New Britneyology

Britney: Mortification of the Flesh and Rebirth

Posted by: Karenannanina on: March 6, 2011

This is a historic article, written when Britney was in the midst of her woes in 2007-8.


If you poke among the heaps of trash written about Britney Spears over the last two weeks you’ll occasionally uncover a shiny little coin that’s been dropped there by someone visiting the neighborhood. These visitors are social and cultural commentators, down from their ivory towers to slum it in Britneyland for an hour or two.

One such is Mark Stevens, who proudly proclaims “Until she shaved her head, I had not spent a moment thinking about Britney Spears. She just seemed to be a piece of the celebrity trash that’s always sloshing around.” Thus having established his credentials as a person of taste and discernment – not to mention complete ignorance of his subject – he felt free and able to write about her.

Despite the damage to his delicate sensibilities, Britney’s shaving of her head and subsequent tattooing caught his attention, because he perceived at once that this was not just another wild impulse in the life of pop’s most wildly impulsive star. This was a moment when the world was right to hold its breath. This was a cultural signifier. It had MEANING. And this is how he analysed it:

What the press, which was busy moralizing (“her poor little boys”) and faux-empathizing (“she needs help”), never acknowledged was that Spears’s crack-up was the most interesting performance of her life. She seemed to be trying, with befuddled brilliance, to tell the truth. She recoiled from celebrity culture by mortifying her own flesh. She stripped herself, publicly, of her sexuality. She presented herself as a grotesque. Few gestures are as symbolically rich as the shaving of a head. That’s what monastics do when they reject the flesh to dedicate themselves to the spirit. In boot camp, soldiers lose their individuality with their hair. Delilah cut off Samson’s to make him defenseless. The French, after the liberation, shaved the heads of collaborators.

Now, much as I deplore this rent-an-expert semiotics 1.0.1, I actually think he’s on to something here. When the news came through about Britney’s Very Bad Hair Day I was talking on MSN to a girl whose stance is normally a judgmental one, but even she restrained herself from going on the message boards to say “Her new do looks like crap”. Quite honestly, we were in shock, and agreed that if either of us ever shaved her hair off, our suicide would be reported shortly afterwards. Call me a hysterical female, but I was in floods of tears, my heart pounding like a Max Martin drum track because I thought we were witnessing Britney’s last hours.

It reminded me so much of what happened to Princess Diana. In the days leading up to her death, her life had gone out of control, her whole story had begun to look like a Greek Tragedy, and the ending seemed inescapable. I was not one bit surprised when my mom woke me up with the news of the accident in Paris. I was expecting it. Yet I was one of those who cried non-stop for three days. I was one of the people who were told to get a life by a cynical opposition who wondered why we cared about someone we’d never met. But the trajectory of her life was so horrifying, pitiful and tragic – the death, not only of a woman, but of the whole iconic concept of the fairytale People’s Princess, Snow White made flesh. What could you do but cry?

Mark Stevens pondered the point too. ”Will she OD or commit suicide like Monroe? Will she have a Grand Guignol death like the fat-obsessed Anna Nicole Smith? No one publicly asks those questions, but that’s what everyone wonders.” The vulnerability of Britney Spears to suicide has bothered me for a while. Even if she isn’t clinically bipolar, she seems to suffer from extreme moodswings and her bad days are a lot worse than most people’s.

On top of that, she seems to be fascinated by ideas of death and rebirth. The “Everytime” video episode was whitewashed out in the face of a typically apopletic media, but there’s no doubt at all that in her original concept she killed herself and was reborn as a baby. And, more recently, “Someday” sounded like a cry in the wilderness by someone who had lost all sense of own identity and worth and was pinning her hopes on her baby to fulfil God’s plan for herself.

Britney is well known for having low self-esteem. Most stars have a steely, impregnable ego, and never question themselves for more than a second. It recalls a remark by ancient British orchestral maestro Sir Thomas Beecham. “The only time I remember ever making a mistake was once when I thought I was wrong about something – but it turned out that I had been right!” That’s the kind of self-confidence and self-love Britney could use.

In fact her situation goes far beyond low self-esteem. She actually seems to go through bouts of hating herself, her fame, her money, her entourage, her business, and just about every other aspect of this corporeal life. Maybe it’s her religious upbringing, but guilt, expiation of sin and the need for forgiveness seem to be stamped on her very being. She needs to be a sinner so she can seek redemption. Her sense of guilt for the break-up with Justin Timberlake seems never to have left her.

And these scars on her soul bring us to the “mortification of the flesh”. It’s a Catholic concept, and Britney’s a baptist. But extreme feelings of guilt are a Catholic preoccupation too, so her instincts are consistent. I agree with Mark Stevens – her desire to recoil from celebrity culture was evident as long ago as 2004. Back then she began to strip herself, publicly, of her sexuality. She was already becoming sick of her industry and the part she played in it.

None of this will ever be put forward as a written articulation of the philosophy of Britney Spears. She’s not a philosopher. She’s almost totally instinctive. But her instincts have told her that she is not really suited to playing the role of a hyped-up, constantly documented megastar. As she has grown older, she hasn’t really matured at all. She’s still trying to find herself and figure out how her life should be. And, more and more, she has been on a search for truer and more lasting values. Finally it all came to a head – to Britney’s head – on that dreadful night with the shaver in her hand. As Stevens says, That’s what monastics do when they reject the flesh to dedicate themselves to the spirit.

But, for every black night of the soul, Britney has a new dawning and a sighting of new hopes and ambitions. I have no doubt at all that she’ll soon be out there, looking good as new, charming us in her interviews and looking gorgeous in her photoshoots. My only real concern is that these upbeat moments seem to be becoming both rarer and shorter and nothing ever seems to come of them. Britney hasn’t stepped foot on a stage to sing for almost 3 years and almost every other “star on a break” can’t keep away from the occasional performance.

We’ll have to wait and see. Britney is incredibly respectful of authority figures. It wouldn’t really be hard for the people around her to take control of her now. Her biggest weaknesses always reveal themselves when she’s making her own decisions because she doesn’t know where the line is. That’s when she goes out of control. But right now I would guess she’s just about on the point of becoming institutionalised, which means handing over control of her life and becoming dependent on those authority figures. Over the next few weeks, if she stays in rehab, it will happen. She probably still has plenty of moments of rebelliousness, but those will go away in time.

It’s no good expecting her to come out of rehab changed into a responsible, mature, focused, professional young lady and mother. She will not come out stronger. She may talk the talk and look like a new woman, but inside of her she’ll be like a child. I hope everyone around her realises this fact and are getting ready to be with her and to guide her every step of the way for a few more years.

Only someone who has endured being primped and prodded, curled and coiffed and dressed up like a human Barbie on the scale Britney has could imagine the enormous allure of NOT dressing up to the nines for your wedding.

Perpetually on display, forever photographed, criticized for putting a single trainer-shod foot out of place, Britney badly needs to relax.

1 Response to "Britney: Mortification of the Flesh and Rebirth"

Never thought of it that way.

Comments are closed.

  • Karenannanina: I agree with you about the residency. It's the road to irrelevance for an artist. But a new album would be a golden blessing for her fans. Her albums
  • George: Spot on thoughts on the issue. Honestly, I don't... really care whether she does the residency or not? As long as there is new music, I'm fine. P.S: G
  • Sarah G: You should write an In-Depth of Glory or even Mood Ring (that's a groovy tune)