Can you explain the reason for Madonna, Britney Spears, and Taylor Swift’s collective journey back in time?

Madonna first presented her Celebration tour, which spanned her entire career, as a way for her to finally embrace nostalgia as a pop artist who often pushed boundaries. In a statement, she expressed her enthusiasm for performing as many songs as possible in order to give her fans the show they had been anticipating. However, due to a serious bacterial infection that nearly ended her life, the first few dates in London were delayed for three months. As a result, the tour took on a different tone, focusing less on what fans had been eagerly awaiting and more on what they could have lost.

Prior to her illness, the Celebration tour was envisioned as a commemoration of 70s New York City, which had been taken over by gentrification. It also paid tribute to the artists lost to the AIDS epidemic, Madonna’s late icons Prince and Michael Jackson from the MTV era, and her own mother who passed away from breast cancer when Madonna was only five years old. Despite the many dancers surrounding her on stage, the 65-year-old star appeared to be a solitary figure – one of the few remaining from a bygone era. However, this added significance knowing how vulnerable she was at the center of it all, reliving her past almost like a mythical trial. What was she trying to prove? The show can be split into two parts: how Madonna was shaped by history, from her time at Paradise Garage to her relationship with photographer Peter Hujar, and how she in turn shaped history, becoming a strong force that attracted others towards her. It can also be divided into Madonna as a daughter and as a mother – to her own children who joined her on stage, to the LGBTQ+ community as a maternal figure, and to the genre of MTV-era spectacle that set the standard for modern pop stardom.

Two of Madonna’s daughters in the music industry, Britney Spears and Taylor Swift, are currently revisiting their past work. Britney, 41, has released her long-awaited memoir, The Woman in Me, while 33-year-old Taylor is embarking on her Eras tour and re-recording her albums. These three artists are often seen as the quintessential American pop stars – blonde, white, and athletic, with the ability to adapt and represent societal desires and projections. They have each been influenced by Madonna and have contributed to the evolution of this archetype over the past 40 years. As era-defining artists, they embody the cultural narrative of their time. It is noteworthy that three generations of this primary archetype – whose relevance relies on staying current – are now reflecting on and redefining their past.

The image of Spears was created by label executives who took inspiration from Madonna’s power, sexuality, and creativity. However, Spears was not given the agency to control these qualities herself and was instead controlled by the music industry. This became clear when Madonna stopped the video shoot for their 2003 collaboration to mend her outfit, showing that she demanded and gained power. Swift, who was born in 1989, grew up in a tabloid culture that shamed Spears. She likely learned from Spears’s experiences as a cautionary tale, just as she learned from the Dixie Chicks’s ostracism after criticizing George W. Bush during the Iraq war. Swift never allowed her sexuality to be used against her, although she still faced criticism for her dating life. She also understood that writing her own music gave her ownership over her artistic identity and created a direct emotional connection with fans.

Community … the first night of the Celebration tour in London, 14 October 2023.

Seizing the narrative for all three individuals allows them to regain control from patriarchal forces that have distorted it. At the age of 65, Madonna is able to assert her dominance and sexuality, defying critics who discriminate based on age and gender. She also challenges an industry that encourages obsolescence in order to limit the power of individual stars and ensure a constant stream of new products. Madonna’s Celebration tour also prominently features and pays tribute to the queer community that has greatly influenced her, especially during a time when LGBTQ+ rights are being threatened.

Britney Spears is urgently reclaiming ownership of her life, which has been heavily influenced by the prurient yet squeamish contradictions of capitalist American pop culture. This has resulted in her father placing her under a conservatorship for 13 years. On the other hand, Taylor Swift is taking back control in a business sense after her first six albums were sold to a male music executive without her being given the opportunity to buy them herself. In order to diminish the value of this investment, she is currently re-recording copies of her original songs note-for-note to gain control over their use.

Swift’s accompanying Eras tour, which showcases 17 years of evolving musical and aesthetic styles, highlights her as the central figure in all of this. Through this tour, she creates an intimate atmosphere even in large stadiums, emphasizing that she is the sole pivot on which everything revolves.

All three are recounting my personal story, in my own way – thanks to changing social and market forces that led society to re-examine these stories. The #MeToo movement opened the doors for prominent women to reclaim their public image, shaped by the media and entertainment industry – a system that all three have succeeded in commercially, if not spiritually. This also turned confronting past traumas into a profitable commodity. Spears’s experience reveals both the positive and negative aspects of this situation: the 2021 documentary, Framing Britney Spears, by the New York Times, brought about a significant shift in public perception of the embattled star and ultimately led to her release from her restrictive conservatorship. However, it also resulted in several cheap and superficial productions capitalizing on her tragedy. (Spears herself seemed unaffected by these productions: “There was so much speculation about my thoughts and feelings,” she writes.) Unraveling the misogynistic tabloid culture of the 2000s that shamed Spears has also contributed to a new level of media literacy, allowing younger generations to reject the narratives imposed on them: Madonna as a hag, Britney as a screw-up, Taylor as a slut. These newfound sympathies have enabled Swift to present her re-recording project – and the support from her fans – as a feminist and moral act, as well as an educational lesson on music rights.

