I have been thinking a lot about the significance behind Britney Spears' infamous performance Sunday at the VMA's: a man-made pop-icon falling to pieces: as American as apple pie.
I'm not even half as eloquent on the subject as Rebecca Traister whose Salon.com piece on Britney's VMA appearance held up the mirror to my own cruel reasons for needing to watch the VMA-Spears trainwreck live. I've never been a fan of Britney Spears or Pop Music in general. Pop Music is like the suburbs to me. Little voices on the headphones. Little beats made of ticky-tacky. Little producers on the headphones and they all sound just the same. )
There was a time not so long ago when I looked at celebrities as heroes and heartthrobs, pasting pictures of them on my pre-teen walls, worshipping them from afar. Because their underbellies were not exposed as they are today.
Our children are growing up during a very interesting albeit frightening time, where all potential heroes are just like us. They go to grocery stores and they accidentally flash cameras and they fuck up. Over and over. They wear zit-cream on their balconies and they burp and fart and have sex and do drugs and have nervous breakdowns and where once upon a time no one knew about these things, nowadays, everybody does. Even if we say we don't care. We know. About Owen Wilson's suicide attempt and the girl from High School Musical's nudie pictures and Christina Aguilera's pregnancy. Technology has turned celebrity into it's own seemingly scripted-drama. Everyone fucks each other's boyfriends and is always pregnant or naked or driving on the wrong side of the road.
Several years ago I went on a date with a former teen heartthrob. He was on a show that I watched as a teenager and he was "Omigawd! So cute!" I had several photos of him on my wall among dozens of other side-burned hunks, all who graced the pages of BOP and Big Bopper, two of my favorite rags, where cute boys were innocent and oh-so "dreamy."
We discussed his past-life over drinks and I admitted to plastering photos of him and his friends on my wall. He went on to tell me all of the sordid tales of young-hunk fame and fury. About an arrest in Mexico. About drug overdoses and rehab and hookers and several failed suicide attempts. When we met he was working a corporate job, living the life of a "normal guy".
His stories were heartbreaking to hear, even though, at the time I was plenty old enough to know the truth: that none of it was ever real. But I wanted it to be so bad. Like Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. Airbrushed and neatly creased down the middle, unfolded and taped above my twin bed.
I think the most shocking part about the Owen Wilson story was that we were surprised. (I was crushed. Crushed!) We should have known he was in so much pain. Right?
Somewhere in the last decade, we have forgotten that there is such thing as "overexposure", meanwhile Hollywood is drowning in the light of flash-bulbs and we're all worse off, in my opinion.
We're supposed to turn on the TV and watch people perform for us, entertain us, polished, pressed, scripted. Well done. Bravo. But that has become boring. We want the truth. We are obsessed with the truth, with weakness and cellulite and bad hair days.
Reality TV killed the video star. The business of Hollywood is not the same and neither is the talent. It's a giant mess and Britney Spears isn't just the posterchild for her own sad demise, but the demise of Hollywood as an institution.
And I mourn for her. I mourn for all that has been lost. From the land of smoke and mirrors to the world of coke and windows, where dreams chase pre-packaged fools into ravines and we all watch, laughing and pointing and feeling empowered. Because I may not be as rich, but at least I don't smoke cigarettes in front of my kids.
As has been pointed out before, she embodies the disdain in which this culture holds its young women: the desire to sexualize and spoil them while young, and to degrade and punish them as they get older. Of course, she also represents a youthful feminine willingness -- stupid or manipulated as it may be -- to conform to the culture's every humiliating expectation of her.
"She really fucked up," we say, unbeknownst that we are a part of that. That we are just as guilty as MTV and US Weekly and the paparazzi who scale walls for that "money" shot. We all have invisible cameras around our necks. Maybe the time has come for us to turn them on ourselves.
And just like staying at the bar after last call, when the lights go up and suddenly everyone is dark-eyed and pock-marked and nowhere near as beautiful as they appeared in the dim, maroon light, sometimes it's preferable to believe in lies. And buy into airbrushed album covers. And fairy tales. Maybe we are better off believing that basketball players don't cheat on their wives and hearthrobs don't try to kill themselves. That pop stars are always beautiful. Always polished. Always sane.
Because for years as a collective audience we were able to escape our own mediocrity, living vicariously through pop-icons, wishing upon "stars".
Britney personified everything wrong with popular-culture Sunday night. Meanwhile, we we were just as guilty, watching quietly, expecting her to fail:
Spears is living out our ur-nightmares -- showing up naked at school, or arriving at a test that we didn't know we had while everyone chortles and points and we fail. That is actually what MTV set her up to do on Sunday night and since, as we've passed around the video clip of her lameness.
Maybe what has happened to celebrity is a good thing. Maybe we are better off knowing that "celebrities are just like us". Maybe it's better we don't look to movie stars as heroes and role-models. We don't want to be them when we grow up. We pity them. We laugh at them. We blog about how ugly their clothes are.
Fine. Then we must not put blame on anybody but ourselves for what "culture" has become "popular". From Bratz dolls to Britney Spears to Life&Style Magazine because if you watch her, she will dance. Like a circus monkey beside a wind-up box.
When I was a kid, my mother told me a story about some men she once saw on a lake in northern Maine. They were in a motorboat, chasing a swimming moose around the lake. They chased it and chased it and chased it until, finally, the moose got so tired and confused that it drowned. This, of course, was the idea: torturing an animal too stupid to swim for shore until it died, all in the name of good fun for the guys at the wheel.
It's a heart-stoppingly sad vision, and I thought of that moose when I watched Spears on the VMAs, thought of how baited and trapped and ogled she was. I hate MTV for putting her up to it, hate myself and everyone else for watching it go down. But as angry as it makes me, I have to admit: The moose never jumped in front of the boat in a rhinestone bikini.
But what came first, Britney Spears or the Rhinestone Bikini? And wasn't it us who told her to wear it in the first place?
Regardless, we are finally privy to the truth: that Hollywood is as dirty as it's Boulevards, And the harder the city works to restore it's landmarks, the easier it is to see that "clean and cute" isn't what anyone wants anymore. The only real-estate that seems to sell is the Real-estate. We're living in a Real World, world.
Britney is long dead. So is celebrity, in my opinion, given away in swag bags with bottles of shampoo and mp3 players.
And I'm starting to think we have no one to blame for its death but ourselves.
*photo credit: Hollyscoop