Tuesday, October 2, 2007

HItting Brittney one more time - Revisited

Maybe it's because I have a 16 year old daughter with a taste for the spotlight, or maybe it's because, last Saturday, at 8:00 a.m., I turned on the TV to find a yoga program and found myself watching, instead, an hour-long special about Brittney Spears--and it seemed as if she used to be a nice kid.

Maybe that's why this whole thing makes me sad.

I've been peripherally aware of Brittney since the day in the car when Katie, then 9, asked me to turn up the volume on the radio. As she chanted along with Brittney, "Hit me Baby One More Time!" I was horrified

"That's terrible!" I objected, and we had an age-appropriate discussion of the difference between love and violence and the way that Brittney's lyrics seemed to be conflating the two. And the way that her song was teaching young girls a bad lesson... that sort of thing.

Little did I know that the whole world would soon be hitting Brittney many more times, humiliating her repeatedly as she tried, desperately, to hold her life together.

Little did I know that I would soon know much more about Brittney Spears than I ever cared, or had the right to know.

I know, as you probably know, too, that she and Justin Timberlake met as Mickey Mouse Club performers and that they had a sweet and secret relationship that lasted three years until the media figured it out and blasted the news onto the front page of every tabloid and gossip column across the world.

I know that when Brittney begged paparazzi to leave her alone to heal from that breakup, they responded by snapping more tabloid cover-worthy photos of her tear-stained face.

I know that Brittney's mother, Lynn, tried to shield her daughter for years. But that Brittney has a taste for the less sophisticated side of life--and that, a few years back, she got drunk and got married in Vegas and that the marriage was annulled the next morning.

I know that Brittney soon married again, to one of her backup dancers, Kevin Federline and that they have two children. I know that, after her second divorce, she started getting in trouble--driving her kids around without car seats, drinking too much, getting involved in drugs--and hanging out with Paris and the other party girls.

I know that some time last year, Brittney shaved her head in what seemed to me a very public, very deliberate cry for help.

And then, one day I logged onto AOL and learned that Brittney had lost custody of her children. And I sighed, feeling kind of sad and confused. First, because that information is not NEWS and it doesn't belong on my AOL welcome screen. Second, because I can't imagine what it must feel like to go through this with the whole world watching.

The thing is: when you record a little song like "Hit Me Baby" and it hits the charts that hard--selling 1.5 million copies in one week and making Spears, only 16 herself at the time, the top-selling female vocalist in history—it transforms the performer from private citizen to public property. And if you are 16 when that happens, you have absolutely no idea what that means.

Everything Brittney has done since the release of that record, has been dusted for fingerprints, investigated for public decency. After all, the critics concur, "She has a responsibility to her fans." But does she? Does she really?

There are many people who believe that those who seek this kind of fame should know what they are getting into. But when you are 16 and a little bit naïve (and what 16 year old isn’t?) and al the world's attention suddenly turns, like the Eye of Mordor in Lord of the Rings, in your direction, you’d better have a pretty strong container—I mean psyche—or you’re going to crack. And when, like Brittney, your fan base is made up of girls between the ages of 10 and 16, and your message is so profoundly provocative, we're going to feel threatened that you'll corrupt someone--or something.

I have to admit that, even today, watching the footage of a little girl in Brittney's audience sporting a tee shirt that read "Hit Me Baby" while holding onto her parent's hand made me... let's just call it, uneasy.

I mean, here is this larger than life media goddess, with long blonde hair and A voice like the Sirens', luring our little ones to the edge of the abyss and telling them, "It's okay to celebrate your sexuality, go ahead and enjoy the lush, full, pleasure of your body."

And we all know that that will never do.

Every iteration of this archetype, from Aphrodite to Madonna, has shown us that when you've made your bed and your brand (and a pretty good living) channeling this kind of energy, it’s going to be very hard to prove that deep down inside, you’re the girl next door.

