On Critical Theory, Cultural Studies, and the
Global Political Economy of Britney Spears Inc.
By Phillip Vannini
The study of popular culture
is divided traditionally along two main lines: a) the position that pop culture
is simply not a subject worthy of serious academic consideration and b) the
view that the popular is of inferior quality to the taste, intelligence, and
value of high culture and the people who practice it. The very idea of writing about Britney Spears, the subject
of this essay, presumably ought to be kept hidden from the orthodox academic
brass. At best, some of my
colleagues would suggest that we ought to consider a popular icon such as Miss
Spears as the epitome of our contemporary fascination with the trivial and the
pervasiveness of consumer ideology.
At worst, we could just label her pop art and justify silliness as
postmodern play. In this brief
essay I will abscond from both approaches.
Allow me to manifest my ‘'bias' before I introduce
the subject of this essay. My
sentiments toward Britney Spears and what she represents are mixed. On one hand, I loathe the sound of her
music and her manufactured appearance.
Mostly I resent her monopolization of airwaves, written media, retail
outlets, music stores, and ultimately my email junk folder. On the other hand I admit I am fascinated
with her success. Some time ago
I asked myself how she could be so popular and why. Following a classic approach in communication
studies I attempted to find an answer in her music, precisely in the lyrics
of her songs. That approach turned
out to be highly unsatisfactory. Subsequently, I dug up my notes, articles, and books on Theodor
Adorno. Going back to the classics,
as it often does, provided me with easier answers (and more questions) than
I was prepared to find. I then
followed a different approach, by grounding early critical theory in the tradition
of cultural studies, political economy, and new French theory. What follows is to be taken as a search
for answers to my initial question: why is Britney Spears so successful? I will first offer the reader a simple
solution, by applying Adorno's critical theory on popular culture to the study
of the Britney Spears phenomenon. I
will then point out the limitations of this approach and offer a more comprehensive
set of answers by discussing Douglas Kellner's work on critical theory.
Following Kellner (1995) I believe that a comprehensive analysis of
the Britney Spears Inc. phenomenon ought to entail a multi-faceted approach
2) A sociological look at the contradictions and
similarities between the professed religious practices of Britney Spears and
her flaunted-yet-coy hypersexuality;
3) A media analysis of the contemporary social
construction of gender and sexuality;
6) An ethnographic approach to the rise of the Britney
Spears phenomenon in relation to the consumption of her image by teenage and
7) At last, such study ought to delve into the constitution of Britney Spears as a global corporation  whose interests run the gamut from music, television, book, and film production to product endorsement and design, and finally to her influence as a global cultural icon.
Without pretensions of
completeness, in the sections to come I will attempt to provide a summary
overview of the study of the Britney Spears phenomenon following the cited
Oops...! Adorno Did it
In the work of the Frankfurt
School, culture industries are reflections of the enduring social malaise of
commodity fetishism and false consciousness. Monopoly capitalism shapes the tastes, values, ideas, and
lifestyle practices of the masses.
According to this view, for example, MTV, television network channels,
the recording industry, distribution labels, and other corporations (Britney's
sponsors such as Pepsico International, Tommy Hillfiger, etc.) shape the
masses' tastes and preferences and inculcate the desire and false need of
Britney Spears-related products in millions of consumers across the
planet. We, the masses, are largely
unaware of being duped. We believe
that Britney Spears is popular because she is ‘'good' for us and buy
uncritically into anything that has to do with her without being knowledgeable
of this imposition. As Adorno
although the culture industry undeniably speculates on the conscious and
unconscious state of the millions towards which it is directed, the masses are
not primary but secondary, they are an object of calculation, an appendage of
the machinery. The customer is not
king, as the culture industry would have us believe, nor its subject but its
object (Adorno, 1991: 85).
Britney Spears Inc. is then
to be understood as a commodity.
She is valuable insofar as she is profitable to herself and her
marketers/producers, but she has no artistic value in itself. She is a cultural object because she is
a profitable commodity in a consumer-oriented culture. She may appear to have an ‘'aura' of
originality to her fans, but in reality she is a standard product carefully
crafted, staged, and marketed for culture industries' profit. Her apparent authenticity is indeed the
trick. A Christina Aguilera, a
Jessica Simpson, a Shakira, or a Jennifer Lopez are ‘'in actuality' other
standardized products, other forms that the manipulation of our consciousness
by culture industries take.
dehumanized its methods of operation and content, the more diligently and
successfully the culture industry propagates supposedly great personalities and
operates with heart throbs (Adorno, 1991: 87).
