The pop tart in winter.
Illustration by Charlie Powell.
A few months ago, Lynne Spears wrote in an online column that her daughter Britney's new video—for the single "My Prerogative"—possessed "an element of old Hollywood glamour and mystery." Her statement may puzzle some viewers; namely, those with eyes. In the video, Britney drives her car into a swimming pool; emerges from the water, dripping and squirming; writhes on a bed in her undies; and poses in lingerie and garters, stroking herself while a man puffing a cigar ogles her. That final scene, in particular, is a uniquely Spearsian take on adult-child arousal: all smoke and leerers.
Sadly, the singer herself seems unaroused. "My Prerogative" arrives along with a disarmingly candid message on Spears' Web site. In this self-described "Letter of Truth," the pop star declares her need for a break. "My prerogative right now is to just chill & let all the other overexposed blondes on the cover of Us Weekly be your entertainment ... GOOD LUCK GIRLS!" She continues, "I understand now what they mean when they talk about child stars. ... It's amazing what advisors will push you to do, even if it means taking a naive, young, blonde girl & putting her on the cover of every magazine."
Spears has already taken a lot of flack for her vigorously punctuated cri de coeur. But the fact is, she's absolutely right. She is tragically overexposed. Perhaps it's time for the pop tart to go home and eat some Pop-Tarts (which she has publicly longed for), and ponder what happened to her—or her publicists'—masterful navigation of the fine line between self-exposure and self-destruction. Having made an art of inviting viewers to wonder just how knowingly she has participated in her own hyper-sexualization, Spears can't find anyone willing to cut her the break accorded to most young naifs in the world of showbiz.
From the start, Spears' career was built on her ability to be authentically inauthentic. When the 17-year-old Spears first showed up on MTV in 1999—a pig-tailed, kilt-wearing kitten who purred, "Hit me, baby, one more time"—it seemed unlikely she'd wind up as the most scrutinized pop star of her era. Critics never regarded her as much more than a singer of middling talent. And she's hardly a beauty for the ages—she's pretty in the way the best-looking girl at your high school was (ask her first husband, Jason Alexander).
But, unlike, say, Ashlee Simpson, whose Saturday Night Live meltdown was a mere gaffe, Spears has elevated inauthenticity to a Warholian level. She's never had to take responsibility for her sexy persona because she refuses to acknowledge she has a persona, sexy or otherwise. Consider the evidence: "[T]he record label wanted me to do certain kinds of songs, and I was like, 'Look, if you want me to be some kind of sex thing, that's not me.' " This is Spears, quoted in an Esquire, alongside photos of her naked, save for white panties and strings of pearls that magically conceal (with the apparent aid of an airbrush) her nipples and little else. "I'm not gonna come out on this record and show my crotch or anything. That's not me. I would never do anything like that." This from an issue of Rolling Stone, in which Spears appeared topless on the cover, humping a wall. "I don't want to be part of someone's Lolita thing. It kind of freaks me out." This in response to questions about her first Rolling Stone photo shoot, in 1999, in which the 17-year-old Britney stood in a bedroom in short-shorts and a push-up bra, surrounded by baby dolls.
Spears didn't invent sexual doublespeak—every teen star does the dance of posing in her underwear while talking up her chastity. But she speaks it more fluently than most. Her jujitsu-like ability to deflect all criticism by turning it back on the accuser—if you ask her about her Lolita-esque antics, you're the one who's a perv—has allowed her to exploit contradictions that have felled lesser stars.
Spears learned her lessons from her acknowledged master, Madonna. Madonna stirred controversy by attaching herself to (some might say exploiting) marginalized subcultures: voguing drag queens, S & M fetishists, etc. Madonna was interested—however glancingly—in contradictions: in, say, dressing as a man and grabbing her crotch. But there was never any doubt that she was calling the shots, working the levers of her own career. Spears, on the other hand, has managed to adopt a "What? Me? Duplicitous?" pose. Spears just is a series of contradictions. As such, she can only peel her own layers away.
Which makes her "letter of truth" and her video cry for freedom all the more interesting. The girl who always claimed she'd never been packaged now says she wants to break free of her packaging. Perhaps Spears senses that the perma-bubble of cognitive dissonance surrounding her has finally been punctured—that there are only so many times you can invite viewers to wonder just how knowing you are before they decide, in fact, that you should know better. (It's never a good sign when a look-alike of you is killed in a movie promo, to great cheers, as Britney is in the trailer for the upcoming Seed of Chucky.)The problem, now, is that just when she wants to point to her own innocence—her manipulation at the hands of her PR staff—the public is likely to conclude that even her declaration of desperation smacks of a stay-on-message memo. She's referred to her online missive as "The Letter of Truth: I Hope You Can Handle It," which echoes oddly the opening words of the "Prerogative" video: "They can never take away your truth. The question is: Can you handle mine?" It seems Britney can break free from everything except her own talking points. But then, that's always been her greatest trick: She strips and strips and strips, yet never reveals a thing.
Adam Sternbergh writes about pop culture. He lives in Toronto.
Illustration by Charlie Powell.