For some artists it’s easy to pinpoint the exact moment when they exploded onto the pop culture radar. For Britney Spears that moment was in November of 1998. I grew up in a small city in Indiana and in the fall of that year I was a sophomore in high school. I typically came home from school to watch Total Request Live on MTV with my younger sister. This was the peak of the TRL days, and that November Britney Spears’ video for “…Baby One More Time” premiered. There she was: a sixteen-year-old pop star in her Catholic schoolgirl get-up flaunting her dance moves and oozing with sex.
As a 16 year old myself, I was struggling to hide my sexuality while Britney seemed happy to expose hers every day after school. I knew enough about heterosexuality and teenage boys to understand that this video was meant to get me aroused. Her catchy songs might have been for the girls, but her toned stomach and her slutty outfit was meant to get teenage boys on her side. It did catch my interest, but for very different reasons: Britney was doing something I couldn’t do at 16. There was power in that. Power in the way she made boys feel. Of course, this was only the beginning. She would go on to numerous number one hits, bestselling albums, sold-out concerts, and enough drama to match it all.
In the music world, the late 1990s marked a boom in pop music that would be referred to as another wave of “bubblegum pop.” These were the years of white clean-cut teenagers (many of whom were former members of the revived Mickey Mouse Club) dominating the charts with catchy songs and videos rife with sexuality. While the songs and videos were selling sex, the personal interviews with these artists were sometimes attempting to do the opposite. In 1999, Britney famously told the world that she wanted to stay a virgin until she got married. This seemed at odds with the girl on the TRL countdown week after week. It was this perfect mix of sex and innocence that pushed her further into the spotlight.
Britney reigned over these bubblegum years and while I never truly considered myself a big fan, her music was always there. In those first years, she was played by my younger sister in the car or by the pool on lazy summer days. She became part of the background of my high school days, as did her pop-music buddies: ‘N Sync, Backstreet Boys, and Christina Aguilera. At my senior prom I remember a group of straight boys doing the full choreography to “Bye, Bye, Bye” on the dance floor. A closeted gay boy would never have dared.
When I finally came out in college, I quickly discovered Britney’s gay icon status. She had quickly become the Madonna for young gay men. Having been born in 1982, I always felt caught between the two divas (and truth be told, I’ve always preferred Whitney Houston over both of them). But I followed the news stories of Britney’s fall, the famous “Leave Britney Alone” video by now gay porn-star Chris Crocker, her shaved head, her babies, and her bare feet in that public restroom. When her later music came out, I danced to it on the floors of gay clubs, watched drag queens perform it on dimly lit stages, and cycled to it in weekly spinning classes at the YMCA. Britney was there, growing up right beside me. Each with our own ups and downs.
It wasn’t, however, until the summer of 2009 that I read my first Britney Spears poem. I remember flipping through The American Poetry Review and stopping to read new work by Tony Hoagland (one of my favorite contemporary poets). One of these poems was called “Poor Britney Spears.” Yes, my first Britney poem was not by some young girl or gay fanboy, it was by a straight middle-aged white male poet. The poem would later be included in Hoagland’s 2010 book Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty published by Graywolf Press.
The oddness of his subject choice is noted in the opening of the poem: “[Poor Britney Spears] is not the beginning of a sentence / you hear often uttered in my household.” That’s the thing about Britney: her presence is hard to ignore even for those outside her demographic like Hoagland.
The poem quickly turns to evaluating our obsession with celebrity and our desire to use them however we please. He refers to Britney as “a kind of voodoo doll,” “a pink, life-size piece of chewing gum,” and “my adorable little monkey.” These all imply someone else is in control. That we, the audience, play a role in her ups and downs. We stick in the pins, chew the gum, and make the monkey dance.
The jumping off point for this particular poem was Britney’s much talked about attempt at a comeback at an MTV awards show in 2007. The performance was clumsy, desperate, hard to watch, but the perfect foil to her Catholic schoolgirl days. It was the confirmation of how far she’d fallen and the media and viewers ate it up. Hoagland’s poem even argues that this was part of the plan: “it wasn’t by accident, was it?” This points to the fact that we enjoy celebrity success as much as failure. This is proven by how many people are now considered celebrities for often doing rather “embarrassing” things (like releasing a sex tape).
