Does Britney Spears speak English? That’s what I keep asking myself as I weigh her comments in the November issue of Esquire against the accompanying pictures. Loving up the lens of photographer James White, she garnishes her tawny, not-quite-22-year-old body with little more than some Mardis Gras beads and a pair of bun-hugging micro-briefs. It’s hardly the first time Brit has bared so much skin for a magazine, but it’s the words, not the wind-blown pin-up poses, that confound.
Addressing interviewer Chuck Klosterman’s fair question as to whether her new album might be aimed at a more “mature” (read: sexually self-aware) audience, Spears claims to have outright refused such intimations from her record label. In her own words: “I was like, ‘Look, if you want me to be some kind of sex thing, that’s not me.’ I will never do that.” Elsewhere, Klosterman prods the pop icon for a reason why half-naked women are so perennially featured on magazine covers. For the record, her own carefully chosen belief is that such conspicuous displays of flesh are intended “to inspire people.”
If she’s inadvertently mixing up the definitions of “inspire” and “titillate,” or if she’s somehow got the term “sex thing” confused with “structural engineer,” then maybe I could believe that we’re dealing in the same mother tongue. But the more I read and ponder the interview (Klosterman, for his part, sounds just as incredulous), the more I’m convinced that Britney’s backstage tutors missed a few important vocabulary units.
To be clear: There’s nothing inherently amoral or scandalous about manifesting your sexuality for a mass audience, especially when your job is to entertain. Still, Britney appears content to corroborate the translucent myth that her success owes everything to her artistry, as if her so-so voice and serviceable dance-pop oeuvre could ever thrive without the prurient underpinnings. For someone so deeply enamored with Madonna, she’s abnormally reluctant to talk straight about the carnal corollaries of pop stardom and the legitimate benefits of a positive sexual identity (especially after finally and officially outing herself as a non-virgin earlier this year).
“I’m famous,” she confesses, “but I’m not famous like freaking Brad Pitt or Jennifer Aniston. But in my weird little head, I just think we’re all here to inspire each other. We’re all equal. We just bounce off each other and show the world what we can do.” While it’s diverting to imagine how much folks might pay to see Brad and Jennifer and Britney bouncing off each other on pay-per-view, Ms. Spears makes no time for dirty minds. “I’m concerned with the kids out there,” she says, “I’m concerned with the next generation of people. I’m not worried about some guy who’s a perv and wants to meet a freaking virgin.”
It’s near-impossible to fully understand how Spears’ career looks from the inside out. Put me in that kind of limelight (let alone that kind of underwear) and I’m sure my common sense would buckle. But as viewed from the outside in, the choices that pop stars and their publicists make can be read more matter-of-factly, and what I see is a passable singer who got super-famous and, knowingly or not, has been humoring other people’s notions of barely-legal sex appeal from the get-go. From video directors to magazine editors to online shrine-keepers to Bob Dole, everyone else seems to be in on this relatively banal bit of information.
Doing it for 'the kids'? Right.
It must take a team of round-the-clock master manipulators and/or yea-sayers to shield Britney altogether from the rudimentary fact that she’s the biggest and most ubiquitous pop pin-up this side of Cindy Crawford. Alternately, it could be that she’s done a preternatural job of insulating herself from the reality in which “the kids” whom she purports to be so concerned about live each day. That she would regard her various cheesecake sessions as a way to of stir “inspiration” among her peers seems as preposterous as Snoop and Dre smoking weed for strictly medical reasons.
All of which is not to say that I wouldn’t love to give Britney the benefit of the doubt. Maybe that sheet-smart gaze as she tugs down her panties in the pages of Esquire was meant not as a universal come-on, but as an invitation to her fans and fellow artists to let it all hang out while discussing Gorecki and Chagall over a mug of Earl Grey. Or maybe she’s simply living out the inspiration she gleaned from Aniston’s bare-booty cover shoot for a 1996 issue of Rolling Stone. (The new Esquire cover is actually an homage to Angie Dickinson; Hollywood conspiracy theorists might suspect that Britney’s just subliminally angling for the lead in the inevitable remake of Police Woman.)
Asked about her own provocative, Lolita-vibed photo shoot for Rolling Stone in 1999, Britney once told MTV, “I wouldn’t do this for any other magazine, but because it is Rolling Stone, I think it’s fine and it’s tasteful.” Does that mean her standards have loosened over the years, or has Esquire simply made a swift credibility leap worthy of her exposed butt?
The real truth is that girlfriend has a new album to promote. The connection between Britney’s music and this particular newsstand striptease may be indirect, but image is everything, and she’s been a semi-nude megastar long enough to get comfortable with her symbolic sexuality. To repeatedly strip down to your skivvies while denying any sort of sexual self-perception (dismissing amorous onlookers as “pervs” to boot) is sad at best and insulting at worst. Maybe she and Madonna should be swapping conventional wisdom along with their spit. Better yet, maybe the media ought to stick to reviewing Britney’s CDs and performances and leave the improbable, mind-numbing doublespeak to the White House mouthpieces down in D.C.
James Diers is a freelance writer living in St. Paul, Minn.