What if Britney Spears Wasn't Really That Lucky?

What if Britney Spears Wasn't Really That Lucky?

How white male executives shaped the taste of a generation.

Which Spice Girl are you? Are you more of a Britney or a Christina? These are questions we once gleefully asked ourselves and friends, because that's exactly what they hoped we would do.

Once, Josie and the Pussycats were not just characters on a hit Netflix show, but a girl band inspired by the Archie Comic universe and led by '90s starlet Rachel Leigh Cook in a movie of the same name. 2001's Josie and the Pussycats centered on brainwashing young consumers via subliminal messages inserted into pop music and was eerily self-aware, even featuring a NSYNC-Backstreet Boys hybrid (fictional boy band Dujour) and its members' manipulation at the hands of their managers (namely, middle-aged white men).

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The narrative of pop stars falling apart in the spotlight was not all that new in the early aughts, but it was one that we willfully chose to ignore. The "...Baby One More Time" line, "My loneliness is killing me," sung by a then 16-year-old teen dream Britney Spears, was overlooked in favor of tying up our t-shirts and dancing to an addictive Max Martin beat. We had Spears' face plastered on our walls, despite her being wrongly exploited as a minor. And our public fascination only inflated as she declined, proving that we loved her "almost to death," as author and pop culture expert Alice Bolin states.

Bolin's book, Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession, focuses on how women serve as the perfect canvas for our own projections, as well as the ideal victim. As the picture of purity and innocence, Bolin notes how a woman washing up on a beach (à la Twin Peaks) is enough to send a town into anarchy — murders considered so unspeakable it throws everybody's safety into jeopardy. Vacillating between chapters on how her favorite murder-mysteries used crimes to catalyze their narratives and the fall of the many female megastars that we might have seen coming, the book's title serves as a blanket term for all the characters and celebrities who, for our own entertainment, we've left to implode. They are whoever we want them to be, even in death.

In the book, you specifically pull out Britney Spears' lyric, "My loneliness is killing me." What is it about these pop icons that you find so appealing?

I was thinking about it like I was born in 1998. I turned 12 in the year 2000 and there was all of this pop culture that was geared towards us, from Britney Spears to Backstreet Boys and Spice Girls. I watched all of it and there was nothing I was skeptical of. I think there were a lot of people my age who grew up that way. We grew up thinking everything was for us.

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The younger generation probably was raised to be more critical.

Yeah, and I think there's so many things geared toward adults now. I mean, The OC was so formative in a number of ways. That show is hilarious and well-written but also very self-aware as this soap opera, and that's some of what I try to map when I think about reality TV or about Britney Spears. I just think about why these things are formative for me and my generation. They did make a difference and change the world.

When you were writing about these seminal moments in pop culture, what was their affect on you personally?

I was recently talking to this woman who was on The Real World and I asked her, "Do you feel like it impacted your sense of self?" She replied, "Yeah when I auditioned, they told me who I was and told me the role I was playing and then I was able to conform to that." That still has an effect on her today. I was thinking about how much growing up in the '90s, we were conditioned to play a role. I grew up with this fantasy of myself that was really informed by the identity markers that I was allowed to latch onto from popular culture.

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I wonder how much social media has influenced us, considering we're now obsessed with "real" people, rather than fictional characters.

I think our lives are even more virtual now than they were when I was a kid. We are really engaged in this fantasy and dream world that happens online, and there's so much more available to us. It was so top-down when I was a kid; anything Viacom executives put on TV I was consuming.

Is this concept of "fake news" making us more skeptical of what we consume?

Now a lot more people are educated in a lot of different ways than they ever were, but everything is artificial now. We're all engaging on this artificial plane... like Trump is president. I used to see things on TV and be like, "I want to buy something like that." Now you can see something on Instagram and buy it immediately. It's almost like everything is collapsed where you're no longer seeing the shirt on a show, the shirt is the show.

"It's almost like everything is collapsed where you're no longer seeing the shirt on a show, the shirt is the show."

You talk a lot about the concept of "dead girls." When did you realize this concept was bigger than fiction?

I was watching Twin Peaks for the first time and I was making jokes on Twitter about Dead Girl Shows. I wasn't making a critique, I was sort of just joking, but gradually I started to see that the roots were so deep and there were so many interesting psychological implications of all of the tropes. People would be like, "Are you going to write about JonBénet [Ramsey]?" I knew I wanted it to be a detective story of dead girls, I didn't want it to be an encyclopedia of dead girls. Also the way white women are kind of perversely valued, and as such are complacent in their own oppression and oppressing other people.