Hoagland’s poem isn’t necessarily exploring new territory and Britney’s rise, fall, and comeback is something that has been played out over and over again with various celebrities. Yet something feels different. Perhaps it is her perfect combination of innocence and sexuality (as noted earlier), or her true extremes: pop chart goddess to barefoot redneck mother to pop star again.
The speaker of the poem is part of the mass as well as an observer. He writes, “First we made her into an object of desire, / then into an object of contempt, / now we turn her into an object of compassion?” The “we” is inclusive. The question mark at the end of these lines is echoed in the next: “Are you sure we know what the hell we’re doing?” He admits to being part of a system, yet is questioning that system and that “compassion.” In other words, should we be doing this?
We use celebrities like Britney Spears to entertain us and not just through their music. The amount of personal information one can find out about celebrities has only increased with the Internet, the 24-hour news and entertainment channels, and the rise of reality-TV. The audience is in more control than ever before and part of Hoagland’s poem is pointing the finger at us: the viewers. Towards the end he imagines Britney as “a gladiatrix / who strolls into the coliseum / full of blinding lights and tigers.” Of course, there isn’t a coliseum without an audience rooting for blood and destruction. Hoagland isn’t the first to compare our culture’s obsession with celebrity and reality TV shows to coliseum days.
The poem ends with the duality that lives in so many of us and in Britney herself: “with one of my voices I shout, ‘Jump! Jump, you little whore!’ / With another I say, // in a quiet way that turns down the lights, / ‘Put on some clothes and go home, Sweetheart.’” In a way, Hoagland is returning the power to Britney herself: You can end this all, just leave. He is also evoking the virgin/whore idea by using the words “whore” and “sweetheart.” She has served as both for the viewing public.
Hoagland is not the only poet to use Britney Spears in poetry. I later found more and more poets utilizing the pop princess in verse. C.S. Carrier’s poem “Marry Me” was published in his 2008 book After Dayton published by Four Way Books. Carrier is another straight male poet. His poem is a direct address to Britney and much more sexually charged than Hoagland’s. Hoagland’s piece works more as an observation of this cultural phenomenon, while Carrier’s speaker has been deeply affected by Britney as a sex goddess.
Again Britney is an object or plaything. The second line of the poem calls her a “plastic doll with comb and microphone,” which clearly evokes a Barbie doll image. Britney as object is carried throughout the entire poem. It is a direct address that repeatedly states, “marry me,” but what does he want to marry? He wants to marry her “schoolgirl uniform,” her “nautilus arms,” and her “tanningbed skin.” This is Britney Spears in pieces. She’s not a whole woman.
The poem isn’t all male gaze. There are also moments of self-reflection. The most interesting parts of the poem are those that tell us something more about the speaker. In the first stanza he mentions “shushing” the room whenever she came on MTV and singing along. He states, “People’d laugh because they didn’t understand.” This evokes the power Britney had/has on the hetero-male mind, especially ones growing up on videos like “…Baby One More Time.”
Britney seems to gain more and more power as the poem continues. Toward the middle, she appears in the flesh of a girl the speaker kisses (no longer plastic): “Last girl I kissed was a girlfriend who wasn’t mine. / It was at a party, behind the house. / I used my tongue & kicked over a bowl of grapes. / She had your eyes & sang ‘Hit Me Baby.’” It seems important that the girl is a girlfriend of someone else. She, like Britney, is unattainable. This section also plays with the phrase “hit me baby,” which can sound both threatening and sexually charged. Britney like so many female pop stars of the last decade or so, play with the image of female power but often couple it with submissiveness (see Rihanna).
The poem ends with an iconic image of Britney: “Marry me, as an albino python twists your shoulders, / as you destroy me with an encore.” This evokes her famous performance of “I’m a Slave 4 U” at the 2001 MTV Music Video Awards. This is once again her balancing innocence (or servitude in this case) with powerful sexuality. Who is actually in control? The snake image is no mistake. It also feels like the perfect ending for the poem. The speaker has been completely destroyed by Britney, yet he doesn’t seem to mind. Will she marry him? Of course not. In one way, he’s become her slave. For the speaker, no woman can truly compare to this image of Britney.
