I was sixteen years old the first time I saw Britney Spears on MTV. She was dancing around in her now-iconic schoolgirl outfit, pouting in a basketball uniform, and dancing in a tight pink top with her stomach exposed to the world, asking us to hit her, baby, one more time. I can remember a sick feeling creeping into my system as the video played; Britney and I are essentially the same age, and here she was, all sex and skin, Lolita-ing her way into America’s heart. There was something very sinister about her, something creepy and unsettling: this is the girl that every boy I know wants to make out with, I thought. I am so screwed. I guess I wasn’t the only person who picked up on it: soon every “hot” girl in my high school had at least one midriff-baring tee, which they prepared to wear by going fake-tanning after school and starving their way to six-pack abs. Just the year before, everyone wanted to be Shirley Manson, all silver dresses and punked out red hair, and now the tide had turned. Britney Spears had come into our lives, and we would never be the same.
It's weird to think that we've been watching Britney for 10 years now, keeping tabs on her through various paparazzi shots as she moved from "not that innocent" bubblegum schoolgirl to snake-dancing "slave" to a complete and total basket case. Her 2007 VMA performance, which captured her in all her spaced-out, flailing glory, solidified her downfall: this woman, who once dictated trends, captured hearts, and set impossible standards was suddenly a tabloid joke, written off as crazy, backwoods, drugged up trailer trash. The Lolita of 1997 was now a 25 year old mother of two, with a body that high school boys wouldn’t hang on their walls anymore. The homecoming queen had fallen, hard, and shown up to the reunion with a shaved head and a bag of Chee-tos.
It's easy to make fun of Britney Spears. It's easy to call her names and laugh at her messed up family and her tendency to enter gas station bathrooms without shoes. It's easy to tear apart her weaves and her dead eyes and her court troubles. The sympathy given to other troubled stars doesn't seem to reach Spears: she's painted as a crappy mother, a moron, and the cause of her own troubles, as if she is the only one to blame for the life she's lived.
But anyone who has gone through a nervous breakdown (like myself) can look at Britney Spears and see beyond her wacky behavior and lack of family skills to see someone who is truly a bit ill; it's one thing for starlets to crash up their cars or dance on tables for attention: it's quite another when the biggest popstar in the world grabs a set of clippers and razors off her hair. There is sense of denial when it comes to Britney, as if she can't possibly be mentally ill, because we know her, we've watched her grow up and throw her career away: there's a weird anger from the public when it comes to Britney, a sort of "that's what you get" mentality that celebrates her shaky mental state as a weird payback for sexing herself up as a kid.
Over the past year, Britney has seemingly pulled her shit together with the help of her parents (who, by the way, are the ones who signed off on their daughter posing on the cover of Rolling Stone in her underpants at the age of 16), her former manager, Larry Rudolph, and a good bit of therapy. Here's where it gets troubling, though; Britney, looking beautiful and in shape and seemingly happy, is back on top, performing, giving interviews, and getting ready to release her new album, Circus, which will surely mean more performances, more interviews, and maybe even a world tour. We should, I guess, be happy for her, but it's hard to do so when she's giving interviews s and saying things like, "I've been through a lot, and there's a lot people don't know. Sometimes it can get lonely 'cause you don't open the gate. I'm stuck in this place, and I just cope every day."
Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is doing the same things over and over and expecting different results. While Britney may be rescuing her career, it's hard to say whether she's truly found peace within herself; the machine that created her, the parents who put her in showbiz as a kid, the society that still views her worth based solely on whether she looks pretty or not; these things are all the same as they've been since 1997. What does it say about us when we only love her when she's clean, when she's dancing, when she's not acting "crazy" anymore? And what does it say about Britney when she goes back to the only thing she knows in order to pull her life back together, at least in front of the camera?
Tonight, I suppose, we'll find out: Spears' "On The Record" documentary is airing on MTV, and promises an inside look at Britney's mindset and hopes for the future. It's a safe bet to imagine Spears will look lovely and will talk about her career, her mistakes, and her dreams of what is to come. Another round of the strange saga of Britney Spears will be caught on tape for the rest of us to dissect, mock, or enjoy. I'm not sure that Britney would have it any other way, for I'm not sure if she realizes, even after everything she's been through, that any other way exists.
Image via Filmmagic.