Tough Times…Britney says, “Work B#tch!”

By Nick Stewart (PhD Student at UMass Boston, OSC Track).

You better work b#tch, you better work b#tch,
Now get to work b#tch!

Britney Spears, lyrics from her new song…you guessed it! “Work B#tch”

Through the penmanship and performance of politically pointed music or through visible endorsements of political campaigns and nonprofit organizations, celebrity entertainers have a long history of engaging in the arena of politics and social issues. In 1939, Billie Holiday made use of symbolic imagery to comment on racism and lynching through the song “Strange Fruit”. Recently, rapper Macklemore tackled issues surrounding same-sex marriage and homophobia through performance of the song “Same Love”. Marketers can attest to the power of endorsing ideas, political or not, by those with elite social status. Britney Spears is unquestionably one of the most internationally recognized entertainers alive today (both famous and infamous). Spears, oh I can’t help it, Britney, has a forthcoming album which launched a promotional single recently. Her new song “Work B#tch” has hit the airwaves.

You wanna live fancy? Live in a big mansion? Party in France?
You better work b#tch, you better work b#tch!

The lyrical message suggests a strong emphasis on individualism as the go-to solution to improving personal economic conditions for women (assuming the use of “b#tch” holds its common definition as vulgarity directed at women, though in this case it may hold a wider application). Similarly, the recent Lean In book by Sheryl Sandberg, and subsequent movement, has served to depoliticize a range of workplace issues despite a strong base of women followers who could organize and engage on a political level. They have opted instead, as Britney’s lyrics suggest, to endorse individual determination as the solution. How far can we take this solution offered to us by both Lean In and Britney’s new tune? What if our aspirations were more modest than the fancy lifestyle, mansions, and international partying Britney suggests can all be ours with some hard work? If the recipe works, should it not for a more remedial level of socio-economic needs?

Struggling to make ends meet? “Work B#tch”
A challenge finding affordable health insurance for your family? “Work B#tch”
Layoffs affecting your community – employment opportunities scarce? “Work B#tch”

The list could go on. Individualism may be part of a solution to address basic socio-economic deficiencies, but it certainly won’t do as a singular cure all.

Moving beyond a focus on Britney as an individual actor, the parent company demonstrates considerable power by disseminating the song to the public. Pop Stars, despite their social status, are far less powerful than the corporations that create and maintain them. In the United States, corporations have developed and maintained the legal status of an individual person with protective rights. They often fight ardently to be regarded as such as it commonly plays to their favor in the court of law. Corporations are frequently recognized for sustaining an active political life. With political objectives in mind, corporations have often looked to influence shared meanings, norms, and ideas within the greater culture. That said, can we think of a corporation as an individual (legally we have to) with elite social status in the same way we think of a celebrity entertainer who may endorse a particular cause or message? Does a music corporation act as a political agent in exercising its power to disseminate/endorse messages through various multi-media channels? The parent company would likely dispute the idea that the content of the song holds socio-economic or political implications, but does it?

I would encourage you to pull up the lyrics, perhaps view the video though the lyrics should suffice, and post your thoughts here. Can these lyrics be thought of as political? Who is the agent of the message? Lastly, if all this pop-chatter seems to have interrupted your concern with the Federal Government shut down, don’t worry too much as Britney already got politically active by taking to Twitter with a recent post, “Go call the po-lice, Go Call The Gu-vunah! Someone tell Congress to get to #WorkBxxCH.”

Further References:

Related OSC blog by Banu Özkazanç-Pan (Sept 24, 2013) on “The elusive search for gender equality in organizations”

Bobby Olivier (N.J. News, Oct 2, 2013): “Britney Spears ‘Work, B**ch’ video: A call to action from the pop princess”

Britney Spears Video: “Work B**ch”

7 thoughts on “Tough Times…Britney says, “Work B#tch!”

  1. Nick makes a great point that “Pop Stars, despite their social status, are far less powerful than the corporations that create and maintain them.” The corporate construction of pop culture is a key factor behind the conservative neoliberal lyrics – work harder if you want the basics of life, such as health insurance – as if all the millions of people working two low-paid jobs to eek out an existence need to be blamed for not working hard enough. This theme is developed in an earlier post on this blog:
    Do people really read these lyrics ironically? very unlikely. Just as the sexual imagery reinforces dominant sexist understandings of what it means to be male and female in this culture.

  2. I recently wrote a post about this song and it’s context within popular music. Britney has claimed this to be her most personal album ever, and it’s interesting how few lyrics this first track has. It caused me to ask, “Who better work?”

    I’m fairly convinced she’s talking to herself, but more importantly, the other Pop stars coming after her. Imagery in the video suggests this, especially when she is standing on the giant white triangle holding onto the dancers with leashes. For Spears to remain relevant, she has to position herself as the new Madonna. Not in terms of thought provocation, she doesn’t have that skill. Her cultural capital lies in having inspired the new generation. That’s why you’ll see this interesting alliance with Miley Cyrus.

    I love your article, because it positions a song in popular music in line with the political climate. It happens more frequently than we admit and I think you discuss it perfectly.

    To Luisa Beck, I would say that Spears and other popular artists are more aware of the irony of their existence than you might think. With all the chatter, do we really think she isn’t aware that she’s been positioned as a feminine ideal? It’s why she so often invokes imagery associated with Marilyn Monroe, who experienced the same kind of scrutiny.
    Also, all of the stripping women in the video are there for Britney- another key to her relationships with women and sexuality. She has always said that she likes to be sexual for herself, not men, and that women who want to emulate her should keep that in mind.

