Throughout the years generally agreed upon as her “prime,” one way in which Britney Spears remained such a thrilling performer was dancing ahead of the beat. This accomplished two things, really. It presented Britney as prepared and unstoppable, the choreography engrained in her body and spirit to the point that performing it was effortless. She was insatiable, relentlessly seeking the thrill of the next move. But the more you watch Britney perform at this speed, the more you realize there’s something deeper being going on here. Take the dance break in “Me Against The Music” as performed on Saturday Night Live. The effect makes Britney look like she is flying through space and time, while her dancers remain firmly grounded in Studio 8H, Eastern Standard. They are joining her on that stage because the public has years of visual training instructing them that a couple layers of humans do, in fact, belong behind our star.
But they also, purposefully or not, act to highlight just how capable Britney is of doing the whole thing on her own. Being in front of her dancers, too, means Britney’s satisfied facial expressions can only be linked to her knowing she’s killing it; she cannot see the full picture they’ve created as a team. It’s striking she never once makes eye contact with any of them – even when she turns around, so do they. This lack of human connection with those mere inches from her is a theme in Britney’s work as a performer. Perhaps its for the best; when she does attempt to engage with her dancers directly, she ends their lives with the movement of her hips, finds herself more interested in her cameras than her grinding partner, or, is blindfolded. The most intimately engaged I’ve seen Britney with a dance partner was when she dance-battled herself.
As a queer person whose formative years took place squarely within the Bible Belt, I too know a little bit about dance-battling myself in the mirror. I have a feeling most queer people do, actually; evidence suggests I am far from the first or last gay kid to privately turn themselves into a star, and exist within that fantasy world throughout each lackluster day, the fantasy becoming its clearest and most vivid whilst completely alone. That’s what I find most miraculous about those videos of young queer kids slaying their favorite pop routines; they accidentally reveal the grueling rehearsal schedules within the secret, private lives of the child performers. How much time do you think Robert E. Jeffrey spent in front of his mirror to get Madonna’s “Vogue” down pat? And as a fellow student of the material, I can personally vouch for Brendan Jordan that Gaga’s “A-R-T-P-O-P” hand choreo is no small feat to master.
The tour in which Britney dance-battled herself was the Dream Within a Dream Tour, and it is over the course of this two-year outing she and Justin Timberlake famously uncoupled. This is to say the tour started off dark and just got darker. By the second leg, she had replaced a cute, expository introduction to the battle song (“Who is this chick? I think she wants to battle me. Huh? Whew!”) for something pointedly anti-male (“This is a song for ALL my girls”), indicating a harsh shift in perspective: no matter the girl, and no matter the boy, the girl’s gonna get screwed. While on the surface, this seems to be Britney dealing with young straight love gone awry, I always took it to mean much more. This proclamation felt more anti-humankind than just merely boys. One thing that astounded me about the Dream Within a Dream Tour was its through line of superhero independence. On top of dance-battling her evil twin, Britney is kidnapped (honestly, an exhausting amount of times), endures a thunderstorm, and plays a girl trapped in a music box, never to find her true love (during her three most overtly romantic songs). In fact, Britney never once achieves romantic satisfaction – even when the mood shifts in favor of passion, it’s her dancers getting it on, Britney watching longingly. By the time Britney finishes the show, one can’t help but breathe a sigh of relief – not just because it’s an exhausting technical feat, but because it’s a miracle whatever character Britney is playing survived this whole plight on her own (her dancers certainly never helped; they were too busy kidnapping her). Whether she had to break through a large net, bungee off the edge of a flying cliff, or endure a loneliness her narrator – Jon Voight, by the way – makes a point to describe as both insufferable and eternal – Britney always escaped to safety, and she did it, each time, without any help. It was a 90-minute concept performance about the ineptitude of anyone else to make you happy – or, really do anything but annoy or traumatize you. The New York Times review of the show was titled “Exchanging Her Halo for a Cloak of Darkness.” So, listen, I swear – I wasn’t alone on this one, you guys.