But the thing is: Our insane (and inane) thirst for celebrity stories catapults kids like Brittney to the stratosphere and then sets up camp outside their doors, waiting for them to self-destruct. But, hey, these kids should know better, right? I mean, they know we're watching. They’ve stood on our pedestals, basked in the light of our flashbulbs. They know the game, right?

Wrong... Or more accurately, kinda.

These kids, raised in the last 20 years of sped up communication and instant celebrity, have no idea what a world without these things looks like. Somewhere inside they probably know that this kind of behavior isn't a good idea. Somewhere, in the place where we all know that the hero always gets the girl and that the end of a comedy always ends with a kiss, they can sense the patterns.

And so can we. But what none of us knows, as we feast on their beauty and talent, and the gossip machine churns pointing out their every flaw, is what we are really up to. We don't understand how all of this is working in US. We don't understand that when we constantly challenge our most gifted young people, "How will you disappoint us?" what we are really asking is, "How and why have we disappointed ourselves?"

As we force each Brittney from her pedestal, unmasked and humiliated, shouting, "Ha!You weren’t a goddess after all!" we are expressing something buried deep in our own souls, something that is trying to get out and tell us something about what's real and what matters. Something that, through the lens of the cameras, Brittney --and Angelina and Lindsay and Paris--can't possibly express for us. When we drive these people to insane measures with our paparazzi feeding frenzy and their images splashed across every cover at the checkout stand, what is really going on.

What I mean is... Brittney is us. And so is every other celebrity. They are archetypal mirrors, projections of our own psyches--and our own light and shadow selves--playing out our fears and failings on the great big stage of celebrity so that we don't have to face our own lives--and the lessons we might learn if we turned our attention back to ourselves.

Deep down, we all know that the real people behind the imagery (the "man behind the curtain")are only human—and that they will, inevitably, show us the heel of their imperfection. And we hate them for it because it reminds us of our own shortcomings--so we shoot them down.

Last year, after Brittney shaved her head, I mentioned my concern for her at work. "They know what they're getting into," my colleagues scoffed. " If you can't take the spotlight, get a different line of work." Others expressed similar views, including, "Once white trash, always white trash."

From what I saw in that E! special, Brittney didn't start out trashy. She was articulate, focused, bright and talented. So what turned her into the irresponsible mother we've been observing in the press? We did.

As I watched the E! special layout the story of Brittney's decline, it reminded me of another death-by-paparazzi story: Princess Diana's. And I can't help but wonder if Brittney's story will end the same way?

It doesn't have to. If Brittney has the inner forces, the psychic container to pull herself together, if we stop expecting her to be more than we would be in the same circumstance, if we all learn from her rise and fall story and finally, grant her the same rights to safety and privacy that the courts yesterday awarded to her children, perhaps she will have the "room of her own", the quiet place in the storm that every young person needs to heal.

FInally, has Brittney's bad behavior ultimately done much damage to her fans--our daughters?

I don't think so. My daughter has always understood that Brittney--and LIndsay, and Paris and all iterations of their type--are just images, made of light and projected onto screens, disappeared with a simple click of the remote.

Katie, like every other girl on the planet, learns how to conduct herself by observing her mother and the other women in her REAL life.

Years ago, Katie told me this story: The week that "Hit Me Baby" hit the charts, Brittney, unaware of the splash she'd already made, went to the mall with her mother. When she was spotted, the 16-year-old found herself surrounded by hundreds of fans, pushing and shoving, calling her name and begging for her autograph. She was terrified, without bodyguards or managers to protect her, she met the force of her power head on.

Im not sure if that story is true. I just know that it circulated, through email and whisper, friend to friend.

"It sounded scary," Katie told me then. "I mean, it might be fun to be famous. But I like going to the mall with you, Mommy."

I'll bet that today, Brittney would like nothing more than to be able to shop, unnoticed and unmolested at the local shopping mall with her mother. I mean, I don't know her... but I just get that feeling.

I pray that we all just back off now and give her that chance.

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