Bald Britney: the final act of an American nightmare

Today's developments:

The story of Britney Spears, from her first single to her last breath, has been the story of pop music writ large: as we wrote in a review of her 2001 concert tour, it's the tale of a young girl abducted, raped, and ultimately destroyed by the American dream. DeLillo's Great Jones Street has that image of the record spinning and pulling its victims into a black hole: the dark vortex of rock and roll that ends with Elvis dead on the toilet, Cobain wrapping his lips around a greasy barrel. Pop music has its own dark gravity: the crushing, splitting weight of mass media and mass desire, the all-watchful eyes. Britney is the story and the storyteller, and these are beginning to feel like her final pages. The story she tells us is the war of two selves wihin her: the one she was born with and the one that was manufactured for her. She tells this story as if the battle between actual and simulated selves is being played out at the cellular level, in the flesh, like a cancer that works its way in from the surface. There are very few people who are unfortunate enough to live out, in flesh and blood and in real time, abstract philosophical arguments about the nature of human agency. Fewer still who survive. The timeline of her rejection and denial over the past week reads like the work of an author who is anxious to bring her protagonist quickly from despair to demise, and the tale is full of authorial details: the small slight of being slighted by a fashion designer; the large failure of abandoning rehab after only a single day; that she sat crying in the car beforehand; that when the beautician refused to shave Britney's locks, the star did it herself; that she viewed herself in the mirror with shock, that she worried what her mother would say.

Bald Britney, as a daily news story, is being treated as typical tabloid fodder: drunk starlet makes another bad decision. What has always made our skin crawl about Britney is that at some instinctual level she is always performing. (Call it a side effect of living a life where the cameras are never off.) So is it mere coincidence that her Sinead-like dome, evoking the image of the gulag and the concentration camp, or at least THX-1138 and V for Vendetta, seems to echo one of the Britney's most persistent themes: her sense of herself as being held in captivity? Who keeps her? She's rarely made Prince-like statements condeming the traditional keepers, the managers and record labels and publicists. But in her performances, in knowing glances and in songs like "I Was Born To Make You Happy," she indicts her audience with a smile. Like Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks, cognizant of her own doom, she invites us to watch, she forces us to confront our complicity in her undoing. If shaving her head was an act of self-multilation, it was also an act of self-sacrifice, and an act of violence against that image which connects Britney to her audience: if you had to put the act into words, the bubble over Britney's head would read something like, "I killed Britney Spears." If these are Britney's last days, then all of us watching, all of us who have watched, will have her blood on our hands.

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