I always kind of liked Eminem, he has been a guilty pleasure that all middle-class white males have taken part in at some point between 1999 and 2004. There’s one thing that I noticed about Shady during his reign over MTV; immediately after he released an album, everyone was playing it loud through car windows, and blasting the latest big track through apartment windows. But in the lull between hit singles, fans would turn their collars up and slink back into the shadows, covering their tracks with bandwagoneering slogans such as “He’s such a gimmick” or “He’s so played out, he’s just not as hardcore anymore” (the latter, referring to his early M.O. as a raping murderer [or is that murdering rapist? I digress]). Unfaithful servants. Superficial and fickle. And almost everybody was guilty.
Britney Spears, in the same time, immersed herself into every household in the United States. At the turn of the Millennium, Britney Spears was sneaking off to the bathroom dragging Christina Aguilera (she was the best friend who wouldn’t really be as popular if she didn’t seem a little slutty) away from their double date with N’Sync and Backstreet Boys, as Eminem and Fred Durst were chucking peas from across the room at the cheap tables. I kind of hoped that Eminem would end up picking up Britney, in a very Breakfast Club kind of way, and also in that they were the only two with a real plan.
In 2002, FOX debuted would-be television behemoth American Idol, and America was at once enraptured at the prospect that anybody could be a Pop star. Suddenly, the godlike figures that came from such broad environments as “the country” and “Detroit” were nowhere nearly as interesting as the ones you could keep track of all the way from the gutter up to the Top 40 charts.
There’s no way to know if Eminem or Britney had some sort of oracle that informed them that, in the future, everybody was going to become a lot more involved with their personal lives. Regardless, both were well-prepared; Eminem had created a long-running mythos in his music regarding his ex-wife and daughter, and Britney had begun a long stretch of well-exposed social meltdowns in regards to her twisted and over dramatized domestic life. Backstreet Boys skirted this phenomenon with A.J. McLean’s drug problem and N’Sync with Lance Bass’s debated sexuality, but nobody could have foreseen the media frenzy following Spears’s ever-crumbling home life and personal deterioration. Suddenly, America’s secret sweetheart-turned-bad girl took on a new role as the train wreck nobody could look away from.
What’s different about Eminem fans and Britney Spears fans is the presence of loyalty. Eminem had trouble maintaining a consistent fan base, and when he stepped back from the limelight following 2004’s Encore, nobody seemed to mind. It wasn’t that nobody was into the music anymore, it was that he started trying to piss off other famous people and stopped trying to piss off suburban housemoms with lyrics about date rape. This couldn’t have been a better choice: while the other big acts that once blew up MTV every afternoon were finally trailing into the past, Slim has been spending his time putting together new artists and working as an executive. Britney fans, mostly female (most male fans looking for eye candy were turned off by her “crazy” streak), stuck around through all the hard times. Britney’s life really had become the next step in pop-culture: she was someone with real trouble that was relatable, someone you could root for through the hard times, and in real life, not just in a distant celebrity existence.
Britney fans reached their full height of madness when she released Circus, a concept album that perfectly suited her new “comeback” image. With her family deeming her unfit to conduct business for herself, her love life in shambles, and her relationship with her daughter teetering, the young fan base could easily buy an album implying Britney Spears as a ringmaster for a tent full of animals and sideshow acts. All things considered, going completely insane was the best thing that ever happened to her career.
Meanwhile, Eminem plans to release two albums back-to-back in 2009, after 5 years of hiatus. Undoubtedly, his first single, We Made You, will be heard everywhere you go for at least 3 months. And undoubtedly, afterwards, people will pretend that they never listened to it, or that they were somehow hypnotized by messages encrypted into album when played backwards. But the album will so many records that Marshall Mathers will not care. And most likely, he’ll still have just enough drama in his life to keep everybody interested.
The ultimate question is, which method of survival is the most respectable as artists? In the light of a career apocalypse, is it better to step back and wait for the smoke to clear, or to sell your dignity in the attempt to stay on top? It’s a question I don’t pretend to know the answer to, and if I had to choose, I’d say Britney’s sputtering climb from rock-bottom is at least more entertaining. The brilliant thing is that the question exists at all. One cannot resist the irony of the “one-trick ponies” from 10 years ago raising questions of cultural influence, spitting in the face of critics. Britney and Eminem’s names alone conjour images of commercialism and corporate media posturing, and most importantly, the importance of a big image over any kind of substance. But 10 years later, these two media icons acheived something their peers never got around to: a measure of relevance.