Stephen King on Britney Spears — The pop of king looks at the recent appearance of the popstar on ”Dateline”
Let’s get one thing straight, okay? In that strange, vulgar, brightly colored section of the popular culture known as Celebrity World, the paparazzi are the lowest form of human life. I have been touched by them only peripherally, and it’s been years since I really engaged their flea-like attention, yet recalling their exuberant shouts — ”Hey, Stephen, look over here! Stephen, just one more! Hey, Stephen, where ya goin’?” — is still enough to make my skin prickle with shame and fury. The intrusion is part of it, the sense of entitlement is more of it, but the constant bray of your first name is the worst of it. They use your first name the way the cops on The Shield do when they’re interviewing child molesters.
So when Britney Spears finally broke down during her interview with Matt Lauer on the June 15 version of NBC’s Dateline celebrity grope, I wasn’t surprised that it was the paps who pushed her over the edge. When asked what she would say to them if she could talk to them as individuals — a ridiculous idea in itself, since when working the paparazzi travel in packs, like hyenas, and when alone they don’t exist — Britney replied, ”[I’d tell them] You have babies at home…. You have to realize that we’re people…. We just need privacy and we need our respect.”
Never going to happen. And surely Poor Brit, who turns the waterworks off just as quickly as she turns them on, knows this. She has never projected a tenth of Madonna’s savoir faire, getting by on a kind of puffy cheerleader charm that isn’t in the same league as the Material Girl’s come-here-darling-and-let-me-eat-you-alive sensuality, but that doesn’t make her stupid. She began setting off flashbulbs at the age of 17, in that oh-baby schoolgirl’s outfit. Now she’s stuck trying to explain pics of herself driving with her child in her lap and looking like Ms. Yuma Trailer Park of 2006. It’s a little embarrassing, but hey, anyone who appears on national TV in a low-cut see-through purple maternity blouse can apparently deal with embarrassment.
And, like Stacy’s Mom, Brit’s got it goin’ on. Let’s review the highlights:
Asked about motherhood, she told Lauer, ”It’s amazing!”
Asked about appearing on Will & Grace: ”Awesome! So hilarious!”
Asked about marriage to Kevin Federline, he of the coolly slanted little hats: ”Awesome! He’s so simple! He’s like a boy! His heart is…awesome!”
She also said Kevin is ”working very hard.” (I’m wondering if that means he’s the yard boy, because he’s certainly not in this interview.)
Explaining why she was driving with her kid in her lap: ”We’re country!”
Every now and then, intercut with the blouse-y, gum-chewing matron who spouts such platitudes as ”Accidents happen” and ”Love conquers all,” we glimpsed the light-footed pop princess with the gamine grin that was always her best feature. Even more briefly we saw the ugly paparazzi feeding frenzies that probably ensue every time Britney hits the street…and one image, almost as stark as a police crime-scene photo, of a red-eyed, red-nosed Britney holding her baby to her chest, seeming to ask the camera, Where am I? Who am I? How did I get here? Why are you looking at me?
The answers, in brief, are these: You are in public; you are a pop creation now entering the final third of your active performing career; you got here as a result of youth, publicity, and prurient interest. The answer to the last question is the most unpleasant. We are looking at you, Brit, because we cannot yet look away.
Ms. Spears has enjoyed a fantastically successful career; Matt Lauer was correct in pointing out that ”she’s already made her mark in the music world.” That mark, however, may be drawn in sand rather than concrete. Seven years ago …Baby One More Time sold 10.5 million albums, and in 2000 Oops…I Did It Again sold 9.2 million. By 2003, however, In the Zone sold only 2.9 million. For most artists, 2.9 million is hardly an ”only,” but for Brit it’s still a drop of 7.6 million units.
Her continued visibility — and, hence, popularity — seems to hinge on the very press that has sliced her up again and again these last few years. The Harper’s Bazaar (pregnant, no less!) cover girl obviously understands; during her interview with Lauer, she talked about her life almost exclusively in terms of how she had been depicted in the press, and the interview itself was clearly an attempt to redirect the spin.
In the end, this edition of Dateline was just an hour of feel-bad TV. I felt bad for Poor Brit, who looked very young, very pregnant, sometimes very bewildered, and on several occasions pretty dumb. (Losing the gum might have helped.) I felt bad for feeling even a little concerned about her problems, when hundreds of thousands of people are starving in Darfur. I felt bad for Matt Lauer, who looked too smart for the job he was doing. And I felt bad for NBC, who that night gave half an hour to the world’s problems at dinnertime and an hour to a slightly over-the-hill pop princess during prime time. Yet there I was. Hell, I even took notes.
And was I the only man in late middle age who watched? Don’t think so. Before the final segment, there was an ad for — you guessed it — Viagra.