Thoughts on Britney Spears

—“When you’re with her, you feel like you’re in the center of the universe. And maybe you are. She’s the soap opera the world can’t stop watching.”

Vanessa Grigoriadis, “The Tragedy of Britney Spears”. Rolling Stone (21 February 2008).


Britney Spears was not particulately interesting in her sane incarnation, and it is pretentious to imply otherwise. Possibly the only interesting observer of the Lolita phenomenon was Vladimir Nabokov. Britney sane appeared punishingly dense. One was surprised to find her capable of speech at all. And, in fact, it wasn’t much in the way of speech, as evidenced by “Britney & Kevin: Chaotic”, which had the aspect of an empty-headed girl who has come to regard her every gurgle and shriek as cinematic.

The young girls of popular culture (the Spears girls, the Hilton girls, the Lohan girls) are intensely intellectually limited. They speak only halting English and verge on complete illiteracy. Few have completed high school in an actual school. The idea of any of them reading a book is preposterous. How extraordinary to have a vestigial brain, as useless and sexual as a bound foot: a perverse status symbol in our Information Age, the Age of the Internet, where everyone braces himself for lifelong learning and Stakhanovite retraining. Never before in the last hundred fifty years of Western culture has a greater premium been placed on intellectual achievement. Never before have we worshiped so ardently the wildly wealthy and their impoverished minds. Worth hundreds of millions of dollars combined, these girls are each educated as worthlessly as the most tragic inner city youth.

But it would be equally false to suggest that Britney undone is uninteresting. The world is watching because she has suddenly begun to live out some wild thought experiment whose parameters are not yet clear. She is the madwoman of the global village. She does not strike me as hugely likable: she gives off little sense of human warmth.  But she is interesting and liminal now like a zombie: she belongs to two worlds, connecting the pinnacles of wealth and fame with trashy banality and the tedious ubiquitosness of a next-door neighbor.

Britney loose in LA has an unassimilated character, like the American Werewolf in London or Dracula throbbing in his coffin on English soil. Forever inhabiting an action film, she has insisted on traveling on two wheels, with her juggernaut of paparazzi. Vanessa Grigoriadis writes brilliantly in Rolling Stone about car chases resembling the antique video game Frogger. “She moves fast,” observes Grigoriadis, “like a cartoon character. I saw her in a hotel lobby, and she was racing at such a pace that I couldn’t keep up with her.”

Her movements are themselves outrageous, as loud and unavoidable as those of a screaming ambulance. Her wild driving puts me in mind of a Saudi woman at the wheel sporting driving goggles, a huge grin and a billowing scarf à la Isadora Duncan. Britney appears as a character from a horror film with her flashes of apotropaic crotch. To see her is to be stun-gunned by fame and animality. Her nearest artistic relation is no longer Madonna, but Montecore the tiger of Siegfried and Roy infamy.

She is young and physically healthy, yet serious news organizations (such as the AP) are preparing her obituary. Popular culture has begun to discuss a death watch. Even her parents have expressed their fears for her life in the most public way possible. (Substitute Britney for Lindsay Lohan, and we are fully up to date in 2010.)

In the fullness of time, if the dust ever settles around her, perhaps Britney will most naturally be discussed in the context of her recent, truly unmentionable paparazzi photographs. No topless beach photos here, or stolen pictures of stolen kisses there. (And either one of these would stand as an appropriate counterpoint for the more or less tame, innocent daydreams of fat fathers and their tremulous sons.) Britney is actively repelling the cameras. As images of such an extremely pornographic (or chillingly medical) character, they are unpublishable in nearly any imaginable context except in the mondo bizarro of the Internet. The most coveted photographic subject is unprintable.

This is the biggest show around and, in the age of compulsive piracy, it is being offered in the margins, absolutely free. So much film, all a big zero.

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