Sex, Lies and Britney Spears

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 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


Anonymous | 5:59 PM

Well said. I agree with everything you said here.

Anonymous | 6:25 PM

I am so out of touch with celebrities -- I don't read People, and I rarely watch TV. But as I kid, I too used to plaster my walls with celebrity pin-ups; but there came a point when I just became disgusted with the whole cycle of rising to fame and falling from grace. So, first of all, thank you for getting me up to date on the whole issue. But, I realize, after what you've said here, that that fall from grace seems to be happening faster than it did at one time -- and yes, we did ask her to wear that bikini.

Anonymous | 6:39 PM

I didn't watch it. And the fact that "Britney Spears" is the top search term on Technorati is the reason I don't bother looking for anything there any more.

I wish that I could claim that it was because I wasn't the sort of person who slows down to look at a car wreck but the truth is I don't need to see it because I've seen it all before. I can say "She's really fucked up," with as much ease and as little compassion as someone who's had it on replay all night.

But I don't mourn the loss of Hollywood's gloss. The perfection is as destructive as the Real World.

Celebrities are fucked up because at the same time we buy into the idea that being pasted on the covers of magazines somehow makes their lives better than our "mediocre" ones, they get sold the idea that their celebrity is the measure of their existence.

I have watched two people in my life struggle toward liking themselves once the photographers and the groupies and the talk-show hosts have all gone away. Self knowledge is an arduous road for anyone but when you've been surrounded by synthetic attention before you learn that attention is not the same as being present in the world, it is like a drug that has been taken away.

We are to blame. But not just for enjoying the car wreck. We caused the car wreck in the first place by idolising the imagined perfection of celebrities' lives.

Anonymous | 6:41 PM

This was such a good post - you say so much of what I think about the whole celebrity culture. It's weird, because I don't listen to pop music, I don't tend to watch popular movies, I don't even have TV - and yet I read several celebrity blogs religiously. The actions of the famous have become more interesting than what they are paid to do - for me, the celebrities themselves are the entertainment. And the more train wreck-y they are, the more messed-up and sordid their stories, the more interesting that show is. I feel guilty, sure, but at the same time I love that they are people, too, that they are "at our level", that there isn't that shiny, glossy film of perfection and makeup over them. I like the feeling that but for x and y and z, I could be famous, too, because they are just like me. It's sad and awful and yet so fascinating, too, and I wonder where it will end up - because it can't keep on like this, and it can't go back to how it was.


Good points, Cerebralmom. All around, well said. Perfection is just as destructive as "reality" but my question, does it perpetuate itself in quite the same way? We seem to care so much more, as a collective audience, when people fall, fail, gain weight, lose too much weight, look like they might have six toes on their left foot.

So then which is the lesser of the two evils? The illusion of perfection or the "reality" that everyone is fucked up, crazy and sad?


Blondegirl-- I started my above comment as you must have just posted yours.

You said it here when you said:

"The actions of the famous have become more interesting than what they are paid to do - for me, the celebrities themselves are the entertainment."

And you are exactly right. And I'm right with you wondering where it will end up. We're in a very interesting place culturally, politically et al. Our heroes and icons and presidents and leaders are fucked and falling hard. And no one will be able to put the pieces back as they were. Hopefully though, new and more worthy leaders and icons will rise to the occasion and live up to their job descriptions. Whatever that means anymore.

Emery Jo | 7:20 PM

I couldn't agree more here.

Just now I was watching a special on Tony Bennett on PBS, and I was completely slapped upside the face by how different 'celebrity' is now compared to twenty years ago.

I feel so sad for these manufactured icons. Can you even imagine how used they must feel? They started out with dreams and passions of their own! And I'm sure those dreams didn't include being completely stripped of their dignity in front of the whole world.

I think a lot of human beauty comes from the mystery- the not knowing everything about someone.

*sigh* I guess I just miss the olden days.

Anonymous | 7:37 PM

I wonder if in the olden days someone like Tony Bennet was shoved into the spotlight by an overzealous money hungry mother and then left to fend for himself when the pieces started to fall apart, and he wasn't bringing the fame and fortune in such a neat little package anymore. That's where these "celebutantes" and "pop tarts" who are so unceremoniously dumped into the Hollywood machine by their parents and then chewed up, spit out, and stomped on by that machine and all of us who perpetuate the gears. And we laugh and point and feel smug and yet how SAD. These are children who are used up by the time they are in their early twenties. Used and abused. Ugh. I am so sick of that REAL-WORLD celebrity bullshit. The shiny facade of Old Hollywood will certainly never return. Great post, as usual, GGC.

Anonymous | 9:56 PM

WOW! I love this post. I like the points you make. I enjoyed reading the Salon article.

I can't say anything more than the lovely bloggers who already left their comments.

Now, I'll just sit here and wrack my brain as I try to figure out which dreamy teen idol you met. It will bug me all night. (thanks ;)

Anonymous | 2:20 AM

Blondegirl definitely summed it up well.

As for your question on what is the lesser of two evils, I *think* the two things are interdependent but the cycle keeps speeding up. Once upon a time people were famous for doing something before we took them down. Now, fame requires so little. I guess it was better when it was slower.

(Errrggghhh! I had to keep deleting more and more. Every time I read your posts I want to write a whole essay!)

JamesMommy | 5:45 AM

Brava! It's not just celebrities either. We, as a people, are totally drawn to morbid fascination -- just look at talk shows where people exploit themselves for just a moment of attention. It is heartbreaking, isn't it?