But so what if I was? That’s kind of the idea Britney was throwing into the ether in 2002 – being alone was not the end of the world; in fact, it was noble. It made you invincible – faster than those behind you, hyper-alert, firing off on all cylinders, blasting toward the ultimate destination of career dominance. This was a conclusion I had been forced to come up with on my own, as someone who did not see himself in any romantic relationships I’d been exposed to, both in my personal life and through pop culture. But now, I had a mascot for it – and she was the most famous human in the world. If our country’s most beloved icon didn’t need anyone, neither did I. This is convenient for a queer kid who certainly wouldn’t have anyone for a while – and at the time, thought maybe ever. “One day I will be as powerful as the most insane images the outer limits of my imagination can conjure. If anyone has a problem with me, it simply won’t matter in a few years, because I will be universally adored – a type of adoration more important than any type of personal or, ew, …intimate one.” Sixteen years later, I find myself wondering if those feelings have served their purpose, and are supposed to go away.
When Britney danced ahead of the song’s beat for a small measurement of time akin to that of her ex-boyfriend’s wardrobe malfunction, the results were thrilling. When she let herself get even faster, though, it could deliver the opposite effect: our Queen was ready to wrap this sucker up, and get backstage to a warm bowl of cheese grits. She didn’t care that no matter how fast she rushed through her marks, there’s only so much wiggle room with which a show largely set to a track can bend. It was as if, for ninety minutes, she was trapped in structure she was faster than, better than, and, ultimately, over.
Regardless of her motivations for dancing at warp-speed, Britney spent years setting a precedent. Which is one of the many reasons why her 2007 VMA performance was so confounding; lagging just wasn’t Britney’s thing and here she was. This performance acted as a catalyst to a near-decade-long process of a fan re-standardization of our expectations for Britney’s live shows. While her music remained truly exciting, tours supporting the new goods were met with confusion online. YouTube clips from the Circus and Femme Fatale tours became message board deliberations between two groups. In one corner, you had the upset fans wishing Britney would come out and slay one more time for old time’s sake. In the other, understanding fans citing a variety of reasons she couldn’t – or didn’t have to, given what she’d already given us.
I was always a member of the former camp. Even as things started looking positive for Britney, with a stable Vegas residency that allowed her more time with her children and created a structure within which she could seemingly retrieve a good chunk of the pep in her step, I wasn’t seeing it. When the opposing camp would bring up that perhaps – just perhaps – Britney was happier now – with a stable home life, less grueling schedule, and easier performance style leaning harder on “fun” than “culture-shifting,” my brain could not compute an equation that rendered a lack of gravitas and a disinterest in striving toward mass public adoration – with happiness. Britney is a god and she should be performing like her god counterparts, not becoming a niche act for the nostalgic. For many years, I allowed myself no joy in the de-intensification of Britney Spears. It was my pop cultural torture chamber, watching someone I loved so much trade in owning the cultural zeitgeist with every shake of her pelvis or soda endorsement - for something nearing closer, day by day, to personal fulfillment. Even as her other fans celebrated her new personal successes – and tried as they may to invite me on board their ship – I saw no benefits in the trade-off and pouted at the dock.
As recently as August of 2016, Britney seemed to be sticking to a life of independence akin to the dystopian single-girl vision from Dream Within a Dream. Appearing on Carpool Karaoke with James Cordon, Britney was asked “What are you looking for in a guy?” She responds curtly, “I think I might not ever go to men again. I may never do the men thing anymore, or get married, I’m just done with men.” A shocked Cordon gets her to backtrack a bit – but not by much. “I might French kiss someone,” she admits, but then, as if catching herself straying from a hard-fought resolution, doubles back down, “But I’m not going to marry anyone, no. I don’t believe in marriage anymore.” Britney’s romantic receptors were still firmly in the OFF position, but something new was beginning: she was developing an interest in connecting with others – any interested parties, really - more intimately. Britney’s world had been shrouded in secrecy for years; then, all of the sudden, her Instagram became an intense – yet playful and funny – vision board of her psyche. The idea that personal fulfillment could be valuable - not in spite of its seeming lack of relevance to a consumer, but because of it – became an idea her Instagram account presented with gusto. It has inspired a weekly podcast, Britney’s Gram, where comedians Barbara and Tess analyze Brit’s posts with the scrutiny of Justin Timberlake watching his ex kiss Madonna. Showing off personal growth for Britney as a person first and foremost – any gains in her career falling to the wayside – became an interesting development when I could see it first-hand. I was here for it. Furthermore, the