Why does MTV hate Britney Spears?
Nine years after the star’s disastrous performance of “Gimme More,” Spears was, as presenter Kim Kardashian said, “making her triumphant return to the VMAs stage.” At least it was supposed to be triumphant. It ended up actually being a little sad.
MTV made this big deal about Britney Spears performing Sunday night, and then they go and schedule Beyoncé’s incredible performance literally right before her. It’s like they were setting her up to fail.
Not that Spears failed.
No, her performance of “Make Me” from her new album Glory was… adequate. It might have been good, even. Contrasting it against that last “Gimme More” go-round—an unfocused, sluggish, poorly rehearsed performance by a troubled celebrity practically dead in the eyes—it actually should be considered a triumph.
Spears looked great, pulled off the choreography, and had real life in her eyes. The star quality that made Spears’s performances of “Oops!… I Did It Again” and “I’m a Slave 4 U” so iconic had returned. But nothing Spears could do would compare to the tour de force Beyoncé had pulled off minutes before her.
There was no chance. It’s a wonder Spears didn’t call an Uber from her dressing room and high-tail it out of there two minutes in to Bey’s performance. Ms. Knowles performed for so long that Spears could’ve been well on her way to LaGuardia by the time she soaked in her final applause.
Beyoncé dropped the mic. Spears had to sheepishly pick it up and lip-synch into it.
When Beyoncé kills a 16-minute re-creation of much of Lemonade, nailing every note while dancing her ass off, how can you look at Britney Spears lip-synch her way through a song—often missing the words—and not be a little embarrassed for her?
It’s rather unfair because if we were being generous—and when it comes to Britney Spears, the survivor, she deserves our generosity as she mounts a comeback—the performance probably would have garnered great reviews had it been able to stand on its own and not suffer immediate Beyoncé comparisons.
As far as its staging, it was probably the most artistic Spears had crafted in a number in years, and certainly on the VMAs stage. But then, of course, Beyoncé had just re-created Lemonade, flooding the stage with powerful imagery of blackness, feminism, and empowerment. Artistry is being judged at a whole other level once Beyoncé walks into a room.
Dancing in front of white screens, a series of hand shadows suggestively moved behind her. It was a pretty effect in theory, though one has to wonder about the tone deafness on the part of the Spears camp to create the illusion that other people’s hands are trying to manipulate or grab at her. Spears is, after all, living under a conservatorship in which she was deemed unfit to make any legal, financial, or, in tandem with those two things, career decisions for herself.
Still, her bright yellow leotard did wonders for her body, and there was some carefully rehearsed enthusiasm that seemed almost genuine when rapper G-Eazy came out to make his cameo. Spears only had a look of panic in her eyes maybe once when it came time to mime chemistry with him.
While I’d say that there was an overall level of stiffness to her performance, there was also more polish than we’ve seen from her since her MTV glory days. Kim Kardashian is right. That is something triumphant. It’s Britney, bitch!
It’s interesting to compare that fateful night in 2007 when Spears somnambulantly marked her way through “Gimme More” to Sunday night’s VMAs homecoming, and that so-called triumph.
That year Rihanna performed on the VMAs stage for the first time, and was coronated pop’s next great superstar with her performance of “Umbrella.” Kanye West performed multiple times. Beyoncé had a handful of nominations for “Irreplaceable” and “Beautiful Liar,” not quite the musical powerhouse she has become.
The reaction to Spears’s performance that night solidified that 2007 was probably the worst year of her life, and certainly of her career. There’s a reason that meme “If Britney can survive 2007 then we can make it through this day” is so popular.
And then look to Sunday night’s show. Rihanna performed twice, opening the night with a medley of greatest hits to celebrate her career achievement Moonman. West has become so valued by the MTV contingent that he was basically gifted a State of the Union slot to monologue his musings. Beyoncé delivered what should rightfully be considered one of the greatest awards show performances of all time. If nothing else, the sheer scale of it cements her as music’s most ambitious artist.
The nine years since that 2007 show has seen these three performers, each on the rise back then, reach respective peaks as far as their music, artistry, and regard in the industry is concerned.
Spears has had the opposite trajectory.
Perhaps she had peaked when she donned the snake. Or maybe when she locked lips with Madonna, a veritable passing of the Queen of Pop torch in typical provocateur fashion: the swapping of spit. But that night, marked by three other artists on their rise, was Spears’s professional low point.
We think of Britney Spears with such fond nostalgia because of those great moments, that star quality, that bubblegum pop perfection. But in these past nine years she has been usurped by the artists who, perhaps at one point, measured their MTV and VMAs successes against hers.
The rhetoric around Spears’s return to the VMAs stage insinuated that she is some elder statesman, maybe a retiree coming back to the field for a special event. But Beyoncé and Britney Spears are the same age. These are her contemporaries. When they’re executing on such a higher level, how much slack do we give Britney Spears?
I wrote about this a bit in my admittedly charitable review of Glory, which is certainly Spears’s best album in over a decade but, while a welcome return to musical form for Spears, is a far cry from the artistic masterpieces that Rihanna, Kanye West, and Beyoncé released this past year.
There was no grand ambition, or meaningful cultural statement being made. It was just music that sounded like something Britney Spears would make, and that is fun and fine. That she could make music that seemed sort of her, that was uncomplicated, and sound like she was actually having fun doing it, was wonderful. It meant that she was back.
That “Make Me” performance seemed very much like the old Britney, too. Right down to the distracting lip-synching.
It’s unfortunate that Beyoncé performed right before her, thus inviting comparisons. But the jarring contrast in the quality and difficulty of their performances raises a question about the kind of entertainment Spears offers and, however nostalgic we might say we are for it, whether there’s still a place in the evolving pop landscape for it.
Who are we kidding, though? Of course there is. It’s Britney, bitch!