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Posted at 10:44 AM ET, 04/18/2008

Highbrow: Britology

By Liz Kelly

The queen of culture holds court: Britney Spears outside the Los Angeles Superior Courthouse in January. (Getty Images)

Turns out there's a good reason we spend so much time covering Britney Spears -- she's the most important cultural figure in America. Or so posits Vanity Fair's Matt Pressman in an online piece examining the embattled pop tart's unprecedented coverage -- not only in the tabloids, but by mainstream media and even predictors of societal bellwethers, like The Atlantic and Portfolio.

Preposterous? Not so much if you consider the level to which Spears has saturated our daily lives -- from those headlines (for example, The Britney Economy) all the way to the art world (Exhibit A | Exhibit B).

Here at Celebritology, she's something of a patron saint. Not only have we deemed her the Biggest Train Wreck, I've devoted more than 44 entries to Spears over the past two years -- more, by orders of magnitude, than for any other celebrity. TomKat, another perennial fave, tallies only 16 posts and ubiquitous "I(dio)t" girl Paris Hilton only 13. Beyond those longer postings, the constant crush of Spears headlines spawned a dedicated "Spears Watch" in the Morning Mix over the past year or so -- her life has become a walking, talking serialized soap opera and, try as we might, we can't seem to look away from each new installment.

But, why Britney? What's so compelling?

Says Rolling Stone's Vanessa Grigoriadis in the Vanity Fair online piece:

"The thing that's hard to remember now about Britney is that she sold more albums that any other female artist. She had a $9 million Pepsi contract, she was everywhere, she was the golden girl. What makes her so poignant is that she had everything and it has destroyed her anyway."

But, then, so did Lindsay Lohan and Anna Nicole Smith and countless other starlets who succumbed to, rather than harnessed, fame. Yet, it is Britney's story in which my 72-year-old mother, 48-year-old brother and seven-year-old niece are equally interested. Could it be that she's actually got something -- a cult of personality working for her even as she offers herself up for a series of public meltdowns? Is Britney the sacrificial lamb, suffering for the sin of a society that has oversexualized underage women with nary a pang of conscience?

Share your take below. I'll be checking back throughout the day...

By Liz Kelly  | April 18, 2008; 10:44 AM ET
Categories:  Britney Spears, Celebrities  
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I suspect that it's as much because of the persona that she debuted with, and the different ways that she captured the public eye. And oh, did she ever...millions of tween girls wanted to be her, millions of males (probably from two or three different generations) found her attractive, she was eminently marketable, she was FUNNY (it's true...I remember my wife seeing Brit on some show or another, maybe it was SNL, and just commenting "you know, I can't help but like her"), and she had the dream Hollywood relationship with Timberlake that seemed like a central casting choice. She had years of that Good Big Picture, and when she first starting making mis-steps, I think that the public that liked her blinked, thought "what was that?", and waited to see if it would happen again, while the public that did NOT like her exulted. And thus started the snowball. Not to mention, I don't think it is coincidence that the current crop of rabid paparazzi started appearing around that same time, as well. That constant crush of photogs would push anyone over the edge.

Posted by: 23112 | April 18, 2008 11:26 AM | Report abuse

I'll take a stab.

I think the fascination is that she really did have it all -- the looks, the success, the happy love life with Justin Timberlake, etc. -- and then lost it through a lot of bad decisions. How many of us talked about how insane she would have to be to marry Kevin Federline -- what did she see in him? How many of us wondered why she would have kids so quickly and so young?

Lindsey Lohan didn't have the level of success Britney had and, moreover, she's still at a stage in her life where she can learn from her mistakes. I'm not saying Britney's kids are mistakes but I think she found that motherhood was harder and more restrictive than she thought, and she couldn't just chalk it up to bad judgment. Anna Nicole Smith had morphed into a joke long ago.

Posted by: KLeewrite | April 18, 2008 11:30 AM | Report abuse

If she does have her own "cult of personality," it will be so much more fun than Mao's or Stalin's were.