idea that an interest in self-care – as opposed to an obsession with career-excellence – could lead to new creative discoveries and possibilities is not something I’d even considered until seeing Britney take up painting. Or watched her pull out two non-singles from five albums ago during her big career retrospective at the 2016 Billboard Music Awards, simply because she wanted to. Or seen her – live vocals and all – cover a 1991 Bonnie Rait song on her Vegas stage, because she’d just learned – in 2017 – that people thought she lip-synced. These decisions are simply too random not to be her own, and in the same way that they lost all their sense(s), they also became as thrilling to watch as dancing ahead of the beat. And at the end of the day, perhaps the most intriguing new idea I’m processing from 2018ney is that all this self-care and opening oneself up to new possibilities – could, whether you like it or not, bring someone special into your life. It might even do so quickly – for instance, less than two years after you told James Cordon on national TV you were done with special someones. (To be fair, I guess it is possible Britney and her boyfriend are only French kissing…)
Growing up queer and closeted, you spent a lot of time alone – but you also spend a lot of time testing the boundaries of opening up to others, and being subsequently disappointed by your decision to do so. Sometimes, loved ones abandon you at an age so young you don’t realize what even happened until much later. You get used to this and you take care of yourself. Until it becomes exhausting, and you join a large club of young souls who’ve given up. Intimate human relationships based on truth and openness seem so impossible that the hope of them happening one day cannot build up the muscle to take on the facts of their impossibility. Your relationship with your family and friends is actually not your own, but that of them and your invented self – someone shy on personal details, obsessed with personal accomplishments, and uninterested in romantic possibilities. And they like this person, and this person is a performance you’ve perfected to the point you’re flying through space and time effortlessly when you embody them, so it feels fine to let it go on as long as need be. But what does it look like when you realize you have been trapped in structure you are faster than, better than, and, ultimately, over? And then: how do you break out of it, and let someone – a special someone – in?
Recently I found myself asking my friends what the point of a romantic relationship was. This type of provocation is not new between me and my straight buddies – I spent many a closeted teenage year insisting they were lesser than I for craving companionship, proving they were but half a human whereas I was (obviously) whole. But this recent conversation felt different; I was genuinely curious as to their answer. I had lost track of what the allure was in the first place, and was confounded anyone even tried when they could have those hours shared with another – nervous first dates, attending partners’ shows, “enjoying” lazy Sunday mornings watching Netflix in bed – back to themselves. When my friends helped me understand that relationships were more about self-nourishment in-the-now than any grand scheme for the world or one’s success in it – their answer felt useless. What’s the point of nourishing the self, if the self is but a temporary endurance test spiraling toward a future dream? A dream that might take everything in you to get even a tenth of? A dream that can’t afford distractions; one that can’t afford being thrown off by anybody? Besides, past attempts at intimacy have only left you knocked down.
But what I think I can gather from watching Britney living right now in 2018 is that sometimes it may be worth trying again. To connect with others; to reckon with how that is bettering yourself. And perhaps that “distraction” – that relationship with someone special – is not a distraction at all. But rather, a little dream within your dream. Especially if your head is on a little straighter than the first time you gave it a go.
Besides, maybe this instinct to break free from loneliness is always there. There’s a reason both little Robert and Brendan gave the world a glimpse of their private mirror routines when cameras were rolling, and they finally had a chance to shine. There’s a reason I performed my routines in front of my bedroom window for my bully who lived a couple houses down. Would he be so moved by my performance he’d stop making fun of me? Probably not. Would he be so allured by sick (Darrin’s) dance grooves that he might fall in love with me, securing my first boyfriend/bully hybrid?… I knew I wouldn’t know if I didn’t try! You see, there’s a lot of greatness to be shared in these elaborate worlds a queer brain weaves since childhood. And in the words of the Queen – on her most recent album, in fact – “Nobody should be alone if they don’t have to be.”
Michael Doshier is a New York based writer, musician, and performer. As a writer, he's contributed to The Talkhouse, Things Created By People, and Viacom's Logo Movie House. As a musician, he's traveled internationally as Johnny Darlin, performing multimedia cabarets with his keytar, most recently at the 2018 Prague Fringe Festival. He co-hosts the weekly podcast Queers on Queens, and his next EP "Way With Words" is due out Summer 2018. Catch his performance of "Songs About Boys" at the Queerly Festival in New York City this June 23rd and 26th.