The 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes once famously described the natural condition of man as “nasty, brutish and short.” Modern readers could be forgiven for presuming that Hobbes was actually referring to pop music.
If you had told me back in 1998 that Britney Spears would dominate the cultural zeitgeist for much of the decade to follow, I would have had a good laugh at your expense. She was another teeny-bopper star caught up in the teen-pop wave of the late 1990s, destined to be left behind when her target audience reached and passed puberty. And yet, here we are in 2007, with literally everyone talking about Britney.
To call the criticism of Spears’ performance at the MTV awards “nasty” or “brutish” doesn’t cover the half of it. I don’t need to repeat what’s been said, because you’ve probably read it all. You’ve read the critics attacking her pitiful attempt at dancing, her questionable wardrobe choice, her lack of effort in even trying to lip-sync, and (most horrible of all) her weight. Likely, you’ve also read articles criticizing how far the media and public has gone in their assault on the troubled pop star. My favourites are columns at Salon and the Taste Police (special mention to Jordan at the Taste Police for the shout-out yesterday). Oh and of course, there’s this guy’s take on the Britney bashing too.
Many of these criticisms have merit. By calling Spears fat (which she wasn’t) instead of out-of-shape (which she was), media outlets have only served to further the preposterously-skinny body type ideal that our society puts on its pedestal. MTV also carries a healthy dose of culpability in this whole mess. Based on reports from rehearsals, MTV must have known how badly this performance was going to bomb but went through with it anyway, delivering up Sarah Silverman immediately afterwards to add insult to injury.
A good deal of the reaction, though, blames the media/publicity/paparazzi machine for trapping this poor, troubled girl in their web, and argues that Spears deserves our sympathy for this. This theory is based on an interesting hypothesis: that Britney Spears is in fact a real person.
I’ve seen no evidence of this. The Britney Spears that I know is a caricature, a puppet, a popular myth. She’s certainly changed in the years since “…Baby, One More Time” topped the charts. The virginal vixen with a seductive side transformed into a hip-hop-influenced sex icon before finally becoming a camera-whore, train-wreck celebrity. But not one of these was ever a flesh-and-blood human being worthy of our sympathy. Our entire public engagement with the various incarnations of Britney Spears has been confined purely to the superficial realm. How am I supposed to feel sympathy for someone who I’m not even sure exists?
This is, of course, exactly the way it’s supposed to be. The pop zeitgeist is fickle and fleeting, so dominated by youth tastes that it radically changes its shape with every slight generational shift. For a record company to spend time and resources on building a more complicated, realistic public image for someone is a complete waste if their shelf-life is at the whim of public opinion. That long-term relationship doesn’t fit their business model, so pop icons are kept as clearly-defined archetypes designed for mass appeal. Most sell just enough records to justify the whole experiment before they disappear and are replaced. A few, like Spears, pay off brilliantly and are actually able to change their character with time to survive well past their life expectancy.
How complicit is the public in this whole sordid mess? My first reaction is to get self-righteous and point out that most of us didn’t ask for Britney Spears to invade our cultural space, and many of us wouldn’t miss her at all if she pulled a J.D. Salinger and vanished (first ever Spears-Salinger comparison = confirmed). But the relationship between the machine and the consumer is never so one-dimensional. We welcome creations like Britney Spears into our lives because we need shared illusions to live vicariously through.
Just as we read novels or watch films, The Britney Spears Story was consumed as an entertainment narrative. We marveled at Spears’ rise as teenage superstar at the same time we became concerned about the collision of youth and sexuality. We became voyeuristic as the machine made her private life public and as her image grew up and embraced the power of shock value. And we were able to come together in smug satisfaction at her public breakdowns and humiliations, allowing ourselves the reassurance that we would never let ourselves fall to such lows.
There’s no “real” person at the centre of The Britney Spears Story, so those who beg for sympathy for an imaginary entity miss the point entirely. The tragic demise of the Britney Spears character is being treated as frivolously and superficially as her miraculous rise to fame and glory, and rightfully so. So what if the story turned out to be a tragedy (or, if you will, perhaps a dark comedy)? The Britney Spears Story was always meant to be a work of pulp (pop) fiction: nasty, brutish and short.