In July 2014, an anonymous source leaked the raw audio of Britney Spears’s confessional ballad “Alien.” Haters pounced on this star’s denuded voice, gleefully seizing on the viral artifact as a smoking gun for Spears’s deficits and for the pop industry’s artistic fakeries more broadly. My paper situates this flashpoint of Spears-shaming within late-capitalist archives of public humiliation, cyberleaks, and the paternalistic scrutiny of women’s bodies and voices.
In the summer of 2014, the internet sprang a musical leak. Suddenly circulating on YouTube was a video featuring the allegedly raw, non-Auto-Tuned sounds of Britney Spears singing her new album track “Alien.”3 Spears’s voice in this recording was noticeably off-key and off-kilter, like some abject artifact meant to be overwritten, forgotten, abandoned on the cutting room floor. In the video’s comment threads, viewers’ strident pronouncements of aching ears and melting brains swirled in a chorus of mockery. Haters pounced on the star’s denuded voice and offered it as airtight evidence of Spears’s artistic deficits.4 Although track producer William Orbit tried to run damage control by saying that Spears had failed to warm up prior to the leaked run-through, people gloated nonetheless by labeling the pop diva’s voice as “diabolical,” “like a strangled cat,” and, predictably, as “alien.”5 Such dehumanizing characterizations whipped through a firestorm of pearl-clutching gotcha! journalism.
But how shocking was the leak, anyhow? Long before the “Alien” fiasco, critics had relentlessly accused Spears of lapses in vocal ability, variously by knocking her failure to sing in tune, by satirizing her vocal fry, or by pitting her against one-time arch-frenemy Christina Aguilera.6 A leak of Spears’s unprocessed voice probably didn’t tell listeners much beyond what they already knew. After all, writers have bewailed Auto-Tune in general as a “crutch” that conditions singers into “lazy” vocal habits; freed from the disciplined pressures to hit and hold their notes with precision, recording artists who rely excessively on the technology may feel content to let their pitch (observe the doubling down on metaphors of disability and impairment) “atrophy” and “wobble.”7 Despite the collective charades of disgust and disbelief over Spears’s “Alien” leak, then, it’s a safe bet that people’s heads were neither literally nor—and this is key—figuratively exploding.
Leak is an alarm, a toxin, a media buzzword, a deictic term. To shout leak! is to say look here! or listen here!, a forceful yank of the gaze and jerk of the ear. Headlines about the Panama Papers, Ashley Madison, Anonymous, WikiLeaks, U.S.-Russian collusion, Facebook, revenge porn, and other clickbaity items reliably set off clamor on social media.8 By their nature, leaks are supposed to surprise. Media scholar Wendy Chun and filmmaker Sarah Friedland, however, offer a skeptical reading of public responses to leakage, observing that “what is surprising about all of these recent leaks [in the news] is not their existence, but rather our surprise at them,” in part “because new media are not simply about leaks: they are leak. New media work by breaching, and thus paradoxically sustaining, the boundary between private and public.”9 In other words, it’s surprising when people are (or act) surprised by leaks, because leaks, along with bugs, kinks, and glitches, are intrinsic to the very architecture of new media. Without the possibility of leakiness, no container and no inter-user channels can be said to exist. But now let’s take the recursion one level deeper. Should it come as a surprise when Chun, Friedland, and other savvy writers voice surprise toward others’ surprise toward leaks? If so, should this be surprising as well? Despite the rabbit-hole conceit, I am posing these questions seriously. Hard questions. Questions—characterized by what philosopher Gregory Currie terms “collapse of iterativity”—that we might be unable to fully wrap our minds around. But the discursive collapse speaks precisely to the allure of leaks: whatever their true shock value, leaks tempt people into performative spirals of metacritical introspection, all the while short-circuiting the intellectual, affective, and moral integrity of our own leakable bodies and of the body politic.10 Put another way, leaks involving other people rarely involve only other people. Leaks are about all of us. Because all of us leak.
My case study for this article is Britney Spears, who, for two decades, has been one of the most publicly shamed and lucratively leaked-about celebrities in American popular culture.11 Sensationalist journalism has reduced Spears to her highest highs and, in equal measure, to her lowest lows. Just as “new media are leak,” as Chun and Friedland put it, so we could say Spears is leak; her persona is equatable to the sum of what she has leaked, the glitz and the dirt.12 Besides the “Alien” leak, fans and haters alike have prodded every pixel of Spears, split every hair, floated every hypothetical pathology, archived every frame of lip-synch fail, dissected every relationship, and guesstimated every pound lost or gained. Critics have gossiped openly about her virginity and sexual activity since she was a teenager. And paparazzi have found ways to snap and sell countless photos of her genitals. Scrutiny of Spears has routinely banked on her Othering and dehumanization: as an alien, freak, or cult member (the shearing of her own hair in 2007); as an animal (rabid meltdowns, cagey hermeticism, physical confrontations with her hounders); as an impostor (with putative delusions about, among other things, her vocal proficiency and her entitlements to fame); and as slutty white trash. Public voice-shaming and slut-shaming of this singer have played out as intersectional bloodsports, filled with sexist, ableist, and classist jabs. In the end, Spears’s “Alien” scandal is at once mundane smut and jarring cautionary tale, reverberating with people’s trenchant anxieties about beauty standards, privacy, and interpersonal accountability in the age of ubiquitous leaks.
“SHE’S VERY NORMAL”: ANIMAL CONTROL AND WHITE TRASH ROYALTY
Discourses of it hurts me to have to hear this have been around for a while. In the eighteenth century, physicians and philosophers exhaustively theorized “the idea that music could over-stimulate a vulnerable nervous system, leading to illness, immorality and even death.”14 With recourse to notions of female hysteria and to the Enlightenment “cult of sensibility,” researchers of this period warily eyed certain styles of music not just as moral vices (à la Plato) but also as legitimately pathogenic or pathological. In a 1900 issue of The Medical Magazine, J. Herbert Dixon warned readers that girls who practiced piano excessively could suffer “the baneful influence of the continual vibrations on the organ of Corti [in the cochlea], and so on the brain,” with symptoms including “headaches, neuralgia, nervous twitchings, hysteria, melancholia, madness.”15 In past and present rhetorics of aural harm, the ear is framed as a conduit, the organ that allows foreign sonic substances to slip through. Ears, in this formulation, aren’t merely anatomical channels through which external sounds may leak inward; ears themselves, as permeable media, are metonymic leaks. As scholars of sound studies like to point out, humans have eyelids but have no “earlids.”16 Ears are chronically receptive, hence persistently leaky.
Social media platforms today have amplified and accelerated people’s claims about offensive sounds and offendable ears.17 Upon the leak of Spears’s non-Auto-Tuned vocals for “Alien,” listeners lined up to file for damages in the court of mob justice. “PROTECT your ears,” an Australian website cautioned with regard to this “hideously painful leaked studio clip.”18 YouTube viewers similarly shared laments such as “My ears, my precious ears, they can’t take it anymore!”19 while critics dissed Spears’s voice as “toxic to the ears” and “pretty shocking.”20 Public uproar painted the singer’s vocals as an extraordinary sonic invasion of exceptionally delicate cochleae. To be sure, the “Alien” leak sat in good company. Around this time, it was just one specimen within a thriving internet business of voice shaming. One trend has involved “isolated vocals,” through which someone tries to strip a singer’s (typically live-in-concert) voice from accompanying sounds (backup vocals, instruments, synths, audience noise), then posts this bare-bones voice online for listeners to admire or, more often, to ridicule. It’s the acoustic equivalent of pulling the rug out from under someone, as the editing yanks away the bass and other sonic buffers in order to cause a potentially embarrassing fall from grace. Surges in computer and mobile audio-editing apps have lowered the price of entry into DIY practices of musical tinkering.21 Methods of isolating vocals can thus come across as cheap in dual senses—financially (free or inexpensive software) as well as ethically (a cheap shot, a low blow).
