The Civil Religion of Celebrity


Today I did not weep because of war, but because of woman. The November 19, 2007, issue of US Weekly included no fewer than eight specific mentions of a specific sort of woman: Britney Spears. First, there was a financial reminder: Britney’s perfumes “Curious” and “Fantasy” have earned more than $84 million (a scented sale superior to Jennifer Lopez, Elizabeth Taylor, and Sarah Jessica Parker). (p. 14) Second, there was the celebrity comparison: “The paparazzi kind of figured out that we’re quite boring and Britney’s far more interesting, so they go to her house,” remarked Victoria Beckham on owing her privacy in L.A. to Spears. (p. 18) Third, there were the “Brit Look-alike Winners!” (p. 20), the notification of her tanning salon visit on November 3 (p. 23), and the cover page declaration that her parenting coach had declared her “SICK!” as “mental illness signs worsen” and she “leaves boys in car while shopping” and “denies them trick-or-treating” and (inexplicably, it seems) “swaps clothes with bartender.” Deep inside, reporter Kevin O’Leary offered a 6-page answer to the headlining question: “Does She Even Care?” Pictures of “zombie-like” Britney “chugging” a Red Bull, shopping for two $18,000 chandeliers, and offering “interactions with her boys…that were not child-centered.” (p. 55) Her “deteriorating personal appearance” and “emotional disconnect,” her “delayed adolescence” and “prolonged apathy” were all are detailed with breathless glee. We learn: “She’s Wearing Tops As Dresses!”; “Runs Over a Cop’s Foot!”; and “Parties Till 3 A.M.” Pictures with neon outline blared the collapse of a national icon, the demise of a once-upon-a-time princess of bubble gum pop.

Remembering the before Britney will cause morning-after headaches, ones where you shake and shake but still can’t quite see how you got from there to here. Then, it seemed so shiny and pink: her dance moves, her teen bop boyfriend, her short skirts and chewy chorus lyrics. All of it seemed easy and inconsequential, purchased merely for the price of prime time years with Mickey Mouse and an exported, eviscerated southern lass from rural Americana: “Britney Spears was raised as a Southern Baptist in her home state of Mississippi, part of the Bible Belt, and supposedly entered the music scene as a relatively devout Christian,” explains another reporter, “supposedly” his way into snark.

Now, we gorge on her contrasting decline, watching every wig and whacked out maneuver (accessorized by two toddler children) with pleasure oddly explained. What could be so very good about this public snuff film, the viewing of a body mad maggot by self-mutilation and tasteless expenditure? Something is good. Something is very, very good, or else her face (and her boys’ faces, and her mother’s face, and her sister’s face, and her multiple ex-husbands' faces, and her current paramours' faces, and her personal assistant’s faces) would not become, for us, easy insignias, more quickly read than tea leaves or reversals in Iraq.

The October 30, 2007, issue of Christian Today gave some version of hope: “A megachurch in Kentucky is collecting letters of love and support to send to pop singer Britney Spears amid drugs and alcohol problems and a rocky battle with her ex-husband over custody of their two children… The pastor of the 8,000-member congregation said that Spears had made ‘devastating life choices’ but encouraged members of the church to offer the same compassion and prayers as they would to those with non-celebrity status.” Prayer pops up from a pastor's grocery cart, as check-out lines squeal about her absent underwear, driving delinquencies, and pediatric abandonment.

Someday, though, no matter the megachurch maneuver, we’re going to feel badly. Alongside our mute tolerance of an impossible set of guerrilla wars, we’re also going to wonder: how could we let her get this far gone? Someday we will place the most symbolic Britney Spears smack in the middle of our 21st century decline; she will become a cruelly ironical counterpane to the claims of sacral nationhood and moral family re-making. As we squabble over religion in public discourse (the public display of religious ideation), it is well worth wondering where stands the religious imagination of this most public sacrifice.


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