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About the Author
Christopher Smit is associate professor of media studies at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His writings focus on the intersections between media, aesthetics, culture, and the disabled body.
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The Exile of Britney Spears
A Tale of 21st Century Consumption
By Christopher R. Smit
Intellect LtdCopyright © 2011 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
Consuming Towards Exile
The end result of all consumption is excrement: we seek out our consumables, we consume, we digest and we defecate.
The Western experience is one of consumption. We consume food made by others, grown elsewhere, preserved artificially, hyper-nutritious or, more often, ultra-fatty. We consume clothing made by others, sewn by men and women over there – on the shelf, on the body, on the ground, on the way out. We consume images of us and others, sometimes naked, sometimes clothed. These images are used, deleted and eventually replaced. We consume music, downloaded, organized as lists, felt but not heard, heard with others watching, galvanized as digital bits, CD trays and booklets put aside, loaded into the trash, into the iPod.
All of these consumables start as splendour and end as less than that. They are the things we desperately want to have, at all costs, for no costs. As a kid, for me it was fast food. The greasy heights of emotion made possible by a White Castle hamburger spun my young eyes with delight. But when the consumption was over, the pleasure was gone – in one way and out another. This was all part of the rehearsed routine of fast food: love now, regret later. What is more American than this? To splurge then worry, to buy then think, to love the puppy and hate the dog.
We perform this process unwittingly. It only comes into focus when that which we consume sticks in our teeth, or fills up too much space, or haunts us while driving to work. Consider the consumption of Britney Spears. To begin, in what forms was she offered? As a child prodigy, a southern belle, an adolescent play thing, a body to be desired, a desire embodied, as a daughter, mother, divorcee, drug addict, as disabled, discouraged and down. Never as musician, never. And who did the offering? Lynne Spears, Disney, Sony BMG, Eric Foster White, Max Martin, Rolling Stone, MTV, VH1, paparazzi, pornographers and, essentially, us. We pitched her, talked her up and down, loved her, hated her, praised the kid and demonized the older kid. She was given to us first in song, yet almost immediately we stopped listening and started watching. It was her smile, her hair, her breasts and buttocks, her legs, her feet. She was an image of a woman, and image only. This is how we wanted her, and this is what we consumed.
Britney Spears was consumed by children when she was still a child. And for a while, it was sweet to see a young girl in a Britney Halloween costume. Then the consuming changed. On 15 April 1999, Britney appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone for the first time. Her body became text, her eyes invited the gaze and her stomach made readers of all types look twice. And certainly this was by design, crafted to sell the body once safe in cotton sweaters on the Disney channel. Walt would not be happy. His disappointment would be a product of a shifting demographic. Men, young and old, gay and straight, became the key consumers of Britney the Body. Certainly, the girls and women were still there, they just had to shift over, make room.
Follow Britney's career post 15 April. First, see the girls buying her albums and bubble gum, listening to her music, looking for themselves, their stories, singing along without really understanding the words. Now see the men. See them watch her at the MTV Video Music Awards, stripping off a tear-away tuxedo, fondling a python and stumbling in a bikini too small for this 'not yet a woman' woman. See them watching videos of Britney in red and black leather, snarling the innocence away, showing just enough, shaking just enough; erotic and not, she played the Lolita and Lamb very well. See the men looking at thousands of images online, fake pornography with floating heads, stories upon stories about favourite positions, favourite foods, public displays of affection and ignorance. Britney split in two, image and body, soul and impression, good and bad.
The harder the consumer looked, the more sly she became, hiding a nipple, hiding behind the decency laws of television and the press. Her pregnant body, naked almost. A cultural hide and go seek. Then the infamous photo came, her in the backseat with Paris. When we saw her sex directly, it was over. Put more clearly, when we saw her naked, shaved crotch, the rules of the game had changed, rules that we all had agreed on. Britney was supposed to be perfect, distant yet close. We reached out to her in ways that we controlled. We were her, she was us, images and imaginations matched up perfectly.
But when we saw it, it wasn't perfect, airbrushed, smooth and clean. Instead it was human. It was real, complete with razor burn, flesh folds and use. No longer a collective vision of beauty, it was now hers; its particularity became crystal clear. We wanted to stay in Umberto Eco's hyperreality, in the comforts of our own imaginations. The photograph ended it all. And then she shaved her head. Another blow to our lens.
And so like all things consumed, Britney was digested and eliminated. She made her way through our cultural gastrointestinal tract, broken down by the saliva of our desire, and excreted. Left to be what Rolling Stone called an American Tragedy, forgetting that they started the whole thing.
And yet these metaphors of consumption, digestion and excretion let us off easy. The problem lies in the part called digestion. Consider the fact that most of us know very little about the art of digestion. It just happens. It's a process that starts up when it needs to, shuts down when it wants to, doing its job without much help. And this is exactly how we want and need it. It needs to be behind the wizard's curtain, otherwise it would make us sick. Oils and acids, churning our consumables into faeces. Not pretty, but necessary.