Women are disproportionately shamed via these curations of isolated vocals, whether it’s Mariah Carey struggling with “All I Want for Christmas Is You” at a 2014 Rockefeller Center holiday performance, or Katie Price flubbing a duet of “A Whole New World,” or Courtney Love rocking “Celebrity Skin,” or Linda McCartney belting out “Hey Jude.”22 Conversely, the isolation of male artists’ vocals is commonly submitted as testaments to these men’s “genius”: Michael Jackson, David Bowie, Kurt Cobain, Marvin Gaye, Freddie Mercury, Eminem, and Paul McCartney (with occasional nods to divas such as Adele and Beyoncé).23 Nothing about this gendered double standard comes as a shock. Acoustically zooming in on a woman’s blemished voice calls to mind the tabloid gambit of visually zooming in on women’s bodies: the encircling of engagement rings (or absence of engagement rings), of baby bumps (or not), of augmented breasts (or not), or of Botoxed faces (or not), frequently with an actual arrow—the most on-the-nose deictic device—pointing at the gawk-worthy piece of flesh (fig. 1). Vocal and photographic croppings alike bank on the irresistibility of note-by-note, pixel-by-pixel voyeurism.24
A leak of a famous performer’s vocal foibles can conceivably make the singer appear fallibly human and relatable. Don’t we all have bad voice days, bad hair days, and days when pretty much everything seems to go wrong? Yet because celebrities are supposed to be larger than life, any signs of ordinariness may paradoxically make them appear all the more extraordinary, freakish, and alien. Examples of this paradox readily catch our eyes at the grocery store’s magazine racks—namely, the Us Weekly feature, “Stars: They’re Just Like Us!”, which, upon its launch in April 2002, began showing “suddenly [. . .] the beautiful extraterrestrials pumping gas, schlepping FedEx packages, and tying their shoes.”25 Along with People, In Touch, National Enquirer, and other gossip rags, Us Weekly has hiked up the supply and demand for photographing celebrities in their natural habitats, with stars rendered familiar (look, it’s Jennifer Lopez carrying her OWN luggage) to the point of uncanniness (. . . which is sooo weird!). In this lucrative market, paparazzi embark on safaris. More accurately, they conduct capture and release programs: ambush the star at the supermarket, snap some pictures, and then let her retreat to a hiking trail where she can be photographed and monetized anew. In 2008, journalist David Samuels spoke of how the paparazzi agency X17 would task its photographers to “[wait] 12 or 14 hours a day, six or seven days a week” near Britney Spears’s home, in hopes “that one day Britney will roll her car into a ditch, or be taken away again strapped to a gurney.”26 With paparazzi routinely catching the singer off-guard, numerous candid photos of Spears have given her the appearance of a startled, disgruntled animal over the years (fig. 2). No wonder the American poet Tony Hoagland, in “Poor Britney Spears,” leaned into easy animal comparisons by calling the star “my adorable little monkey/prancing for your candy,” while taking bonus digs at her “slim javelin of talent” and “recklessly little protective clothing.”27
An infamous rock-bottom week for Spears in 2007 can illuminate the paparazzi’s guerilla tactics and the tabloids’ animalization of celebrities. One February evening, Spears was caught using an electric razor to shave her own head in a Ventura Boulevard hair salon. She appeared, according to Samuels’s multi-abjecting summary, “at once vulnerable and wildly alienated, the expression one might expect to see on the face of a young cult member who had just set fire to her birth certificate on the sidewalk.”28 Public responses likewise overwhelmingly linked this act of self-shearing with insanity and freakery.29 Surely, people said, Spears’s willful disposal of her gold locks was a cry for help.30 Yet the close shave turned out to be merely the warmup act to a greater scandal a few days later, when an X17 team tracked the singer to the house of her then-husband Kevin Federline. Spears had hoped to see her children, who at the time were under Federline’s care. But she was denied entry. So she drove away to a nearby Jiffy Lube, paparazzi still hot on her trail. What happened next made instant headlines. “She took her hat off, and she was bald,” recalled paparazzo Daniel “Dano” Ramos. “She was breathing like a bull. It was like smoke was coming out of her nostrils.”31 Spears then leapt out of the car and screamed “Motherfuckers!” while brandishing an umbrella and using it to strike the door of a paparazzo’s car. If Spears behaved like a “bull,” though, maybe it’s because the paparazzi choreographed themselves like bullfighters. As Dano explained, paparazzi work optimally in “triangle” formations so that the celebrity has nowhere to turn.32 With the savage grace of matadors, paparazzi manufacture arenas where celebrities may feel—and act—like cornered animals.33
In her first concert tour after the umbrella showdown (as well as after a gauntlet of rehab, divorce, custody battles, a death in the family, and other hardships), Spears aptly played on themes of caginess and cagedness. Called The Circus Starring Britney Spears, each concert opened with the 2008 namesake song “Circus,” with Spears descending from the ceiling in an interlocking pair of glittery hoops, invoking one-part burlesque dancer, one-part ensnared beast (fig. 3). With hardly a breath in between, Spears would then transition from “Circus” into the 2007 song “Piece of Me,” featuring her inside yet another cage, this one gold and rectangular. In case anyone could miss the blunt symbolism of cages in multiple shapes and colors, the lyrics for “Piece of Me” take explicit aim at the insatiable photographers who stalk the stars: “I’m Mrs. Oh-My-God-That-Britney’s-Shameless!/I’m Mrs. Extra-Extra-This-Just-In!/I’m Mrs. She’s-Too-Big-Now-She’s-Too-Thin!/I’m Mrs. You-Want-a-Piece-of-Me?” Ironically, or all too fittingly, Spears’s post-show obligations have often included photo ops with V.I.P. ticketholders—presumably superfans dying to get a piece of her. Listen, however, to the weird way Felicia Culotta, the coordinator of a Las Vegas V.I.P. package, characterized this artist to the eager meet-and-greeters: “Britney plays off energy. If you go in scared of her, she is going to be scared of you. So don’t be scared of her. She’s very normal.”34 It’s good advice. But don’t Culotta’s remarks sound like she was talking about a skittish creature at a petting zoo? Even this well-intentioned message of Britney: she’s just like us! rang with dehumanizing and infantilizing insinuations, affirming that Spears is sufficiently unlike normal people to warrant the caveat of alikeness in the first place.
If Culotta’s words come across as condescending, they nevertheless align with Spears’s daily control by a squad of agents, lawyers, public relations specialists, and family members. Sure, most celebrities rely on managers. Spears’s micromanagement, though, is next level. Following her breakdowns in 2007 and an emergency visit to a psychiatric hospital in 2008, the singer has remained under court-ordered conservatorship. This means Spears “cannot make key decisions, personal or financial, without the approval of her conservators: her father, Jamie Spears, and an estate lawyer, Andrew M. Wallet. Her most mundane purchases, from a drink at Starbucks to a song on iTunes, are tracked in court documents as part of the plan to safeguard the great fortune she has earned but does not ultimately control.”35 Over the past decade, rumblings about this paternal(istic) conservatorship have fed concurrent rumors about Spears’s mental and moral incapacities. Is the star incompetent? Depressed? Profligate? Reckless? Hanging by a thread?