Britney, however, appears in poetry earlier than both Hoagland’s and Carrier’s poems. In 2006 Red Hen Press published Ryan G. Van Cleave’s humorously titled book The Magical Breasts of Britney Spears. Van Cleave is best known for writing the first memoir about video game addiction, but before that he wrote an interesting collection of pop culture poems that examine our connection to pop stars, famous golfers, game shows, Blue Man Group, and more.
Britney serves as a guiding or connecting force in the book. She pops up in eleven poems and is obviously in the title. Some of these focus on Britney or people related to her, but in many of the poems Britney is just a quick reference or repeatedly an object of lust for the speaker, who is a straight married man who has a list of five celebrities his wife will allow him to sleep with. Britney is on that list.
Van Cleave’s poems are very in the moment and were written before Britney’s life and career took a few downward turns (though some hint that he saw this coming). Van Cleave’s Britney is the not the “Poor Britney Spears” of Hoagland’s poem. The majority of Van Cleave’s book is an attempt to make sense of our lives in relationship to our everyday entertainment. The pop figures aren’t really front and center here. The speaker seems more important than Britney.
In the opening poem in the book, “Music Theory as Chaos.com, or the Magical Breasts of Britney Spears,” the speaker is teaching Walt Whitman to “a pack of beaky, cheeky geeks” and failing. Teachers can easily relate to how quickly the speaker’s lesson spins out of control. As the poem progresses, his students begin to examine Britney in relation to Whitman. His know-it-all student states, “Britney’s / a perfect example of a distinctly American mentality, the poster child of hard / bodies and soft music. She’s the pop icon extension of Whitman, but also / the antithesis of him, inevitably.” This observation is put into the mouth of the student and not the teacher, which partly showcases the teacher’s own failure here.
Yes, in many ways, Britney is distinctly American and her journey would not be the same in another country, but does this make her an extension of Whitman’s America? Would Whitman approve? Or does she actually turn out to be the exact opposite of what one hoped America might become? Van Cleave doesn’t give us clear answers, but concludes the poem by acknowledging the power Britney has over nearly everyone (a theme in Britney poems). At the end the speaker is at home watching Britney’s Pepsi commercial. He writes, “Even my dog paused mid-scratch to eyeball // the screen.” She’s so American that even man’s best friend can’t resist her.
Britney’s presence is carried throughout the book in different ways. Van Cleave’s approach, however, is a little colder. Britney doesn’t get much humanity in his poems. She is there as a figure of pop culture that isn’t quite real, which is how many view celebrities. In other places, he goes into the head of an elementary school friend of Britney’s and of her make-up artist, but these are more relatable to the everyday person and not the celebrity.
The end of the collection includes a poem titled “Britney Must Die, or A Sonnet from the lips of the Milwaukee Pyromaniac Who Once Was a Music Critic But Heard Britney’s ‘…Baby One More Time / (Your Drive Me) Crazy / I’m a Slave 4 U/ Toxic / Oops!...I Did It Again / Stronger / Everytime’ Chris Cox Megamix and Had a Complete Breakdown.” For such a great title, the poem is a bit of a let down. It plays out as an actual fantasy of killing Britney by fire. The speaker worries though: “Perhaps she won’t burn, perhaps her pact with / Satan’s lawyers taught her to quench all flames / into the sparks from which they came.” But the speaker wants to try anyway. This poem, again, showcases an un-human Britney that is worthy of being burned at the stake. Van Cleave’s Britney never comes fully alive for us, but works as a static image to throw things at (Whitman, The Muppets, fire, tattoo regret, etc.).
Van Cleave’s book, however, is a great precursor to a newer collection completely devoted to Britney Spears. D. Gilson’s chapbook Brit Lit was released in 2013 by Sibling Rivalry Press and contains eighteen poems all dealing with various aspects of Britney.
