I never cared about Britney Spears growing up—never replicated the …Baby One More Time pigtails, failed to do the 1,000 crunches a day required for Oops! I Did It Again abs. I missed her TRL appearances, skipped her songs when they came on my Groov-e Boombox, declined to enter the frenzy for tickets to see the Dream Within a Dream tour.
All of which is more or less beside the point. For those of us whose consciousness was formed in those unholy years on either side of the millennium, Britney Spears was not “a” celebrity, someone whose influence you might opt into by way of cineplex viewings of Crossroads while wearing mall-bought acid-wash denim. She was the celebrity, a paragon wrapped in a paradox, the platonic ideal of a girl-becoming-a-woman who managed, with a gymnast’s poise, to navigate the tightrope between being too virginal (Jessica Simpson) or too “whoreish” (Christina Aguilera) to the tune of millions of dollars worth of record sales and a fanbase rabid enough to purchase her chewed gum. “Everything about Britney’s image asserted her innocence,” writes Sarah Ditum in Toxic: Women, Fame and the Noughties, out from Abrams in January, “and everything about that innocence’s ostentatious performance encouraged at least one part of the audience to imagine its despoiling.”
Until, of course, she couldn’t hack it anymore. And we hated her for it.
I suppose it’s natural to enjoy a certain schadenfreude when the yardstick against which you—and an entire generation of young women—are being measured breaks in a spectacular fashion. I can still recall the cruel hilarity in our voices as we sat around a table in my Connecticut high school’s cafeteria, picking at iceberg lettuce and laughing at the latest Spears scandal on Perez Hilton—our sense of mob justice echoed and validated not just by a blogger whose signature move was drawing semen around female celebrities’ mouths, but by every tabloid lined up at the Super Stop & Shop checkout, by Diane Sawyer and Matt Lauer, by Pulitzer Prize-winning media outlets.
Here was Britney, being upskirted at a nightclub. (“Britney Spears’ no-panties stunt is a disgusting abuse of power,” one Fox News writer offered by way of comment, without a trace of irony. “If anyone wants to see the uncensored pics of Britney’s private parts, the sad sight is on the internet. But I warn you, the fantasies you may have harbored in the ‘Oops … I Did It Again’ years are not realized in these pics.”) Here was Britney, shaving her head, only for someone to sweep up the clippings and put them on eBay for $50 each. (“Not only her hair is gone,” reads a dispatch in The Observer. “Gone too is the perfectly toned physique of her videos and the fashionable outfits that inspired a generation of American youngsters. They have been replaced by an image of a pale shaven-headed woman, puffy-faced, and wearing a drab grey sweatshirt.”) Here was Britney, being placed under a psychiatric hold, a video of which is still available to watch on TMZ. (“OMG THE DRAMA! TMZ is there as Britney Spears was just wheeled out of her home on a gurney by paramedics. Look at that shot of her inside the ambulance—she’s frickin’ smiling! Why God, why?!?”)