Britney Spears, X Factor (PictureGroup - Rex Features)

There have been far more talented singers who have come and gone since Britney Spears first burst onto the scene with “Baby One More Time” in 1999, and many stars who have a lot more interesting things to say, so what is it about the school girl from Louisiana that has managed to capture our interest for all these years? Kimberly Moffit, a psychotherapist and relationship expert, helps explain our unwavering attachment to Spears, who has dominated search reports over the past 12 years and topped yearly lists a whopping seven times since 2000, according to a recent search engine report.

Timing is everything
Moffit believes the timing of Spears’ rise to fame has contributed significantly to the fascination factor. The world was just introduced to the singer as it began a love affair with the Internet, a combination that allowed fans to indulge in their favourite new pastime while searching for stories and photos about the hottest new star, building a foundation of interest. And just as easily, the haters could build anti-Britney pages and compile the worst sound-bites from her live performances. “She was the most loved and the most hated person in the world and that was why she was so popular,” Moffit says. Plus, 16-year-old Spears was the first really young pop star today’s 18-35 demographic was able to relate to as they came of age along with her. “She represented youth. That really struck a chord with a lot of young people who listen to music,” Moffit says.

The schadenfreude effect
Nobody can deny Spears’ famous downward spiral played a big part in the public’s continued fascination with her, as Moffit explains with the psychological term schadenfreude. “Things that aren’t funny, you find funny or satisfying. You’re laughing at someone else’s demise,” she says, adding people are relieved they aren’t going through it themselves. When things got so bad Spears landed in the psych ward in 2008 and lost custody of her two boys, the public just couldn’t turn away. “When someone like this falls apart publicly it’s so easy to say ‘wow her life really sucks and at least it’s not me.’ There’s some kind of a public joy in that demise which is very sad.”

Miss popularity’s pain
Adding to the obsession with Spears’ pain is the fact she represented the popular girl in high school, which many people have a symbolic attachment to, depending on their own teenage experience. “A lot of my clients in my private practice say they look at the cool kids from high school and now they’re working at the gas station or have five kids at home and they say it makes them feel a lot better about themselves,” Moffit says. “Britney was the cool kid but you can see there’s something that’s definitely missing from her now and it’s satisfying for people to see that.”

Mesmerized by moves
Anyone who has ever seen Spears’ 2001 VMA appearance, in which she confidently commanded the stage with a python around her neck, knows the meaning of transfixed. “There’s something about the way she performed in the day that was so magnetizing for people. She really had an ‘It’ factor,” Moffit says of her abilities as a performer. “That’s really rare.” And even though it’s been a while since we’ve seen that famous Spears spark on stage, Moffit says her music videos still connect with fans and her songs continue to dominate the charts. “You feel like she’s speaking directly to you. That’s why she has such an appeal.”

Desperate for the Britney of old
For Spears’ record $15 million X Factor paycheque, the judge has simply recycled a handful of standard responses after each performance, but yet she’s already been invited back for another season and by all accounts her time on the reality show has been labelled a success because she’s brought the viewers along with her. Moffit equates Spears’ unwavering draw to the fact the public is still desperate to see the Britney of old. “We want to see her come back. She was that magnetizing that we really hope for that again at some point.” And as if on cue, the buzz has already begun to build Spears may be performing on the X Factor finale Dec. 20. “Maybe! We’ll see,” she replied coyly when pressed at this week’s viewing party.