For a generation, Britney Spears was the blank face of vapid pop music. Legendarily ignorant of and uninterested in music, she was a creature of producers and image, cheerfully producing plastic remakes of (for example) the Beatles even while cluelessly admitting she barely knew who they were. Back when Miley Cyrus was still Hannah Montana and even before, Spears was mining faux controversy and the commodification of marginalized groups, creating that blend of titillation and concern trolling that wows tabloids and pundits alike. In the 2011 Pearl Jam tribute documentary, images of her are shown as the narrative recaps the band's waning popularity. She stands in neatly for everything that went wrong with pop music after grunge, when disco came back and sexy women dancing once again replaced glum guys with guitars.
As a result, most critical writing about Spears is, and has always been, writing about hating her. The headline to Daniel D'Addario's recent piece at Salon, "Why Do We Want to See Britney Spears Perform?" is meant to refer specifically to her show in Vegas, to question why she doesn't just retire already for her own good. But really, the same title could have headed just about any long-form piece on the performer over her entire career. D'Addario couches his criticism as sympathy—he argues that Spears's heart doesn't seem to be in performing anymore, and that we should just let her slip into retirement. "Her music … is written and performed as though by someone totally uninterested," he says, as if this is a new, sad turn in her career. He adds that "her fans want to probe Britney Jean [her latest album] for hints of a personality," and suggests that people only watch her because of her traumatic 2008 breakdown. Yet, at the same time, he himself pulls together interview quotes and veiled hints in order to speculate that she is "being kept in the spotlight against her will," a damaged woman-child who needs music critics and conscientious audience members to save her from herself.
D'Addario's piece is less a look at this particular moment in Spears' career than a simple replication of familiar tropes that hover around her. Disinterest, check. Damaged little girl, check. Don't see her show, yep. What's interesting, though, is how these tropes get slightly rejiggered, for a pop star like Spears who is no longer an up-to-the-minute phenom, but is instead settling in for the long haul. When she was starting out, Spears was dismissed as crass and horrible for chasing radio play. Now, instead, D'Addario dismisses Spears because bubblegum is old hat, noting that she "feels like a relic or a legacy act, one prized for the nostalgia she’s able to provide of a time when she more clearly seemed to be enjoying herself."
It's certainly true that Britney isn't as relevant as she once was—but how exactly does that make her different from lots of other performers in lots of other genres? Spears’s first album came out in 1999; she's 15 years into her career. Many musical acts aren’t even active anymore 15 years after getting their start (even the Beatles had broken up by the time 15 years had passed), and the ones who are rarely maintain the same level of cultural importance. Fifteen years after they started, for example, Pearl Jam wasn't up-to-the-minute relevant to what was on the radio either. Neither was Muddy Waters 15 years after he started, or Big Mama Thornton 15 years after she started or, Steely Dan 15 years after they started. But all these acts had early mainstream success which eventually faded. Most remained influential in one way or another, as Spears's career hovers over Miley Cyrus's, but for the most part they had to settle for continuing to perform even though they weren't quite as popular or central as they'd once been. Every so often you get a Rolling Stones or a Beyoncé who can stay in the spotlight after their first decade. But in most cases, the radio and the public churn through their musical stars, and you either quit or just keep on keepin' on in relative, still-pretty-famous obscurity, relying on those old fans, and one or two new ones, to dump millions into your bank account.