It's easy to find yourself fascinated by Britney Spears. Even if her music doesn't necessarily move you, her public persona has almost certainly caught a bit of your attention at some point during the more than 10 years she has spent in the public eye; and rightfully so. Spears arguably ushered in the teen-pop phenomenon of the late 90s single handily, if barely dressed. Yes, N'sync, along with the Backstreet Boys and other pop starlets like Christina Aguilera contributed to the movement in their own right, but from the moment she pulled her hair into pigtails, tied her shirt around her waste, and confessed her loneliness on the way to recess, Britney Spears became the mascot for a new generation of post-Tiffany teen pop, the influence of which can still be felt today.
In 2008 it's far from unusual to see music artists pursuing more than just music. We expect to see Beyonce in an American Express ad, while Usher markets cell phones, and Rihanna gets her Cover Girl on, but in 1998 such wasn't exactly the case. Yes, artists would pursue endorsements here and there, but save a few Pepsi spots and the occasional television cameo, most artists depended on old-fashioned means of promotion, such as music videos and concert tours. Enter Britney, who became one of the first solo artists heading into the millennium to go beyond turning themselves into a household name, in favor of becoming an international trademark. But it has been more than 10 years since then, and while the Britney trademark has more or less thrived during that time, we've seen the person beneath the brand name crumble under its weight.
And so, Britney goes on the record.
"I've never wanted to be one of those prisoner people," she says. "I've always wanted to feel like I could get in my car and go."
With that, Britney introduces us to a theme of imprisonment that resonates throughout the documentary that follows a two-month span of the star's life, starting in September of this year. As the documentary progresses, we see that by first becoming a prisoner of her fame, Spears eventually became a prisoner of her health, the legal system, and even her own home. Though I initially approached Britney's documentary with a sense lighthearted enthusiasm, by the end of the first half I found myself genuinely moved by her fleeting moments of sincerity, so that by the end of the film I found Britney's claim that she "goes through life like a karate kid," as endearing as it was incredibly random.
As I've said, sincerity seems to be present throughout Spears' documentary, even as candidacy only arrives in spurts. For example, as Britney describes her break-up with Justin ("he was a big part of my life, and I didn't know what to do [when it was over]") and Kevin ("when it ended, I felt so alone"), she does so briefly, and without much detail, but with a glare of honesty in her eyes. And really, who can blame her for wanting to remain guarded even as she exposes herself? Britney's description of her breakups is perhaps more relatable than any of her song lyrics, which in turn should remind viewers that the vulnerability of those moments can often seem overwhelming. Imagine parading that vulnerability in front of the world, even if it's just by visiting a grocery store.
That's not to say that one should feel bad for Ms. Spears. The price of fame is high, and even as she reels from its side effects, she continues to invest in its stock as she prepares for the release of another studio album at the end of this year. And though I believe that Britney has every right to pursue the career that offers her personal satisfaction, I do so with the assumption that she finds her success worth the sacrifice, although I wouldn't be quick to agree that it really is. There are times throughout the documentary when Spears is visibly upset, with tears in her eyes, even saying at on point, "I'm so sad," in reference to nothing else but the state of her life. That pain is illustrated across her face in another scene, as the SUV she is traveling in pulls beside a fan, who is singing Spears's latest hit single "Womanizer, while she looks at him with disinterest, and seems genuinely withdrawn from the moment. Contrast this with scenes where Spears is smiling and excited to be back at work, and the tension she feels between her personal wellbeing and her professional success is obvious, and almost heartbreaking.
But, as we shouldn't feel bad for Britney, she doesn't feel bad for herself either. Throughout Britney Spears: For The Record, we see a woman who is unapologetic, and consistently accepting of her growing pains. I hesitate to suggest that Britney has spent the past couple of years of her life making mistakes, as every 20-something will look up at some point and realize that his or her life is a mess; and if that doesn't happen, then they haven't lived. But if we learn from them as we should, eventually those mistakes become our strengths; a point that Britney attests to quite often during the documentary.
All in all, Britney comes across charming and approachable in the film, which may or not be made-for-TV self-marketing, but I've seen Britney act, so I'll venture to say that had she been putting on a show, it would have been obvious. Her southern-accent is much more noticeable when she's in her natural element, and even while sporting tousled hair with minimal makeup, she's a strikingly pretty girl. And while the press repeatedly brings her maternal skills into question, the few moments that we do get to see her with her boys, paired with her hilariously desperate assertion that she "used to be a cool chick," suggests that she may be quite the mom.
So, Britney Spears: Who the fuck cares? More folks than can even recognize how interested in Britney they are. To examine Britney Spears is to examine the state of entertainment and pop culture politics over the past 10 years. The trajectory of her fame and the exploitation of her subsequent downfall provide a poignant commentary on the way our nation characterizes its superstars; stripping them of their humanity, and snickering at their pain, as if there only purpose on this earth is to keep us entertained. Perhaps South Park explored the issue best, when they depicted Britney as a sacrificial source of public enjoyment, selected by the masses as means of satisfying their perverse desires. Or maybe that's too dramatic, and she's just fun to watch. But try asking yourself why that is, and you'll probably approach this paragraph from a different perspective.
Sidenote: How surprising was her awkwardness with Madonna? I realize the two probably don't spend too much time together, but Brit seemed genuinely nervous, while Madonna was so the grandma that won't take no for an answer: "You goin eat some of this food girl." And chick was severely botoxed, but surprisingly well-preserved.
"My babies' daddy lives out there!"