How do you market a pop star with a fragile connection to reality and a work ethic that appears to be somewhat diminished?
It’s a question record labels have faced over and over again, from the worst days of Stevie Nicks and Chaka Khan’s careers in the late 1970s and early ’80s, to Whitney Houston’s comeback attempt last year, and finally to Britney Spears.
On Tuesday her new album, Femme Fatale, is released, and Jive/Zomba is doing everything it can to keep her in the public eye, while at the same time avoiding the glare that comes with that.
The solution: Britney Spears, everywhere and nowhere, all at once.
She’s doing interviews with magazines over email (enabling her to control which questions get asked and answered), pre-taping performances on morning shows (helping to insure that there won’t be a repeat of her 2008’s MTV Music Awards fiasco), and going on Glee, where her appearance can be scripted to the letter.
Even in the case of the hit Fox TV show, the results from her episode last fall haven’t exactly inspired confidence from people around her, insiders say.
A source on the Glee set tells The Daily Beast that Spears appeared “out of it” during the filming of her scenes and totally reliant on her team of career minders in order to function professionally. “They led her to her mark and she’d sit there like a deer in the headlights until she had to say her lines,” the source says. “When she was finished, they’d take her by the hand and lead her away again.” (A spokesman for Spears did not respond to requests for comment for this article.)
The whole thing feels rather like Weekend at Bernie’s, but instead of a murdered gangster, there’s a catatonic entertainer.
But what else is Spears’ team to do? Four years ago, their golden goose had a meltdown of Charlie Sheen-like proportions, shaving her head and then attacking a car with an umbrella, as a slew of paparazzi went snap, snap, snap. From there, she spent the next few months checking in and out of rehab centers, failing to show up at custody hearings for her children, and being hospitalized, presumably for having a psychological break. Her money was placed in a conservatorship that her father, a notorious stage parent, controls to this day.
“I think she’ll do well” with this album, says Bob Lefsetz. “She’s a brand name and she’s working with the best people in the business.”
Since then, things have gotten quieter, but there have been conflicting indications that Spears has fully come out the other end, or that she even wants to be famous anymore. Touring in 2009 for another album, the appropriately titled Circus, the singer of mega-hits like “…Baby, One More Time” and “I’m a Slave 4 U” barely addressed her fans on the microphone in between songs. During an appearance on Ellen around that time, Spears did a skit where she went caroling with the chat host, but she hid the entire time beneath a pair of sunglasses, again saying little.
One source whose company makes money from Spears says, “The idea of a star having a breakdown and putting them back into place is near impossible,” before going on to liken her promotion process to putting “an alcoholic back in a bar and expecting them to be OK… So you end up putting in safety cushions and still, it seems weird.”
That it does. One after the other the interviews come, and one after the other, the elephant in the room just gets bigger.
In V, the indie fashion bible, just about the only things revealed in the interview accompanying Mario Testino’s photo portfolio are Spears’ views on astrology (“I like to believe there is a little magic in the world, but I also believe we choose our own path”), whom she would most like to collaborate with (“you’ll just have to wait and see”), and what’s been on her iPod lately (The Black Eyed Peas, M.I.A., and Christina Aguilera).
Oh, and she informs readers that she doesn’t read mean things that get printed about her. “I’m past of all of that,” Spears, or someone close to her, says. “I try to block it all out and not pay attention to anything they write about me in the magazines or online. I’m done with that.”
In Out, meanwhile, Spears gives up who’s her favorite Golden Girl (“Betty White, because she’s so sweet and innocent”), that Lady Gaga is “unique,” and that she has a phobia of flying because she’s “not in control.”
“If you’re limited in what you can do [on the publicity trail], eventually the public figures it out,” says the last source. “She’s in a busy market with Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, and Ke$ha. There’s a lot of artists in that lane. It’s hard to keep putting Band-Aids on and hoping the problem goes away. Eventually, the public figures it out.”
Maybe so, but what’s most surprising is that many in the industry continue to believe Spears’ career will be just fine whether or not the public believes that she’s gotten her marbles back and and whether or not there’s an ethical problem with all these people around Spears trying to make money off a woman who may be psychologically disturbed and is certainly ambivalent about her fame.
Already, Femme Fatale’s first single, “Hold It Against Me,” went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts. And buzz on its follow-up, “ Till the World Ends” is largely positive. Further, a surprise performance by Spears at a Vegas nightclub Friday night seemed to go well enough, though Spears continues to show little of the incredible dancing technique she possessed in the earlier days of her career. (She also does not seem to be singing much of anything, although that was pretty much always the case.)
“I think she’ll do well” with this album, says Bob Lefsetz, writer of an industry newsletter that’s big with A&R types. “She’s a brand name and she’s working with the best people in the business.” (These folks include Dr. Luke, who produced much of the album and is currently the most in-demand producer in the industry.)
As Lefsetz sees it, Spears has always appeared to be a tool of marketing people, an “inanimate object” who is largely presented as such. “She works with these people who churn it out, there’s no soul, the records come and go…Everyone knew Madonna was intelligent. She was a phenomenal marketer. No one believes Britney is pulling the strings… You just don’t want to take her too seriously.”
Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.