I’m at the Television Critics Association press tour, a twice-annual two-week stretch when networks present their new and retooled shows to critics and television industry reporters, and five days in, the panel that’s touched me the most has been the one for Fox’s singing competition show, The X Factor. It’s not so much that I’m moved by corporatized attempts to anoint new pop stars, or concerned about the state of Simon Cowell’s fake tan, but I was really struck by the contrast between the two new judges the show is rolling out this year: Britney Spears and Demi Lovato, representing the generation of pop star that is passing and the one that’s just coming up.
Britney was the dominant pop tart of my adolescent years, and so I’ve always felt a certain investment in her, through the Vegas wedding and anullment, the trashiness of her next wedding to backup dancer Kevin Federline, the two babies in quick succession that seemed simultaneously like a publicity stunt and a way for Britney to earn herself a retreat from public life into domesticity. When her very public 2008 breakdown resulted in her being hospitalized and placed into conservatorship, which gave her father control of her finances, it raised upsetting questions. Had fame broken Britney? Had we broken Britney? How much of our desire to see her in a certain way, or her record company’s desire to market her in a certain way, caused already existing problems to go undiagnosed or ignored? When she emerged, it was a slow, shaky process, where progress counted as her getting through a tour without incident, or her agent-turned-fiancee Jason Trawick becoming her co-conservator, transferring her from her father’s control to her future husband’s.
The version of Britney who appeared by satellite feed at the Beverly Hilton on Monday was a nervous, attenuated version of her former glory, fidgeting constantly with a large, black ring, and giving answers that were polite to the point of meaninglessness. She blandly deflected a question about her experience in the Mousketeers, and told another questioner that she was interested in working on The X Factor because “I’ve, you know, been able to help this talent come in and, you know, achieve their dream, and I can relate to them on such a level because I started out at such a young age. I know the foundation and the depth of what you go through into achieving your dream and doing this,” but stopped short of discussing the toll of the business in any detail. She even retreated into generality when asked what music she’s listening to now, saying “I’m actually a huge fan of hip hop. I like hip hop music. I love rap.” Entertainment Weekly critic Ken Tucker compared her to Elvis, another artist who significantly underestimated his own intelligence and overrated the desire not to offend. But where Elvis had a grandiosity, even in his ridiculousness, Britney looks lost behind the giant ring, the spangled jacket, the vast publicity machine in which she’s being paid $15 million to become a cog.
The contrast was particularly sharp between Britney and the young woman sitting next to her. Like Spears, Demi Lovato is a former Disney star who’s faced problems of her own. In 2010, she punched a backup singer on a Jonas Brothers tour and entered treatment for bulimia, self-harm and drug and alcohol use. Unlike Spears, though, Lovato got treatment when she was in her teens, and the help she’s gotten appears to have taken root. She’s been open about her struggles, asked Disney to pull episodes of shows that treat eating disorders flippantly, and returned to work.
At the panel, Lovato poked Cowell about his age and joked that she and Spears would gang up on the famously cutting reality show judge. She talked about the pain of losing out on auditions and the fresh taste she’d bring to The X Factor as the youngest member of the judging panel. And she spoke candidly about the struggles she’d faced when she entered treatment.
“You can’t prevent anyone from going down the wrong road,” she said. “If they’re going to have an eating disorder, they’re going to have an eating disorder. If they’re going to do this, they’re going to do that… I don’t really think fame has a lot to do with it. I think it adds some pressure and sometimes it makes the problem a little bit worse. But for me, I had been struggling with those issues beforehand, and unless you’re in a good place when you start working, I think that it’s kind of inevitable for these things to happen.”
Pop stars, it turns out, are human, too. And if we could follow Lovato’s example and accept young stars getting treatment for mental health issues as more normal than worrisome, maybe more of them would make it into their twenties and thirties happy and intact, and still prepared to entertain us.