secret,” “Human Nature,” and “Girl Gone Wild”). She’s not slyly aware, like Cher, when noting that her break-downs constitute some of her bona fides as a gay icon — “Judy Garland’s got nothing on me,” Cher recently told a London crowd. Britney will instead say her gay fans are “somewhat girls,” in a ham-fisted way. It’s not malicious, just a little tone deaf.

There are classic gay icon elements to Britney’s life, notably the fact that she’s been down — way down — and come back. She’s had scandals and embarrassments, quickie marriages, no-panties pictures, and problems that landed her in rehab, even if just for a day. She’s on an upswing now, looking healthy and fit, but all her comebacks haven’t gone as smoothly. Her 2007 performance at the VMAs following her divorce from Kevin Federline yielded a leaden, spacey performance, which was quickly followed by challenges to her custody of her kids, endless legal battles, and missed court dates that led to her father’s conservatorship of her affairs. That Guardian article noted that she’s been described as the “first official train wreck of the 21st century”; she shaved her head and went on a rampage with an umbrella, with cameras flashing.

Now it seems we know why she seems so inscrutable. She’s on lockdown. She doesn’t have control of her life for at least another two years; her father controls her career, her finances, and her personal life. She’s been a money-making machine for at least the last 20 years, since she was a Disney child drone. It’s been widely speculated since 2008 that Spears is bipolar, and reports say she’s had manic episodes for years. It appears she’s joking when in the documentary she says her onstage and offstage personas are wildly different: “I turn into this different person...seriously, bipolar disorder.” Seriously, that’s not what it is.

In the midst of the 2008 meltdown, she was every paparazzo’s main target. While we may have laughed at the messenger, many of us empathized with blogger Chris Crocker’s “Leave Britney alone!” wailing plea in the midst of her public crisis. It’s a shame she’s unlikely to ever really talk about it — wouldn’t be good for business, I imagine her managers thinking.

In that crisis lies the thing that draws so many of us to her, I believe: her essential underdog quality. She’s the direct object in the grammar of her public life, not the subject of it. More than the aspirational, hey-I-could-do-that quality of her talents, more than her arguably camp naïveté, more than her strength in determining her own destiny (a gay icon trait she hasn’t displayed), we want to save Britney.

Our wish for Britney to get her life together, to be more than the apparent puppet she’s been for 20-some years, is potent. The desire to defend the woman who has been beaten down by the press is strong. It’s no wonder we feel the impulse to save her from the nefarious people — mostly men, in the form of paparazzi, shady managers, Federline, her father — who have been variously running her life or leading her astray. We wish for her to be more than merely a marionette and to really do what she wants to do, to truly express herself, after a lifetime of working at the bidding of others.

In the meantime we can assuage our own guilt that we had any part in her oppression, in consuming the photos and tabloid stories that may have been a tipping point to a meltdown. We may have wanted her to be fierce, at the expense of being real. But we aren’t like those other men. We want to support and buoy Britney, show that we’ll be there through thick and thin.

Spears is poised to be the ultimate gay icon, the woman who lost control then wrested her life back from the brink. But though she’s incredibly hardworking, we’ve yet to see her exhibit real control, real self-awareness. For now she is still a woman on the brink. When she’s truly, legally able to be her own woman, perhaps we’ll be able to see something different — something honest.

And if she decides, as she says, that she’s “particularly not really made for this industry” and leaves it, we’ll have to accept that decision and value the strength of character it takes to make it.

Read More: Britney Spears speaks with Advocate.com about the inspiration of her LGBT fans, her Vegas show, and the influence of drag on modern pop music.

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