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Fri

16

Feb

2007

"Britney Spears" - A Modern Morality Tale
Friday, 16 February 2007 21:37
by Edward Strong

From Barbie to Britney: Zapping the Zeitgeist

A fervent postmodernist might call Britney Spears a 21st century conceptual artist. Creative people, from Oscar Wilde to Andy Warhol, have turned their lives into art forms. Is Britney so different?

She really captures the new perception of postmodern culture, the idea of being a celebrity for being a celebrity. Britney Spears, along with the likes of Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton and other celebrities who dominate the headlines, has no discernable skill or talent. It's individualism in its purest form. I'm famous, therefore I am.

On the other hand, is she just a sad projection of escapist fantasy peddled to the masses? A role model for those who are already exploited? The modern equivialent of circuses for the plebians? It helps to placate them. If Britney can make it, so can a million bedroom dreamers.

One might say that celebrity culture is a vital part of our ideology, which stresses the value of 'individual freedom' over a 'collective good'. It's self before others in our atomised society. However, there has always been a need for story-telling, for narrative that represents our hopes and desires. It is an escapism that all of us chase - from the novels of Jane Austen to Oprah.  This is for those of you who are too 'politically correct', too 'serious' to descend to the level of popular culture. A typical response from the bourgeoisie.

Are you the sort who reads the NYT because it enhances your self-image? Everyone's playing the game of elitism. I mean, isn't Maureen Dowd a upmarket Barbie? [1]

Celebrity Worship: Global Village Gossip


We love celebrity gossip, whether we admit it or not.

But why?

Maybe it's because "celebrity gossip articulates a collective public discourse that's both necessary in a our society and reflects an individualistic ethos," offers P. David Marshall, professor of media and communication studies at Northeastern.

In the past, most people lived in small towns and everyone knew each other's business. The conversation about what was acceptable behavior and what wasn't was occurring naturally, in pubs and round the village pump.

Since WWII, we've all been steadily moving away from these small towns into big, impersonal cities and suburbs. Many of us don't even know our neighbors. So in the absence of small-town gossip, we have Hollywood, where we keep tabs on 40 or 50 regular faces in the weeklies.

In the absence of neighborhood drama, we get to whisper about Paula Abdul's sketchy behavior during "American Idol." In the absence of a village idiot, we have Mel Gibson.

And here's the sociopolitical part: By gabbing about celebrities' personal lives, we are participating in a nationwide debate, determining what is and what isn't acceptable behavior on a national stage.

Sure, a public discourse should address more serious topics — like the war in Iraq and immigration — but, Marshall insists, it should also address the issues that affect our personal lives but don't make it on the 5 o'clock news.

Issues that define our communities' values — like how we define good parenting, or appropriate social drinking or the female body image — require other outlets.

For example, Britney Spears' almost dropping her child gives us a perfect excuse to discuss the criteria of good motherhood. [2]

"Britney Spears" - A Modern Morality Tale

"Britney Spears" as a commodity, a brand, an image, reveals the fundamental problems with American consumerism - from her contradictory roots as a Christian conservative, to her bubblegum sexuality, all the way down to the implosion of her personal life.

In what seemed like a realization of the American dream, she appeared on Star Search in 1992 when she was only 11 years old and later joined the New Mickey Mouse Club with future boyfriend Justin Timberlake and fellow diva Christina Aguilera.

Jive Records picked up her demo tape when she was 16 and only a year later, she was singing "Hit Me Baby One More Time" dressed in a suggestively redesigned Catholic schoolgirl uniform in the halls of the same high school where the classic American movie "Grease" was filmed.

After selling 76 million albums around the world, starring in her own feature film and gracing the cover of hundreds of magazines, her career collapsed at the ripe old age of 23.

A few months ago I sat and stared in bewilderment from behind my computer screen as Spears, two marriages and two children later, opened her legs to the paparazzi while giving them the thumbs up during a night on the town with Paris Hilton. [3]

Britney Spears as Commodity

The pursuit of profit and the reduction of all value to performance in the marketplace have characterized our lives since the late 1950s, but my generation was the first to be baptized in the total submersion of this culture.

Corporations now cultivate entertainers from a very early age to be marketed to the public, who are harvested for their financial resources like a forest is clear-cut to grind and slice into raw materials.

Britney Spears was not a human being to Walt Disney and her producer Max Martin. She was a product to be marketed, sold and subjected to planned obsolescence so that she expired when Jive Records found a newer, fresher product to sell to the masses.

The Britney Spears culture transforms art into a commodity and makes human happiness reducible to the consumption of merchandise. [4]

Celebrity Culture: The New Fiction

The bourgeoisie devoured the novels of Jane Austin. Today we consume "The Lives of Celebrities", Is there that much difference? All of us love a good story with larger-than-life characters, tossed and turned in a virtual narrative.

Why do we care at all about celebrity? What does celebrity do for us? What function does it perform?

We obviously need it, or our culture wouldn't be fueled by it.

There are many theories about our national obsession, some academic and unreadable, some commonplace and cliche. There are undoubtedly multiple causes and cross-causes. But one I have seldom seen mentioned is celebrity's function as cultural shorthand.

It is similar to Alfred Hitchcock's use of stars. Why does he cast Cary Grant in North by Northwest? Might not an actor of greater depth and range have been better?

