On Wednesday night, Britney Spears debuted her new video ‘Scream and Shout’ during her judging gig on Fox’s The X Factor. The Will.i.am collaboration features Spears in a seductive leather outfit voguing against a futuristic white background. The song is a playful club banger, marking the sassy reappearance of the “Britney bitch” refrain from Spears’s 2007 album, Blackout.
As she dances around with Will.i.am, Spears seems more confident in ‘Scream and Shout’ than we’ve seen since her public breakdown in 2007, at least from the waist up. The song features the refrain “I wanna scream and shout and let it all out”—something Spears can certainly relate to given her last few years. The video debut marks the end of a carefully-planned fall for Team Britney with her highly-anticipated X Factor stint, a PR move that has become a means of image rehab for pop stars with something to prove.
The pop star-to-judge strategy worked beautifully for Jennifer Lopez, who joined American Idol in 2011 basically washed up and left with a #1 single. For Spears, X Factor is all about control. The pop star needs to prove once and for all that she has taken back the reins of her personal and professional life, following her 2007 breakdown that led to a hospitalization and court-ordered conservatorship.
Yet, as Spears mentors the young teen group on X Factor with soft, monotone sentences and quiet encouragement, she does so a bit half-heartedly. Spears’s interactions with 13-year-old Diamond White are particularly revealing. White came from an impoverished background and her X Factor rise is being framed as the American dream, a narrative Spears herself once inhabited as a poor girl from Kentwood, LA.
Spears has largely been an impressive mentor, choosing creative arrangements for White. Yet, Spears’s medicated stares and weary eyes tell a different story, as if warning Diamond not to go down the same tumultuous path of early stardom. Indeed, tabloid appetite perhaps reached its zenith with Spears, and never has a fall from grace been so carefully monitored.
Earlier this fall, former “manager” Sam Lutfi sued the Spears family for public defamation. He lost the case, but we did gain some key information about the conservatorship granted to Spears’s father, Jamie, in 2008. The move was largely an effort to reel in the Britney empire, jeopardized from 2004-2007 by her rocky marriage to Federline, hasty divorce and an alleged round of postpartum depression that led to gas station breakdowns and her leechy relationship with Lutfi.
“I had let certain people into my life that were just bad people…because I was lonely or whatever the fact, and I really paid the consequences,” said Spears, then 26, in the 2008 MTV documentary, “For the Record.”
The 2008 documentary captured Spears on her return back to normalcy leading to her comeback album, 2009’s Circus. “For the Record” caught Spears in moments of harmless fun, impersonating her dad’s thick Louisiana accent and paling around with childhood friends Courtney and Laura Lynne on Halloween.
Then, there were the not-so-funny glimpses into her controlled existence: Spears’s father grabbing the 26-year-old’s blackberry as she breaks down on camera, sobbing “Even when you go to jail, there’s always the time that you know you’re gonna get out…[in my life] there’s no excitement, there’s no passion.”
Like Michael Jackson sang of his lost childhood, Spears clamors for a missing young adulthood without the media judging her every move—and her handlers guarding against any further misstep. Since the documentary, Spears has produced two hit albums, 2009’s Circus and 2011’s Femme Fatale. Yet, the “passion” remains absent, if indicated by her spacey stares on X Factor. MTV’s Gil Kaufman noted Spears’s slow and terse speech, calling her “a robot” after the first live show.
Now, at 30, while still a young woman, Spears is middle aged for a pop star. Her current position in music begs a saddening question of modern culture and gender stereotypes: can a 30-something mother of two still have a viable career in pop music? The answer remains debatable. Madonna and Jennifer Lopez have endured, but mostly for spectacle, not song.
Spears’s X Factor wardrobe even seems matronly and stiff, a bunch of sheath dresses more befitting Chelsea Clinton than the Princess of Pop. Spears’s conservatorship has now been transferred from her father to her fiancé Jason Trawick—her life now controlled by yet another man who will profit from her empire.
Her 13-year career also raises the question of public blame. We bought her baby prostitute Rolling Stone cover, applauded as she stripped on the VMAs. We fawned over her relationship with Justin Timberlake and blamed her when they broke up. Later, we made white trash jokes as she married Federline, and rolled our eyes as a 25-year-old mother of two infants shaved her head in a manic tattoo parlor breakdown.
Michael Jackson’s lost childhood ended in tragedy, but produced some beautiful art in the form of his music. Even though ‘Scream and Shout’ isn’t particularly distinctive, it seems to have the same emotional function for Spears–art now imitating a sad life she’s trying her best to convince young hopefuls to chase.