Following the death of her songwriter, Britney Spears’ career had started to go steadily downhill, to the point where, after several years, she was lucky to make front page of the National Enquirer, and it had seemed as if the standard celebrity storyline was pulling to its inevitable close in obscurity, embarrassment and parody. But here she was, older and wiser and back in a certain kind of style, writing her own material and touring small venues and underground clubs, singing in jeans and a sweater with a couple of backing musicians, and the funny thing was, it was working. Apparently what had been hidden by all the digital enhancement and rampant image was that she could actually sing, albeit in a much more laid-back, husky, quiet manner more suited to the indie-folk sound she was writing in.
I went to see her in the summer of 2006, when she came to Dublin in a blaze of publicity ill-suited to the unpretentious tone of her gigs, the newspapers having seized on the idea of Britney Spears having the gall to try selling herself as a “serious artist”, or maybe what got them so worked up was the fact that she was trying to have two bites of the celebrity pie, as it were. The respectable broadsheets were almost more frantic than the tabloids, at least until their columnists actually attended one or two concerts. I have to admit that at first it was very weird, seeing her sitting on a stool on stage with an acoustic guitar, waiting for the applause to die down. She’d let her hair go back to its natural brown, and she wasn’t wearing much makeup. She looked nice, but ordinary, the exact opposite of what she’d been for so many years. She cleared her throat a little.
The venue was small and dark, upstairs from a busy pub, and it was packed to the doors and beyond. A small crowd had even gathered on the street outside to listen through the open windows. Finally the clapping stopped, and so did the cheering and the jeers, and she leaned forward to the mike with eyes lowered as if nothing important at all was happening. Which, in a way, it wasn’t. It was all in our minds.
“Hi,” she said, and waited for the cheers to die down again. Someone at the back shouted “I’m a slave for you!” and everyone laughed, but she didn’t look amused. She nodded to the keyboards guy, who nodded to the drummer, and they began.
There was something weirdly familiar about the opening chords, and after a few seconds I realized with an involuntary laugh that it was Radiohead’s Pyramid Song. Some others laughed too, but not many people recognized it. It made me feel old. She leaned forward, and started to sing.
“Jumped in the river, what did I see?
Black-eyed angels swam with me...”
She’d made the rhythm a little more conventional, but it was very much the same song, but more relaxed, less tortured, and her voice suited it perfectly, a little like Courtney Love but less raw, almost out of tune but not quite, and within a few moments the whole room was quiet, listening.
There was more going on than many people might have realized. At the time that Thom Yorke set himself on fire on stage in protest against the Chinese invasion of Taiwan, Radiohead were regarded by many people as the greatest band in the world, and if they’d gone ahead with their tour the next year, Britney Spears would have been supporting them. Not a lot of people knew that, and most who did thought it was probably an elaborate joke. There had even been rumours that she and Yorke had been an item, but no one had really had the heart to pursue that story after his spectacular self-immolation. Listening to her singing one of his darkest and most powerful songs was eerie, surreal - it should have been funny, but the absolute seriousness of her performance was communicating itself. “Britney Spears covers Radiohead” - it was like living inside a short story that the author originally began as a joke.
“All my lovers were there with me,
All my past and future...”
When the scandal had broken about her sex life, even the most cynical people had been genuinely shocked. No one had really believed her PR protestations that she was a virgin, but you couldn’t help having thoughts like “Well, I’m sure she’s slept with at least a couple of people” - a kind of mental balancing act, simply because it’s difficult for most people to imagine a public deception of that magnitude. No one really knew who leaked the tapes and photographs and stories, and there had been the inevitable conspiracy theorists who claimed that she had allowed them to be released herself, but the whole world saw them. Dancers, backing singers, producers, managers, agents, poor old Justin Timberlake and two of his N’Sync co-members, a couple of minor senators, Mick Jagger, Po Diddley (formerly known as P. Diddy), Kobe Bryant, Bono and Bill Clinton (though Clinton always vehemently denied the accusation, even when presented with transcripts of a telephone conversation in which he arranged to meet her at a hotel. “That meeting was entirely Platonic,” he said angrily. “Miss Spears and Ah were simply exchanging ideahs.”)
All this, combined with the fact that she hadn’t had a hit in two years, was enough for Pepsi to drop her from their advertising contract, and shortly afterwards she was dropped from her label when she refused to make a public apology to her millions of (supposedly) heartbroken teenage fans. Cue lingering camera shot of tearful tweens clutching posters. Cue interviews with angered parents saying “She’s let her fans down.”
Something had happened to her. I’d read something a while back about Cary Grant, and how his personality changed completely after a few sessions in the heady, early days of LSD-assisted psychotherapy, when the drug was still legal and a few psychiatrists thought it might change their work forever. Grant had gone on radio evangelising about what the drug had done for him, and he certainly seemed like a different person in his later movies - softer, maybe even more self aware. I mean, don’t get me wrong. He was still Cary Grant. He was a block of wood that could act a bit. Still, something had changed him.
Spears was the same. A little after being dropped from her label, when she was supposed to slide gracefully into secondhand celebrity oblivion and the back pages of the trashy magazines, she gave a couple of odd interviews in which she made mention of “the celebrity trap” and seemed to be saying that she had been given a lucky escape from superstardom. She even came on all Joseph Campbell at one point and started talking about the “ritual sacrifice” enacted by the media, causing her interviewer to ask her (indirectly, of course) if she was high.
“Well we all went to heaven in a little row boat,
There was nothing to fear and nothing to doubt.”
Was she crying? It was hard to tell. She might have been. She was leaning forward and her hair was hanging over the microphone and her face. She’d taken to doing that ever since she’d been attacked at a book signing two years ago, even though the scar had almost completely disappeared now. The publicity and sympathy from the attack had greatly increased the sales of her (ghostwritten) autobiography, One More Time, and of course there had been suggestions that it had been orchestrated, but I’d always known that was bullshit. She’d nearly lost an eye, and she was already rich enough not to care how many copies the book sold.
People change. Sometimes you don’t understand, and it scares you. Like Thom Yorke screaming his last words into a burning mike: “DO WHAT YOU HAVE TO DO” while the shells were falling into the stone houses and rubble schools of Kabul - again - and I came into the living room of my rented house and talked to another temporary housemate for a few moments about nothing, and Cary Grant was on re-run, breakfast television that no one can take seriously any more, and he’s smiling about something, and you wonder if he knows that there’s nothing to fear and nothing to doubt, maybe he does, and when the acid rainstorms started hitting the South England coast and the world began to really take notice we all already knew it was too late, we all knew, all of us who’d been reading the newspapers and talking to each other since the mid nineties about how the world was going to fuck and no one was going to do anything to stop it, and then Thom burned himself to death and the war still didn’t stop and once we all knew we’d passed the point of no return it brought a kind of peace, and it didn’t matter that Britney Spears wanted to be a serious songwriter, and it didn’t matter that the blackberries weren’t growing wild any more on the Irish country roads, and it didn’t matter that the world’s leaders were going to war against the wishes of the people who elected them, and it didn’t matter that the sea was going red and the sky was going brown, it didn’t matter that all the movies sucked and everyone just wanted to get drunk and no one had the energy to fight the fighting any more. It was all a bit like a dream. Sip your vodka and milk like you’re one of Alex’s droogs and it’s all a bit like a dream, she’s finishing the song quietly and it might soon be time to wake up. Maybe any day now.
“We all went to heaven in a little row boat,
there was nothing to fear and nothing to doubt.”