Their ability to achieve these changes in perspective is undoubtedly due to their status as white celebrities, which allows them more flexibility in how they are interpreted compared to their Black counterparts. While many Black artists focus on being innovative, Beyoncé’s recent Renaissance album and tour also paid tribute to Black and queer culture, as she continues her mission to reclaim and honor Black cultural heritage.

Britney Spears in a scene from the 2002 film Crossroads.

Some may argue that Swift’s decision to re-record her music was well-timed. In today’s streaming-dominated music industry, new albums often don’t have the same success as older ones (although Swift is an exception to this trend). By reintroducing her back catalog to a constantly growing fan base, Swift is taking advantage of a valuable opportunity. It’s a smart move, especially considering that she was recently reported to have become a billionaire. Unlike other artists of her generation who have sold their catalogs to investment funds, Madonna chose to tour in order to reach a new generation of fans. She values ownership and even had plans for a biopic, although they fell through. In contrast, Spears doesn’t seem as invested in rejuvenating her music career. In fact, in her memoir, she mentions that her focus is currently not on music. Despite this, there has been some interest in her work, with 662k Spotify listeners globally in the week of her book’s release. Her label, RCA, has also taken advantage of this interest by releasing nine of her albums on colored vinyl and a digital remix EP from the Crossroads soundtrack, which briefly returned to theaters last week.

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Refocusing on the overall impact of their work also enables them to highlight the historical context of their music in a society where social media often reduces significant cultural moments to mere trends or vibes. However, reflecting on the past also plays into this trend: with an uncertain future, nostalgia provides a sense of comfort – even Britney Spears’ harrowing experiences offer reassurance that the 2000s were a difficult time for girls. But what does this emphasis on legacy mean for an artist’s future? The pressure to maintain youth and beauty already confines women to their past achievements, as demonstrated by Madonna’s struggles to have her evolution as an artist recognized. Although her Celebration tour was a success, it also symbolizes Madonna’s acceptance that she has entered the realm of heritage and may be conceding defeat in terms of her current artistic relevance – her album sales have been declining since 2005’s Confessions on a Dancefloor and her tour setlist only features one song released after that, “Bitch I’m Madonna” in 2015. It’s possible that she is also acknowledging the limitations of her physical abilities, as she confessed to feeling unwell during a concert in Antwerp but still expressed gratitude for being alive.

In addition to the financial gains, Swift has gained moral vindication through hindsight. She now sees the exploitative power dynamics in her formative relationships more clearly. She even attempted to rectify her internalized teenage misogyny by changing the lyrics of her song “Better Than Revenge” in the re-recorded version of her 2010 album Speak Now. However, this constant back-and-forth between her adult and younger self may have influenced her recent music. Her most recent original album, Midnights released in 2022, reflects on “13 sleepless nights” from various points in her life and has a contemplative, atmospheric sound. Unlike her previous albums, which explored new territory, Midnights feels like a consolidation of her past work.

Taylor Swift performing in 2010.

Beside the quieter albums released during the lockdown, Midnights hinted at Swift’s shift away from the flashy, mainstream pop music scene towards a more experimental and mature direction in her career. However, her current tour, which has been described as one of the largest pop performances ever, contradicts this idea. It seems to mark the end of an era in pop superstardom that was initiated by Madonna 40 years ago. Since Olivia Rodrigo’s breakthrough in 2021, there has been a decline in the emergence of new pop stars. Swift remains one of the few remaining stars who have a widespread appeal and primarily communicates with her fans. In a noteworthy feat, she managed to reach No. 1 on the US charts with a four-year-old song that was not a rerecording. The (on-and-off) 19-month Eras tour will conclude in November 2024, which is a significant amount of time to rely on nostalgia for success.

Britney Spears was contractually obligated to continue performing for a Las Vegas residency for five years during the latter half of her conservatorship, which lasted for one-third of her lifetime. Feeling trapped, she intentionally gave lackluster performances as a way to rebel against those who controlled her. In March 2020, she posted a quote about wealth redistribution and going on strike, indicating that she understood her role as a means of production. Despite facing consequences, such as being sent to a rehab facility, for speaking out against the demands placed on her, Spears is now free from the conservatorship and has the power to stop performing altogether. She no longer has to entertain anyone, whether on stage or off.

After releasing The Woman in Me, Spears has expressed that she is no longer dwelling on the past. She criticized the media for sensationalizing her past experiences instead of focusing on the more meaningful aspects of her story. In a recent Instagram post, she stated that most of the book is based on events from 20 years ago and that she has moved on to a new chapter in her life. She is determined to maintain this positive outlook for the rest of her life. While she cannot control the ongoing interest in her past, which may potentially lead to changes in the conservatorship system, Spears is focused on creating her future on her own terms, with or without our knowledge. She has not actively promoted her book and her Instagram account is currently the only platform where she shares her unfiltered thoughts, dances, and memes in the moment. She no longer rehearses for a predetermined future, choosing to live in the present instead.


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