More space provides more variations and ideas to emerge. Gilson is a young gay poet who sees Britney in a slightly different light. Gilson’s Britney has more layers and his work ventures even farther into the imagination with such poems as “Yoga with Britney Spears” and “From rehab, Britney reads Ariel and dreams of Sylvia Plath at the Stonewall Inn.” As the back of the book proclaims: “‘She is larger than life, she contains multitudes,’ W. Whitman says of Britney Spears.” Yes, Whitman and Britney appear together again. If you can’t tell from that line and those titles, the book is playful and funny, yet gets at the heart of our connection to celebrities and what they represent to us, which is often different from person to person (or poet to poet).
In the opening poem of the book “Spin,” Gilson writes, “As I stand at the checkout of the supermarket, / Britney Spears is there, looking up at me, / eyes glossier than usual, lips glossier than usual, / all breasts and swollen motherhood, no maternity / shirt holding her back. What have we done /to you?” Like Hoagland’s poem, this opening of Brit Lit is taking responsibility and using an inclusive “we.” The poem goes on to use a line from Hoagland, which shows Britney poems intentionally communicating with each other (Gilson has done his homework): “We watched you on television once, and Tony, / drunk maybe, said, Put on some clothes and go home, // Sweetheart.” It is a fitting opening. Gilson is paying tribute to the Hoagland poem, but is about to take Britney in a lot of different directions. He also puts Tony Hoagland’s line in the mouth of a “drunk maybe” named Tony, which gives the line a different spin. Should we take it at face value? Probably not.
As the book continues we get to see Britney in many different situations. In the poem “Britney Spears Watches CNN,” she is eating fried chicken and engaging with the speaker of the poem. In Brit Lit, the speaker isn’t an observer, he is right there with Britney. After seeing a news story about an earthquake in Myanmar, Britney asks “Where is Me-and-Mart?” The speaker doesn’t know how to explain it all to her. Here Britney works as a stand-in for the average American who is not well versed in world events, but the poem isn’t that simple.
Before the speaker can answer Britney, CNN switches to another story: “Britney Spears /at it again! Drugs and sex, just another / Beverley Hills night for our former / Mouseketeer.” This perfectly captures the odd juxtaposition of our news channels: one story is about a deadly earthquake in another part of the world and the next story is about a pop star’s night on the town. Are these equal? Does one get more attention? The poem ends with “I don’t know how to tell her, / you can’t believe everything they say.” A poem that begins poking fun at Britney’s intelligence quickly turns to a commentary on the media and even compassion for Britney as she eats another wing and watches her own life on display. The unasked question might be is it any wonder Britney doesn’t know anything about Myanmar?
The book uses the news and world events in other poems as well. One of the strongest poems in the collection, “By Way of Composure,” begins with “Seven more soldiers died in Afghanistan. / A roadside bomb exploded. I spilled // coffee on a barista earlier. None of us, / not one of us, is able.” This poem focuses more on the speaker and less on Britney. It is also a careful collection of large events paired with everyday events. Soldiers are dead; I spilled coffee. In some ways, it brings into question the idea of what matters most to us. Soldiers dying in a roadside bomb is tragic, yet spilling coffee probably has more of an effect on our day. The other events in the poem range in scale of seriousness and personal connection. The speaker’s mother is having “more tests” implying illness and later the speaker witnesses a man on the train crying over his wife losing their baby, which is again tragic, yet the speaker doesn’t know this person.
Britney is absent from the first half of the poem, but appears suddenly in the man on the train’s newspaper: “On the cover, / a bald woman wields an umbrella against / an SUV as photographers’ flash bulbs /set ablaze again and again. The headline: / BRITNEY SPEARS HAS COLLAPSED!” Fans of Frank O’Hara will immediately see the clear reference to his famous poem about Lana Turner, which includes him seeing a headline reading “Lana Turner has collapsed!” O’Hara ends his commentary with “I have been to plenty of parties / and acted perfectly disgraceful / but I have never collapsed / oh Lana Turner we love you get up.” O’Hara, on the one hand, sees himself in Turner, but also sees a distinction. His poem has a dose of tough love: “we love you get up.” O’Hara is echoing a common theme of the gay man’s connection to pop culture divas.
