2021 is, among many other things, a year of new and old female pop stars. In the spring, Britney Spears, one of the most famous and successful singers of the late 90s and early to mid-00s, made headlines, albeit only indirectly: The documentary “Framing Britney Spears” impressively showed how Spears managed her meteoric rise – and why the fall followed. Her father and the media, which exposed and ridiculed Spears for years, are largely to blame for her ongoing state of guardianship.
In July, the biggest contemporary female pop star will release his second album HAPPIER THAN EVER: 19-year-old Billie Eilish has been making sure since her debut WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? for turmoil in the pop world – she produces music with her brother Finneas from the nursery, won various Grammys, appeared as a headliner at the Coachella Festival and even contributed the title song to the new Bond film “No Time To Die”. In the spring, the documentary “The World’s A Little Blurry” was released. It documents Eilish’s rise and sheds light on her parents’ contribution to it.
We think it is quite possible to compare these two exceptional careers and to consider to what extent Eilish could suffer a similar fate as Spears or why exactly this does not seem to happen to her luck so far. We talked about all this and much more and less a few days ago in the ME-Talk. We were ME author, columnist and Eilish noblefan Paula Irmschler, ME author, editor and columnist Linus Volkmann and ME editor Fabian Soethof. Among other things, it was about self-determination, yellow press, toxic masculinity – and thus about the following points.
1. Self-determination vs. external determination
They were both child stars, if you will: Britney Spears was sent to talent competitions as a toddler. She took dance and singing lessons, appeared in musicals, shot commercials, audited at the “Mickey Mouse Club” – and became a member there in 1992 as an eleven-year-old alongside Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake, with whom she would become a couple years later. After talking to boy band manager, producer and entrepreneur Lou Pearlman, who later fell out of favor, she recorded demo tapes and, in the spring of 1998, the songs that appeared a year later on her debut … BABY ONE MORE TIME would land and suddenly make her the “Princess of Pop” and as a result the most commercially successful artist of the 2000s. Even though Spears always emphasized in interviews that she had full control over her image and her music, this unfortunately had to be doubted: Her double standard image as a lascivious dancing, blonde, slim and sexually self-determined student (see video for “… Baby One More Time”, which she herself is said to have wanted and enforced and that it borders on mansplaining/toxic masculinity to imply otherwise) and on the other hand virgin, who saves herself for the first time for a future husband (as if that were someone’s business), seemed to want to pick up equally enlightened coastal metropolis teenagers as well as a more conservative target group from the US “Bible Belt”, from which Spears himself also comes. “Sex Sells” was finally a marketing credo in the 90s – in whatever form.
Billie Eilish also became famous from her nursery: At the age of eight, she sang in a children’s choir in Los Angeles. As an eleven-year-old she wrote her first own songs, the first is said to have been about a zombie apocalypse. At the time of 14 she produced more songs with her brother Finneas. They uploaded it to Soundcloud, “Ocean Eyes” became a viral hit. This was followed by more singles, an EP and, at the age of 15, her first record deal. Even before their debut album WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? , several of their songs were placed in various series and commercials. The record suddenly made Eilish not only a hopeful newcomer, but a prompt superstar. She broke several sales and streaming records and earned her five Grammys a year later. At that time she was 18 years old and thus still not of legal age in the USA.
As far as her public appearance is concerned, Eilish always seemed highly self-determined: precisely in order not to be reduced to her body, she appeared for a long time in grungy neon sloppy looks, which every KöRper emphasis and thus also attack possibilities denied. It did not correspond to any common ideal and thus apparently fulfilled only its own expectations. It is hard to believe that there is no coincidence or the head of a teenager alone behind it – ME author Paula Irmschler, herself a big Eilish fan, is nevertheless sure that Eilish’s appearance is also the result of intensive image consulting. Simply because no major record company wouldn’t think about and make plans about the image of their artists. There is still a lot, a lot of money in it.
2. Megahits vs. Album Artist
If you think of Britney Spears, you probably first think of the video for her hit “… Baby One More Time” (and then on their so-called Meltdown in 2007). Her debut single was not only a catchy tune for every fan, but also for their parents, friends, relatives and for radio listeners who are only very superficially interested in pop music. Spears’ first three albums became mega-sellers, simply because the album was the dominant music format in the late 90s and early noughties, with the sale of which – streaming did not yet exist – the record companies made the big money. And this despite the fact that Spears, as a musician whose album tracks not released as singles are just as worth listening to and enjoying, was never really taken seriously outside of her worldwide fanbubble. Also because their albums were always an optimized output of a conglomerate of producers, songwriters and consultants.
Billie Eilish’s career, on the other hand, began about 20 years later and thus at a time when album ACTUALLY no one really cares anymore. Generation Z, whose idol and voice actress Eilish was chosen to be, first discovers new songs via Spotify playlists and TikTok memes. The songwriting therefore changes just as much as the marketing: Tracks often last no more than two and a half minutes, the first chorus comes within the first 30 seconds, intros, outros or similar patience-required moments hardly allow themselves. It’s as Tokio Hotel told us in an interview the other day: “It used to be different: your album came out and you launched the marketing rocket. Today the rocket runs continuously – until the album comes. This is the end of the campaign.” All the more interesting that both work with Eilish: Their singles became hits, but so did their album – even though or because Eilish never had the one big superhit like Spears, which really everyone knows. Okay, “bad guy” comes pretty close to that – but since the services and ways to consume music today are more fragmented, the chance that your parents know Billie Eilish and her songs is quite less than it was with Spears back then. We haven’t even talked about the content of her lyrics – Eilish criticizes power structures and dependencies such as those that have hurt Spears so much in “Your Power” – at this point.
