“I think I’m ready for my close-up,” Britney Spears intones on her latest album, joylessly, mechanically, as if being the center of attention is now about as appealing to her as spending 72 hours locked inside an oil drum with Dr. Phil. And yet still there are suitors willing to bet on her capacity for self-disclosure. According to the Daily Mirror, a book publisher has offered Spears $14 million to produce a three-volume autobiography.
On first thought, it’s hard to say which number in that sentence is more astounding. Three books to chronicle Spears’ silly 27-year-old life, when even the notoriously long-winded Bill Clinton is taking only two to chronicle his? Fourteen million dollars? At, say, 333 pages per book, that’s $14,000 a page, or more than Henry David Thoreau earned for his complete collected works. The universe is viciously unjust!
Or, is $14 million actually a fair price, given our long-term fascination with her? At various points in Spears’ career, rivals have emerged. Christina Aguilera is a better singer. Jessica Simpson is a funnier dumb blonde. Amy Winehouse is crazier. But it’s Britney who persists. People say they’re sick of her, that she’s overexposed and under-interesting, yet her name is the most popular search term at Yahoo and has been for four years running. That’s just because she’s the celebrity equivalent of weather, one might argue. We check in regularly to see what’s in store, rain or sunshine, but, really, that’s all we need to know; you can skip the underlying atmospheric physics. We’re not that interested. But what does it say about us, as a culture, if we’re not that interested in the thing we’re most interested in? And after all this time, don’t you want to know at least a little bit more about the underlying atmospheric physics of Britney Spears?
Even if you can’t name a single Britney song other than “… Baby One More Time,” you’re no doubt acquainted with her cameo-loving vagina, her custody battles, her spectacularly choreographed police convoy to the Cedars-Sinai emergency room. You’ve seen her blossom from abstinent teenage sexpot to crazy skinhead MILF to commercially rehabbed hitmaker. For the last dozen years, she has been the world’s most closely monitored human not currently serving a life sentence in a maximum security prison. Literally millions of photographs have been taken of her. But even with all that scrutiny; even with A Mother’s Gift, the autobiographical young-adult novel Spears co-wrote in 2001; even with Stages, the autobiographical coffee-table book Spears co-wrote in 2002; even with Chaotic, the autobiographical reality series Spears produced in 2005, she remains a mystery. We know her intimately, and at the same time, we don’t know her at all. What’s her life really like, in those precious few seconds the millions of photographs haven’t managed to capture?
Granted, celebrity autobiography is not a genre known for bearing great literary fruit. And while Spears is perfectly willing to go out in public without undies, she’s shown little interest in airing her dirty laundry. On her early albums, she spent most of her time pining for generic, abstract lovers. On her recent efforts, the object of her ardor is usually herself: She spends even more time than most rappers telling us how desirable she is, how salable a product she remains. Instead of introspection or revelation, she and her songwriters merely offer ad copy.
Beneath all the posturing, though, Spears obviously feels compelled to remind us that she’s not just a photograph, or a gossip item, or a voice that has been processed to sound like a slutty chipmunk with a head cold singing catchy but disposable pop songs. She’s a real person, and she wants to be acknowledged as such. So maybe it’s time for her to take a chance and finally do something genuinely provocative: Hire some omniscient genius like Michael Chabon or Tom Wolfe, say, and give him carte blanche to tell her story, in her voice, warts and all. Or maybe it would take Michael Chabon and Tom Wolfe, plus Joyce Carol Oates and the writing staff of The Sopranos, to adequately capture the stress, sadness, excess, privilege and weirdness that must inform her singular existence. But surely the material is there. And $14 million can buy a lot of writers. It’d be easier and more profitable for her to hire a run-of-the-mill ghostwriter, of course, but doesn’t she owe us more than that? We’ve been gawking at her for over a decade now. It’s time she showed us something more revealing than her unclad undercarriage. • 4 February 2009