Tabloids’ dehumanizing portraits of Britney Spears have been virtuosically intersectional, concentrating on everything from the star’s gender (womanhood, girlhood, hyper-femininity, unfemininity) and sexuality (dating men, kissing Madonna) to matters of disability (psychological ails, physical injuries) and faith (Baptist upbringing, atheism, “dabbling” in Hinduism).36 And unlike some white musicians—whose color and race might go unremarked via the cultural logics and hegemonies of white privilege—Spears’s whiteness has received colorful coverage because it has been nominally inextricable from white trash narratives, which sit discursively adjacent to stamps of animality and incivility.37 Raised in a modest household in Kentwood, Louisiana, which hosts a population of just over 2000, Spears has been this rural town’s most famous export. As a teenager, she blossomed into a picture-perfect and photo-ready exemplar of the American Dream: rags to riches, dairy farms to Big Apple penthouses. But as scandals began piling on, critics were quick to dredge up her white trash roots. In January 2004, when Spears married (and, 55 hours later, divorced) her childhood friend Jason Alexander, Guardian writer Kathryn Flett called the singer “a white trash girl who, after years of high-gloss polish in the Business of Show, is currently reverting to type,” as evidenced by “a seven-minute, $70 ceremony at a Las Vegas chapel.”38 Reverting to type—implying that one cannot escape a white-trash upbringing. Subsequently, in the fall of 2004, Spears married Kevin Federline and, a year after that, gave birth to her first child. Concerning this arduous period in Spears’s life, Rolling Stone writer Vanessa Grigoriadis declared:
[Spears] is not a good girl. She is not America’s sweetheart. She is an inbred swamp thing who chain-smokes, doesn’t do her nails, tells reporters to “eat it, snort it, lick it, fuck it” and screams at people who want pictures for their little sisters. [. . .] Federline gave Britney license to fully embrace her white-trash side—walking into gas-station restrooms barefoot, dumping ashtrays out hotel windows, wearing novelty tees like I’M A VIRGIN, BUT THIS IS AN OLD SHIRT and, most notably, not strapping the kids into car seats.39
Sociologist Karen Bettez Halnon viewed Spears and Federline along similar lines, calling them the “quintessential ‘super trash’ romance” whose nuptials confirmed that “Spears was no longer a cute and innocent virgin but rather a not-so-intelligent, beer-drinking, trucker-hat wearing, cigarette-smoking, sexually charged, white-trash princess.”40 Notice how, for these authors, white trashiness is multifariously yoked to indecency (shouting, cursing, bad parenting), dirtiness (unkempt nails, uncovered feet), substance use (smoking, drinking), sluttiness (loss of virginal status), and animality (“a swamp thing,” in the words of Grigoriadis). Notice additionally how, like sluttiness, white trashiness gets summoned as a sticky quality in spite of wealth and fame.41 Once white trash, always white trash—this is what writers infer when they harp on Spears “reverting to,” “fully embrac[ing],” and “backslid[ing] into” white-trash status, as if it were a malady prone to the whims of remission and relapse.42 As much as people love feasting on stories of overcoming, then, they reserve plenty of appetite for the opposite: stories of abject failure, not least those involving sexualized, sexist, or misogynist fantasies of a woman returning to her rightful place, whether it’s white-trash roots or some other besmirched subject position.43 For although plenty of male musicians receive praise for recuperating or “owning” their white-trash identity—Eminem, Kid Rock, and the “King of White Trash Culture,” Elvis Presley—female musicians and celebrities (Spears, Madonna, Miley Cyrus, Anna Nicole Smith, Jessica Simpson, Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan) have stood to face reprobation for the slightest hint of trashiness.44 As with the shaming of isolated vocals, the double standard burns bright.
Because a white-trash woman is shamefully unwomanly. Just as crucially, a white-trash woman is shameless about the shamefulness of her unwomanly vices. Among the most “significant stigma symbol[s] of so-called white trash status,” notes Halnon, is the expression “just don’t give a fuck,” which “refers to a kind of indignation, to outward displays of not caring.”45 Unsurprisingly, Spears’s white-trash, “don’t give a fuck” reputation has leapt across national borders and languages. Canada’s premier newspaper Globe and Mail once called out Spears’s “trailer-trash vulgarity.”46 In the United Kingdom, Spears has been deemed a “chav” (unsocialized young person in sportswear).47 And in Uriangato, Mexico, where Spears’s CDs and plastic dolls were flying off store shelves at the turn of the millennium, anthropologist Hilary Parsons Dick met local informants who referred to the singer as “una gabacha sinvergüenza,” or “a shameless white-trash woman.”48 Ascriptions of unapologetic shamelessness are a small skip and hop away from permissions to shame unapologetically. If someone is perceived as shameless (ergo unshameable), then eager shamers obtain implicit license to fire at will.
As Britney Spears has tumbled from one “rock bottom” to the next, people have expressed both admiration and resentment that she indeed seemingly “doesn’t give a fuck” anymore—about a wardrobe malfunction during a Vegas concert, about lukewarm reviews of her 2016 album Glory, or about “starv[ing] herself down” for a performance.49 In a Rolling Stone decennial retrospective on Spears’s 2007 Blackout album, Rob Sheffield described the work as “an avant-disco concept album about getting famous, not giving a fuck, getting divorced, not giving a fuck, getting publicly mocked and despised and humiliated [. . .] [b]ut mostly it’s an album about not giving a fuck.”50 Even if Spears exudes a kind of blunt insouciance, she typically doesn’t bring this attitude onto the stage, where, over thousands of shows, she has vigorously danced and sung in front screaming fans. At the same time, her empowered stage presence might belie her disempowerment behind the scenes. During concerts, her cage props can ooze kink and sex. When the curtains fall, however, the bondage is real. Between the physical flanks of paps and the legal boilerplates of conservatorship, Spears has been tightly steered, zoned, and controlled for most of her life.
All the more newsworthy, then, when the tight ship springs a leak or veers off course. Some of the most sensationalized moments in Spears’s career have involved the singer’s apparent inability either to control her body (lashing out with an umbrella, messing up choreography, gaining weight, suffering nip slips) or to control her voice (the “Alien” leak, lip-sync fails, giving “the worst interview of the year,” telling “liars” to “kiss [her] lily white southern Louisiana ass,” and mysteriously fading in and out of a British accent).51 In addition to body-shaming and voice-shaming, Spears has faced fat-shaming and slut-shaming in spades. Euphemisms for fat and slut jointly traffic in accusations about, once again, the deficit of control: a woman dubbed fat has “really let herself go” or “given up” on herself; a woman dubbed slut is “loose” or all too ready to “give it up.”52 But whereas Spears has been slammed for failing to be a good singer and a good girl, critics count precisely on her out-of-control, leaky moments to produce news, bait clicks, elicit gasps, and crank the money mill. In short, the media has relied on concomitant narratives of Spears losing her voice (singing ability), losing her body (unrealistic thinness), and loosening her body (virginity) over a strenuous career.
Voice-shaming, fat-shaming, slut-shaming—it’s the trinity of a shitshow business.
LEAKS, SLUTS, AND SHIT
On 10 September 2007, a Britney Spears fan named Chris Crocker rocketed to YouTube fame with his two-part video, “Leave Britney Alone!” Voicing teary concern for Spears’s wellbeing, Crocker pushed back against the critics who were roundly panning Spears’s opening act at the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards the day before.54 Out of fear that Spears might wither under the media’s vicious attacks, Crocker implored: “Do we really want to see a twenty-five-year-old woman leave behind two children and die? Have we learned nothing from Anna Nicole Smith [who died in February 2007 from drug overdose]?”55 Crocker repeatedly dignified Spears as “a human” and castigated the people who were treating her inhumanely: “I know it’s hard to see Britney Spears as a human being. But trust me, she is. [. . .] All you people care about is readers and making money off of her. She’s a human! Leave Britney alone!”
