CNN is talking about Britney Spears hanging out with Paris Hilton.
It would be easy to scapegoat television news here and pretend that we’d rather be watching (or that we really should want to be watching) news about Iraq, in-depth process stories about the shake-up in Washington, even the alarming new projection that AIDS may become the third most frequent cause of death within our lifetimes.
But here’s the thing…we want to know about Britney Spears, who she’s hanging out with and what she’s going to do next. And not in a creepy, tabloid, paparazzi way. Not in a generally-too-obsessed-with-the-concept-of-celebrity sort of way. We care about Britney Spears because she is, though we are loathe to admit it, a cultural/sexual icon almost certainly on a level with Madonna (though many, many gay men will never admit this).
I’ll never be able to explain why this is true better than Chuck Klosterman did in his Esquire cover story on Spears (for an excerpt from the uncut version of this piece go here and click “excerpt.” Or, you know, buy the book. It’s good stuff).
You know, the one where these became perhaps (with the David LaChapelle Rolling Stone cover) the most important photos Britney would ever take:
These were the photos that, as Klosterman explained, heralded Britney Spears v. 2.0 – the attempt to come out of her bubblegum pop entry into the American consciousness (and the American wet dream) and hit the ground running. This is the period wherein she admitted she had lost her virginity (at 18, she said, with Justin Timberlake, and for all we know that’s true but matters very little), made the “Slave 4 U” video that would begin a period of more and more sexually explicit music (marking the shift from the chaste “E-Mail My Heart” on her first album to the masturbation ballad “The Touch of My Hand” on her last).
But it was at this point, I think, that she was already lost. She just didn’t know it yet.
As Klosterman touches on in his piece, the thing that made Britney Spears a cultural icon (and much more interesting if not more important than Madonna as a sexual icon) is that she is the American woman who has most perfectly (and most frustratingly) embodied our simultaneous and conflicting desires to believe that women (especially young, desireable women) are both virginal, unspoiled and even themselves ignorant of their own budding sexuality and wanton, uncontrollably sexual creatures who simply have to have it. She was Lolita …or at least she made us believe that she was. And we did believe it, somehow. Even the most cynical among us bought some part of it.
There’s no sex symbol in American history who was able to do that so perfectly – and those who tried are barely worth mentioning in the same sentence as Spears. Marilyn Monroe and Madonna may have had earlier and arguably larger impacts in the same area – but that was as much a function of the times as what they offered to or said about the culture.
And anyway, the standard and approach were different.
Our grandfathers did not take Marilyn’s pin-ups into war with them because they believed they couldn’t have her. And men of my generation did not grow up dreaming of and comparing women to Madonna because we thought she wouldn’t want us. Certainly, some part of us knew that these women were world famous sex symbols, that we’d never meet them and if we did we’d never measure up to the rock, movie and sports stars they were going to bed with every night. But what made them fascinating was that you believed they wanted it more than women were ever allowed to admit they wanted it, wanted it so much they could barely contain themselves, wanted it so much they couldn’t help oozing their sexuality even while singing the freaking “Happy Birthday” song. They gave off sparks and we believed with some small, irrational part of our minds, hearts and souls what we tell ourselves about modern porn stars when we’re ignoring the cold and cruel reality… that if by some strange twist of fate we ever did get alone with them we probably COULD have them. Because that’s how much they want it.
But Spears…Spears made us believe she didn’t want it. Or at least that we couldn’t have it. We could look. We could pant and drool. We could watch her shake it. But we couldn’t have it. Even her boyfriend couldn’t have it (she said). And he was a millionaire pop star who had women throwing themselves at him. She simply wasn’t giving it up.
Which, in retrospect, was the smartest thing she could have done.
Marilyn and even Madonna were specific kinds of sexual icons in their respective eras.