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There's this perceived "everywoman" thing about the missing white girl. Oh, that could be my friend or my sister or my neighbor's daughter.

White people in the U.S. are obsessed with this concept of safety. Everything is like, Is it safe? When something happens to white people, it's like everyone's safety is threatened and everything is falling apart. But when a person of color is threatened, it's like, Well that's to be expected.

And it's so easy to take these narratives and project it onto people of color — make a scapegoat out of immigrants.

That's something I want to think about in these Dead Girl stories. Of course, it's terrible that white women are always shown as the victim of violent crimes, but if you have the perfect victim you have the perfect villain, which is a person of color. Those archetypes go hand-in-hand. We have to be careful about not only perpetuating these misogynist stereotypes, but these racist stereotypes.

You also make such a good point about men's obsessive "protection of women," and how that can turn dark really fast.

If we think about it as a patriarchal society, then that patriarchal power will turn ugly very quickly. A lot of the time, literal dads are evil murderers.

"If we think about it as a patriarchal society, then that patriarchal power will turn ugly very quickly."

Are you seeing a shift in the narrative or anyone subverting these tropes?

Because we have so many new Dead Girl Shows, there are going to be some that are more successful at being sensitive and interesting than others, but I also don't want to give people a pass. If there is a Dead Girl Show that's politically interesting and subverts the narrative, then most people wouldn't enjoy it because it would be too disheartening to watch.

What's your take on a show that has a narrative that does both, like Gone Girl?

I love Gone Girl, and I think it's one-of-a-kind. It did a lot of things that were interesting in terms of critiquing American marriage and heteronormative ideas of what a successful couple is. I'm not really here to tell anyone to not tell the story they want to tell or consume what they don't want to consume, but I think we need to dismantle misogyny in a way that is in our real life and not just popular culture, because popular culture is just a mirror. So I hope we can have some better values in our day-to-day life, and that it will show up in our stories.

I wonder what Trump's America will produce in terms of fiction.

Me too. It's interesting. But it seems like the novels that are breaking through are kind of more quiet and odd. During the Obama era, we had a lot of interesting psychological thrillers where everything seems okay but there's actually a lot of bad stuff under the surface rather than things that are so much more overt when dealing with societal problems.

Going back to what you said earlier, how creepy is it to think how these old, white men shaped your interests and lifestyle.

I grew up in Idaho in such a small town, and it was like whatever was outside of my town or in a magazine or on TV was so much more real than my daily life. My daily life seemed fake and boring, I didn't ever see it reflected in anything I was consuming. People are so addicted to narrative; we love stories and we want more and more and more of them and that's where a lot of our love for stories that are brutal and fucked up come from. Those are the stories that challenge and surprise us, because we consume so many everyday. Catfish is one of my favorite TV shows of all time; it's so sad and it's so indicative of the way we live in America. The people being catfished are deeply bored and allowing themselves to be drawn into something.

We wouldn't exist without that early era of TV. I was so interested in what you said about how Britney was a blank canvas.

It's something that is so brilliantly calculated. She was the best at it. She knew her fans, a lot of them were 9 years old and then a lot of them were pervy men. She had to play both sides and she did it from the very beginning. I don't know how she and her handlers were so savvy, maybe they just got really lucky because she was very young and wasn't aware of these people sexualizing her to such an extent. Of course 16-year-olds like to be sexy and push the envelope, but I can't imagine what it would be like to all of a sudden to be at the center of this entire nation's imagination. So maybe her conflicting narrative were genuine conflicts within her. It's almost sad to think about because it also is so related to things that I write about when it comes to Dead Girls — just being a body for all of these men's feelings and fixations.

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Do you think stars can still get one over on us like that now? Or is there too much transparency?

I doubt it, not to the same extent. It's become a reference: Oh, she's being like Britney. Even Miley Cyrus tried to be sexy and it didn't really work. No one found it interesting. With Instagram, celebrities are now supposed to give us everything of their day-to-day lives. You cant have that type of naiveté anymore. I don't think it exists. We expect celebrity to surveil themselves... there's no mystery anymore.

For more information on Alice Bolin's Dead Girls, click here.

Photo via Getty