We didn’t see this year coming, but we heard it from all sides. In Signal & Noise 2016, you’ll find the way we made sense out of all of that sound.
There is an Impact-font meme that's been floating through social media for years, reading “IF BRITNEY CAN MAKE IT THROUGH 2007 I CAN MAKE IT THROUGH TODAY.” The picture shows Britney Spears post head-shaving, gray hoodie zipped up, eyes wild with rage, as she prepares to strike a tabloid photographer’s car with an umbrella. Spears's public struggle with mental health was painful to watch, in part because we had no idea how it would end. We feared the worst. Almost a decade later, though, Britney is a high-functioning star with a highly successful Las Vegas residency that was just extended through 2019. Her breakdown can now be viewed as a harbinger; she was the canary in the TMZ coal mine. Her public breakdown paralleled the collapse of the boundaries of stardom as we knew them, effectively signaling the dawn of the era of surveillance mega-fame.
Britney was one of the last true stars of the pre-social media age, an idol whose perfect image was sustained by distance — her place on the pedestal kept her inherent human flaws from our view. She led all of us over the threshold into the brave new world of celebrity, where stars’ daily mundane exploits are just as integral to stardom as crafted performances, if not more so. These days, even those who willingly offer up their lives as a commodity for fan consumption usually end up questioning whether they’ve made a deal with the devil.
Justin Bieber, who has made no secret of his love-hate relationship with fame, spelled it out when he recently said, “Instagram is for the devil. I think hell is Instagram. I’m, like, 90 percent sure. We get sent to hell, we get locked in the Instagram server. Like, I’m stuck in the DMs.” The hell he refers to is the hell of being constantly on display, of living camera-ready; of a real life suspended for every-moment Snapchat representation of both mundanity and the unreal. Bieber isn't the only one who feels bled dry from giving so much of himself away. Lady Gaga, in a recent interview with CBS Sunday Morning, said, “I'm very acutely aware that once I cross that property line, I'm not free anymore. As soon as I go out into the world, I belong, in a way, to everyone else.” Gaga, like others who invent stage personas to keep their worlds separate, has found that the two worlds inevitably bleed into each other. This year, the internet permeated into “real life” to what feels like an unprecedented degree, culminating in the election of a Twitter troll for president.
Britney was one of the first stars to encounter this new era, where social-media-driven news cycles, gossip sites, and paparazzi help drive a sense of public entitlement to stars' private moments. TMZ routined stalked Spears on errands to the grocery store and made a profit on the realms of her image she could not control. While tabloid photos have become a less profitable industry since their early-2000s boom era, owing in part to the downswing of print magazine sales, there is still a hunger from the public for seemingly candid shots of celebrities. "It's legal to follow me," Gaga has said. "It’s legal to stalk me at the beach. And I can't call the police, or ask them to leave. And I took a long, hard look at that property line, and I said, 'Well, if I can't be free out there, I can be free in here.'" Gaga, like Britney, has accepted that staying inside her home may be the only way she can be free from media surveillance.
While it was clearly never the intention, the events of 2006 and 2007 established a new version of Britney. What she really wanted was, apparently, to move to the Valley, to have free time to chill, and to hit the Starbucks. She sought the only thing she couldn’t possibly have as things stood then: to stop being “Britney Spears.” Ultimately, she established a new story line for pop stardom, one where modern-era fame is permeable, where neither the ends nor the means are necessarily justified.
In 2016, nearly 20 years after signing her first record deal, Britney rightfully remains one-name famous, even if she doesn’t chart like she once did. Though her album from earlier this year was hyped as a return to form, just as her last few have been rumored to be, what we hear and see is a reconciled Britney. She is gleaming, familiar, glamorous, edged with darkness and an inescapable backstory that forever posits “Is she OK now?” as the starting point in our consideration of her. The 2016 Britney is not a return to her original pre-umbrella-incident form, so much as it's an acceptance of two Britneys — a simulacrum of the perfect memory and the imperfect one. The two simultaneously truthful realities of Britney are a stand-in for pop itself: We love the fake and we love the real, and ever since Britney shaved her head, the polarity between the two has softened into coexistence.
Britney's finely crafted star persona was so larger-than-life that it’s easy to forget that we have lived with the altered, imperfect Britney longer than we had the idealized, faultless Britney. The Britney who went out in public during the mid-to-late 2000s in sweatpants and a piecey weave was a rebuke against the idea that stars owe it to us to never get caught looking less than perfect. All those shots of Britney smoking in parking lots, wearing no makeup or with it streaming down her face, should have tarnished her “Hit Me Baby (One More Time)” star. Instead, they just reminded us of something we already knew: that nobody, no matter how rich or groomed, looks great at every second. Watching the Kardashians struggle to control their image to a point where they never get caught from a bad angle or making a weird face feels frustrating because it’s impossible. Kylie Jenner, in particular, has become the ultimate avatar for the idea of being constantly on-camera, and on the reality show she’s been conscripted into, she openly says she’s not sure she’s cut out for it. Kim Kardashian, the star most who most willingly chose a life of camera opps and never-ending surveillance, has suffered for that choice this year. Both Beyoncé and Donald Trump have asked for unflattering photos to be taken down from the internet, showing a fundamental misunderstanding of how images work now.
What Britney has taught us is that it’s OK to reject this reality. Her story suggests that maybe the instant serotonin rush of likes on selfies costs something intangible. When stars who came up before social media try to become social media stars, it often feels odd. (Watching Madonna — Britney's clearest progenitor and the artist who essentially invented pop self-portraiture as a brand — try to master the new world of airbrushing apps and constant mundane documentation, for instance, is inescapably awkward.) Britney, with her much more carefully controlled stream of goofy videos and copy-pasted memes, seems comfortable. Her social media presence is a secret garden protecting Britney, the human being inside. She gives just enough of herself — a Vegas show, the occasional public appearance — to maintain stardom. There is no air of desperation; it feels like she could take it or leave it.
This year, Britney mounted a substantial comeback with Glory, an album whose lead single, “Make Me,” was intended to serve as penance for the non-iconic lead singles from her past few albums. Glory is the best Britney album in years, and she’s already reportedly back in the studio recording another. The “Make Me” video was a debacle, with director David LaChapelle rumored to have pushed Britney past her limits of comfort to deliver a heavily sexualized video. A second video was eventually released for “Make Me,” giving the song a modest chart boost, but any real promotional steam had been lost by then. It didn't really matter, though, because Britney, the brand, doesn’t need new hits to sustain her stardom. She’s somewhere between a current star and a nostalgia act, in the territory where she is simply an unquestionable legend.
I am fine with whatever Britney wants to give us in 2016. As the meme reminds us, there is an easily imagined alternate timeline where she did not survive 2007. And of course pop stars rarely make it into their thirties with the same careers they had in their teens or twenties, Madonna and Beyoncé being two notable exceptions. We can take comfort in today’s Britney. Just as she was once a girl who presented as a woman, she is now a woman who seems very in touch with her inner little girl. Her Instagram is an awestruck stream of reposts of things like flowers, idealized images of childhood female friendships, teacups, and the occasional Albert Einstein quote. It’s hyper-feminine, frilly, dorky, nostalgic, and sometimes funny. In other words, it's perfectly Britney. I no longer desire any kind of superhuman strength or star power out of Britney. I just feel protective of her, and of everyone who struggles with mental health in a world that can feel inescapably cruel and bent on tearing down all weakness. Remember — Britney survived not only 2007, but all nine years since. We can, too.
Next in MTV News's Year in Music 2016: Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib on Chance the Rapper, artist of the year.