Why I Find Strength in Britney Spears

by Josh Duboff

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from Britney Spears, it’s that you can come back from anything. When I discover I’ve been unfriended by an old roommate on Facebook (re-checking their page 23 times “just to make sure”) or can’t fall asleep because I’m convinced the two pink blemishes on my arm must be bedbug bites — and when all these little worries accumulate to create one giant cloud of anxiety — I’ll sometimes think about Britney Spears. I’m talking about Britney post-divorce, post-meltdown, post-head shaving, post-umbrella rage incident. I think about what it must have felt like to have once been on top of the world — with Rolling Stone covers and famous boyfriends — and then, just as suddenly, to have nothing (“nothing”): tabloids mocking you, your dad controlling you, an insatiable hankering for fast food plaguing you at all times, apparently.

Sure, it’s hard to feel completely bad for someone beautiful and young and absurdly rich, but — and this is where I think Britney is the exception among her pop starlet contemporaries — we tend to see her as a victim of her success rather than someone who has merely “gotten what comes with the territory.” As opposed to a Katy Perry or a Rihanna, who seem like alien breeds melded in some sort of cotton candy factory, Britney — at least, post-2004 Britney — seems utterly human, distraught and almost bothered by her success. There is a reason Britney’s “Lucky” still resonates whereas other pop stars’ “Woe is me! Paparazzi suck so hard!” anthems (Lindsay Lohan’s “Rumors,” Miley Cyrus’s “Fly on the Wall” video) seem completely disingenuous.

And this is what makes Britney such a strange icon. Perhaps more than any of our one-name celebrities, she maintains a public persona almost at complete odds with her private one. Whereas she has two young sons, never seems to bother brushing her hair, and likely spends 95 percent of her time either at home or at Starbucks, she sings about hitting on guys at the club while sipping on cosmos and getting her grind on. While it’s essentially impossible to imagine Lady Gaga eating a cheeseburger or watching The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills in her sweatpants, it’s equally as difficult to imagine Britney having even the slightest desire to hit up a party or put on lipstick. When she walks down a red carpet or struts in a music video, you can almost see an invisible gun being put to her head by a producer or manager or executive.

And yet, in spite of all of this, while she has more than enough riches to just ditch Los Angeles and set up camp on some Louisiana swamp farm (can’t you see her being pretty content wading through mud to feed frogs or whatever, hair tied back underneath a trucker hat?), she doesn’t. She bounced back from the dark lows of the Adnan Ghalib era and has reached a point where her life is, one assumes, pretty sweet again. She hangs out with her kids, she goes to Sonic, she shows up at the studio once in a while, she barely does any promotion. Sometimes I like to imagine that she’s “in” on the joke, that she texts Jamie Lynn “So they want me to wear a giant wedding dress and squirt paint on myself hahahaha…. can’t wait to see the video editing they do on this one” or “Apparently they’re gonna call the next fragrance ‘Radiance’ LOL.” At the very least, it is almost certain she doesn’t take any of this at all seriously anymore, which — in a pop landscape that currently seems to revolve around a “Who Can Put The Weirdest Thing In Her Hair?” contest — is actually refreshing.

Whenever I find myself in a situation in which I have to divulge an “embarrassing fact” about myself (which seems like it happens more than it should), I either reveal that I cried while watching The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants or that I’ve been to three Britney Spears concerts. (It would have been four if her Onyx Hotel Tour stop in Boston hadn’t been canceled.) At her most recent Circus tour, standing among hundreds of New Yorkers about my age — all screaming ecstatically at the opening chords of “…Baby One More Time,” belting the chorus to “Everytime” in unison, shouting “We Love You, Britney!” at the mere flash of a smile — it dawned on me that our generation’s relationship with Britney Spears is sort of like one with a family member: she’s what we’ve got. And as Britney came out for an encore wearing a “slutty policewoman” get-up, opening her eyes wide and curling her lip as she cracked a whip to a pre-recorded track, I couldn’t help but feel a surge of pride.

Josh Duboff is a writer living in New York City. His favorite Britney Spears song (at the moment, at least) is “Overprotected.”