Marilyn was an exaggeration of the feminine ideal to the point that, in the context of her time, she was almost indecent. Women didn’t dress that way, they didn’t do those things. Or they didn’t let you know they did. And so you had to fantasize that they would until she walked out of your dreams and onto the silver screen (and the pages of magazines) just for you. Still decent enough for you to watch without blushing…but just barely. Not the kind of girl you take home, but certainly the kind of girl you dream about while pretending you enjoy her (at best) mediocre acting.
A lot of heavy lifting was already out of the way when Madonna came along. She was a post-feminist sex symbol, the celebrity pop star equivalent of sex and porn positive feminists who insisted that being sexual was a birthright and refused to couch it in anything to make it more digestable. She was confrontational, getting off on being over the top, shocking and titillating you…and you got off on her enjoying it. She was, really, the perfect sex symbol for the late 80s and early 90s, which were all about self-consciously pushing boundaries. But, even more than Marilyn, Madonna’s image depended on the idea that you believed, somewhere deep inside you, that you could have her. Heck, your girlfriend could have her. You could both have her at the same time – and she’d love that because someone, somewhere would be upset by it.
But for all her insistance that she loved and was inspired by Madonna, Spears knew she had to play another sort of game altogether. She came onto the scene in the late 90s, when even a bare-faced (and breasted) sexual shock rock acts like L7 and Hole were signed to huge labels, touring the world and being accepted into the mainstream. Madonna had been doing (and subtlely changing) her schtick for more than a decade. Britney Spears, who wasn’t even the singer, performer or songwriter that Madonna was, wasn’t going to get anywhere making men (and women) believe they could have her. She had to come in low, under the radar, appeal to young girls and bubble gum pop fans before suddenly dressing a Catholic school girl outfit and turning the thing on its head, all the while insisting that wasn’t what she meant to do at all.
In Klosterman’s piece he talks about the way in which Spears, even when asked flat out about her sexual appeal, pretends to have no idea what the interviewer is talking about.
A Catholic school girl outfit? How could that be misconstrued as sexual? I mean, unless you’re a pervert…
Slave 4 U? That’s about being a slave to the music. What are you talking about? It’s not sexual…
It went beyond being coy. It was mind bending. It was frustrating. Even Klosterman, who is known for penetrating analysis (no pun intended) couldn’t figure out if she was being handled so carefully (and so carefully handing herself) that all of her answers had to sound comically out of touch or if she was really, truly, the least self aware person on the planet.
But here’s the thing: that mystique, that riddle inside a puzzle wrapped in an enigma, is gone. She married a backup dancer whose fondest wish was to be a white rapper. She stole him from another woman he’d knocked up so that he could knock her up. Twice. Then she let herself go physically and socially in a way that goes way beyond releasing a little steam after years of being perfect and videotaped herself burping, walking through convenience stores and public bathrooms barefoot and generally being repulsive. For a reality TV show. While her contemporaries were rising to greater stardom and being taken more seriously (Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, Beyonce, one would have to argue even Jessica Simpson) she was busy, either consciously or unconsciously, completely destroying the Britney Spears she spent her adolesence and early adulthood creating so publicly.
So whatever rises from the ashes is going to have to be something new. She’s going to have to steal a page from her idol Madonna and do something else, something we’ll buy, something that will interest us again. Because she doesn’t sing nearly as well as Christina Aguilera, she doesn’t dance as well as Shakira, Justin Timberlake or even Beyonce, she’s less physically attractive (particularly now, after two children, as she’s showing off her shaved labia and C-section scar in nightclubs with no panties on) than any number of female pop stars now on the scene. Even her best pop music is only as good as the best pop music of her contemporaries, no better (and in many instances much worse). Without the good girl/bad girl mystique drawing us in I think we have to wonder which chips she has left to play in what’s supposed to be a comeback.
It’s worth noting that Gretchen disagrees with me on this one and thinks (quite rightly, I think we’ll all agree) that I’m probably overthinking this. Gretchen, who like many women her age has a sort of love/hate/fascination relationship with Spears, thinks America has been pulling for her to get it together, drop her deadbeat husband and put out a great pop record for years. And she think there may yet be one in her.
I hate to admit it, but I’m interested to see if she’s right.