Don’t you know that you’re toxic? A few thoughts on Britney Spears, Lady Gaga and Generation 9/11

September 30, 2010

Photo: FOX

So, Glee pulled its highest ratings ever — and its highest ratings among viewers aged 18-34 — because the sound of Britney Spears’s voice is the tuning fork that brings the ship into the Shining City on the Hill, apparently. This is because everyone who’s aged 21 to 25 was Clockwork Oranged into zombie stumbling after Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake during the formative years of middle school, and we cannot help ourselves.

But does anyone else find it odd that we’re here with Britney being seemingly okay? It really was not that long ago, in the scheme of time, that she was in the psychiatric ward at UCLA. A year ago, I made her a centerpiece of an essay on how terrible everything was for our generation.

Here on the page, this is going to look VERY maudlin and dramatic, just because the entire thing is everything this blog is not:

“I just can’t control myself,” Britney drawls, surprised, from the spiraling claustrophobia of “Gimme More.” She moans. “If they want more, well, I’ll give them more.”

We made Britney Spears. She cannot exist without us watching, and she can’t keep giving without us supplying the blackness, the bleakness on which her post-breakdown renewal thrives. No apologies, no forgiveness, just a pounding beat. She’s the lo-fi Daisy Buchanan. She is just a projection.

“As long as she never says ‘This is who I am,’” Chuck Klosterman writes years ago, before the her devolution, “everyone gets to inject their own meaning. Subconsciously, we all get to rebrand Britney Spears.”

“Britney epitomizes the crucible of fame for the famous: loving it, hating it and never quite being able to stop it from destroying you,” Vanessa Grigoriadis echoes from within the throes of Britney’s 2007 descent into madness.

“Britney’s delivery is a mix of sneer, threat, come-on and shrug, and the hook line—you want a piece of me—is not a question,”’s Tom Ewing notes in his review of “Blackout,” “But the hypertreatment of the voice, the way it edges into the music, suggests that the price of fame is identity erasure.”

Britney Spears cannot separate herself from the image of Britney Spears. It’s a Circus, it’s a Blackout, it’s complete immersion into society—Britney Spears has her body and a voice that can be shuffled and rearranged to suit our purposes. She exists in flux.

This is fame now.

(Boy, that “This is fame now” is lame. If you liked the post a few weeks back on 9/11 and Norman Rockwell, the full essay, “Blackout,” has a similar, though darker (really), tone.)

Here in 2010, the crazy is dormant (like mono!), and Britney gets to wear her sexy glasses and tell Brittany that her breath smells really good.

Still, I associate Britney Spears with September 11, 2001 — in the same way I associate Raimi’s Spider-Man and Nolan’s Batman with it — in terms of how you get from January 1, 2000 to January 1, 2010, and find yourself in a very different place culturally.

There’s a deep sense that Britney Spears has no control over her own life, or if she does, it’s a very tenuous hold. Klosterman’s take years ago was that the moment Britney Spears said “This is who I am” would be the moment she stopped being America’s for the taking, if you will. But the spiral that ended with UCLA, and the return to a more externally in control Britney that coincided with her returning to a heavy workload, suggested and suggests that Britney Spears has no idea who the hell Britney Spears is. She’s as up in the air about it as America.

But here’s the deal with Britney:

Nobody hates Britney Spears. They might pity her, but she inspires no scorn. She seems sweet, if lost.

She is good at some combination of these two things: feeling good and feeling nothing. And if she weren’t good at the former, the controlled image she once had would never have worked. Yes, she’s obviously still hot even now, but it wouldn’t have worked right if she didn’t seem like a girl who just wanted to feel good.

You begin with Britney in 1999, you get Lady Gaga in 2009. Obviously, they exist together now, but the issue of control isn’t the same.

Camille Paglia inspired the rains of anti-ant-Gaga fire, pouring down from hell and Twitter, when she unleashed what must of been two years of a very bitter silence on Lady Gaga, but she speaks to the point much better than I can:

“Despite showing acres of pallid flesh in the fetish-bondage garb of urban prostitution, Gaga isn’t sexy at all – she’s like a gangly marionette or plasticised android. How could a figure so calculated and artificial, so clinical and strangely antiseptic, so stripped of genuine eroticism have become the icon of her generation? Can it be that Gaga represents the exhausted end of the sexual revolution? In Gaga’s manic miming of persona after persona, over-conceptualised and claustrophobic, we may have reached the limit of an era.”

That’s the dichotomy you end up with here — that tension between the precise control of the external image, and no control at all. Fame Monster vs. Blackout. You can either slide into the abyss, or remove yourself completely and control everything so nothing ever harms you.