No, says Hitchcock. Cary Grant is a known commodity: Using Grant saves Hitchcock a lot of exposition. We already know who this character is, and he can dive straight into the plot.

Cary Grant is shorthand.

Similarly, Britney Spears is shorthand for bad mothering. We can discuss what we believe mothering is all about without getting into difficult abstractions or philosophical issues.

The tabloid story of how she drives with her baby on her lap is a shorthand for the more complex discussion.

Celebrity functions like mythology for the ancient Greeks. When Odysseus has a great idea, Athena serves as the shorthand: She visits him and bingo, the light bulb goes off.

Zeus was shorthand for the wandering husband, Hephaestus the stand-in for the cuckolded husband.

They provide models of behavior - good and bad - and do so through the medium of story rather than precept. Story is always more compelling. [5]

Our Collective Self-Disgust in the Nihilistic West

We are disappearing into a whirlpool of narcissism, sentimentality and moral emptiness. We've sold our souls for the freedom to shop and screw as and when we wish.

A stiff dose of self-loathing can be a good thing.

Just look at the sort of people who lack shame -- they're awful! Britney Spears, for instance, and Paris Hilton. Now there's a case of high self-esteem and hemlines run amok.

Many argue that the reason Britney ditches her children for knickerless pole-dancing sessions and Paris persists in being Paris is simply that they are confused, insecure young women with more fame and money than good sense.

Personally, I suspect they're quite pleased with themselves and enjoying their pampered lives just fine, thank you very much.

Like most self-satisfied dimwits, they are ignorant of their own failings and, thus, unable to address them. [6]

Britney Spears Joins Celebrity Female Flashers

Is it my imagination, or is there a new kind of flasher in town? Not the flashers of legend - those sad, broken men opening their grubby raincoats in public parks to show teenage girls what a mid-life crisis looks like.

The New Flashers are generally young, gorgeous, famous and, oddest of all, female - girls such as Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton, both 'caught' in their time leaving off their knickers to party, revealing themselves to be exhibitionist in a way even battle-hardened paparazzi never bargained for.

It seems significant that, joining the 'commando' elite last week, was Britney Spears, freshly liberated from her duff marriage, swanning around with Hilton, in what appeared to be a frontless dress teamed with no knickers. [7]

[1] Ed Strong
[2] Haley Edwards
[3] Michael Kleen
[4] Michael Kleen
[5] Richard Nilsen
[6] Hanif Kureishi
[7] Barbara Ellen
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a guest said:

0
She has one more chance to hit us...baby, one more time
I disagree. I do believe she is now considered a commodity, but she did possess talent or else she wouldn't have made it as far as she had up until she garnered her deal with Jive Records--listen to some earlier tracks and there's no denying she was talented. Britney Spears' career has yet to implode as well. As a person working inside the industry, I can tell you that she has one more chance at a successful comeback album. If that doesn't work, THEN her career has officially imploded--getting married and taking two years off to raise a family was her choice, not career-imploding. She might not have been producing Grammy-winning hits during that time, but she wasn't focusing on her career at the time; had she been and she fell through, then you could say she is old news. But that's just it--that's the catch 22. You can hate her, but you're still interested enough that you write this article about her. Hmmmmmm.
 
February 16, 2007
Votes: +0

a guest said:

0
Britney-Bashing
While many of the observations about “Britney Spears, the marketing phenomenon” are quite valid, to dismiss her as having “no discernable skill or talent” only reduces this to yet another example of internet Britney-bashing, albeit one slightly more high-falutin’ that most. I think the real question is: Why do people hate her so much? What makes them so different from the “bedroom dreamers” who love her and buy 76 million of her albums? Does it really bother Mr. Strong that much that Spears is apparently “pampered”? He calls her a “self-satisfied dimwit”. Why doesn’t he just go ahead and call her fat as well?

Elvis Presley (another embodiment of the American dream) once said “Don't criticize what you don't understand, son. You never walked in that man's shoes.”

I certainly don’t envy Britney Spears. Am I defending her? I don't know as she needs defending, although I will admit to enjoying her music (at risk of being called “bourgeoisie” by Mr. Strong). As for the fascination with her private life (or her private parts) it is very easy (and very cathartic) for anybody to go onto the internet and post scathing comments about a celebrity that they don’t like. Whether one is demanding of Britney Spears “a stiff dose of self-loathing”, or simply calling her a slutty bitch, I’m tired of making a distinction between either point of view.
 
February 17, 2007 | url
Votes: +0

a guest said:

0
My Contribution
My name is Michael Kleen and a chunk of the above piece was from my column on February 6th in the Daily Egyptian (it was cited). I wanted to make it clear that I neither think it's bad that she took some time off to have a family nor do I hate her. Except as a metaphor for our consumer culture and the frequent news stories I see about her on Yahoo! news I actually have no interest in her at all. It's interesting that you would compare her to Elvis, since he didn't write any of his own music and was used as a tool in the same way. Britney Spears knows her life is empty and the attention she gets is fading, that's why she has to act out all the time. If people were watching me 24 hours a day I would probably go crazy too. But look at her life, look at who she chose to get married to, and now that she has 2 children why is she out partying with Paris every night instead of looking after them? Britney Spears represents everything that's wrong with our hyper consumer culture, and she's extremely visible, that's why I used her to make my point.
 
February 25, 2007 | url
Votes: +0

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