SO YOU’VE BEEN MUSICALLY SHAMED
Journal of Popular Music Studies 30:3 (2018), 63–97
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.” 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. 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.” 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. 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.” 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.
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. 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. 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.