Reviewers of Spears’s performance at the VMAs complained about this singer’s sloppy dance moves, lethargic tempo, and weight. Her “tight body was long gone,” noted one critic; so were “those abs of yore.”56 In the book Fat Shame, Amy Farrell reflects on the ways “the story of [Spears’s] downfall—which includes questionable parenting techniques, violent behavior, and drug and alcohol binges—is largely told through a narrative about her fat body. [. . .] The New York Daily Post said that Spears [at the 2007 VMAs] was ‘stuffed into a spangled bra and hot pants and jiggled like Jell-O,’ while E! Online described the horror of the ‘bulging belly she was flaunting.’”57 Writers effectively depicted Spears’s flesh as leaking out of her two-piece. These depictions drew validation from a New York Times report that revealed how Spears, an hour before curtains up at the VMAs, had “decided not to wear the custom-fitted corset designed for the performance, opting for a black bikini-style costume that revealed more of her body.”58 And here’s where fat-shaming crashed into slut-shaming: some people claimed they took issue not with Spears’s size per se, but rather with the fact that Spears, at that size, dared to wear such a sexy get-up. “She isn’t fat,” admitted a blog commenter. “But she isn’t fit enough to be wearing (or not wearing) what she is.”59,Us Weekly editor Janice Min gave her professional opinion along similar lines: “In that ensemble, you just can’t have an ounce of anything extra. Many women wouldn’t eat for days if they were wearing that.”60 Translation: what right did Britney have, as someone who was no longer pencil-thin (and, moreover, as a new mother of two)—what right did she have to wear anything other than a head-to-toe potato sack? Did she have no shame?
In societal narratives of respectable womanhood, a subtle yet crucial quirk distinguishes fat-shaming from slut-shaming. Fat-centered narratives often work as boomerangs, circling between misfortune and redemption based on weight fluctuations. “Just as fatness narrates [Spears’s] downfall, a newly thin body is what later becomes the motif for her comeback,” notes Farrell.61 A kindred and contemporaneous example was Monica Lewinsky, who, as a guest star in the 1999 ad for the American weight loss program Jenny Craig, exemplified “a ‘dieting narrative’ that moves the primitive, impulsive fat woman into a new status of civilized and controlled.”62 Condemnation of Lewinsky and Bill Clinton relied not just on reports of the couple’s “kinky sex,” but also on a “mutual fatness [that] marked them as already culpable [. . .] [as] two people who were impulsive, whose bodily cravings were out of control.”63 But whereas pounds may be visibly and measurably shed, it’s harder to shed a reputation of lasciviousness. In the public eye, as Wendy Chun and Sarah Friedland declare, the “slut is the woman who is repeatedly and habitually open and opened. [. . .] The slut ‘asks for it’—that is, she brings penetration and exposure upon herself through her openness and thus constant vulnerability.”64 Merciless models of sexism operate under forced corollaries of once a slut, always a slut. Like white trashiness, sluttiness sticks. Its unretractability is buoyed by misconstruals of virginity (and the presumed irrevocability of its loss) and compounded by misunderstandings of affirmative sexual consent (a single yes meaning yes, definitely and indefinitely).65 In the internet era, the permanence of one’s slut branding is anchored by the quasi-permanence of naked pictures and their weaponized form, revenge porn. An implicit tag of slut-shaming is “Once It’s There, It’s There to Stay” because, as Chun and Friedland explain, “once you’ve exposed yourself as a slut—as a consenting spectacle, as shameless—you deserve no protection, no privacy. [. . .] [C]onsent once, circulate forever.”66 Once someone gives themselves up to the public eye, in other words, they—and their photographic documentation—will stay fair game for tabloids and trolls. (Tellingly, “giving it up,” with its deflowering and sub-dom connotations, is the paparazzi’s code phrase for celebrities who are “good sports” and who cop to being “attention whores.”)
No-going-back principles of sluttiness have clung to Britney Spears ever since the release of the music video for her 1998 debut mega-single, “(Hit Me) Baby One More Time,” in which she personified a sexy Catholic schoolgirl. Writers frequently point to this song as a millennial pop touchstone. Diane Pecknold remarks that if American pop’s “new teen girl sound of the 2000s and 2010s [. . .] can be imagined as having an inaugural moment, it would surely be in the opening ‘Oh baby, baby’ of Britney Spears’s 1998 hit ‘. . . Baby One More Time’” and its “distinctive vocal fry.”67 Ann Powers, invoking alien comparisons, likewise observes how Spears burst from a chrysalid in this “catchy electropop come-on” expertly produced by Swedish songwriter Max Martin: “With her gorgeous flesh and tiny voice—its metallic tone perfectly suited for manipulation—Spears presented from the beginning as a hybrid: half shopping mall American, half creature from another planet. Her body, voice, and projected emotions were youthful but washed clean of any adolescent awkwardness.”68 With the phrase “washed clean of any adolescent awkwardness,” Powers is referring to the music video’s meticulous production values. Every angle, frame, cut, costume change, vocal inflection, and audiovisual sync is rigorously accounted for, resulting in a sanitized and glossy spectacle. But might there be something awkward—even disturbing—about such presentational Purell? Could the “clean” surface of “. . . Baby One More Time” be as unnerving as, say, the bright, white, hyper-sterile, impossibly spotless rooms featured in numerous science fiction thrillers? (If you’re in an alien or zombie movie, and you find yourself in such a room, chances are something terrible is about to go down.) Sometimes, the most polished surfaces send the most muddied signals.
Case in point: a few months after the release of the music video for “. . . Baby One More Time,” Spears graced the cover of Rolling Stone wearing an open blouse, polka-dot panties, and a bra. Her left hand gripped a pink phone, and her right hand clutched a plush doll of Tinky Winky the Teletubby. Like the choreography and iconography of “. . . Baby One More Time,” this cover shoot was fastidiously styled (airbrushed and “washed clean,” to use Powers’s words). Yet the “cleanliness” of the photo shoot couldn’t mask the mixed signs therein: the purple plushie toy said girl, the pink phone said teenager, the shiny black bra and cleavage said woman, and the multi-item caption—“Inside the Heart, Mind, & Bedroom of a Teen Dream”—authorized voyeuristic entry into this celebrity’s inner life and dwelling. The feature story itself began in a way that made good on the cover’s tease: “Britney Spears extends a honeyed thigh across the length of the sofa, keeping one foot on the floor as she does so. [. . .] The BABY PHAT logo of Spears’ pink T-shirt is distended by her ample chest, and her silky white shorts—with dark blue piping—cling snugly to her hips.”69 To be clear, Teen Dreams aren’t quite kids anymore. Like other adolescent stars, Britney Spears “performed awakening” on the world stage, surprising and even scandalizing people with her displays of sexuality and skin.70 The music video for “. . . Baby One More Time” literalizes awakening by opening with a daydreaming Spears, who, upon the salvational ding! of the 3 p.m. school bell, snaps out of her stupor and hurries into the hallway where she leads a group dance number replete with gyrations, shimmies, back flips, and high kicks. She exhibits coming of age by dramatically coming to life, transforming from a languid, silent pupil into a hyperenergetic, vocal ringleader (fig. 4).