It’s interesting to me, to bring it back around, in the context of all of us that got hardwired on Britney Spears between ages 10 and 14, and hardwired on Lady Gaga in college, we also experienced the vivid nightmare of 9/11 at early adolescence, and a potentially generation-warping economy at the second pressure point of young adulthood. A hell of a decade to bookend with all of that.

“There’s always the odds that something much more horrible will happen that will really shake us out of our torpor, that will wake us up,” a girl told Peggy Noonan last fall about why there’s no iconic art about 9/11.

Where does a world where things could get worse leave you? Somewhere between the blackout and the control — looking for order anywhere you can find it, but giving everything away to the external technological forms of communication.

So, what did y’all think of Britney Spears on Glee?

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Claire October 1, 2010 at 1:05 am

I really like your thoughts here. Britney – Gaga is a weird, weird way for things to go, pop culture-wise. From the starting point to the end point and all the bizarro points in between, the 2000-2010 decade will be ripe for a cultural history thesis about how twisted and strange our tastes were in the aughts.

One thing, though: how do you reconcile Gaga’s hyper-controlled image with her manic fan inclusion? Her twitter feed is essentially just her obsequiously thanking her fans for her sales, for her fame, and for supporting her “causes.” I think her fan gratitude is so serious that she makes it more like a movement they are all a part of. Weird? An exception to your argument? Or just a really, really severe instance of fan/image/perception control?

Katherine Miller October 1, 2010 at 2:26 pm

Thanks for commenting! You bring up a dilemma with Lady Gaga that I haven’t worked out yet — and need to at some point, because I’m kind of eying this overall idea as a longer piece for a year from now at the 10th anniversary.

It is weird, isn’t it? I mean, some of it has shades of chicken-egg. She wouldn’t have caught on if something about her didn’t resonate and people weren’t willing to be like FAME MONSTER!!111!, but at the same time, clearly, she knows how to maximize viewership and leverage it. I DO think it is a vacuum that she controls, and the reason I tend to think that is she’s made a kind of faltering foray into politics with the DADT statement. This is a pretty strong debate about that:

And she hasn’t quite captured the critical cache she seems to aspire to, either musically or from people like Paglia. I don’t think you need the establishment to bestow honor upon you to be important or anything, but Lady Gaga seems to have the Jon Stewart gene a little. Like, challenge her on something (like immigration a few months back), and she’s just an entertainer. Challenge her on the music not being groundbreaking (if catchy), and she’s making a Statement. Mostly about performance art.

I think I need to separate this out a little better like an economics problem — Britney, Gaga as the supply side, Gen Y as the demand. Because despite Lady Gaga being the ultimate comptroller, the fan demand side is totally “LET ME JOIN THE MOVEMENT.” If Britney Spears is about coming up with your own story for what she is and does, then Lady Gaga is about accepting what’s she giving you and getting caught up in that. Need to think about that more, it could be BS, but I think Gaga inspires an inverse reaction.

CJ October 9, 2010 at 5:41 pm

Finally got around to reading this (boo to being busy). I’d just like to say, in the voice of Comic Book Guy, “Worst. Decade. Ever. (Although the 1390s were no picnic, either.) Also, an excellent post.

I had some friends back in the day who were pretty into the whole Lady Gaga-esque aesthetic before Lady Gaga was a thing. Myself, I never quite understood what made it sexy. It’s hard to pin down, but I think it has to do with constantly imagining yourself in a music video, the star of your own high-gloss production.

Let me try and get into this particular head-space: Wearing a metallic robot fetish-costume … not particularly hot as robot-fetish costume qua robot-fetish costume. But the idea — the image — of yourself wearing a metallic robot fetish-costume. HOTT. It’s Narcissus meets the MTV generation.

The Bjork video where Bjork is a robot making out with another Bjork robotis, I think, the Platonic ideal of this.

Katherine Miller October 16, 2010 at 6:42 pm

But isn’t Bjork the Platonic idea for all of society?

Okay, now I am finally getting around to responding. I know what you mean with this transformation idea — it’s kind of like the cyberpunk William Gibson stuff. Where, like, 2 percent of everyone can actually pull that off and make it hot, but the idea in and of itself is attractive, that it’s this transformation into machine. There’s a hell of a lot of drama/melodrama in that, which is probably why all that 80s Bladerunner/Neuromancer aesthetic has so much of the 1940s in it, like the style’s trying to incorporate as much of the polish/drama of the Blitz as it can.

But that’s on sort of the deeper level, but the high-gloss production thing is interesting. It’s odd that Gaga sort of fashioned herself an entire movement that’s about people focused on themselves.

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