Gilson’s poem also turns to the “we” at the end: “We want to take care // of her because this is what one does: one tries / to save anything so wholly incapable of saving.” This places Britney along side the other events in the poem. We want to save the speaker’s mother, the lost baby, the soldiers in Afghanistan, and we want to save Britney Spears, but we don’t really know how. Yet, all of these figures seem incapable of surviving without help. The poem also confronts how much we are bombarded with news both personal and public on a daily basis and expresses how overwhelming it can be.
In other places in the book, Britney serves as mentor or spiritual guide for the speaker as he comes to terms with his own identity as a gay man. In the poem “Driving back to Missouri from New Orleans,” the speaker forces his father to take a detour past Britney Spears’ childhood home in Kentwood, Louisiana. He writes, “Some years later, Dad / will learn his son is gay” and “I can’t / explain to him what it is to be queer / from the country, to dream in pop / music and choreography, in eye / shadow and excess from the sidelines / of a football game.” The father figure can’t understand this, but the speaker thinks/hopes Britney can. Here Britney’s past and country-ness is important to the speaker. She came from this place and went on to explode in bright colors and in a fantasy pop world perfectly choreographed.
The poem ends with “I need to see where / she comes from, to see if life is what / I fear, you can never get away, or what / I dream, you never have to come back.” There are bits of humor in this poem, but the underlining current is a young gay man in the moment between fearing and dreaming. Can I escape? Can I do what I dream? Or will I always be held by this place? These are experiences many of us go through, gay or straight, as we struggle to come to terms with where we grew up and what we want or hope for in our own lives. This is a journey Britney, herself, went through.
The final poem in Gilson’s chapbook is titled “Britney Spears Must Die” and takes place at Britney’s bedside in Rockland Psychiatric Hospital. The speaker is visiting her trying to keep her alive by saying “Tell me about the time / you danced with that albino / boa constrictor.” According to the speaker this is her favorite story to tell and he’s heard it all before. We don’t get the story in the poem, instead the speaker tells us about a dream he’s had where his boyfriend drives him off a cliff in Maine and he’s greeted by Britney in heaven, which is “full of life, queers, / and Jews and performance / artists, Proust scholars and / bakers.” Death works in the poem on many different levels: real death, dream death, the death of the celebrity, and the death of the image of Britney. The speaker writes, “if Britney Spears must die, / how can the rest of us live?” As in the other poems, Britney is important to the speaker’s own sense of identity and coming to terms with his sexuality and “country” upbringing. Just like I saw power in Britney as a 16-year-old, the speaker of these poems needs Britney, yet the final poem is titled “Britney Spears Must Die,” which echoes one of the last Britney poems in Van Cleave’s book.
The final lines of the poem (and book) are in Britney’s voice. As she coughs and squeezes the speaker’s hand, she says, “In the end there is only this: / we are all here to perform.” Here Britney is providing a bit of wisdom and connecting all of us together. “We are all here to perform” implies that we all play different roles: the pop star, the washed-up celebrity, the young gay boy, the country boy, the Britney fan, and perhaps one day the confident gay man. We are all performing, which is true of poetry. In these pages there are glimpses of Gilson the person, but, as a reader, you don’t know which parts are “true” and, which are pure “performance.” Like the pop star, the poet walks that line between reality and fiction.
Perhaps it is this fantasy/reality that draws contemporary poets to figures like Britney Spears. She represents something truly American in the way that she is a perfect example of the rags to riches story, but also in the fact that she is so truly flawed. In her, we can see it all: stardom, sex, failure, motherhood, success, and dreams. She can be a stand-in for so many different emotions and desires. One can feel sorry for her, love her, and hate her almost at the exact same time. She is everything right about America and everything wrong. In this sense, she is perfect for poetry. Her story can take many forms and changes depending on the perspective.
It’s been fifteen years since I watched Britney’s first hit video. I’ve grown and changed as a man. I’ve moved out of Indiana. I’ve had my own success as a writer, but nothing quite compares to the power Britney still has. She’s still part of the discussion in current culture. There is real power in that.