Pop personas

This spring, two of the world’s biggest pop stars release albums that tell us what we already knew: Britney Spears and Lady Gaga take different routes to navigate the terrain of fame.

Britney Spears’ Femme Fatale, released on March 25, is the classic pop tart’s album. This makes sense since Spears is a something of the old guard in the industry — a genuine star, recognizable by first name alone and defined by her own Spearsian mythology. Whether or not it is “manufactured,” we consider Britney Spears the pop star, the celebrity and the person to be the same thing.

Not so for Gaga. Not only because of the difference in name, we understand there must be a difference between Stefani Germanotta, art brat from New York, and Lady Gaga the pop star. Gaga embraces artifice in the same way, she hopes, Andy Warhol did. The posing, the artifice is the substance, she might say. The costume is the person underneath it. It’s dressing up to be seen as you really are.

It’s a good trick and relevant too, since it relates to current familiarity with online avatars and vaguely subversive subcultures like drag. But unlike her hero David Bowie, the style isn’t part of the content. While Lady Gaga pulls out various masks, the content underneath them is basically the same as Spears’.

As a celebrity, particularly a powerful female celebrity, being your own persona is difficult; you’re practically naked. Britney Spears didn’t have a healthy divide between her public product and her private self, and the result was the public watching as it seemed to erode her from the inside. This new album uses the same strategy; she’s still there telling us to dance, she’s still the sexpot and she’s still very much Britney.

Rihanna faced a similar problem because her original image was the same sexy girl-next-door. Maybe for marketing reasons, or her own preference, it morphed into something tougher. She got tattoos of guns and experimented with asymmetrical hairstyles.

Being a professional babe is vulnerable and open to hosts of criticism, so the hot chick who is more tough than sweet can seem safer. It’s not, of course — that character is just as likely to get her heart broken as the other, but she appears to do more of the breaking herself.

Gaga doesn’t really allow for either of those. She’s sexual, but not sexy. Her clothes are transparent, but ugly enough to repel any ogling viewer. Criticism-proof, she’s still giving you what you want, be it a song about casual party sex or a pseudo-inspirational “be yourself” jam. She can do it by not allowing it to be beautiful — flashy, somewhat fresh, clean and shiny but never beautiful enough to rest in.

Katy Perry is what happens when you get someone trying to do both: have an untouchable persona and be the sexy, relatable girl. Her new video for “E.T.” with Kanye West has her as an otherworldly alien — a strumpet Avatar — recognizably Perry and 100 per cent awkward. It’s the “uncanny valley” of pop: unbelievable because it’s not quite fantasy and not quite familiar.

Characters are a reliable go-to for solo female artists. Madonna had Dita, Beyonce had Sasha Fierce and Nicki Minaj has half a dozen. Of all of them, Minaj might have the best handle on it. She understands that being a female entertainer means you’re asked to be at once powerful (but not too intimidating), sexy (but not so much that women hate you) and creative (but not too weird!). Instead of trying to fuse all the acceptable and necessary roles together, she gives them different names and voices.

In the documentary about her, My Time Now, Nicki Minaj sums up the persona issue for more than just herself. “When you’re a girl, you have to be everything. You have to be dope at what you do but you have to be super sweet and you have to be sexy and you have to be this, you have to be that and you have to be nice,” she said. “It’s like, ‘I can’t be all those things at once. I’m a human being.’”
But after a pause and says, “I don’t mean to be ranting and raving like this. Don’t use this footage please, it’s just going to make me look stupid.”