I have no idea whether Britney Spears, as of this writing, is in or out of rehab, or in a blonde or brunette wig, but I wanted to let her story fade just a few degrees away from the white-hot center of the tabloid limelight before I set down a thought or two about her. Her meltdown, while still a supernova of a story, seems for the moment to have peaked, and I find that there's one image I simply can't get out of my head: It's when she's kicking the paparazzo's car outside Kevin Federline's house, wearing that amazing expression of sullen, pouty, demon-seed punk-rock anger. In a way, her shaved head wasn't complete until she topped it off with that very public display of scary skinhead rage.
The image got me to thinking: What was it that made Britney Spears so angry? Okay, she was battling K-Fed over the custody of her two young children â€” admittedly, no small matter. It may well have inspired that tantrum, yet I'm not sure that it entirely explains the look on her face. Here's one theory, freewheeling and speculative as hell, about What Happened To Britney â€” or, at least, about how her fall into scalp-shearing, car-kicking, screw-my-pop-tart-image rage expresses something new about our digital-fishbowl fame culture. If you're going to come with me, though, you have to accept one premise. And that is...
...in her moment, Britney Spears was a musically vital star.
That's easy to forget, or maybe easy to argue with. As a hip-wriggling baby doll, she led with her sexuality more than any female pop star since Madonna, and since Britney's sexual image, in recent years, seems to have been leading her, it's tempting to see her as a packaged cherry bomb who (inevitably) exploded. Yet just listen to her singing â€” the hot-and-bothered insistence with which she slammed out ''...Baby one More Time'' or ''Oops!... I Did It Again,'' or (since those songs are so overfamiliar they're almost impossible to hear freshly) her last terrific track, the vastly underappreciated ''Overprotected,'' off of Britney. That album's airplay was dominated by the awful ''I'm a Slave 4 You,'' with its fascist club-thump joylessness, but on ''Overprotected,'' Britney is fiercely in command, and cathartically catchy, as she sings out the paradoxical plaint of a 21st-century corporate rebel: What she longs for is to break out, to be on her own, to be ''no one else but'' â€” as she throttles the word ''me'' â€” Myyyyy-eee!'' Her delivery has a coiled thrust reminiscent of Joan Jett, yet Spears, ruled by her slut-bunny image, has rarely been given the credit she deserves for her chops. I'll probably get hate postings simply for suggesting it.
Yet here's the thing: If you accept that she was more than cheesecake wrapped in tinsel, more than just a pop tart â€” if you accept that she was, in her pouty and bejeweled-midriff way, a true rock star â€” then you begin to acknowledge what, exactly, she had to fall from: not just flavor-of-the-year fame but the deeper glory of being adored by her fans because she expressed something that was real.
This is where her tragedy, perhaps, begins. Britney lost what she had, and what she had â€” let's not be cheeky about it â€” was immense. For a while there, she ruled the world of pop feminine bravado; in her jailbait-on-fire way, she was one of those performers, like Madonna in the '80s or, say, the Gwen Stefani of 2002, who own the moment, and proudly, by fusing sex and talent until the two can't be separated. To be worshipped by an audience in that way, and then to have it fade... well, Britney Spears wouldn't be the first performer who got sucked under by the demon of having to see herself become a has-been (and while barely into her mid-20s!).
Yet this is where it all gets twisted. The myth of the substance-abusing, self-destructive, wackadoo has-been is as old, and familiar, as the plot of A Star is Born. Remember James Mason, in the splendid 1954 version, drunkenly smacking Judy Garland as he marches up onto the Academy Awards podium? That's every bit as shocking a moment as Britney reaching for the electric shears.
Here's what's changed. As Britney, having lived past her pop moment, hit the nightclub circuit, acting flaky and dissipated and leaving her kids behind, forever tailed by paparazzi as part of the Trash Pack of bimbo goddesses (Lindsay, Paris, etc.), her fall became her new rise. She had lost any vestige of respectability, yet with that loss she was a bigger star than ever. She was on top as a media darling precisely because she was speeding toward the bottom. That had to be more than a little bit... confusing. And so she busted out of the deranged paradox of her situation by grabbing hold of her destiny and hitting bottom, doing it on purpose, giving her finger to the machinery of stardom by asserting, in that very act of how-do-you-like-me-now? buzz-cut rebellion, her absolute desire for the pop status she'd once had and had now lost.
This was an act of breakdown, all right, maybe a cry for help. But it also expressed the dreams of a tarnished celebrity in a tabloid world. It was Britney's comeback single, delivered in perhaps the only form we would now agree to listen to.