Three years ago, the Associated Press had written Britney Spears’ obituary. Just in case.
Spears was 26 and seemingly mid-freefall in an epic tumble from grace. A divorce. A custody battle. Barefoot trips into gas station bathrooms. Tattoos and Cheetos and Big Gulps. Strange wigs, bizarre accents and even stranger company.
And that was before she shaved her head.
Britney circa 2008 was a train wreck, one that many of us couldn’t ignore and some relished with voyeuristic glee.
Images of the formerly “perfect” teen idol in a state of shocking dishevelment and acting in an increasingly erratic fashion plastered the front pages of supermarket tabloids and celebrity magazines.
Video footage of her latest debacles ― run-ins with police, visits to the hospital and to rehab, driving aimlessly around Hollywood for hours on end, flashing her private parts on an outing with Paris Hilton ― made the evening news and racked up millions of hits on websites across the world.
Spears’ personal tragedy and public dismantling became a twisted form of entertainment. Commentators wondered whether the ultimate destination of her meteoric rise to fame was to crash and burn into oblivion.
Today, Spears is 29 and her rehabilitation (and re-ascension to the stratosphere of superstardom) is in full swing.
Collectively, we placed her on a pedestal, knocked her off, picked her back up and set her back upon it. Only time will tell whether that cruel cycle will repeat itself.
In his new book, The Exile of Britney Spears: A Tale of 21st Century Consumption, Christopher Smit, a professor of media studies at Calvin College, examines the role we ― the consumers of the product Spears is selling ― have played in her creation, near destruction and re-invention.
At once scholarly and eminently accessible, Smit’s book chronicles Spears’ creation as a cultural icon and analyzes what her story says about the state of our souls.
“Britney began as a member of a spiritual culture, one which cradled her, crafted her and called her out,” Smit writes in a chapter titled “The Baptists.”
“As a Southern Baptist, young Britney would have been called to consider the world in a very specific way ― in particular, she would have been asked to see the outside world as something which needed her ― a world that needed Jesus to be seen through her,” he writes. “She began her life with a mission, one which asked her to live for others.”
Spears began her life as a daughter of the South, a middle child in a middle-class family in rural Louisiana, gifted with a powerful voice and an even more powerful desire to perform.
Like Elvis Presley before her, Spears began her journey to fame singing in the church choir. Seemingly overnight, she traded in her choir robe for Mickey Mouse ears as an employee of the Disney company, and then for a midriff-bearing Lolita costume made famous in her first hit video, “Hit Me Baby One More Time.”
“She sings because she loves us, but also in order for us to love her. She sings for God, but also for heaps and heaps of money. She waits for the right man yet flaunts for all, wearing a Catholic schoolgirl outfit,” Smit writes. “The hyper-public nature of Britney Spears the performer forced Britney the Baptist to deal with these issues head-on, in the cultural spotlight, way too early in life.
“How many 17-year-old girls are asked, on ‘60 Minutes,’ to defend a worldview? Then again, how many 17-year-olds get to ask their friends, ‘What should I wear when all the world is watching?’”
Smit argues that team Britney was complicit in her rise to fame, but “we developed the picture” of what she would become, “she offered the negative.” In other words, we, as active or passive consumers of her public image, are equally complicit in all this.
“We have been armchair anthropologists speaking without conviction, articulating without consequence, marking without a map,” he says.
Consuming Spears as a product or commodity -- chewing her up, and spitting her out ― is a kind of “unconscious cannibalism,” Smit says, an act of dehumanization that is “not only mindless and effortless ― it is also a ... sort of violence.”
Many of us now are closely watching the public unraveling of another celebrity, Charlie Sheen. His descent into madness and addiction is our entertainment du jour, one that the actor seems to be offering up with a certain relish.
Spears’ exile did not end with her demise. But it could have.
As Sheen’s story continues to unfold, we would do well to be chastened by the words with which Smit concludes his exploration of Spears’ rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-riches story.
“It’s left to us what we will allow her to do ... what we will allow her to be,” Smit says. “That is the result of breaking. That is the outcome of exile.”