But, somehow, I think supreme executive power still derives from a mandate from the masses, not some farcical awards ceremony. And if I went around saying I was Emperor, just because some moistened bint flashed her goodies at me, they'd put me away.

Posted by: byoolin | April 18, 2008 11:47 AM | Report abuse

"Is Britney the sacrificial lamb, suffering for the sin of a society that has oversexualized underage women with nary a pang of conscience?"

Yes, but Rosie O'Donnell has volunteered to take on the role.

Posted by: byoolin | April 18, 2008 11:49 AM | Report abuse

We've all been there, right? There's that time that we drank too much, slept with the wrong guy, made the wrong career choice, got the tat that we regretted later, etc. The key term there is regret - in retrospect, most people learn from their mistakes. They say, "OK. That was a bad idea, I won't do it again."

Whatever it is that the rest of us learn from, Britney refuses - REFUSES - to learn. And indeed, for a long time, invited us in to watch the mess happen. Chaotic? Interview with Matt Lauer? "We're country"? Dating a pap? Even when she is falling down, she wants us to be fascinated by her antics. Otherwise, she has plenty of money and could certainly go to Idaho or someplace else quiet for a few months to regroup.

Posted by: akmitc | April 18, 2008 12:08 PM | Report abuse

Other Ways In Which Britney's Cult Of Personality Will Be Superior To Mao's Or Stalin's:

1: No 'Long March' - Britney will drive you where you need to go in a Beemer. (Note: recommended supplemental accident insurance is *not* included)

2: Instead of being sent to the gulag, hang out with Heidi Montag.

3: In 6 months or so, close relative of Cult Of Personality's leader will be a hot teen MILF (compare to Jiang Qing (

4: Winter of '42 in Stalingrad? No, Spring Break '09 in Cancun.

5: Official clothing of Britney's Cult Of Personality is colourful, bright, featuring animal prints, unlike olive green and flat battle gray of Mao/Stalin.

6: Language spoken by Cult Of Personality leader much more like English.

7: Other than Putin, nobody cares about Stalin anymore. Other than one-and-a-half billion Chinese, nobody cares about Mao, either. Britney's Q-score? THROUGH THE ROOF, BABY!

8: Ho-Hos and Doritos vs. borscht and rice.

9: Britney's Cult Of Personality death toll likely to be much lower than the 60-80 million under Mao & Stalin.

10: Now with 80% less Adnan.

Posted by: byoolin | April 18, 2008 12:18 PM | Report abuse

I would submit that she remains in the public eye because people like to feel superior. No matter how much of a mess your life is, at least it's not happening on the front page of the National Enquirer. The simple lesson of supply and demand.

Posted by: Sappho | April 18, 2008 12:25 PM | Report abuse

"1: No 'Long March' - Britney will drive you where you need to go in a Beemer. (Note: recommended supplemental accident insurance is *not* included)"

Pay attention Byoo, its a 'Cedes.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 18, 2008 12:33 PM | Report abuse

In the words of Liz Lemon (30 Rock), "If reality tv has taught us anything, it's that you can't keep people with no shame down."

Posted by: methinks | April 18, 2008 12:45 PM | Report abuse

I think most people confuse Britney the Brand with Britney the Person, starting with her and her family. In the beginning (and before all of the horrible missteps) Britney was a collaborative entity with Ms Spears at the middle but driven by a pack of managers, staff and handlers. They crafted the image, the sound, and all Ms Spears had to do was go along, play the face and collect her check. It's not as if manufactured pop is anything new. All of these artistic choices are vetted to create the avatar with the biggest appeal (the Monkees, New Edition, Tiffany, NKOTB). The difference now is that its such a science that more can be done with less talent. Sure, you can't teach good looks, but the Supremes could actually sing where we're now in a Pharrell and ProTools world. Now we can't really tell where the seam is. Of all the people getting writing credit on some Top 40 superhit, how much did each do?

How manufactured is any given pop star?

