The rumors have been swirling for weeks, and now Buzzfeed has confirmed it: Britney Spears is leaving The X Factor. After drawing a $15 million salary for just a few months of work, and a huge amount of speculation over her mental state, she will not be returning for a second season. In a sad way, however, this was a triumph for Britney.
Buzzfeed’s Richard Rushfield calls Britney’s gig as a judge on X Factor “the most buzzed about piece of stunt casting in modern television history.” It’s been more than five years now since Brit-Brit shaved her head in the midst of what appeared to be a very real psychological breakdown. Since that point, her movements have been very tightly controlled by her team, and she’s still under the legal conservatorship of her father, meaning he controls her finances. Simon Cowell announced he was hiring her in May, and sadly, the big question was whether she could appear sane on TV for two hours at a time.
She could, as it turns out. But as Rushfeld observes, this actually made for ultra-boring TV:
But in the end, Spears turned out to be the train that didn’t wreck. Worse than breaking down on camera, she became the safest of the judges. Appearing heavily coached to limit her exposure, Spears rarely responded to performers with more than five words, holding herself to simple declarations of “I liked it” or “It wasn’t your best.” Worse still, for a show which depends upon frisson between the judges for much of its chemistry, Spears was unable or unwilling to mix it up with her fellow panelists, who seemed themselves reluctant to push fragile star. In particular, Spears’ fellow pop princess on the panel, Demi Lovato, was said to be in awe of her forerunner and on air walked on eggshells around her. On one show in particular, when Lovato argued with judge L.A. Reid on a matter in which he and Spears stood together, Reid challenged Lovato, “Why don’t you say that to Britney?”, a retort which ended the discussion immediately.
American Idol’s boring, borderline sexist feud between Mariah Carey and Nikki Minaj at least generates sparks from the conflict between two powerful pros at the top of their game. But X Factor was apparently hoping for a catfight between two very, very fragile women: In 2010, Lovato entered rehab to deal with anorexia, bulimia, and cutting issues.
When the cameras were off, Britney stayed professional but removed. Meanwhile, ratings for the show dropped 20% from the previous season. Now, she’s history. Her camp is saying she quit, which Rushfeld’s source says that the show declined to ask her back. The likeliest explanation seems to be that Britney’s team figured out it wasn’t working, and pulled her before she could be explicitly fired.
In a way, this is a victory: Britney avoided the meltdown that Simon Cowell was surely hoping for. That’s a sad barometer of success, but there it is. In meantime, her recovery continues.