As such, our digestion of Britney was too natural, too easy, too unnoticed. Young Britney, Body Britney, Baby Britney, Broken Britney. We shifted and digested right through these transitions with a skipping pace. For a two-year period she was down for the count, having been excreted from our desires and imaginations. We had moved on, only to find ourselves missing her. Eventually, we would start eating again.
This collection of reflections about the life and art of Britney Spears offers a different lens to view this story – one of exile. The fall of Britney cannot be seen as a simple cultural inevitability. Too many artists and performers are brushed off by our Darwinian, nationalistic belief in the dismissal of the unworthy. The pitching of the Other. No, our response to (and creation of) Britney Spears was not this, but a violent form of cultural cleansing. She was dirty, and real, and repulsive. We made her this way by accepting years of objectification, by buying and selling her. To liken this to digestion is to remind ourselves that we were part of this. Unknowingly or not it was our energy that initiated the exile.
Britney is not innocent, but she is not alone in her story. It seems that we were there all along.CHAPTER 2
Why do we seek origins? This question tells us more about ourselves than the information we seek. At best, we seek origins to help make sense of a problem, to clarify a picture gone out of focus, to validate an opinion that needs justification. At worst, we seek the dirt of existence, the roots of some phenomenological system which fascinates us, a way to see through the darkly painted glass whose contents evade but also quench. We seek origins to keep from dealing with the reality of our situation, believing that if we know the beginning of the story its development and progression will somehow matter more or less. We hope that the dilemmas our reality makes us grapple with will dwindle a bit if we find their origins. Why did the planes hit the towers? Why did Chapman shoot Lennon in front of The Dakota? Why did God let disability embrace my kid? Why am I fat? Questions that keep us from letting the thing settle in, from being real. Anything to keep busy, to keep talking. We love dialogue, even the word (di-a-log) makes us sound sophisticated.
The only thing that remains sophisticated, however, is our evasion of realness. All too often, we seek origins to keep from doing the real work of being present. However, we must acknowledge the possibility that presentness guides our search for origins, that our vision of the current drives to its bias, a lens that admits its own construction. And so we seek origins with our heads up, with our eyes open. Our story of Britney Spears, too, starts with our knowledge of her contemporary existence. We know she has recently been in a psych ward, exploring explanations, reading up on herself, digesting our digestion, sifting through our excrement. Currently she is being babysat while she babysits, ready to ride the wave of her next 'comeback'. The new record, Circus, is selling well, concerts are being sold out again.
When I look up McComb, Mississippi on Wikipedia I learn three facts: it was named after a Colonel Henry McComb, former head of the Great Northern Railroad; it was the cradle of the Civil Rights Movement, harbouring the first action of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; it is near the swamp that saw the end of Ronnie Van Zant and Steve Gaines of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Trains, pains and planes. Garrison Keillor might say, 'Well, it was a town like most towns', and then exhale loudly. As of 2000, about 14,000 called it home, and a bunch of others remembered it as such. Britney Jean Spears, born there on 2 December 1981, is among them.
Her parents, the well-known Lynn and lesser-known James (or Jamie), were respectively a teacher and a building contractor. Humble yet pretty, quiet yet stern. You have to wonder if they knew their baby would be special, be someone others looked up to, someone to love. Yes, all parents think this, but books, newspapers and magazines all tell us that the Spears knew this. They knew that little Britney would be, if it took all they had, someone special. They moved the family to Kentwood, Mississippi, for work and new linoleum.
Siblings were born, diapers were changed, groceries were bagged up and the family went on.
Like Elvis, Aretha, Tina and all other musical artists who matter the most, Britney sang in the church choir as a child. Great, creaky, Baptist hymns that made bodies sway, made children seek their origins. Margo Jefferson, in her revealing book On Michael Jackson, alludes to the words to this Baptist hymn which no doubt Britney heard as well:
Little lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee,
Gave thee life, and bade thee feed
By the stream and o'er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, woolly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?
Little lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Such questions lingered on the faith of the Baptist brethren and their lambs, theological inquiries made sweet in songs. The answer to this spiritual riddle, of course, is God, the I Am, the present-through-Jesus-Christ-Creator. And yet the Spears shared the creation work with God, and eventually so did we.
The Baptist side of Britney secured some things for her: she was born into sin, saved through baptismal immersion, bought by the death of Jesus, made new through the Holy Spirit and chastened to an evangelical, gospel-filled existence. She was an image bearer of God, emblazed by the mark of the true covenant. Of course, a child struggles to know what any of this means, as do many adults, but certainly on both they have at least a cumulative effect. She knew, again, that she was special, that she belonged to something bigger, something much larger than herself.
