There’s a theory that celebrities don’t mature past the point of the age in which they get famous. This explains why Justin Bieber forever acts out like a spoiled twelve-year-old and why Morgan Freeman has looked the same for the past thirty years — because he was already old when his film career took off. Britney Spears came to the public’s attention following the release of “…Baby One More Time” in 1999, just a year after Will and Grace became a cultural phenomenon. This makes sense because her LGBT politics are stuck in the last millenium.
Britney Spears has never been great with the media — from the famous umbrella incident to telling the American public to “trust [George W. Bush] in every decision that he makes” — and this week was no exception. Spears made waves, in the bad way, when she discussed her views on gay people with a talk radio show. When the hosts asked if Spears creates her music with a gay audience in mind, Spears responded: “A lot of my hairstylists and my beauty team that I work with are gay so I hang out with gays a lot and I just think they’re adorable and hilarious.” I take it she’s never seen “Disappointing Gay Best Friend?”
Taken out of context, the quote sounds condescending, which is what many have branded it as. However, even when read as a whole, her statement still raises the proverbial eyebrow — because it’s tacky and infantilizing. The problem is that Spears’ remarks are dripping with the Privileged White Lady mindset where gays are accessories to their consumption, like a little dog that fits in a handbag. Spears means well and isn’t being intentionally harmful, but it speaks to a culture that exoticizes gays as pets and ever-present best friends, ready for hair-stylings and shopping trips. The gay community is forever Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, ready for your sassy makeover, complete with snaps and one-liners. It’s gay Orientalism.
When he read her remarks, a friend of mine joked that we should all stage a protest by being “boring and ugly,” but it actually wouldn’t be the first time there’s been backlash against Britney’s calculated queer politics. In promoting Femme Fatale in 2011, Spears made a concerted effort to “zero in” on gay fans in her marketing campaign, appearing on the cover of OUT and pimping her album in San Francisco’s Castro district. She’s long been an icon in the community, but it’s caused many to wonder where the line is drawn between homage and exploitation, whether it’s “gay pride” or “gay marketing.”
This is exactly what Mykki Blanco argued in a Twitter rant this September, nearly a month before Spears’ recent gaffe. The genderqueer hip-hop performer (who uses feminine pronouns) took to Twitter to blast the pop star for her new single, “Work B**tch,” which she thought intentionally exploited her gay fans for profit — because gays mean money. Although the tweets that referenced Britney herself have been since redacted, Blanco tweeted, “Is it just me or is EVERY female pop star currently in a war to secure as many GAY fans and gay $ as possible?”
Spears’ track was originally rumored to directly sample RuPaul’s “Supermodel (You Better Work)” and mashups of the two songs have popped up all over the web. For Spears, the reference might feel like a tribute, but for gay fans used to the Macklemore treatment, it might feel a little different. Macklemore’s “Same Love” courted queer controversy earlier this year as a marriage equality tune criticizing hip-hop for homophobia without actually including a queer rapper in the tune. The song doesn’t actually speak to the those in the queer community, who already know it’s okay to be who they are, and having a straight white guy sing about equal love made LGBT audiences feel like they were being left out of the conversation. It was the musical equivalent of a bumper sticker, allowing us all to pat ourselves on the back.
On top of marginalizing queer voices in their own movement, the rapper Le1f had another bone to pick: Macklemore stole his shit. In the wake of Macklemore’s wins at the VMAs, Le1f tweeted his criticisms of the track: “That time that straight white dude ripped off my song then made a video about gay interracial love and made a million dollars.” He then followed up that statement with another tweet that read, “I’m gonna write a song about disabled people or about the aboriginal struggle, cuz Mama needs a new fur coat. Oh wait, that’s evil.”
There’s something refreshing about having stars like Mackelmore and Britney Spears on our team, and it’s nice to know that the biggest pop acts in the world appreciate their gay fans. However, we need to remember the difference between respect and appropriation, when there are queer artists making the same music who don’t get the attention. It’s easy for Britney to make her gay jam or Katy Perry to tell gay kids it gets better when they shoot up in the sky like a fiery air pollutant, but less fun when you realize that RuPaul herself will get half the credit for doing the same thing.
The power dynamic of borrowing back what you’ve given to the gay community isn’t the same when you’re on top and everyone else is still struggling to get heard. Britney has a privilege queer artists simply don’t. So if Spears really wants to pay tribute to RuPaul, it’s easy: make a song with her. I’m sure RuPaul would kill for that. What drag queen wouldn’t?
However, the RuPaul-free “Work B*tch” debuted right outside the top 12, an instant hit from a celebrity who has been around long enough to know what sells and why. We think of pop stars as being empty and vacuous, the product of producers, but Britney knows what she’s doing when she’s winking at gay fans, hoping it ends up on the Huffington Post and gets nice write-ups on the gay blogosphere. She’s generating instantly publicity from those she knows make the most noise and control the media airwaves. There’s a reason that half of the Hot 100’s Top 10 is populated by divas: queer dollars give you more bang for your buck. Gay sells.
The problem is that it’s not so easy as simply acknowledging your gay fans exist. Gays are smart and know the icons who have put in the time to work with the community — like Cher and Madonna — and those who have coasted on its endorsements. For Britney, it’s easy to be a diva. All she has to do is look the part, dressing up in her Femme Fatale costume, and hang out with her gay friends, who I’m sure love her. However, to be a real advocate and ally, Britney betta work.