Britney Spears: Hit her, baby, one more time

It's not new, and it's certainly not funny, but the spectacle of Britney Spears in freefall continues to attract a huge – and complicit – global audience. What's wrong with us all?
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The Independent Online

Tales about the distressing condition of Britney Spears' life are so ubiquitous and so powerful as a means of shifting newspapers and magazines that they no longer add any chiaroscuro to the story of the subject's life. What's happening to her is obvious, and any new incident or revelation is just salacious detail. This detail now tells all those consuming the titbits of disaster more about themselves than it does about Spears. About her, for some time, there has been nothing more to know.

What purpose, then, would be served by reproducing here the gobsmacking variety of "Britney in distress" vignettes that have appeared in other newspapers around the world? Many people read them, as I do when I see them in front of me, because mostly people find it hard to avoid a little peek at a portrait of a car crash placed in front of then. If you have read even this far, the chances are you will know them too.

Many casual followers of Spears' troubles will feel some sympathy for her. How could one not? Yet few can be unaware that gawping at such episodes, even at second-, third-, fourth- or fifth-hand, is no more decent than taking a tour around Bedlam to be thrilled and appalled by manifestations of insanity, or lining up to stare at a freak show. It's worse, in fact, because it is so very likely that the extraordinary clamour of the noise around Spears must be a factor that helps, and certainly does not hinder, her psychic collapse.

The avid consumption of Spears' every move, constantly recorded when she is outside her home, and sporadically related by some of those who gain access to her domestic existence, is deeply unpleasant. A man in Britain was recently given a long jail sentence for kicking and urinating on a disabled woman as she lay dying. Spears, in her vulnerable mental state, is metaphorically kicked and urinated on every day.

If teenagers followed a dysfunctional peer around a playground, snapping her on their mobiles and calling their chums to describe the latest manifestation of trauma, instructing them to pass it on to the widest possible audience, those children would be considered monstrous.

If the same things are done in the name of press freedom and public interest, though, and on a global scale, it is easy to dismiss one's own small part in the chain of victimisation as negligible. Spears is by no means the only recipient of this bullying attention, she's just at present one of the highest-profile and easiest targets.

While few people revere the paparazzi, it is considered absurd that their wares should not be purchased for publication, unless, perhaps, a former or future royal princess is involved. Pop princesses are just meat, and they bring their abuse upon themselves by courting success.

Few people revere the popular press either, and would be appalled if its methods were directed against someone they cared for. But the popular press is only popular because so many people want it, and everyone in the chain somehow persuades themselves that their own little link is negligible. This article is as negligible as all those other contributions, and more dishonest, in fact, because it dresses up the voyeurism as high-minded analysis of the wider cultural milieu. What can I say? It's a living.

Spears has provided a living for a lot of people during her short life. Many people have profited from her, even though she alone has borne the brunt of the attention that amassing a fortune so often entails. Spears pays the price that is put on fame. Plenty of other people take their cut without paying any price at all, including the members of the music industry and media who promote her and then offer her up for pitiless scrutiny.

Even the most ostensibly fair-minded media commentators – always insiders – will explain that a person who seeks out the media to sell their products has entered into some sort of unbreakable Faustian pact, whereby the media also gains ownership of all the stuff the celebrity in question may be better advised to hide. This is presented as a moral obligation to the public, who must of course know the truth if they are buying songs they find it nice to hum along to.

Poor old Spears does not "get" the media game, though, in the same way so many others fail to. A professional public relations consultant would advise Spears right now that if she won't go into rehab and stay there, then she must not go out in public at all for a while, paying someone else to purchase her groceries, while she lives under self-imposed house arrest, attending only events where her privacy and anonymity can be guaranteed. Unhappily, there is little indication that Spears has been given good advice, let alone had the sense to take it.

I remember, years ago, seeing some seedy-looking fat guy being interviewed about Spears on the television. He was talking about the promotional video he'd had some part in for her debut single, "...Baby One More Time", in which she dressed in a school uniform. He was at pains, as he smirked away, to stress that the "concept" was hers and hers alone.

At this time, it was not so clear that things in her life were going to go so badly awry, but even then it seemed a shame that nobody had seen fit to talk her out of presenting herself as quite such a loaded sexual cliché. Might the teenager have been persuaded by arguments that explained that there was a certain degree of disapproval around the idea of sexually objectifying schoolgirls, bound up in the universally reviled word "paedophilia"? Maybe not, but I doubt that anyone even tried.

