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Why Britney Spears is still one of pop music's most important stars

Melody Lau

On Sunday night, Britney Spears made her triumphant return to the MTV Video Music Awards with a performance of her new song, “Make Me…,” from her ninth album, Glory (out now). This was a stage where Spears has seen many successes, failures and, above all, transformations. In 1999, she was a shiny blond debutante on a school-themed set with her smash hit “...Baby One More Time.” A year later, she shed that teenage image — literally — by stripping down to a bedazzled nude suit as she sang (or rather lip-synced), “I’m not that innocent.” Year after that? She danced with a snake.

The last time Spears performed at the VMAs was in 2007. It was an infamously panned appearance in which Spears — who was in the midst of the most scrutinized and toxic tabloid storm of her career, which included a divorce and management problems — stumbled around onstage as if the turmoil around her had sedated her from doing what fans knew she was capable of.

In the days leading up to this year’s events, MTV tirelessly promoted Spears’s return as a marquee event we couldn’t miss, and while the evening was overshadowed by Beyoncé’s 15-minute Lemonade performance, or even Drake’s four-minute speech professing his love for Video Vanguard winner Rihanna, Spears’s return is a small victory that’s worth celebrating.

Yes, the entire performance was lip-synced — something Spears followers have accepted over the years — and her outfit and moves look like they haven’t evolved much since her early 2000s rise to success, but that wasn't necessarily the point. Spears’s dancing was spot on regardless, and there was an earnest effort to lip-sync the words even using a microphone instead of her famous head mic set at one point. But most importantly, Spears looked happy.

This apparent ease and joy may not mean much to casual bystanders, but place it side-by-side with her last VMA performance, as opposed to the Beyoncé performance before hers, and the transformation is clear. Spears is back in tip-top pop form and, while she has been a present figure in the interim years, her return to the spotlight combined with the strength of her new album are the first prominent signs that the star still has what it takes to vie for pop supremacy.

Glory delivers as one of Spears’s best efforts in years. It’s not a grandiose piece of social commentary or a sonic evolution, but it is a solid pop record filled with catchy songs about love and lust. Spears’s vocals have long been criticized by many as fake, but her voice's malleability continues to lead to some great results. For example, the airy chorus of “Make Me…” or even the pitch-shifted chorus of the snappy dance track “Better” are audibly Auto-Tuned, but you best believe she’s still laying down those tracks. She’s simply allowing producers to play around with her vocals the same way Diplo and Skrillex did to Justin Bieber on his latest, Purpose. So why look at Spears's efforts as manufactured and Bieber as a creative leap?

Bieber is arguably our best modern parallel to Spears, though he has only been around for roughly half the time of her run. Both found success at a young age, were placed on pedestals and were swiftly yanked down by the celebrity culture adjoined to only the biggest of musical stars. Spears shaved her head and attacked a car with an umbrella; Bieber was arrested for reckless driving and egged his neighbour’s house. They have gone through multiple comeback cycles, yet Bieber is still able to find critical and commercial support for his music. Only time will tell if Glory will be able to pull the same response as Purpose, but even with positive reviews coming in, it feels like fewer people are willing to rally behind Spears with certainty.

Is it the industry’s still rampant sexism? (Even when the Telegraph calls Glory a “masterpiece,” writer Neil McCormick still takes jabs at Spears, calling her early image “a jail-bait fantasy, on the borderline of legal pornography,” and straight-up says she is “someone with no discernible talent.”) Or is it the fear that Spears’s conservatorship, which she has been under since 2008, creates skepticism? Perhaps it’s Spears's decision to rely on lip-syncing and Auto-Tuning instead of showing off her legitimately great singing voice. Bieber may continue to display immature behaviour but he has, at least, maintained his ability to perform live both vocally and on the guitar and drums (sometimes). That shouldn’t paint Spears as lazy or undeserving of praise, though. For 17 years, Spears has worked hard to earn her accolades and, live singing or not, Spears is onstage regularly, putting on dynamic performances. The answer to these questions lie somewhere in the middle of this Venn diagram but ultimately, it’s not fair for us to treat these two, and many more, with such opposing attitudes.

On Glory, Spears is credited as not only the main vocalist but also a composer. For all her critics’ speculation that Spears isn’t in control, she isn’t rendered useless by her circumstances. In fact, she has made the most of her restrictions and has seemingly channeled it into her work (while also focusing on her life as a single mother of two). In an extensive New York Times feature published earlier this year that looks into the legalities behind Spears’s conservatorship, writers Serge F. Kovaleski and Joe Coscarelli argue that “the conservatorship has become an accepted fact of life — not a cage but a protective bubble that allows her to worry about her true passions: music and her children.”

Her extended residency in Las Vegas has helped create stability and routine and, in the process, has probably contributed to a healthier work environment for Spears to hone her pop prowess after some uneven releases, most notably 2013’s Britney Jean. But truth be told, nine albums in, Spears’s batting average has remained fairly high and a scroll of her greatest hits — “Oops! I Did It Again,” “I’m a Slave 4 U,” “Toxic,” “If U Seek Amy,” “Til the World Ends” — makes Spears’s influence on pop music undeniable. From the good-girl-gone-bad narrative that she adapted and perfected from original pop princess Madonna, to being the first artist to ever score superstar producer Max Martin a Billboard number 1 single with “…Baby One More Time,” Spears laid the groundwork for the modern-day pop landscape.

Spears’s version of pop stardom is now the standard for stars like Ariana Grande, Selena Gomez, Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato. Spears entered a generation of stardom that involved more tabloid frenzy than ever, and it’s something we’ve seen these newcomers take on with the heightened surveillance of social media. But well before Twitter and Instagram became yet another layer of the often-probed pop persona, Spears was hounded by paparazzi with such intensity that she couldn’t even go to the bathroom without a handful of men with cameras chasing after her.

Celebrity culture chewed Spears up and spat her out, and rather than calling it a cautionary tale to rising stars, let Spears’s career and continued presence be a positive motivation. It’s tough for artists, especially those who are not cis white men, to weather past controversy and achieve longevity; Spears’s modern-day run for a pop legacy is something that many probably won’t be able to do.

Madonna passed the pop torch to Spears almost a decade ago, and while the former is still putting out music, the latter hasn’t given up on fully assuming the throne. When asked by Zach Sang on the Zach Sang Show how many more albums she has in her, Spears brought Madonna up as a shining example of how many she has left, jokingly tossing “at least another nine” as an answer. She laughs heartily before exclaiming, “The world can’t get rid of me!”