On Thursday, Vulture's Jody Rosen skewered not just Britney Spears' new album, "Britney Jean," but Britney Spears herself, calling the 32-year-old "antimatter in a belly shirt" and postulating that she may be "the most boring person on the planet." The review evoked an almost reflexive feeling of betrayal: How dare he talk about Britney like that?
The thing is, Rosen's critique made sense in response to Spears' calling her new and not very personal album her "most personal album ever :)," it just felt almost blasphemous to read in black and white. At this point in her two-decade career, Britney is the object of an adoringly empathetic sentiment or "'aw-we-love-her' good will" as Kevin Fallon put it in recent essay for The Daily Beast. She has been deified to the extent that a (completely fair) negative album review can seem ... mean.
Interestingly enough, the seeming lack of personality that Rosen skewered in his piece may be the primary reason for enduring Britney worship. Our emotional affection for Britney is fueled by the endurance of her fame. She represents '90s nostalgia beyond something relegated to the past (i.e. The Spice Girls) or reinvented entirely (Justin Timberlake). But her ability to remain in the public eye (and bounce back from a variety of failures) is distinct in that we barely know a single personal thing about her anymore. At a time when it is almost required for pop stars to bare it all, Britney has told us almost nothing.
Celebrities were once a distinct breed, guarded from mass culture. They were gossiped about, sure -- much like cockroaches, gossip rags have seemingly existed forever. But the truly biting gossip industry was not ushered in until after Spears was already quite famous. In the late '90s, when Spears's was churning out "Baby One More Time," there were some celeb-centric publications, but the industry mostly consisted of People, which published long-form, reported pieces at the time (and was mostly a vaguely concealed vehicle for publicists). We saw articles about Spears' relationship with JT, and there was even a death hoax claiming that he had killed her in a car crash, but most of the information was vague detail about very public events. By the time she was struggling to survive 2007 (and consequently being skewered in the tabloids), Britney had passed the point of fledgling fame where gossip rags posed a legitimate threat.
With the rise of social media, the currency of exposure has since changed hands. Celebrities are now able -- nay, expected -- to share vulnerabilities themselves. We require pop stars to allow us a window in their personal lives, under threat of calling them "closed-off," "robotic" or "inauthentic." And so, rather than functioning as the targets of the gossip industry, they have largely inoculated themselves to the powers of the rumor mill by curating their own divulgence.
Of course, the self-exposure comes with caveats of its own. Consider Miley or Gaga, so willing to bare-it-all at this point that they could take selfies of their labias and we wouldn't be surprised. But I'm not just referring to nakedness. Their tweets (and many interviews) are a gaping window into their personal lives. As a result of that, in conjunction with respectively controversial performances, they both spent months dominating the daily conversation. Now, though, we're sick of them, because they've already told us everything we could possibly want to know.
What's amazing is that Britney is exempt from this phenomenon, too. Probably the most personal thing on Britney's feed is her assertion that "Britney Jean is her "most personal album ever :)." It's a tie between that and her profound sadness in response to Nelson Mandela. She was too big during the rise of ruinous gossip rags, gained defiant control of her own exposure and has since maintained the agency to remain guarded.
Or maybe there's nothing to guard. Maybe she is, as Rosen says, "the most boring person in the world." That, however, is not the point. Spears' almost willful contempt for the kind of star-on-fan participation we see with other celebrities has served her through 20 years of fame. A cynic might claim that her childhood fandom has rendered her a blank slate (or say that there's really there's nothing to know in the first place), but even if Spears is secretly the highly complex fem-bot she appeared to be at the 2007 VMAs, it's inarguable that she has refused to reveal even the slightest insight to what makes her tick. Her deliberate choice to deny us that insight, allows us to continue to worship her at a respectful distance. She partakes in no daily confessions, selfies and public feuds, and so we are robbed of material for criticism, happy to continue in our our reverence.
So, yes, as much as it feels totally blasphemous, Jody Rosen has a point when he calls Spears a "void." We've never been acquainted with the stuff that she's filled with, but that kind of nakedness is not required of Miss Britney Jean. There's an argument to be made here about whether we deserve to know anything about stars, the assertion that nothing should matter beyond their performances, and the idea that our obsession with artists' personal lives reduces the value of art. The fact remains, though, that we require the exposure of our celebrities, before almost immediately disregarding them as a result of said exposure. And Britney Spears is immune to that in every aspect we've come to know her or, well, not really know her at all.