Anonymous | 7:36 AM

Great Post!

I cant deal with Hollywood and celebs, its makes me sick. There are no role models anymore we all know too much, is nothing personal sacred anymore? What if Marilyn was alive now days - with all the gossip surrounding her then...

Brit's performance reminded me of the MTV production that at the very end out popped a botoxed and extension clad Axle Rose - it was for a split second exciting, until you took a closer look and ran screaming from the tele. Not only did it ruin that image from my childhood it made any future endeavors or projects of his not seem so great. I think MTV is just as bad as trashy mags in some cases, KWIM?

Anonymous | 7:37 AM

And now with all of the information and communication technology, it's easier than ever to keep up with what your favorite celebrity is up to. I believe that these technologies have fueled this environment that plays into our morbid facination. Everyone lives under a microscope now, nt like the old days.

Old Hollywood was all about illusion. Creating a beautiful image, using make-up, props, no matter what was really under the surface. But it was artifice. Hell, back then, most people were not even aware that one of their presidents was wheelchair bound! That was how much control people had over their public image.

But we moved from a sort of "theatre-like" quality to celebrities to more of a reality TV format, where everyone has cameras in their faces and are blogging about their gastric bypass surgeries, or whatever...

My hope is that, although the "realness" will stay around, and it will be harder for people to escape the cameras, we will generally get burnt out on all the negativity and ugliness that we see. This will create a situation that promts people to be more positive and beautiful (in thought, speach, behavior, etc.) but in a real way. We won't be able to merely create an illusion of goodness as we did in eras bygone. And we won't be content to see merely the basest elements of human nature on display.

kittenpie | 12:08 PM

I keep saying it, post after post - I am so sad for her that she clearly doesn't get it. Doesn't get that the bar is so high for her right now, she has to be fifty times better than she ever was, in order to blow away the years of images of her, chucky and cheeto-ed, panty-free and parenting badly. I think she worked hard, but didn't realize it wasn't going to be enough. Poor thing.


What's worse? I'm tempted to say it's the "reality" version of celebrity, and then I think about Rock Hudson and his marriage and feel very sad.

I will say that I think the Real World version of celebrity is harder on the young women at its center than it is on the young men. We seem to so enjoy seeing a beautiful young woman torn down. (And I think you're absolutely right: what's "popluar" is our fault.) So much of it is "Look how fucked up she is."

This is not to say that men are exempt--they certainly aren't--but there's a level of misogyny in all of this that I find very disturbing.


Baby in Broad--

You're absolutely right. Young women are far worse off then young men. Men are a lot easier to forgive than women. (Look at K-Fed vs Britney!)

But what's worse is that women LOVE to see women go down. And in this day and age I truly believe that women are the more mysogynistic sex.

toyfoto | 2:10 PM

you know, I think that people are mostly jackels. These celebrities are not different than some schlub, the only thing is they are in a blaring spotlight and because they rely on public approval (or disapproval as the case may be) for their livelihood, they become public property more than merely personna.

I don't have much sympathy for her, sadly. I think of her perdicament as a risk of her profession. It may be unfair of me or unkind, but she's in a business and every business has risks.

And I believe you may be right that many women secretly root to see others go down, and as such are more mysogynist than the male counterpart, but I think those women are also selfloathing.

As always, thoughtful post.

Scar | 3:30 PM

You are an amazing writer Bec. And interesting enough.. my prof just assigned an essay that's pretty much along these lines..

Anonymous | 4:18 PM

as for women loving to see other women go down (hey now) i agree. but in Britney and Lindsey's cases, i wanted to see them excel. and heal. and pull through like Drew Barrymore did. i rooted for Britney. but since i am older than she is it may have been more of a maternal instinct on my part than a go woman go thing. i didn't laugh at her spectacle. i was actually saddened and disappointed. but i read the headlines and chat about who did what so i am partly to blame. very interesting read today. ~jjlibra

Anonymous | 1:08 AM

We're all into the real world version of everything. Blame reality TV for that. I think of blogs as realty TV for the internet. I've noticed that when a blogger posts about something really personal or embarassing, the comments go through the roof and when things are hunky dory, there doesn't seem to be as much interest.

Maybe we all got tired of being lied to with all the Hollywood bull. We want to know that all those beautiful people are just as fucked up as the rest of us. Not that it's right to expose people like this, but with technology the way it is, it's no surprise that a celebrity's public image is no longer in their control.

I didn't watch the VMA's, but I have seen every picture out there. All I can say is poor moose.

Lisa Dunick | 8:19 AM

I didn't watch the VMAs, but I was sure to youtube the performance once I saw on a celebrity blog site that it was a disaster. I think you're right. We want them to implode before us. Old Hollywood- or at least the veneer that we saw--can never be again. But I think that can be ok too.

screaming girl | 8:35 AM

I totally agree with your comments. But now here is the problem, not only did we create this, but now we are drawing more attention to her by blogging about it and commenting about it. I did not watch the VMAs and I still have not seen the video, but with talk about it everywhere, it is getting harder and harder for me to refrain from getting on youtube!

Anonymous | 8:52 AM

check that out!


AS Novus | 11:28 AM

Well said. I think we need to stop reveling in the demise of those in the spotlight and take a look at ourselves, often it is easier to escape into their "reality" than live our own.