Prior to the meteoric debut of “. . . Baby One More Time” and the alluring magazine shoots, a pre-teen Britney Spears had sung in Baptist church choirs, participated in pageants, and frolicked in the G-rated New Mickey Mouse Club. Once a teenage Spears became a household name, however, she arrived seemingly at a point of no return, cementing into a precocious sex icon and eventually a presumed slut. Diane Sawyer, in a 2003 interview with Spears, held up the singer’s photo shoots in Esquire and Rolling Stone, and asked incredulously: “What happened to your clothes? What’s this about? No kidding. What is it about?”71 Musicologist Melanie Lowe, who conducted focus groups with adolescent girls, describes how she found herself “overwhelmed” by these girls’ intense reactions to the mere mention of Britney Spears, whom they described as “slutty,” “trashy,” and “slore [portmanteau of slut plus whore] slore slore slore slore slore whore!”72 In a 2006 pull-no-punches invective against Spears and Lindsay Lohan, Bette Midler called these millennial celebrities “wild and woolly sluts.”73 And in 2015, Naomi Wolf, author of the bestseller The Beauty Myth, penned a Guardian op-ed imploring “young women” to “give up vocal fry” while naming Britney Spears as a famous fryer; this trendy speech mannerism, to the ears of Wolf, “sound[s] like ducks quacking” and forfeits a woman’s authority.74 (The animal simile is condescending enough, but Wolf makes it clearer, with a bonus unsolicited comparison, that she also associates vocal fry with a certain looseness or wantonness: “‘Vocal fry’ is that guttural growl at the back of the throat, as a Valley Girl might sound if she had been shouting herself hoarse at a rave all night.”)75 Myriad insults lobbed at Spears and Spears-alikes . . . and the above comments are just the ones made by female (and self-identified feminist) critics! Plainly, slut-shaming of Spears hasn’t come solely from men and anonymous internet trolls. It has been an equal-opportunity sport, admitting participants of all genders and ages.
If fat-shaming and slut-shaming narratives have respectively depicted Spears as redeemable (via weight loss) and incorrigible (as a loose woman), the case of voice-shaming has fallen somewhere in between. From a reviewer’s excoriation of her “pathetically lip-synched” 2007 performance at the VMAs to YouTubers’ jeers at the “Alien” leak, the critical history of Britney Spears has largely played out as a history of listeners doubting her vocal talents.76 But a speculative prehistory is where greater intrigue lies: fans insist that Spears, far from being an essentially bad singer, is a victim of having her voice taken from her. Sitting in fans’ crosshairs are industry forces, in particular Jive Records, the American label that signed the star from 1997 through 2011. Some say Jive “ruined” Spears’s voice by forcing her to sing persistently in a salacious yet insalubrious “baby voice” with vocal fry.77 Such claims are corroborated by compilations on YouTube offering glimpses into the vocal chops of Spears in her youth. In a fan-made montage called “The Hidden Potential of Britney Spears,” we see the singer performing as a finalist on Star Search in 1992, crooning Christmas carols at a Miss New Orleans pageant in 1996, and singing capably on multiple other occasions.78 By pointing to these examples, and by pointing at Jive as a corporate archvillain that drained the light out of a starlet’s budding voice, fans have continuously attempted to absolve Spears’s present-day vocal infelicities.
In the comment threads for videos such as “The Hidden Potential of Britney Spears,” “Britney Spears (REAL VOICE),” or “BRITNEY SPEARS HAS LOST HER VOICE FOREVER! (PROOF),” laments about Spears losing her voice to Jive resonate with a slew of familiar narratives about the kleptovocal vices of music industries past and present. Wistful remarks about Spears’s once-untainted and now-irretrievable voice bring to mind the way musicians sometimes pine for the “lost voice” of castrati and rue, notwithstanding the ethics of castration, the dearth of audio recordings by these lyric “angels.”79 Or take the example of opera singer Maria Callas, who, by her 40s, had begun exhibiting symptoms of vocal damage. Despite critics’ harsh reviews, as musicologist Laurie Stras points out, “[Callas’s] vocal deterioration (in pathological terms) was seen by her loyal fans as an inevitable outcome of physical self-abuse brought on by the pressures of stardom,” and her “public persona as tragic heroine allowed, and continues to allow, her audience to connect a personal history with an otherwise indeterminate sound of damage.”80 In literary narratives, vocal damage plus dreams of fame have served up deadly cocktails for women who virtually sing themselves into the grave, whether it’s the doomed Antonia in Jacques Offenbach’s 1881 opera Les Contes d’Hoffmann or the consumptive, coughing Satine in Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 film musical Moulin Rouge! Although one could reason that it’s better for a chanteuse to have sung and perished than never to have sung at all—better to vocally “[rebel] against a domestic/paternal order that would silence her,” as Heather Hadlock surmises regarding Offenbach’s Antonia—the double bind of silence-or-singing-equals-death is a false choice, a rock and a hard place deceptively upsold as open pasture.81
Fans of Britney Spears, by blaming Jive and its theft of the star’s voice, are essentially running a two-pronged defense. First, they could say that Spears has an authentic and proficient voice hibernating beneath the thick layers of industry influence. Second, they could say that even if Spears can never recover her pre-Jive talent, her current voice is beautiful as it is, warts and all. Just as some art collectors appreciate, even favor, paintings with patina—the oxide coating that, as anthropologist Shannon Lee Dawdy puts it, conveys value via the “requisite crust and haze of time”—so fans cherish Spears’s summative patina, the layers of tabloid smear and the stubborn crust of performative habits accumulated over the years.82 Now let’s go further and imagine this patina as not solely metaphorical but also physiological: the oft-rumored scars lining Spears’s larynx, or the nodules and polyps along the vocal folds. In terms of laryngeal damage and the prospect of phonomicrosurgery, Spears sits in good company. Tales of mixed success (Adele) and outright horror stories (Julie Andrews) abound.83 Especially for female singers, a common and noticeable symptom of throat impairment is the onset constriction of range. Some divas—albeit, not Spears—are famous for hitting high notes. Yet just as they are lauded for successfully soaring to the peaks of their tessitura, these women may be denounced with equal zeal if or when they fall short. Virtuosos such as Idina Menzel, Demi Lovato, Christina Aguilera, and Mariah Carey have been tsk-ed and shamed for “whiffing” climactic notes as well as for preventatively transposing melodies into lower registers.84 But what this kneejerk scolding perpetually overlooks is that any accrued limitations in vocal register might owe to how these singers, as literally as possible, give their voices to listeners over the course of their careers—sometimes belting out high notes so loudly, exhaustively, and detrimentally that the worn-and-torn throat is left with hardly any more voice to give.