A 17-year-old in a school uniform was bound to get attention, and she was just above the age of consent, so the paedophilia-hating western world felt justified in lapping it up. Anyone suggesting the sight of this young girl ' cavorting about in provocative poses, toned tummy revealed under her cropped white school-shirt, was inappropriate, would have been accused of being a shrewish ball-breaking feminist, under the baleful influence of "political correctness gone mad". Spears dressed as a schoolgirl was just a bit of nudge-nudge, wink-wink fun – absolutely harmless. Supposedly. Anyway, it was revealed, again unwisely, that the girl was a virgin. Before it had even started, speculation about Spears' sexual life was out there in the public domain, where it has stayed.

As for the assertion here that Spears is a "fallen woman", even that is debatable. Her career in entertainment started when she was still a child, first in talent shows, then from the age of eight with an ambitious agent, and at 11 as a Disney "Mouseketeer". Again, we are all familiar with the sorts of pressures, borne out in Spears' own painful recent trajectory, that child-stardom can sometimes trigger. Many youthful performers survive and prosper. The most obvious example of one who has not is Michael Jackson; any sensible person can see that his extraordinary childhood has been disturbing to his development as an adult. Yet suggesting that Jackson is "a fallen man" is as silly as suggesting that Spears is a fallen woman. What state of adult grace has Spears plummetted away from? None that can be pinpointed. She is a fallen minor.

Which is not to say that Spears' gender has not played its part in the promotion of her overwhelmingly negative legend. The performative aspect of what passes for female sexuality is so pornographic, so join the dots to make an erection, even in its least extreme manifestations, that it is widely distrusted by many other women. Some women can play the sexual diva in a way that is understood as unthreatening or even liberating. But Spears' developing rendition of her supposed sexuality has come across as desperate, needy and fake, in a way that Madonna's or Kylie's – or even Jordan's – does not.

This is part of the reason why it has become such a parlour game to mock Spears' presentation of herself. A photograph of her in slutty clothes will be reproduced all over the world every time one is taken, defying the law of supply and demand. Photographs of trashed-looking men can get a little attention – Pete Doherty being the most high-profile example – but magazines bought by men simply aren't full of guys committing style crimes in the way that women's are. Too fat, too thin, too spotty, underarm hair, bunions, sweat marks, food stains, tan lines, orangey fake tan, bad dresses, horror-show make-up – all these are scrutinised minutely in publications aimed at women and specialising in taking bitchy delight in laughing at other women.

In these halls of anti-fame, Spears has long been a reliable staple. Again, a public relations expert would tell her to hire a stylist, pronto. Like much of her waywardness, there's something almost heroic in Spears' stubborn refusal to take good advice.

Pitifully, one gains the impression that the refusal to stay in the house, to get a stylist, to amass a solid PR team and do what they tell her, forms part of Spears' delusion that she is "keeping it real". There is a class aspect to her unfortunate position. She is seen as a rich piece of white trash, and mocked for her lack of sophistication. When she was pilloried for driving with her unsecured son on her lap, she came up with the explanation, "We're country." She confuses innocence with ignorance, and lack of care with liberality.

This can be seen too in her own attitudes to her children (themselves conceived, one fears, as a way of acting out "normal" in her abnormal world), whose privacy no one should have invaded, but whose restricted and supervised time with their mother the world knows to be "chaotic and almost sombre". (No wonder. Spears herself has worked since she was four. What does she know of childhood?) This verdict – from an assessor reporting to the court over custody of Spears' sons with her former husband, Kevin Federline – seems utterly catastrophic and sad, even though children are resilient and can survive the tumult if their mother can sort herself out.

No person who is habitually using alcohol and drugs can be a good parent, though some people manage, when their addiction is well-controlled, to be adequate ones. Like pretty much everything else in Spears' life, it is no secret that she has such problems. Repeated and fitful attempts at rehabilitation have done nothing to puncture Spears' denial of her difficulties, and her isolation from her family makes the breaking down of that denial even more of a challenge.

One can see why she has rejected her mother, since she must have some inkling that her own pressured childhood is part of her problem. But it still leaves her more alone in the world than she has ever been, a position that will only serve to feed her denial.

Addicts typically blame everything else in their lives for the chaos that surrounds them, and Spears is no exception. She will not wish to spend time with anybody unwilling to help her maintain that inverted position. Like many others before her, her fame and wealth will attract a number of people only too willing to assist her in her refusal to face reality.

Every critical article, every ugly photograph, tells Spears not that she is a mess and has to fix herself, but that the world is conspiring against her. Celebrities make spectacularly stubborn addicts because, oddly, it is even easier for them to cast themselves as victims than it is for ordinary people.

In a bitter codicil to Spears' long period of self-destruction, she has just released an album that is selling very well and receiving critical acclaim. It's a disaster for her, because it will help her to believe she is still functioning and still OK. The Britney Spears Show crashes on, loads of people are profiting from it, and its audience is massive. Vile.