Naming a Book (on using Facebook to figure out Britney Spears). A Guest Blog by Christopher Smit

Writing The Exile of Britney Spears: A Tale of 21st Century Consumption has led to odd interpersonal interactions. The conversation usually goes something like this:

“So, what are you working on these days?”
“Actually, a book on Britney.”
“Britney…who? Spears!? No, really, what are you doing?”

I’ve had many conversations like this, most of which ended with friends or colleagues trying to come across as open, let’s say, to new ideas, accepting the strange, unconventional turns of my popular culture postmodern critical studies. There have always been folks who wonder about the wide variety of topics that I, a media studies professor, spend my analytical and energies on: eyebrows have lifted about the validity of my work on the glam rockers Kiss, the death narratives of Elvis Presley, and other ponderings about the connections between pornography and cooking shows, the ideological content of sitcoms, and so forth.

But with Britney, there seems to be a more critical tone to the suspicions. Why on earth, in an academic climate that is demanding more prestigious publications from its practitioners, would I spend six precious months writing a book about this bubblegum topic? Couldn’t I chew on something much more substantial, important, culturally significant? Why pay so close attention to this woman who had become a sort of superhero of superficiality?

My answer was actually quite simple. The cultural weight of Britney Spears had been camouflaged by our cultural elitism, our dense misrecognition of the cultural, political, and sexual ramifications of her narrative. Thanks to one too many meetings with female students who told me their own stories of being sexually objectified, or even abused by their boyfriends or male peers, I could no longer remain ignorant of the fact that young women, who may even loathe artists like Britney, were under the constant shadow of the female persona played out on the popular culture stage. Bodies are being redefined in music videos just as they are being reformulated in classrooms, work laces, and other arenas of social life.

More particular, female bodies are being consumed in a brand-new way, the contours of which come clearly into focus when you put analytical energies towards the Britney Spears narrative. And so that’s what I did, mildly to unearth these negative energies that were affecting the lives of my students, and explicitly to engage the issues of spectacle, sexual objectification, disgust, exile, and social alienation from a reference point of the popular itself.

All that aside, once people got it, and certainly not all folks have, it was actually a quite positive experience. Though it should be said that this was a happy project to work through; quite the opposite. Any story of oppression, political or otherwise, carries with it the darkness of what a culture can do when it is either ignorant of consequences or blatantly abusive in its apathy. Page by page, as the book was written, I felt as though I was being dragged down deeper into my own context. And I suppose that is why I continued writing. Good academic work finds its heart something that is not right. Good academic writing puts words to unspoken thoughts. And so I kept writing, kept looking for some bright spot in this story. There were some. But far too few.

Facebook actually saved me a bit. At the end of the manuscript writing stage, I wondered if whether or not the joyless analysis was something that other people could relate to, could learn from. I feared it might have been too myopic, in some ways to personal of a critic’s journey to find an audience. As part of an experimental, get out of my own head experiment, I asked my Facebook friends to help me title the book. And while I knew most of them understood my focus (through personal discussions, other public presentations of the work, etc.) I didn’t know how they would react to this request. To my great pleasure, they offered a nugget of joy in an otherwise bleak horizon. Here are just some of the 44 titles they suggested:

The Edible Britney Spears
The Perishable Pop Princess
Banishing Britney
Gimme More Candy: The Edibility of an Icon
Pop Goes the Gluttony: Britney Spears as the 21st Century’s First Main Course
Pop Culture Cannibalism: The Eating, Excreting, and Exile of Britney Spears
Consumable Culture: Asparagus or Britney Spears
Crunchy Spears
Indigestible and Indestructible: Britney is a Twinkie
Britney Spears: Binge and Purge
Tears for Spears: Britney’s Mad World
Eat Me: Britney Spears and the Culture of Consumption
Spears in the Gutt

I say that these titles offered a bit of joy not only because some of them are quite funny, but because they came from a group of smart, witty, and eclectic group of people all using creative energy to figure out a big cultural dilemma. And we were able to do this on one central location, ironically offered by the same new-media that helped create the exile of Britney Spears itself.

No circle of life metaphor here, no cyclical theories. Just a new sort of realism that seems to be the context of most critical thinking in the 21st century. Cornell West calls it an immersion in the tragicomic. He explains that

At the moment in which we must look defeat, disillusionment, and discouragement in the face and work through it–a sense of the tragicomic keeps alive some sense of possibility. Some sense of hope. Some sense of agency (2009; 3).

Through Facebook, or Twitter, or whatever social networking platform that finds you on a particular day sharing your piece of chaos, we have the potential to play out, and indeed play with, tragedy in such a way that we might find new hope, new agency.

The Exile of Britney Spears: A Tale of 21st Century Consumption is now available.

If you are interested in guest blogging for Intellect please email for more details.

Posted by Christopher Smit. Posted by James Campbell at 10:49 (0) comments
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