Big Bad music industries, insatiable fans, and a host of external forces aren’t the only things that can crack a pop star’s voice. For pubescent and adolescent girls, developmental rites of passage come with a slew of internal pressures and natural changes that stand to make, unmake, and remake the voice. Diane Pecknold, a scholar of gender and pop music, and Barbara DeMaio, a professional soprano and voice teacher, respectively characterize these bodily changes:
In the teen girl voice, the physical failures of closure and transition associated with the mutations of puberty—the rasps, breaks, breathiness, straining, and other failures to connect or cohere—sonically project an infinite state of restless becoming whose endpoint is never determined. [. . .] This thoroughgoing transformation produces a litany of control problems: insecure pitch, noticeable register breaks, breathiness or huskiness, temporary range limitations, voice cracking, and hoarseness.85
As young women grow into puberty and beyond there are many changes in the larynx; children are not miniature adults. Along with the development of the lamina propria there is a hardening of the arytenoid cartilages, mentioned earlier; while the arytenoids are hardening, the vocal folds cannot close cleanly, causing the breathy sound common in young girls due to the mutational chink (so-called because it is a product of the voice as it mutates during puberty) or gap in the vocal folds that can extend into adulthood. The thyroid-arytenoid muscle strengthens and lengthens as it develops, favoring the development of a strong, healthy chest voice. At the same time, the crico-thyroid muscle also develops, extending the “head voice.”86
Pecknold’s and DeMaio’s nuanced descriptions make a girl’s road to vocal maturity sound like a sonic minefield. For girls, as Laurie Stras observes, “what is actually [vocal] development can sound like aberration. [. . .] These voices by their nature were liable to sound out of control, at least occasionally.”87 And it’s not just girls’ voices that can sound aberrant; discourses about these voices, by virtue of their inherent complexity and specialized vocabulary, mirror the mystique at play. Words such as “lamina propria,” “thyroid-arytenoid,” “crico-thyroid,” and “mutational chink”—though familiar to voice teachers, students, and physicians—may sound like the stuff of sci-fi, delineating young women-in-training as veritable little aliens. (I was uninformed about this terminology until a knowledgeable colleague guided me toward pertinent literature.)
Along with the pressures exerted by Jive, then, morphological idiosyncrasies shaped, skewed, and challenged the vocal development of a young Britney Spears. It’s hard to say how this singer would have fared had she received alternate forms of training and different industry mandates. But for the record, Spears herself has rarely shown any delusions about bodily or vocal perfection. After her panned performance at the 2006 VMAs, Spears called herself a “fat pig” while crying backstage.88 And in their 2003 ABC interview, when Diane Sawyer asked Spears if she likes her own voice, the singer looked stunned.
“Do I like my voice?” Spears echoed, briefly pausing as if taken aback by the forthright and rudimentary question. “Um, I’ll be completely honest. I think my voice is . . . okay? I like the feeling that I get when I sing. It’s not so much my voice. But I would love to have a voice like Christina [Aguilera’s] [or] like Whitney [Houston’s].”89 For all of the media’s chronic speculations about her ditziness and mental instability, Spears hasn’t needed others to tell her she’s not the best singer or the thinnest performer or the most saintly celebrity in the world. Not that evidence of self-awareness has ever stopped people from explaining all things Britney Spears to Britney Spears.
Leave Britney alone? Not a chance.
FAKE NEWS (VOICE EDITION)
When she started singing that ageless song [“Amazing Grace”] with such clarity and beauty, she sounded astonishing, like a young Aretha Franklin, soulful and pure. In my mind that’s what her “real” voice sounds like, a wholesome, powerful sound, not like the breathy, super-produced pop voice given to her by record producers.–lynne spears90
It gets more complicated.
In the comment threads for the various videos (copies, reposts, mirror links) of “Alien NO AUTOTUNE,” Spears’s diehard defenders have clashed with haters. Wave after wave of insults, shaming, and name calling. Equally prevalent in the comments, however, is a debate that has little to do with whether the singing is good or bad, in tune or not. It’s a debate about whether the sounds of Spears’s voice in the leaked video—and, by extension, the leak itself—are even real. Several viewers came to insist that the voice was manipulated to sound out of tune.
If a voice these days can easily be Auto-Tuned into sounding on-pitch, then, as these commenters argue, a voice can be detuned and faked into sounding off-pitch. Some people’s superlative truth claims plunged straight into ad hominems. Others opted to focus instead on technicalities. One commenter invited listeners to notice how pitches “change in every part” and that “some of the notes were just forced (by means of editing) to make [Spears’s] voice off key!”94 Or my favorite remark, which siphoned authority from music theory: “The person who made [the video] put auto tune on the vocals but in the wrong key which causes it to sound like this. If you understand music theory and scales you will understand.”95 But even if (de)tuning were to leave audible tells—an infinitesimal buzz, a timbral twang—these tells have remained indeterminate enough to foreclose consensus. I’ve included screen grabs from a few threads (fig. 5). Notice the common semantic ploy in the otherwise varied claims of veracity or fakery: the amplification of statements by “clearly,” “obviously,” “so,” “promise,” and other intensifiers, which overstated epistemic confidence in the face of underwhelming evidence one way or the other. The promissory ping-ponging of fake news! 100% real! swear it’s false! I PROMISE it’s real! messily scattered the burden of proof across party lines. And although a few commenters saw a silver bullet in producer William Orbit’s statement about the leak simply being Spears’s warmup, not everyone was convinced. For all we know, fans argued, the “admission” by Orbit doesn’t discount the possibility that he spoke hastily for the sake of putting out a PR fire; maybe Orbit hadn’t heard the leak firsthand at all. In sum, the alleged leak of “Alien” led some listeners to attack Spears as a faker and a meritless singer, whereas others defended Spears by saying the leak itself was fake and had no merit. Together, people knew they probably would never ascertain the absolute truth, yet they participated in the back-and-forths anyway. No one saw reason to concede.96
In 2017, I presented excerpts of this Spears paper at a few places. During these opportunities, I asked audience members to experiment with relistening to both the lyrics and the tuning of the “Alien” leak. I wondered aloud whether we could shift the onus of aesthetic appreciation from Spears’s flawed, purportedly deceptive voice to our own fallible, deceivable ears. Here are the song’s opening lyrics.
On the surface, the lyrics look straightforward. The protagonist, presumably Spears or her stage persona, has found a companion who relieves her loneliness. But what if we can’t trust our first reading and listening of the song? As Spears sings about alienation, each refrain contains twelve iterations of “not alone” plus one lead-in. Although the words overtly celebrate companionship—“the light in your eyes lets me know I’m not alone”—the sheer repetitiveness of “not alone” belies its denotations. For why would someone need to chant “not alone” a whopping total of fifty-one times throughout the song, if not to reassure herself or to persuade others of her not-aloneness? The way we might hear it, each successive “not alone” recants its own assertion, unraveling the speech act from within. Yet only by taking into account the multiple instances of “not alone”—only by patiently listening in full, and relistening over time—would we access this hermeneutic alternative. With diametric interpretations resounding, maybe the truth sits in a liminal space, somewhere between the desperate denials of aloneness and the naivety of a newfound paramour as panacea.
If the lyrics of “Alien” can be read against their own grain, then Spears’s voice (its tone, tuning, timbre) has the potential to be creatively reheard in kind. In my presentations, I typically played three versions of “Alien” to facilitate a listening exercise: first, the official album version; second, the alleged leaked version; and lastly, a synchronized playback of the first version superimposed over the second. Superimposing the two tracks created audible frictions between the in-tune voice and the out-of-tune voice, with a result vaguely reminiscent of the “thick” aesthetics achieved by vocal layering techniques in hip hop.97 Although my experiment in superimposition was nowhere near as sophisticated or laborious as professionals’ sound-engineering wizardry, I wanted my combination of Spears’s two-voicedness to drive home a principle upheld by certain philosophies of compassionate justice: that we are all probably more than the sum of the best and the worst we’ve ever sounded, musically and otherwise.98 Time and again, no doubt, Spears has been broken into her best and worst pieces—sonically and graphically, by the clean croppings of Auto-Tune versus embarrassingly isolated vocals, by the air-brushed magazine covers versus the most unflattering candid photos. We, the public, have always had choices in terms of what to do with these pieces. Smelt them into ammunition? Craft them into art anew? Leak them? Leave them alone?