3. Generational question
Generation Z is generally regarded as woke, enlightened, mature, media-savvy and equipped with a healthy urge to improve things. Body positivity instead of body shaming, vegan diet instead of Mc Donald’s, Fridays for Future instead of Fridays for Hubraum. Instagram instead of Yellow Press. So should Eilish receive criticism for appearances, unfortunate statements or the desire for privacy, her millions of followers stand behind her as a corrective. The BTS Army, for example, the hardcore fans of the Korean boy group BTS, impressively to frighteningly shows how much power it has. Also behind Britney Spears are since her guardianship by her father and the associated unclear mental state numerous fans, they formed the #FreeBritney movement. But when Spears was increasingly publicly screened by gossip magazines in the noughties, she should have had a very stable private environment to let all the accusations and criticism about her alleged misconduct bounce off herself. Not least through the documentary “Framing Britney Spears” and in it criticized men like Timberlake (“Yes, I slept with her”), her all business-taking father, the father of her children Kevin Federline and greasy-dubious new would-be managers we know: Such an environment was missing. Furthermore, the older ones among us will remember: It was considered very socially acceptable at the time to jump on the joke train about Britney Spears. This was not only done by various media, but also by all of us in private. Who doesn’t know sayings on mugs or T-shirts like: “If you have a bad day, remember: Britney survived 2007.” Sure, it should be funny and motivating. Power sich indirectly but also funny about those affected by mental health problems and downplays them. It’s a good thing that such sayings do not go unchallenged in the age of social media.
4. The media landscape
If Britney Spears wanted to be in the media, she had to talk to them. And when she talked to them, there was a great danger that the word would be turned around in her mouth or she would be pushed into a certain corner. “Framing Britney Spears” also tells of this framing and the impossibility of doing the “right thing” and shows as evidence interview excerpts that are shameful, and not for Spears. If Spears had decided (or could have decided) not to talk to certain magazines and TV stations, she would have been interpreted just as negatively. The gossip press needed headlines. She found her in Britney Spears’ private life. And if she didn’t find any, she provoked some, for example by abusive paparazzi, who are still not too stupid to say in front of the camera that they had only done their job.
Today, the big pop stars no longer need traditional media, but the media need them. Eilish, like basically every pop star these days, has her own social media accounts where she can decide for herself what she shares with the world, including her 87 million followers, when and how. It was also this fanbase that made Eilish as big as she is. So if the editors of a magazine are offended because they don’t get an interview with Eilish, they don’t have to fear for the end of their career – if you haven’t made you big, you can’t make you small (at least in an ideal world). However, such an own following also entails disadvantages. Eilish is presumably under constant pressure to be “on” all the time: When Gen Z stars don’t post anything on Instagram for two days at a time, their fans immediately wonder if everything is okay. Unfortunately, Britney is a bit different: She also has her own Instagram account with over 30 million followers today. There, however, quite a few wonder if everything is okay with her, IF she has posted something. There’s even a podcast called “Britney’s Gram” dedicated exclusively to this account, which raises alleged conspiracy theories about what call for help Britney wants to tell us by wearing certain chains, clothes, looking at them, or by show their hands.
5. Your parents
Yes, Britney Spears’ mother also pursued the desire to help her daughter to a stage career at an early age, for example, she moved with her from Kentwood, Louisiana, to New York. As the outright evil in “Framing Britney Spears” stands her father Jamie, who logically did not want to talk to the filmmakers for himself – he knows his reputation. He is considered the one who saw Britney not first as his daughter worth protecting, but as a business model. He was the one who fought for guardianship in court after Britney’s collapse in 2007 and has since been able to decide on her finances, her public appearances and the custody of her children. Since he and his immediate environment do not give interviews and the degree of sole decisions and her current state of health in Britney Spears is nothing but an object of speculation, no one can clearly say how evil Jamie Spears really is. However, it is certain that his influence on his daughter was and is not the best.
The fact that Billie Eilish’s parents also had an influence on her is no wonder, simply because they are her parents and is the subject of the documentary “The World’s A Little Blurry”. Her mother is an actress, teacher, her father a construction worker and part-time actor, both of whom are hobby musicians. Art and music were therefore also part of her children’s everyday lives. Billie and Finneas were given opportunities, but presumably felt no urge or even coercion. There is no question that her parents want (and have to) decide on the career moves of their teenage daughter: On their first world tours from LA to Europe and back to the headlining appearance at the Coachella Festival, the family travels with them and acts, among other things, as a management that sometimes means it too well: In Eilish’s Apple documentary, we see an impressive scene , in which a troupe of journalists wait for Billie Eilish in some backstage area or in front of it to ask the superstar a few questions. But Eilish is ko, depressed, tired, she just doesn’t want to. Her mother persuades her to stay there anyway rato go and take a few selfies. Eilish is persuaded, visibly uncomfortable, goes out there, is as nice and professional and cool as a teenager can be in such a bad moment for her and then asks her mother: “Mom, we will never do something like that again if I don’t want to.” And what does her mom say? She unconditionally agrees with her daughter. Let’s hope that Eilish will retain so much self-determination during the promotion to HAPPIER THAN EVER, for which she chose a new hair color and outfit, and all those years later.
You can find out more about Billie Eilish and her new album HAPPIER THAN EVER in the upcoming Musikexpress 08/2021.