Britney Spears, Mother
Originally published in June 2006
My relationship with Britney Spears goes back almost seven years to the first time I ever heard “Baby One More Time.” I did not fit the target demographic for that song, was not a pubescent girl who curled my bangs and called my best friend to talk for hours about how Brandon looked at me after first period, and did she want to see the pictures I had done in pink marker of what I thought our babies would look like? But I was drawn to it like I was to many great pop songs because it stuck like cooked pasta to the inside of my brain and followed me everywhere. I hummed it as I got dressed for work every morning and would often walk from my car to the office in the exact dance steps from the video. If you talked to any of my coworkers during those years they would have told you that when I wasn’t napping underneath my desk I was reciting Britney Spears, and that I did both remarkably well.
“Oops! …I Did It Again” was, if at all possible, even catchier, and after watching the video of her in that red leather space suit I knew it was official: I was a Britney Spears fan. She embodied everything that was to be loved about being young and innocent, which at the core is about being not that innocent, but not very guilty either. She was beautiful and sun-kissed, perfectly round in all the right places with a wardrobe to accentuate her maturity. And still she seemed charmingly simple, untouched by life and all its ugliness. There are many mornings when my own clothes don’t fit right and I find another gray hair on my head, and I sometimes wish I could be 19 again, except I want it to be her 19.
I always thought Britney was better than her pop contemporaries, and not because she was good at singing. She was good enough at singing, but she was so much better at everything else involved in the package. She could dance and move around an entire crowd of dancers in a way that made it seem as if no one else was on stage. And even then it wasn’t because she was the best dancer. It was the shape of her body, the way she snapped her head, the symmetry between the glare in her eyes and the pout in her lips. She made it seem effortless, that being young and beautiful was what she was born to do and would continue to do for the rest of her life.
For years I couldn’t watch Britney give interviews, and not just because she seemed to have a piece of chewing gum permanently attached to the side of her mouth. For me it was a perfect photograph coming to life and smelling like the mold between a pair of sweaty toes. Her answers always made it seem as if she hadn’t passed second grade, and I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that someone with that much money hadn’t hired someone to teach her how to put together a subject with a corresponding verb. Why had no one in her team of publicists and stylists and lawyers pulled her aside and said, “If you say it this way, you will sound like you’re speaking English.”
And then Kevin happened, and along with turning down the volume I had to look away. The home videos they turned into the series “Chaotic” were nothing short of frightening, and not because she behaved recklessly. You’re supposed to smoke cigarettes and drink and have a lot of sex on the dining room table when you’re that age, but when you record it and PLAY IT BACK? FOR THE WORLD? You then can’t tell the story of that part of your life with any perspective, with the healing and insight that comes with distance. I cannot imagine having a recording of my early twenties, because now that I am a decade older I like to think about that period of my life as a rather funny swan dive into Hell. But if I could actually watch those years on video it would probably playback as more of an uncomfortable belly flop.
It was once Britney got pregnant, though, that I really had a hard time believing what I was seeing: the many, many times she was photographed barefoot in public or looking like she hadn’t showered since last century. Why would someone as rich as she is, with as much fame and attention, walk out of the house looking like that when she knows a picture of her bra-less nipples are going to show up the next week in magazines across the country? It was less a disapproving reaction than a confused one, and I was fascinated with the anthropological implications of this superstar showing up in photographs screaming: PLEASE JUDGE ME HARSHLY.
And that’s what everyone has done. She cannot leave her house now without the television or the Internet picking her apart, without another book of photographs being published that will be manipulated to make it seem as if she is a terrible parent. And I say “manipulated” because while I may disagree with her taste in clothes and footwear, I do not think that she is a terrible mother. When Britney gave birth she increased her circle of critics ten-fold, because now it’s not just the readers of tabloid magazines who are going to judge her. Now she has to answer to the harshest and meanest critics in the world: other mothers.
As awful as this may sound to some people, I think Britney now embodies a lot of what motherhood is really about, especially motherhood during the very early months of a child’s life. I remember those months as a time when I left the house dressed in a t-shirt wrinkled from having slept in it three nights in a row, with my hair a ratted mess because it didn’t matter. Motherhood is about not knowing sometimes how to form complete sentences because every molecule of the brain is focused on surviving the next hour. It’s about making a lot of mistakes, mistake after mistake after mistake, because it is something you learn only as you live it. Some of us give our kids too much sugar, others let them watch too much TV, some of us yell unnecessarily. She was photographed driving with her child in her lap. This doesn’t make any of us bad mothers, it just makes us human.
After all the time that I wanted her to be more polished in interviews, wanted her to somehow use her money to transcend the human experience, I have now changed my mind. So many things in Hollywood are airbrushed and glossed over, made to seem impossibly perfect, and here is this superstar living life without mechanically choreographing her movements, allowing some of us to feel a little less alone because even with all that money and fame she still makes mistakes. She is showing every glaring wrinkle of motherhood, and that is fundamentally a beautiful thing.