Thus, Britney is far from
being an innocuous post-Barbie doll.
She is no democratic response to consumer demand for entertainment
Adorno would argue rather she is a destructive force on the creativity, spontaneity,
and intelligence of individuals.
Britney Spears is an ideological tool; she contributes to the
banalization, trivialization, standardization, manipulation, and corruption of
culture: the power of the culture industry's ideology is such that conformity
has replaced consciousness (Adorno, 1991:90). This standardization is so pervasive that alternative forms
of expression are considered deviant and silenced at the
production/distribution level and at the consumption level. For example, pop music producers and
distributors seem to follow standardization practices when they allow a
particular genre or style to monopolize airways. This is nowadays the case of the teen pop and the post
hip-hop/R&B genres. Any style
that is not deemed popular by the culture industry is thus silenced .
Of course, this is an
instance of the creation of false needs.
Who needs Britney Spears, Adorno would argue. If there is a need for art and entertainment then it ought
to be satisfied with authentic forms of artistic expressions. As adults are turned into teenagers and
teenagers are turned into immature kids by their consumption of Britney Spears
Inc., the culture industry secures the dominance and continuity of capitalism
while shaping a regressive audience, a dependent, passive, and servile
consuming public (Strinati, 1995:64).
Adorno believes that the standardization and pseudo-individualization of
popular music lead the listener to regress to a child-like mind state, one in
which listeners become obsessed with pop songs hooks and its catchy
qualities. To Adorno pop songs are
all alike. There may be slight
frills differentiating one hit from the next but the ruling idea is that they
are in reality standardized products among which the untrained ear cannot discriminate. Hooks, the most frequently cited
verses, the chorus lines, or the catchiest passages of pop songs take away
anything that is authentic from artistic expressions. Baby hit me one more time is a perfect example. Can you name any other passage from the
song? Here is another trivia
question: what was Britney wearing in that video? Appearance assumes a central importance as videos shift the
emphasis from sound contemplation into image gazing. A product such as Britney Spears is packaged to meet the
current standards of beauty and physical attractiveness. Music and contemplation become
secondary. Appealing to the
minimum standard denominator of the masses' irrationality is like selling
eye-candy to childish consumers.
And such eye-candy is already pre-digested (Adorno, 1991: 308), made
to look beautiful or appealing by careful crafting. Britney Spears herself then becomes a product, by losing any
strand of individuality to appeal to consumers. Her music ceases to be important, confused in a myriad of
by-products including her body and face, her books and magazines, her clothing,
cosmetics, posters, lunch boxes, perfume line, her doll, and so on.
Mental regression is
dangerous because it distracts the masses. Entertainment provides escapism from labor and thus serves
the capitalist mode of production.
As we buy pop music CDs, concert tickets, paraphernalia, and perhaps
fantasize over the alluring lifestyle of travel, glamour, and beauty of our pop
stars, we lose sight of ourselves and the material conditions of our
existence. Britney Spears Inc.
then functions as social cement, allowing consumers to become oblivious to
injustice and inequalities. It matters
little or nothing that Britney herself is objectified and dehumanized. What matters to her fans across the
globe is to have a shot at being like her or at having her:
fusion of sentimental music lies rather in the temporary release given to the
awareness that one has missed fulfillment...Emotional music has become the image
of the mother who says, ‘'Come and weep, my child.' It is catharsis for the masses, but catharsis which keeps
them all the more firmly in line... (Adorno, 1991: 313-314).
Limitations of This
The Frankfurt School was
successful in establishing an early model for the critical study of popular
culture and the mass media.
Especially throughout the School's exile phase in the United States
Adorno, Horkheimer, and colleagues were able to develop a model of critical
studies of communication and culture that encompassed text analysis, audience
reception, and a critique of the political economy of the media in relation to
the ideological effects of mass-mediated communication on culture (see Kellner,
1989, 1995). The heritage of this
early model of critical theory is still evident. In particular, the School's transdisciplinary approach and
its attention to the pervasiveness of ideology throughout various aspects of
social life retain its enlightening value for the contemporary critical study
of culture. Yet, the idea that
standardization, pseudo-individualization, commodification, and massification
remain the dominant self-legitimating modi operandi of contemporary capitalist apparatuses has come under
Adorno's uniform treatment of
popular music has been especially subjected to numerous critiques. Adorno's idea of standardization
implies that musical genres are undifferentiated amongst one another and remain
the same across time. This
critique seems particularly inadequate in light of an even cursory analysis of
the contemporary history of pop music.