During my presentations, I found it fascinating to watch the facial expressions and body language of my audience members, especially when I played for them the leaked version of “Alien.” As people listened to Spears falling conspicuously flat on sustained words such as “sky” and “home” in the first refrain, some faces would contort into winces, smiles, or suppressed laughter; heads would shake; torsos would squirm in the chairs. What is it, though, about a few flat pitches that can animate listeners’ bodies into living GIFs? Are these behaviors performative? Fake? Conditioned? Granted, in formal music education, we’re usually taught to think of performative flaws as impurities, whether it’s coming up short when singing a high note, pinching an adjacent key on the piano, or croaking a low A-flat on a tenor saxophone. A visual score, an oral template, or a teacher’s demo lays out an aspirational and clean rendition, and for purposes of musical reproduction, all obvious errors are toxins, the grime that leaks into an otherwise idealized and sanitary system. But in musical performances, not least those with improvisatory traditions, is there nonetheless something toxic about hygienic perfectionism and its demands on bodily discipline? Insofar as disciplined musical ability is something that builds up in your system—your muscles, nerves, circuitry, calloused skin, vocal folds—we can’t claim it’s normal or natural for a voice to sound always in tune, or for a thumb to strike every ivory dead center. Discipline makes us capable of amazing feats. But discipline is also bound to Foucauldian control and its warnings of consequent punishment.99 Stated differently: are pitch norms in (tonal) music any more or less toxic than, say, gender norms, or able-bodied norms, or the racialized norms of respectability politics? Any more or less political? Certainly for some musicians, it can be second nature to obsess over the worst few seconds of a performance, perhaps just a single fudged note or a forgotten lyric, despite smooth sailing everywhere else. All it takes is one delicious leak to bring would-be shamers out of the woodwork.
In terms of collective fallibility, though, leaks are great equalizers. Everything and everyone is leakable, physically and metaphorically, corporeally and informationally. No one should feel immune to the surveillance of Big Brother, the blaze of revenge porn, the blackmail of ransomware, and the plethora of phishing ploys that, like antibiotic-resistant bacteria, engage in arms races with your latest version of antivirus software. No one has inalienable rights to privacy, and no one is exempt from the alienation that breaches of privacy can precipitate. To this point, the chant in Spears’s “Alien” rings true: the singer is correct when she professes to be “not alone, not alone, not alone,” seeing as how her susceptibility to leak is a key way in which the stars are just like us. Although people take special notice when a leak pertains to a celebrity, we have to remember that leaks can make someone a celebrity (think of Kim Kardashian and Ray J). With today’s prevalence of hacking technologies, a leak could happen to you, even if it sounds like the sort of thing that only happens to other people (for we are all other people’s other people). An anonymous source could dump the entirety of your digital existence onto the internet—bare-skinned selfies, NSFW web history, medical records, dirty laundry, skeletons in the closet—and open you up to body-shaming, sex-shaming, voice-shaming, humiliation, hate mail, and even the threat of physical violence.
Say data leak or data dump enough times, and these words start summoning images of the natural yet embarrassing leaks and dumps of the human body. Corporeal discharges and scatology are grossly appropriate for conceptualizing privacy’s discontents.100 We know that everyone poops and that everyone has crap to manage. But people learn, internalize, and project abjection. For though we all have actual shit inside us, we sometimes shit on others when they don’t seem to have their shit together (disarray), when they lose their shit in public (outburst), when their shit hits the fan (crisis), or when they shit their pants (prompting disgust).101 Or the urinary equivalent: during a 2005 performance in San Diego, Black Eyed Peas singer Fergie visibly wet her shorts, a “most unattractive moment” (in her own words) that people haven’t let her live down.102 Indeed, in February 2018, the internet’s tsunami of shaming directed at Fergie’s “sexy sendup” of the “Star-Spangled Banner” led some listeners to bring up the pee incident; her sultry rendition of the national anthem was so shamelessly “out there”—to wit, leaking outside the boundaries of respectable taste—that commenters seized on the opportunity to reminisce about the literal leaks of her past.103 Yet aren’t bodily emissions, ejections, and confessions the things that make us commonly human as well as humanly common? Instead of flinging leaks and shit in people’s faces, can we help others save face? Can we better differentiate between consequential, generative, maybe game-changing leaks—say, those brought to light by Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, the silence breakers of #MeToo, and whistleblowers—and frivolous, faux-shocking smears? Instead of understanding leakability in terms of individual risk, how might we approach the issue with sights set on collective responsibility?
Before I attempt to answer these questions, a literary comparison from the nineteenth century bears mentioning. As I researched Britney Spears, my mind has repeatedly wandered to George du Maurier’s Trilby. In this bestselling 1895 novel, a man named Svengali is a Jewish—and, some argue, anti-Semitically caricatured—hypnotist who manipulates the titular heroine Trilby, bidding her to sing her way to stardom.104 Originally tone-deaf, Trilby becomes an excellent chanteuse under Svengali’s Auto-Tune enchantment. At the novel’s climax is a calamitous London performance during which Trilby, temporarily freed from Svengali’s spell, reverts to singing out of tune. She is humiliated. One detail typically omitted in accounts of Trilby, however, is that du Maurier does give the heroine a kind of celestial voice during her mortifying nadir on the London stage. Facing a jeering audience in a proto-Apollo Theater, the singer doesn’t have her own Chris Crocker to plead, “Leave Trilby alone!” . . . so she takes matters into her own hands.
[Trilby] had not got further than this [part of the performance] when the whole house was in an uproar—shouts from the gallery—shouts of laughter, hoots, hisses, catcalls, cock-crows. She stopped and glared like a brave lioness, and called out: “[W]hat have I done, I should like to know?” And in asking these questions the depth and splendor of her voice were so extraordinary—its tone so pathetically feminine, yet so full of hurt and indignant command, that the tumult was stifled for a moment. It was the voice of some being from another world—some insulted daughter of a race more puissant and nobler than ours; a voice that seemed as if it could never utter a false note. Then came a voice from the gods in answer: “Oh, ye’re Henglish, har yer? Why don’t yer sing as yer hought to sing—yer’ve got voice enough, any’ow! why don’t yer sing in tune?” “Sing in tune!” cried Trilby. “I didn’t want to sing at all—I only sang because I was asked to sing—that gentleman [Svengali] asked me—that French gentleman with the white waistcoat! I won’t sing another note!”105
According to historian Daniel Pick, Svengali is the ultimate “alien hypnotist,” an embodiment of Victorian mass paranoia toward psychopathology and illusions of free will.106 But in her shining and lucid moment on the London stage, Trilby is the one who channels the powerful “voice of some being from another world,” even temporarily silencing the clamor. Facing hecklers and trolls, our heroine taps into a voice that is proudly alien in its unshameability. Stripped of an artificially beautified voice, she nevertheless finds a voice, which she promptly uses to say STFU! to her haters. Irrespective of Svengali’s magical pitch correction and conservatorship-like management, Trilby shows that she had a voice all along. It just didn’t happen to be a people-pleasing, pitch-perfect singing voice.
