The Exile of Britney Spears: A Tale of 21st Century Consumption
by Christopher R. Smit
Intellect, Bristol, 2011
127 pp. Paper, £21.95/$40
Reviewed by Anthony Enns
Department of English, Dalhousie University
Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada B3H 4P9
The Exile of Britney Spears is an extended meditation on the nature of popular music fandom and the reasons why audiences shift so suddenly from praising to punishing pop stars. The book primarily focuses on the rise and fall of Britney Spears, yet the author emphasizes that these abrupt shifts are not uncommon; in fact, they seem to define the contemporary consumption of popular music.
This topic was perhaps most famously discussed by Theodor Adorno in his 1941 essay “On Popular Music,” which argued that fan resentment occurs whenever the culture industry begins to promote a new artist, as the pressure to consume the old artist is relaxed and fans suddenly realize that the older style of music is actually formulaic and predictable. Adorno also argued that the severity of this backlash is in direct proportion to the performer’s popularity, as the most successful performers experience the most sudden and dramatic reversals in popularity. Adorno emphasized, however, that this resentment ultimately serves the interests of the culture industry by forcing audiences to repress the realization that new musical styles are just as artificial and standardized as older styles. This constant cycle of promotion, consumption, resentment, and repression thus results in a dizzying array of pop stars who fall into anonymity just as quickly as they rise to prominence.
Adorno’s theory offered an extremely compelling explanation for why popularity transforms so quickly into resentment, yet it has largely been dismissed by contemporary media scholars. The field of star studies focuses, instead, on the ways in which individual performers are able to resist the packaging and promotional techniques of the culture industry, and the field of audience studies similarly focuses on the power of individual consumers to resist the culture industry’s strategies of manipulation and domination. A new trend has emerged in recent years, however, as media scholars are increasingly turning their attention to the ethics of consumption. Rather than emphasizing the resistant potential of audiences, therefore, an ethical approach to popular music focuses on how audiences are complicit in the love/hate cycle of consumption. This approach was perhaps most famously employed by Margo Jefferson in her book On Michael Jackson, which examines the cruelty of fans and their tendency to punish the people they praise. Smit applies a similar approach to Britney Spears by explicitly condemning fans for their sudden resentment. While Smit does not ignore the role that the culture industry played in transforming Britney into a marketable commodity, he primarily focuses on the ethical responsibility of consumers, who need to resist ideological interpellation through a greater sense of compassion and an awareness of the genuine humanity of pop stars.
Smit, thus, does not treat the rise and fall of Britney Spears as part of the exploitative logic of capitalism, but rather as a function of the voyeuristic and sadistic pleasures of popular culture. While never explicitly admitting that he is a fan of Britney Spears, Smit repeatedly notes that he feels a sense of personal shame and guilt for her victimization—a shame that we all share, whether we are fans or not, as we are all complicit in the system that made Britney possible: “[I]f any element in your life garners meaning from digital, mediated, or Internet-based platforms, you are part of the permission given to exile Britney Spears. By participating in the system, you are valuing it. And when we value something, we give it power” (93). Smit argues that this system also makes the real Britney invisible, as her media image becomes a pure simulation. Instead of representing the true Britney, in other words, she is transformed into an assemblage of cultural codes that are used to evoke familiar connotations and cultural stereotypes.
This analysis of stereotypes leads Smit to compare the famous photograph of Spear’s exposed vagina to photographs of lynchings: “This picture looks like a lynching to me. And I mean that in the most brutal way. This is the hum of the lynching crowd, the energy of the people who let anger and frustration become their pure catalyst” (110). Smit also describes the spectators of this image as an unruly and vicious “mob” (110). While many cultural critics interpret the mutilation of Barbie dolls by children as a rejection of gender socialization, Smit reads the mutilation of Britney dolls as yet another metaphor for what fans have done to her in real life: “Is the manipulation done by the little girl in her backyard any different from anyone else’s manipulations of the real Britney?...what really is play all about? Manipulation. Violence. New reality” (72). Consumption thus becomes an act of mutilation, as the public fascination with youth, bodily perfection, and alluring sexuality conceals a second-order desire for violence and suffering.
Smit also compares the images of Britney’s mental breakdown to photographs of people with disabilities. Smit argues that Britney, like many celebrities, simply wanted to retreat, “to take back some sense of who they are to themselves” (115), yet the public treated this retreat as a mental disability. Celebrities who attempt to evade the spotlight are, thus, framed as disabled, and their images are, thus, comparable to the images of celebrity “freaks” whose photographs were distributed and sold as commodities. Smit’s previous work focused specifically on media representations of people with disabilities and the way in which these figures are “othered” by the camera. In a sense, then, Smit’s most recent book can be seen as a continuation of this project, although instead of examining the camera’s fascination with the deformed and the grotesque, he is now looking at the camera’s fascination with pop stars, which he reads as yet another form of “otherness.”
Smit is, thus, proposing a new model of spectatorial empowerment—not in the sense that the spectator actively resists the culture industry’s strategies of manipulation and domination, but rather in the sense that the spectator bears some degree of responsibility for the content of the media being consumed. This idea is made particularly clear in the epilogue of the book where Smit examines fan responses to Britney’s music video, “Womanizer.” While one devoted fan reads this video as a representation of an empowered Britney, as a sign that she has gained a renewed sense of self-confidence, Smit argues that “the video stands as a final symbol of the breaking of Britney Spears” (126). Rather than interpreting the fan’s (mis)reading as a sign of ideological resistance, therefore, Smit interprets the fan’s praise as a continuation or perhaps even the culmination of an ongoing cycle of abuse.
The Exile of Britney Spears is clearly informed by a tremendous wealth of academic scholarship, yet for the most part these critical sources only appear in the endnotes. The book should, thus, be accessible to Britney fans (which was clearly the author’s intention), although whether these fans will like it remains unclear, as it is an explicit indictment of their tendency to punish, humiliate, and victimize their beloved pop star. The new “ethical turn” in media studies, thus, represents a fundamentally new way of thinking about the consumption of popular music, as it presents the performers, rather than the audience, as the true victims of the culture industry.