Some might just need a chance and pop was the way to do it. I doubt anyone would deny, say, Justin Timberlake's talent. But there are others who are just a face on a corporate machine. And when the curtain slips, it all comes crashing down (see Vanilli, Millie and Simpson, Ashlee).

I'd say Ms Spears falls between both of those but definitely leaning more to the weak side. Worse for her, she bought into her own hype. For this reason I think when she fired her original management team (and this is supported by the subsequent cascade of missteps she's had) and had to stand alone, that was the beginning of the end. Turns out Britney couldn't manage the press the way Britney the Corporation had. The publicity that she was a modern Madonna was just that- vapor (or, actually, quite accurate: Madge's last decade has been one continuous blunder. Swept Away indeed).

Now it seems during those formative years, Ms Spears never gleaned any lessons and never grew up. Like a good football coach her team had disguised her weaknesses and accentuated her strengths. Out finally in the world, everyone finally saw the actual person: an overwhelmed girl from the boonies with too much money and the piranhas already swarming. Her problem is that her "story" doesn't have any arc. She never toiled in obscurity, made mistakes. Instead she walked right onto the stage and blew everyone else away. She was like the 16-0 Patriots going into the Super Bowl. She's the overwhelming favorite. It isn't about winning but about *not* losing. And for that any misstep is a disaster.

Posted by: JJEvans | April 18, 2008 12:52 PM | Report abuse

Our country's collective unconscious broke its cherry with the Britney worship of a few years back. Pop culture has been flirting with sexualizing young females since at least Shirley Temple but with Britney is became a blatant media gangbang, beginning with the schoolgirl-uniform tease and ending with the image of her well-toned body enveloped by a snake, a Las Vegas-style ritual that symbolized her cast-from-Eden coming of age. Just when America was ready to toss her overboard, Britney stepped into another bright, though less flattering, spotlight that's largely been vacant since Liz got too old and Michael had to flee the country in a burka. Beyond the endless train wreck of scandals, what really gives Britney her staying power is that her persona so uncannily parallels the state of our nation during the W. years. The world thinks of us as naïve, stubborn, crass, unwilling to admit our mistakes or the fact that we are teetering on a cliff ... just like Britney. But Britney is also resilient, a survivor -- she's still beautiful (if photographed in the right moment) and seems to endlessly plug along, running into parked cars and asking "Why Should I Be Sad?" on her latest album. And she continues to be seductive, in her own way: a siren calling us toward the rocks with a song that assures us we have nothing to fear, if we just stay clueless.

Posted by: Tim Obermiller | April 18, 2008 1:04 PM | Report abuse

WOW, you people have put a lot of thought into this.

Posted by: jes | April 18, 2008 1:15 PM | Report abuse

I don't think Anna Nicole ever had it all and then lost it. She was a D list celeb in her prime, and notority for the marriage.

LiLo is different too. She was/is a star with great potential and blew that away. But the Parent Trap and Mean Girls don't have a think on Baby One More Time.

Posted by: md | April 18, 2008 1:42 PM | Report abuse

Let's see:

Poor Upbringing (her parents traded parenting for dollar signs)
+ Overexposure (she was everywhere: MTV, radio, Pepsi ads)
+ Flashing Body Parts ("she" was everywhere)
+ Bad Life Decisions (excessive partying, that Crossroads movie)
+ Too Much Money (does what she feels like, Cristal by the case)
+ Dash of Mental Illness (refuses to learn from her mistakes, won't listen)
+ Sudden Parenthood (two kids in quick order)
+ 21st Century Papparazzi (TMZ, et al.)
Britney's Life circa 2008

I blame her parents first, her family and friends second, her agent third, and the rest of us for paying attention fourth.

Posted by: td | April 18, 2008 1:56 PM | Report abuse

I think people's fascination with Britney is because she did have it all and she is not happy and her life is the toliet. For those of us (like myself) who toil away 9 to 5 to get a paycheck that barely makes ends meet it is reassuring that all the money in the world can not buy you happiness. All along the Beatles had it right with "Money Can't Buy Me Love."

