It’s good to have Britney Spears back. She’s a star, whatever her ups and downs, and the originator of some of the most iconic pop images of the past 20 years. Yes, it’s always good to know Britney is in the house. Or simply a house.
Or even The X Factor.
Wednesday saw her debut as a judge on season 2 of FOX’s colossally ambitious – if not colossally successful singing competition – along with 20-year-old Demi Lovato. Juxtaposed with the 30-year-old Spears, Lovato looked very young.
Simon Cowell, who suffered a ratings disappointment with season 1, let Spears dominate the two hours. This was as obvious a choice as, say, not letting ex-judges Paula Abdul or Nicole Scherzinger dominate.
Spears still has a lot of charm in her expressive mouth – she has a great mouth, actually – and eyes that easily convey whatever emotion the moment requires. She has simple, undeniable physicality. But was she the rejuvenatory surprise that Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez were when they arrived in season 10 of American Idol?
No. But is it fair to argue she should (or could) have been? Britney defies easy packaging, and that could be a good thing.
Tyler and Lopez may have been a lucky exception in the escalating war for big-name judges on reality shows (the networks are stockpiling these stars as if they were nuclear warheads). The ratings will probably go up with the likes of Spears on X Factor and Mariah Carey on Idol, but name recognition in the long run isn’t the same as entertainment. Tyler came up with a brilliant routine, spouting eccentric turns of phrase in his judgments, and the glamorous Lopez was showcased each week like a pearl in an oyster.
But these megastars principally are paid to judge. And so they sit there, sip a beverage from a sponsor’s cup and say yes or no. They judge, they line up deals, they behave and they shore up or advance their careers.
They also cry.
Lovato, whom I remember from the night mostly as a sparkly little bird, actually had the single best moment: During one troubled young woman’s audition, the camera came in close and isolated a tear making its way down Lovato’s cheek. She hugged the girl, too, and told her: “When you sang, you broke my heart.” Well done, Demi!
Spears cried a little too – as the world knows, both she and Lovato have weathered emotional crises – but she was mostly professional, nicely presented and more often than not matter of fact.
To me, these were her most important moments:
Her very first critique – of singer Paige Thomas: “You were so bright and beautiful on stage, and you exude so much confidence – you’re flawless.” This was disappointingly generic, but then again it would have been offputting if she’d said something Tylerian along the lines of, “Whoa-dingee-doodle, bring me a dog and I ll show you a poodle.” She was signaling to us her seriousness and her integrity. But when she voted Paige on to the next round, she said: “Holy cow, yes.” That was nice and lightly idiosyncratic. I don’t remember many “holy cows” on any of these shows.
The "mean" montage: For some reason, someone in charge decided that making Britney “the new Simon” was worth a shot, and so we were given a quick series of her slapping down contestants with dismissive comments (“You’re like Vanilla Ice meets Lauryn Hill meets West Side Story.”). It occurred to me that she was looking like Elizabeth Perkins in Weeds, but none of these comments were particularly cruel. And she said them with virtually no emphasis, unlike Simon, who always savors an insult. She gave a negative judgment, and that was all.
Grace under pressure: Britney’s most (only) dramatic moment came with a contestant named Don Philip, a vocal coach who once upon a time sang a duet with her. The poor man was clammy and anxious, and his voice was strained and raspy – he nodded yes when Britney suggested he’d seen hard times – but she nonetheless joined the judges in sending him away. “That was hard,” she said afterward. This whole thing or may not have been a genuine surprise to her – if it was, I don’t know why the producers don’t just come out with a frying pan and fling hot bacon grease at her – but her reactions were dignified and compassionate, even as Don went off sobbing.
I’ve always wondered if Britney shouldn’t have had more of an acting career. Maybe she can.