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Some Thoughts on Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus, and The Ephemeral Nature of Pop Celebrity

Miley Cyrus, in yellow blouse, cheers on Britney Spears at the opening night performance of her Piece of Me show at the Planet Hollywood Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, December 28, 2013.

Like everyone else who follows popular culture, I’ve been aware of Madonna, Britney Spears, and more recently Miley Cyrus, as power pop performers who deliberately court “controversy.” During the summer of 1999, when I was guest lecturing at The University of Amsterdam, Britney Spears was exploding out of every record store in the city, as well as on The Box, a 24/7 music cable television station that played Britney’s hits in heavy rotation. My Dutch students bought her CDs, played them incessantly, and her early hits became instant teen anthems.

Britney Spears was just 18 at the time, but already the ruling pop star of the era, eclipsing Madonna’s long reign as the queen of pop, something Madonna was smart enough to acknowledge and embrace, thus assuring her own continued longevity as a performer. Now, Britney Spears is 32 years old, and what seemed easy at 18 is considerably more difficult. Spears went into a well-publicized meltdown a few years back, which seemed to me an utterly genuine cry for help; shaving her head bald on impulse, acting out in public, seemingly unable to handle the undoubted pressures of stardom anymore.

Now, Britney’s back, for a two-year residency at the Planet Hollywood Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, in a glitzy, lavish show entitled Piece of Me, something out of Cirque de Soleil. The show opened to middling reviews this past Friday, December 28, 2013. Spears is committed to doing roughly 90 shows through 2015, with more in the offing if things go well. This is, make no mistake about it, a major production, whether you care for this sort of thing or not. A lot is at stake, not least of which is Britney’s continued currency as a pop icon.

It’s also very hard work; E! aired a two hour documentary on the pre-production of the show just before it opened, which actually had some substance for a change, illustrating just how many people, how much money, how much rehearsal, how much time, energy, and blood, sweat and years went into creating the entire spectacle.

Performers suffered injuries, dance routines were drilled into Britney’s surrounding ensemble in non-stop rehearsals, enormous sets built, elaborate videos shot, and in what seems to me to be a rather questionable choice simply from a safety angle, Britney spends part of the show suspended in the air on wires as an angel, and later swoops out of a giant revolving tree, also with the aid of wires, as her troupe of dancers do everything they possibly can to showcase her to best advantage.

For, truth to be told, Britney’s dance work isn’t as crisp now as it was in 1999; how could it be? She’s older now, and more careful. Watching a video of the entire concert in segments, it’s clear that Britney is leaving heavily on her support staff at this point. She needs the spectacle to prop her up, as she rockets through a medley of past hits as well some new material, with an air of detached and somewhat bewildered resignation. This is her job, she needs the money, and if this is what it takes to keep on top, she’ll dutifully hit her marks and deliver.

Yet another graduate of the Disney stable, Spears is above all a professional performer, and has been a star since she was a child. Her meltdown was all but inevitable as she morphed from teen idol into adulthood, but now she seems to be grounded in the one true ethic that always gets professionals though anything: work, work, and more work. And I personally have no doubt that she’ll get through this two year gig, hopefully bank some cash, and then perhaps consider retiring.

But in the audience on her first night, in one of the front rows, was the new pop tart of the moment, Miley Cyrus, whose recent “provocative” videos “Wrecking Ball” and “Adore You” have grabbed literally hundreds of millions of views on YouTube. She’s clearly the next big threat on the horizon. Ostensibly, Miley just came to Britney’s show, and that was all.

But in what might be construed as an incredibly smart and yet seemingly generous gesture, Miley stood in the front row throughout Britney’s entire opening night performance, not hanging back, but rather singing along to the hits word for word, exhorting the audience to higher peaks of frenzy with shrieks of delight, jumping up and down in time to the music, pumping her fist in the air, at one with the music. It was her show, too.

It was clear to me what was happening; like the famous Madonna/Britney kiss at the VMA awards at Radio City Music Hall on August 28, 2003, in which Madonna both acknowledged and passed the torch to Spears as the next ruling princess of pop, this was the moment when the past met the future. With Miley simultaneously paying court to Britney while also amplifying her own celebrity, the 21 year old pop star was there to pay homage, but also to announce to the world that she, Miley Cyrus, was the new pop diva.

After the show, Britney tweeted “@MileyCyrus Love you so much! Thank you for coming to #PieceOfMe! I adore you :) ,” and she’s right to be grateful; Miley Cyrus really pushed Britney through her all-important first night, and got plenty of publicity for her herself in the process. Help a friend out, and help yourself out at the same time; it’s very convenient. It was abundantly clear that a lot was riding on Britney’s “comeback,” and Miley’s fame and energy was certainly an asset.

But as I watched, I wondered; what will Miley feel like when she’s 32, and the white-hot blast furnace of pop fame has cooled a bit? Yet another Disney alumnus herself, Miley Cyrus may well find herself doing a residency gig in some other Vegas hotel, as the newest pop diva of the era cheers her on, while also signaling her obsolescence. One day, perhaps, Madonna, Britney and Miley will team up together for a triple threat show, say in 2023 or so, in response to the attention being paid to the next big pop female star, whomever she may be.

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About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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