In a 2008 memoir, Lynne Spears, mother of Britney Spears, accused a man named Osama “Sam” Lutfi of acting as her daughter’s puppet master. Lynne explicitly called Lutfi “Svengali” in the book.107 Yet trying to shame and blame a singular Svengali-in-Chief within Spears’s inner circle can be a disingenuous and hypocritical game. Is the archvillain Lutfi? Jive? Mother Lynne, author of a tell-all memoir? Father Jamie, conservator? Music critics? Paparazzi? US Weekly? Or us, the public? Celebrity, by definition, cannot exist without public celebration and complicity. People who attack or defend Spears for her scandals are joining an overall attention-granting chorus that sustains the diva’s fame and infamy. So is it even possible, I have asked myself, to write an academic article about Spears without reproducing the media’s scrutiny of her life, body, and voice? Doesn’t the dialectical academese of what queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick called “paranoid reading”—here’s a case for X, now here’s a case against X—resemble the fickle syntax, as Spears sings in “Piece of Me,” of She’s-Too-Big-Now-She’s-Too-Thin? Was the best thing I could’ve done just to leave Britney alone? As I prepared the PowerPoint slides for my oral presentations of this research, for example, I found myself instinctively and repeatedly Googling terms such as “Britney Spears + Weight Gain” to find tabloids’ “then and now” images of the singer. On the one hand, I was scouring the internet in order to provide conference audiences with visual examples of fat-shaming. On the other hand, the search itself replicated the very problems I was seeking to combat and deconstruct. After all, Google terms are tracked, tallied, and archived, and so every user’s search for mentions of Spears’s size incrementally boosts the subject as a popular, auto-fillable keyword.108 I left a trace. And there could be no take backs.
POSTSCRIPT—A LEAK-PROOF PLANET; OR, MAYBE THE LEAST WE CAN DO IS NOTHING
Does Spears deserve compassion? I think so. Am I sure I know what the hell we’re doing when it comes to enabling or rectifying cultures of dehumanizing shame and alienation? Definitely not.
Given the subject matter of leaks, I should have seen an obligatory postscript coming—because leaks and celebrities are the gifts that keep on giving, the never ending purveyors of scandal. Just when I thought I had satisfactorily said my piece about Britney Spears, a new alleged leak entered the news in summer 2017. This time, it featured Spears’s non-Auto-Tuned vocals for the 2004 chart-topping jam “Toxic.”110 But in contrast to the it’s-so-bad uproar over the “Alien” leak, the “Toxic” leak spawned dominant narratives of how surprisingly good Spears sounded. Headlines read: “You Have to Listen to Britney Spears Singing ‘Toxic’ Without Auto-Tune: Mind. Blown” in the Huffington Post; “Britney Spears’s ‘Toxic’ Sans Auto-Tune Will Blow Your Mind” in InStyle Magazine; and “Britney Spears: Raw Vocals for ‘Toxic’ LEAKED!” in The Hollywood Gossip.111 Expressions of praise, delight, and exploding heads came fast. Naturally, skeptics weren’t far behind. One doubter remarked that “Toxic without autotune [was] just Toxic being sung by an impersonator of Britney.”112 Other listeners went so far as to specify that parts of the so-called leaked version featured the voice of Cathy Dennis, who was one of the songwriters of “Toxic” and whose demo recording of the hit is available online for comparison.113 Skeptics of the skeptics, however, wouldn’t hear of such theories, choosing instead to embrace the leak as a full-throated redemption of the “Alien” fiasco three years prior.
Leaks involving Britney Spears’s life, voice, and body will keep coming. If not Britney, then someone else. But I wish to end on a more optimistic note by turning our attention toward the one thing in the world that is leak-proof—or, at least, the one thing that’s best imagined as leak-proof: the world itself. Meaning planet Earth. Barring future frontiers of galactic colonization or alien visitation, we, the earthlings, are stuck with one another for now, and, as the fatalist quip goes, no one’s getting out of here alive. Envisioning Earth as a closed system can prompt awareness of individual vulnerability as well as mutual accountability. To think about one’s leakable self is to worry about private flourishing. To think about our leak-proof planet is to keep the public good in view.
Here are the first words of economist Amartya Sen’s 1981 treatise, Poverty and Famines: “Starvation is the characteristic of some people not having enough food to eat. It is not the characteristic of there being not enough food to eat.”114 Although a framework of resource entitlement sounds self-evident, the writer Uttara Choudhury reminds us that these “opening lines of [Sen’s] study startled the world” upon initial publication.115 Maybe the startling power had to do with the force of the sentences’ double deixis: with one hand, Sen pointed implicitly at individual and systemic culprits (the people and organizations inhibiting the fair, humane allocation of food); with the other, he pointed at the entire planet, alerting us to how, in terms of nutrition and caloric sustenance, there has long been an embarrassment of sum provisions, which in turn have been embarrassingly maldistributed. In a prefatory stroke, Sen zoomed in on the procedural minutiae of food waste while zooming way out for a bird’s-eye (or alien-ship’s) view of our global biosphere and its faulty human stewardship. More profoundly, Sen was saying that our world doesn’t have to be this way. Tragically and happily, all the food needed to end famine already exists, and has existed for far too long. In the same vein, if we conceive of the world’s interpersonal relationships as a closed and conservationist system, then we cannot afford to blow our outbursts on facetious targets. Is wasting indignation (and weaponizing insult) any more justifiable than wasting food? Can we find worthier investments for the time and energies squandered on petty practices of shaming, dehumanization, and alienation? To adapt Sen’s formulation: alienation is the characteristic of some people not having humane affordances; it is not the characteristic of there being not enough humanity to go around.
Ecological vocabularies of scarcity need to be tested against the respective costs of human sustenance and dehumanizing offenses. How much does it cost each of us to treat one another with greater dignity and compassion, even a sense of shared destiny? Do we fallaciously apply algorithms and scenarios of material dearth (oil, coal, rare earth elements) to our affective transactions? Think of the Free Hugs Campaign, or advocacy for random acts of kindness, or the J-Lo wisdom that love don’t cost a thing. Initiatives like these ask people to approach peers, strangers, and even opponents with surplus decency rather than anxieties about just returns or the Schadenfreude of just desserts. Maybe such generosity is not always the answer. Maybe reparative ideals sometimes feel more desirable than they are achievable. Either way, what passes for outrage these days doesn’t automatically give the outraged a free pass. Saying a song hurts the ears doesn’t mean you’re a good listener or a prodigious musician. Judging someone as slutty, fat, or trashy can reveal more about the adjudicator’s faults than the target’s failings. A 2008 Jezebel article summed up the reflexive predicament in its title: “Who’s Crazier: Britney Spears or the Rest of Us for Giving a Shit?”116 The question’s rhetorical pitch implies that we might all be crazy. Or the conciliatory inverse: none of us are crazy—certainly not as shamefully, haplessly, inhumanly crazy as the pejorative (oftentimes ableist) label itself indicates.
From her days on Star Search to her night of head-shaving, from her big breaks to the breakdowns, Spears has been a lightning rod for controversy and thus a divining rod for societies’ toxic wells of shaming and blaming. But leaks, misclicks, and wayward emails can happen to anyone. Maybe tomorrow, you accidentally blast to your department’s listserv an innocent yet mortifying nude selfie, or an old video of you singing terribly in the shower, or some other private yet harmless artifact never meant for others’ eyes and ears. Or maybe at the next academic conference, when you’re trying to play a YouTube clip in the middle of a presentation, you inadvertently pull up a minimized browser containing the last porn clip you watched. You might think you’re in a waking nightmare. And what then? It could feel like the end of the world . . . until the realization dawns that you are, in fact, not alone: that your private apocalypse is one in a million, and that it would be much less apocalyptic if only more members of this million-strong public had the good sense to lend a helping hand or, at the very least, had the grace to do nothing—and to leave you alone.
In 2017, I presented versions of this article at the Society for American Music conference (Montreal, Quebec), the American Musicological Society conference (Rochester, New York), and the musicology colloquium at Case Western Reserve University. I wish to thank Loren Kajikawa, Jacqueline Warwick, and the editors and reviewers of this journal for their encouragement and expert feedback on this project.