    Like I say on my blog, it’s not that artists like Spears aren’t problematic- they are. But they say more about us and our culture than we often admit. So, thanks for this post- I’m definitely sharing.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I think that you’re right- Britney is probably far from naive. And yes, she faces the pressure of proving her relevance to American pop culture. And in order to do that, her messages have to resonate with current times. So reflecting on 1) what and why part(s) of her message resonate and 2) what that says about our culture is completely fascinating.

      I would still argue that the cost of proving her relevance in the way she does is high. Yes, she might be speaking to other pop artists, but she’s also speaking to a lot of naive thirteen year old teens. As someone who doesn’t follow the pop scene closely, I would be curious to hear how, aside from a commercial and sexual influence, she’s “inspired the new generation”, as you write.

      I’m also not quite sure what it means to be “sexual for herself, not men”. I believe that you can feel good about your own body. You can feel confident and strong and healthy. But I have a harder time imagining Britney wearing pleather thongs for herself, rather than for an audience she’s trying to stay “hot” and relevant for.

      • Thanks for hearing me out- it isn’t always a popular message.

        I completely agree about the problems someone like Britney Spears causes for culture, especially young women- and really women of any age. I’m interested in steering the conversation away from Spears’ responsibility (and also the ‘responsibility’ of the thirteen year old girls) and more toward the industry. I want to shift the public focus onto the structure that cherry picks people like Spears and Cyrus to lead us. Its the recording industry in Hollywood, in tandem with Wall Street and corporate interests, that alots so much money and air-time to less-than-stellar role models.

        I’ve also been called an apologist because I do also want to restore some humanity to figures like Spears and Cyrus. It’s my belief that they are doing their best and focusing on their personal flaws distracts from the real problem. They were signed up very early in life to do what they do, and have been trained by Disney to speak with their bodies and not with their words.

        Spears happens to have a large catalog of thoughtful, personal music that most people would never hear. A few songs, like “Overprotected” did see release and promotion and the public wasn’t interested. There is a dynamic where the public wants someone like Spears, to attack, to put on display as a bad role model. As far as which came first, the mean public or the evil record execs, it will take me a lifetime of research to figure out. “I tell them what I like, what I want and what I don’t. But every time I do, I stand corrected. Things that I’ve been told- I can’t believe what I hear about the world. I realize I’m over-protected,”. She’s no Dar Williams, but there’s a lot of honesty and self awareness there that Spears might never be given credit for.

        As for what she meant about being sexy for herself- I can’t speak for her. It’s likely she was being told by the adults around her that it was okay for her to be so sexual because it was for her, not for men. It does seem to be something she believes, though, as its something she’s brought up relatively often. Madonna has said that her earlier career was about “Don’t tell me I can’t be intelligent and sexual at the same time,”. It’s likely that a young Britney who idolized Madonna may not have understood how that would actually manifest.

      • Wow, I had never heard “Overprotected”. Thanks for pointing it out and for being empathetic with Spears, who (you are right to point out) is probably doing her best, especially given that she has mostly grown up in a business-minded, profit-focused music industry. You raise a broader philosophical question – to what extent is a person (especially a pop star) a product of her culture (and can’t be blamed for the business and personal decisions she makes) and to what extent is she a free agent with a voice? I don’t mean to get overly general and abstract. But I think that question is key to a discussion of Spears’ image and her control over how that image reaches audiences.

        My middle school friends and I grew up with Britney Spears (in fact, I was a fan when I was 10), and then I quickly lost interest. I began idolizing Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell, Patty Griffin, musicians that were popular well before my time. Maybe I experienced a kind of nostalgia for a time that I was never a part of. Maybe I simply idolized a previous era without knowing enough about its shortcomings. But I liked that these women at least wrote their own songs. They seemed to stand their ground in a time when all-male bands were still dominating popular culture. Maybe Madonna and Lady Gaga manage to do a little more of that these days. Ever since ditching Britney for Janis, my shallow impressions of her image has been that she hasn’t been successful at developing her own voice.
        But that may very well reflect the times in which she rose to fame. And the corporate powers she grew up catering to in order to “make it big”. Thanks for encouraging me to go back to these earlier recordings and listen to a voice that may still be stronger, more authentic and thoughtful than I’ve given her credit for.

  3. Had I not been told it’s Britney Spears, I would have thought the video is a feminist’s parody of the “ideal” 21st century American woman. That woman better be really hot, work like a slave (indicated by the whip) and stay really hot while working. (Oh, and the video seems to indicate that “working” includes working at a strip club or any other place that’s arousing to men).

    Not only should the 21st century woman scratch all expectations of getting any sort of support (let alone government handouts, if we take a more political view), but calling her a B**ch is supposed to motivate her?
    I think the question that’s asked in this blog is an important one: Who is the agent of the message? There are many possible answers. Perhaps she’s society’s B**ch? Or the corporate B**ch? Maybe it’s also a 21st century male fantasy- a woman who’s a sex object that can sustain itself and doesn’t need to be provided for. She’s someone whom society doesn’t have to respect (indeed, she seems to be fine with being called a B**ch) and who isn’t allowed to make demands.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s