In some ways, this is a given, a particularity that is not very particular at all. Most of us grow up in homes where faith, of some kind, is a member of the family. Which means that along with being a member of a biological and genetic grouping known as our 'family', we are also part of an invisible collective, a larger family of strangers. A community of saints, angels, prophets and ministers. Britney began as a member of a spiritual culture, one which cradled her, crafted her and called her out. And it is this last action, this calling out, that seems so relevant now. As a Southern Baptist, young Britney would have been called to consider the world in a very specific way – in particular, she would have be asked to see the outside world as something which needed her – a world that needed Jesus to be seen through her.
She began her life with a mission, one which asked her to live for others. Even further, a mission which asked her to live for those who were perceived as needing her and the gospel message – to testify to this Other as a messenger of the good news, as a portal through which God's love could be seen. She would be a lens for those in need, a way for them to see clearer the better ways of life. At home she could still play with dolls, do her make-up like mommy, make up songs. But on Sunday morning, singing with the choir, she was on. The spotlight of the holy spirit itself illuminated this blonde angel in a way that she must have developed a feeling for. How could she not have? Because along with serving God through the ministry of music, Britney was also learning to love the attention that comes to those who serve the Lord. A sort of righteous attention on one level, but a very cultural attention on another.
Such a beginning. A self-understanding of yourself as being made by God, in His image, in his everlasting arms. Such lessons lead to confidence – a known self is a powerful self. Brought further, this identity attaches you to a cultural and cosmic community, a congregation and the Family of God. The sense of belonging times two. A lifescape with an intended audience, a constant performance of being, proving that you are God's by bringing Him to all those around you, both saved and unsaved, alive or dead. A stage has been set for you before you are aware of what that means. And your goals are predestined, you follow a road well travelled, yet never touched by feet like yours. A quest to be among others as a sign of something good, as something to be treasured, as something to be desired. Amen, halleluiah.
As a guide for life and a predicted trajectory, the teachings of the Southern Baptists launched Britney into a psychology well suited for performance. Not only did it prepare her to perform, it provided a space for her to act and justified her desire for the spotlight.
And it also gave her an ideology to react to. No worldview makes sense until it is smashed against the wall, worked on, challenged to stand next to another. The same vision of life that originally gave Britney a song, gave her a way out as well. A sort of reverse-ideology, a manner of experiences always seen best through its backdrop, a career with a much needed context: impurity looks good when set against an original purity; the body as desired object shines in the context of the body as a temple; the tongue of the vixen versus the tongues of Babel; the breasts of high school fun in front of the breastplate of righteousness; fierce independence overshadows interdependence; profanity explained through praise; sacrifice in light of, holy sacrifice.
So the psychology of faith makes itself known in Britney in the same way any ideology would – as anchor and reverberation. Early interviews, overexposed by the secular media and questioned by religious media, see Britney holding on to spiritual tenets from her childhood faith: she sings because she loves; she sings for God; she keeps her virginity for the right man. These are anchors of action. At the same time, she enacts a sort of call and response ritual, a reactionary and ironic performance. She sings because she loves us, but also in order for us to love her; she sings for God, but also for heaps and heaps of money; she waits for the right man yet flaunts for all, wearing a Catholic schoolgirl outfit.
On one level these dichotomies and ironies must be (and have been) seen as promotional. P.T. Barnum taught us well the lessons of contrast. It is one thing to see a bearded lady, but it is completely other to see her in a wedding dress. Fat men boggle the brain of the spectator, but even more so when placed naked on a couch. The aesthetics of spectacle have always been invested in exploiting context as much as content; to know the true attraction is to know how grandly it compares to its surroundings. Add sexuality to this formula and, bingo! the bank is yours. A sexy girl contextualized by her own religious context – that is a promotion of the century. Something forbidden made available and affordable, something holy made hot, something good made bad.
And yet, at another level, one led by psychology, we might come to see these paradoxical predicaments of Britney's faith and performance as being the first step towards an unavoidable pathology. A condition in which her own origins get murky as her present and future experiences take over. A predicament that asks her to defend something personal in relationship to something very public. And isn't this the American pathology made blaringly clear via the cultural stage? All individuals feeding from the trough of individualism must suffer this, or celebrate this lot – that our insides can be different from our outsides. That we can and must decide, based on political, economic and social factors, what we want others to know of us. We, and only we, can decide which face to show and why.
Excerpted from The Exile of Britney Spears by Christopher R. Smit. Copyright © 2011 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Preface: Two Notes for Readers,
PART I: Creation,
Chapter 1: Consuming Towards Exile,
Chapter 2: The Baptists,
Chapter 3: The South,
Chapter 4: The Family,
Chapter 5: Stars, Mickey Mouse and the Ledge of Tomorrow,
PART II: Consumption,
Chapter 6: The Universal Woman, Saint or Whore?,
Chapter 7: A New Currency,
Chapter 8: Stuff,
Chapter 9: Snakes,
Chapter 10: The Ease of Digestion,
PART III: Exile,
11. Exile on Main Street,
13. The Vagina,
14. Disabling Britney,
15. The End of the Exile, 'Complex Shit',
Epilogue: Naked Again,