January 09, 2004,
After the news of Britney Spears's 55-hour marriage to her childhood friend Jason Allen Alexander, I got an e-mail from one of my many homosexual correspondents (you'd be surprised), one with whom I had previously had some friendly exchanges about same-sex marriage. The gist of it was: "This is the institution you are trying to save?"
I take his point. I don't say I feel any better-disposed towards homosexual marriage than I was pre-Britney, but there is no denying the guy has a debating point. If a couple of likkered-up glitterati airheads can stumble into a wedding chapel, tie the knot, then go home, sleep off the liquor, decide that, while an amusing lark, it hadn't really been such a good idea after all, and cancel the whole thing, why should a sober and responsible homosexual couple be denied access to that same chapel for that same purpose, which they intend to take with all the gravity proper to it?
The short answer is that if a customary social institution is trashed and trivialized by irresponsible buffoons, we ought to exert more control over it to tighten access, not loosen it. If it turns out that there has been chicanery in the counting of votes, that is an argument for making supervision of the voting rules stricter, not for opening the voting booths to felons, foreigners, lunatics, and minors. Things are for whom they are for. Voting is for law-abiding adult citizens of sound mind; marriage is for men and women; the fact that either institution might have been abused in some particular instance does not make a case for altering fundamental definitions. Speaking as a person who has watched from the sidewalk as the Gay Pride parade made its way down Manhattan's Fifth Avenue one balmy summer's day, I have no confidence at all not a jot, tittle, nor smidgeon of confidence, sorry that opening up marriage to homosexuals will raise the general level of seriousness and respect which the institution enjoys in our society. The contrary effect seems to me infinitely more probable.
Be all that as it may, I don't think it can be denied that the Britney-wedding fiasco is an embarrassment not just to the people involved, but in some way to the rest of us too. On reflection, it is hard to pin down why this should be so. Here are a couple of young people with much more money than sense. The state of Nevada has stupid marriage laws, and the young people took advantage of those laws for a few hours' idle amusement. Why should anybody care? Where's the moral?
Well, to take the least consequential aspect of the matter first, I think we should care for Britney Spears, as a matter of simple humanity. The December 8 issue of that fine magazine National Review ("All Human Life Is There") carried a brief editorial paragraph along these lines:
Is Britney Spears headed for a crack-up? ... In a televised interview with Diane Sawyer, young Britney shed some tears. Should grown-up people care? Perhaps. The Sawyer interview revealed a sadness and emptiness that is not Britney's alone. In show business since age six, ill educated and (so far as one can judge) un-churched, adrift in the vacuous, meretricious world of pop... Judy Garland comes to mind. Odd to find oneself, while faced with this icon of beauty, wealth, and fame, thinking: "There but for the grace of God..." Spare a thought for Britney.
I wouldn't want to make too much of this, and it is, as I said, the least consequential aspect of the matter, but don't you feel, as I do, that there is something slightly pathetic about Britney's deed? In fact, about Britney? Of course, it is no easy matter to summon up a tear for someone whose net worth is in the same range as Tanzania's. Nor is it easy to believe that the lady has much insight into her own condition, assuming that condition is what I am suggesting it is utter spiritual vacuity. From a recent Newsweek interview:
When Spears talks about the South Asian musical influences on In the Zone [her new CD], she says she's "been into a lot of Indian spiritual religions." When asked if one of them is Hinduism, she says, "What's that? Is it like kabbalah?"
Much more surprising than the fact that Britney cannot place Hinduism in the grand scheme of things is that she can so place kabbalah. What does a nice blonde shiksa know about kabbalah? Her friend and role model Madonna is "into" it, that's what. In their set, it's this month's cool religion. That's the kind of people Britney hangs out with. Her taste in society could only be worse if she spent her leisure time frolicking among Bonobo chimps.
Even the beauty may be a depreciating asset. Britney is, I'd like to make it clear, not my type. Her beauty is of an artificial, abstract, and magaziney sort, like a perfectly-cut gemstone, with nothing quirky or curious or interesting for the attention to fix itself on. I further suspect that, without very strenuous efforts on Britney's part, the bloom will soon be off the rose. She looks to me like a woman who is naturally heavy check out her thighs, for instance. (You already have? Sorry.) It is very unfair that there should be anything wrong with heaviness in a woman, but there is no denying that, so far as most men are concerned, as a matter of simple physical attractiveness, there is something wrong with it. A character in one of Kingsley Amis's novels goes to a psychoanalyst complaining of loss of libido. The shrink asks if the guy is married, and he says yes. The shrink's next question is: "How much does your wife weigh?"
Well, perhaps I am reading too much into a few squeezed-out TV tears and a stunt that seemed to be trying to say more than the usual celebrity-stunt's "Hey, look at me!" Perhaps the lady can take care of herself well enough. Very likely she can. She may not know Vishnu from the Pillsbury Dough Boy, but she's spent most of her life in showbiz and presumably knows the location of the exit, if she wants it. Let's turn our attention to The Culture, of which she is an adornment and emblem. Frankly, I care about The Culture more than I care about Britney.
