Tuesday, September 11, 2007

On Britney Spears As A Sociological Phenomenon

Spears tried to do a comeback of some sort, I understand, and failed miserably:

Some blame the outfit. Others point a finger at Sarah Silverman. Still others question MTV's judgment in the first place to open the show with Britney Spears.

But whatever the reason, the pop star's lackluster performance of her new single "Gimme More" is getting universally bashed the day after her supposed "comeback" in a sparkly black bikini and blonde weave on Sunday's Video Music Awards.

Then there is this blog post, with a picture which seems to show a broken heel in Spears' boot:

Britney's heel was broken. Pictured here, you can tell it's bent to the side. Her fat ass thunda thighs sexy legs were too much for it.

Let's move up a notch, to the august New York Times:

MTV has always tried to pump up its annual Video Music Awards with momentous live performances. But in an era when fans can watch concerts on their cellphones and spy on hours-old gigs by way of YouTube, it's harder than ever to arrange a performance that feels like a big deal.

That's where Britney Spears comes in. Thanks to her annus horribilis — or, more accurately, anni horribiles — she was one of the most anticipated V.M.A. performers in years. Voyeurs around the world were ready to see a fallen star back onstage.

She didn't disappoint: she was awful. Visibly nervous, she tottered around the stage, dancing tentatively and doing nothing that sounded or looked like real live singing. It's too bad, because the song itself, "Gimme More," is a pleasant surprise: brash and sleek and unapologetic. But Sunday's performance in Las Vegas didn't seem very likely to stem the tide of mean-spirited jokes about Ms. Spears.

Sure enough, when it was over, Sarah Silverman, the host, smiled cruelly and said, "She is amazing! I mean, she is 25 years old and she's already accomplished ... everything she's going to accomplish in life."

All over the cyberspace I kept reading about Britney. Her fatness, her poor parenting skills, her lack of talent, her puffiness and her stupidity. It was a free-for-all, and the justification for all that is that she puts herself out there and has loads of money. Because of that fame and that money we are entitled to use her as the object of all the scorn we can muster about money, wealth, fame and especially about women.

Paris Hilton provokes very similar commentary. Money, perceived lack of talent and a desperate search for self-destruction seems to be right recipe. That these objects of socially sanctioned ridicule are both young women may be a coincidence.

What am I trying to say here? That I'm holier-than-thou and would not join in the Britney-bashing? Not really. But I'm wondering what it is that drives the scorn and ridicule and even anger. What is it that we are directing in the direction of Spears or Hilton? Where should it really be directed? Neither of these young women has much real power over our lives.

I'm also surprised to find so much fat-bashing in this context. There is no medical index on which Spears would be found overweight, but many, many comments about her were about obesity. Is it the fear of being even a pound over some socially decreed limit here that pushes out those statements? Or is this one of those unintended side-effects of the new publicity drive to make overweight Americans lose weight? The recalibration of what is overweight for women, so that being more than a stick figure is a sign of a moral collapse?

This is the picture the New York Times article had on Spears:

Why is she wearing underwear on stage? That was the smarmy Church Lady question, of course, but it is an important one to ask. Because she is selling sex, and to sell sex now requires wearing underwear on stage, pretty much. But wearing underwear is something that makes people look vulnerable and a little bit silly, too. Especially if the performance bombs otherwise.