Posted by: melissamac1 | April 18, 2008 1:56 PM | Report abuse

And byoolin, I've decided I must create a Photoshopped trio of wall hangings a la Andy Warhol: Mao, Britney, Stalin.

Posted by: td | April 18, 2008 1:58 PM | Report abuse

I agree with pretty much every single comment so far. But, there is something else too. There is something about Britney the young woman that evokes sympathy and a kind of maternal instinct - how many other stars have offered or talked about offering to take her in and try to help her? (Didn't Madonna, Cate Blanchette, Julia Roberts, and I don't know who all...) I myself have thought, I wish I could just bring her home for a couple of months and take care of her and try to teach her a couple of things about life and taking care of herself. I am sure I am not the only one.

As fascinating as the trainwreck phase has been, people seem equally interested in the fact that she *hasn't* been in the spotlight lately - and maybe that means she is getting it together. I wonder how much of this is due to the fact that we the consuming public have "known" her pretty much all her life. We have watched her grow up (to whatever extent one can say she has) and all her changes from adorable little girl to sexed up pop tart to questionable marriage to excited new mom to trainwreck and now maybe to reemergence as something else.

As much as we snark about her, I think that there is a collective emotional investment in her. I was never a fan, really was pretty anti when she was at the top, but I would certainly have an emotional response to her demise should it occur in the near future.

Posted by: sunnydaze | April 18, 2008 2:08 PM | Report abuse

Sheer genius, td. Sheer genius.

Posted by: byoolin | April 18, 2008 2:09 PM | Report abuse

6: Language spoken by Cult Of Personality leader much more like English.

IT needs to come to clean off my keyboard.


Posted by: bowing to byoolin | April 18, 2008 2:17 PM | Report abuse

Dynamite response JJ.
Or is is DYNO-O-MITE!

Posted by: DW | April 18, 2008 3:22 PM | Report abuse

I take issue with comparing Britney to Lindsay Lohan and Anna Nicole Smith. Britney, though she's not as talented as Amy Winehouse or possibly even Kelly Clarkson, has talent. She is a decent singer, chooses songs that are good for radio and club play (albeit, she doesn't really choose them herself), is a good dancer, is very pretty in a barbie-doll sort of way, and, until recently, had a great body.

The thing Britney has in common with Lindsay Lohan and Anna Nicole Smith is that she's INTERESTING. People like talking about interesting people, and Britney, like the other aforementioned women, knows how to get people talking. Since she's famous, lots of people want to know about what she's up to. But if Britney was a co-worker of mine, I'm sure she'd be a topic of discussion: messy divorce, substance abuse, mental health issues... And people dont' know her, so they don't have to feel bad about talking about her, so even people who wouldn't gossip about co-workers will gossip about celebrities.

Anyway, until Britney stops being interesting, people will want to talk about her. It doesn't hurt that she has recently released a pretty popular album, either.

Posted by: one | April 18, 2008 3:26 PM | Report abuse

I love how smart and thoughtful you people are. About Britney, of all topics.

Posted by: h3 | April 18, 2008 3:53 PM | Report abuse

Man, when I saw the link to the blog that said Britology I though it was going to be about UK celebrities. Bummer.
Guess I'm really out of the loop.

Posted by: kerryfromthedairy | April 18, 2008 6:58 PM | Report abuse

"...try as we might, we can't seem to look away from each new installment."

But WE aren't doing that, see? I don't understand why you assume that WE are salivating over her. Not everyone is obsessed with this woman. Really. I mean it. There's no recent craziness, so now what? Let's re-hash it *again*?!

You're now gossiping about non-existent gossip! It's dried up! Let. It. Go.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 20, 2008 10:45 AM | Report abuse

I hate to do this, but: An order of magnitude is a rough multiple of ten. To have written an order of magnitude more stories about Britney than TomKat, you would have to have written about 160 stories about Spears. To have written orderS of magnitude more, you would have to have written 1600.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 24, 2008 8:14 PM | Report abuse

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