Unfortunately, the region of The Culture that Britney adorns pop music is one I don't know much about. Like most middle-aged people, I have a vague feeling I don't like current pop, but I don't actually know much about it. When I try to go exploring to improve my understanding, I get lost almost immediately.
I listened to a lot of pop music when younger. Around age 16 I could have sung my way through the entire Top Twenty, I am pretty sure, accompanying myself on air guitar. That was a while ago, though. I haven't paid serious attention to pop music for a couple of decades. If I look into it now, I find a bewildering variety of styles and genres, very few of which I can place relative to what I know. What, exactly, is the difference between Cow Punk, Pop Punk, and Ska Punk? Between U.S. New Wave and U.K. New Wave? Is Pop Rap a kind of Pop, or a kind of Rap? Why is Electro Funk grouped under "Electronica" in record catalogs, while G-Funk is under "R&B"? I've known Rockabilly from way back, but what in God's good name is Psychobilly? I think I know what Heavy Metal is, but what is Thrash Metal? What are Black Metal, Atmospheric Metal, Doom Metal, Cold Dark Metal, Technical Death Metal, and Speed Metal? You need a Dewey Decimal System to sort through this stuff.
For an old fart like me, this is all a bit unnerving. It is, of course, just another aspect of the explosion of choices in the postindustrial consumer society, like having 44 varieties of breakfast cereal to choose from. The fact that I find it intimidating is mostly my own personal and generational problem. In my teen years there was Trad Jazz, Modern Jazz, Rock, Pop, Folk, and Country. That was pretty much it, though pioneer critics like Nik Cohn were beginning to teach us to separate out, for example, High School from other Soft Pop. Anything beyond these categories was Classical or Experimental. It was the same with everything back then. We didn't have a choice of a hundred different "calling plans"; we had The Phone Company. In England, this was actually operated by the government it was a branch of the post office, run to the same standards of efficiency, technical innovation, and responsiveness to customers' desires.
I remember all too well what that was like, and cherish the abundance and variety of today, and so on general grounds I approve of all this variety. Still, it makes it hard for me to place Britney even in her own zone, let alone in The Culture at large. There is nothing for it but to watch the lady in action and form an ad hoc opinion. When I do that, however, my goodwill drains away.
Britney Spears's stage act is a kind of soft porn singing and dancing. The singing: lots of breathy sounds, moaning, and sighing, not much melody. The dancing: very suggestive, with much pouting and hip thrusting. It's all tremendously "technical" and "professional," of course, with an extravagant light show, exquisite costumes, and dance routines choreographed and drilled down to the last lift of an eyebrow. It is still porn, though the kind of thing that, you imagine, the gaudier kind of oriental despotism would have laid on for the amusement of the coarser kind of barbarian conqueror. In a way this is very democratic. Unlike the peasant subjects of that oriental despot huddled in their huts, we can all partake of the entertainment nowadays. The word decadence comes irresistibly to mind, though. How much better if the barbarians had stayed out there on the steppe and left us alone!
And it isn't the thing itself so much as its targeted audience that disturbs us. Eartha Kitt and Julie London were doing the breathy stuff back in the 1950s, after all, while Elvis Presley's hip thrusts were too much for the TV censors 47 years ago. Nor is the trivializing of the marriage service altogether new: The name Zsa Zsa Gabor mean anything? Eartha and Julie were singing for adults, though, while Elvis was a guy, and Zsa Zsa at least took the property side of marriage seriously I mean, she stayed married long enough each time to acquire some diamonds. Britney has been doing the suggestive stuff since she was 16, and for a mostly female fan base mostly younger than that; while the unsettling thing about her "marriage" was its utter purposelessness. The wife of Maryland's governor, addressing a conference on domestic abuse, declared that she would shoot Britney Spears if she had a gun. Mothers in the audience applauded. I can't say I blame them.
It is a given that one generation doesn't like another generation's pleasures. As Dr. Johnson put it in his straightforward way: "Why, Sir, our tastes greatly alter. The lad does not care for the child's rattle, and the old man does not care for the young man's whore." Giving all possible benefit of the doubt to Britney Spears, though, I see nothing redeeming in her act. You can't even sing the songs yourself, or play them on air guitar. For this Buddy Holly died?
An awful suspicion forms in my mind. The empty lewdness of the stage act; the bottomless nothingness in Britney's eyes and words; all that emptiness and nothingness and purposelessness; the trashing of our culture's most hallowed ceremony... for what? Can it be...? Yes! I only hope I can get the word out before they track me down.
Listen: Britney Spears is an instrument of Satan. The poor girl has sold her soul, or had it stolen from her. That travesty of a marriage was not for nothing it was a union in evil! Its issue will be the Antichrist, and the world will be his dominion. These are the Last Times. You have been warned.