The success of Britney Spears and other pop primadonnas along with
seemingly ubiquitous boy-bands has only come at the expense of the commercial
popularity of post-punk and grunge acts of the early and mid 1990s. In turn, the success of the grunge
genre represented a drastic shift from the all-time high popularity of glam
rock bands and synth-pop of the 1980s, a shift that the music industry had not
predicted and was hardly prepared to accomodate. In addition, it seems at best hasty to label pop all music
genres outside classical without taking into consideration the minute
specialization of contemporary acts and genres. We find that there is hardly any Adorno-like
pseudo-individualization at work when we scrutinize, for example, the
differences in the political and philosophical ideas in the manifesto-style
lyrics of a post-punk group like Fugazi and the bubble-gum musings of Britney:
owe you nothing. You have no control. Merchandise keeps us in line. And common
sense says its by design. What could a business man ever want more? Than to
have us sucking in his store. We owe you nothing. You have no control (Fugazi,
Adorno's model of passive use
of music listening  also spurred great interest and solicited numerous
critiques, including those by David Riesman (1990). In 1950 Riesman found listeners to be differentiated in two
main groups. Listeners who were the most likely to be fascinated with popular
music icons and be highly receptive to successful mainstream performers
composed a majority group. Most
pre-adolescent and adolescent listeners of Britney's teen pop music would now
belong to this group. A minority
group was composed of small clusters of active fans who adopted a highly
critical stance toward commercially popular music and developed an elaborate
and sophisticated taste and understanding of alternative music genres. These alternative music genres and
their role in structuring their audiences' identity have received much
attention in particular by the Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS)
in Great Britain. As the studies
on cultural identity and music subcultures of the CCCS testify (Hall et al.,
1980), music represents a symbolic activity that youth cultures construct and
utilize to locate themselves in the existing social structure. Punk music, for example, has long stood
as a cry for authenticity, rebellion to anonymity, and rejection of normative
mainstream beliefs (especially in regard to consumer culture) (Hebdige,
1979). In general, assuming that
consumption and choice are always mindless activities deprives individuals of
even the most limited form of agency in dealing with everyday life a view harshly criticized by, among
others, Michel DeCerteau (1984) in _Arts de Faire_.
Another critique of Adorno's
analysis of popular music has to do with his reification of the classical
music-pop music dichotomy. A
deconstructionist analysis of this binary opposition reveals that numerous
differences Adorno hypothesized had no correspondent outside his
abstractions. A clear example is
the hypothesized difference between the state of contemplation required to
appreciate classical music and the mental regression state to which pop fans
fell prey. This model especially
makes little or no sense today when all music is considered a form of
entertainment and thus packaged, distributed, sold, and consumed in a similar
fashion. There are no differences,
for example, in how a Mozart CD and a Britney Spears' CD are produced and
distributed. As for consumption,
today it is distraction rather than ravished contemplation that seems to be the
preferred mode. Whether you walk
into a teenager's bedroom or into a college professor's office music functions
often as a noise background for other activities. Following this then it becomes advisable to surpass Adorno's
emphasis on lyrical content.
The elitism and economic reductionism implicit in Adorno's critique of popular music and more in general in the Frankfurt School's study of culture has spurred many contemporary scholars and students to dismiss early critical theory and openly embrace its successors, mostly British Cultural Studies and French postmodern theory (see Kellner, this website). While it is true that assuming that the complete standardization of popular culture and the perennial stability of capitalistic culture industries ignores the increasing diversification of late capitalism and postmodern life, I believe, in agreement with Kellner, that the lessons of Adorno and early critical theory are too important to be destined for the recycle bin. The School's transdisciplinary approach and its emphasis on the interconnections between technology, political economy, culture, and everyday life in capitalist societies provides a framework that can still aid us in understanding contemporary culture.
As Agger and Kellner point out, the polemics among Marxists, postmodernists, early critical theorists, and CCCS disciples are numerous and fruitful. Returning to early critical theory can offer contemporary students of popular culture valuable tools for their critique of capitalist societies and consumer culture. Such return, however, ought to be undertaken while conscious of the critique and the possibilities offered by postmodern theory and British cultural studies. Combining the Nietzschean critique of massification of society with Weber's critique of rationalization typical of the Frankfurt School with the Foucaldian idea of discourse, Baudrillard's political economy of the sign, and Stuart Hall's model of encoding/decoding will allow us to combine responsibly theory and practice (Kellner, 1995). As Kellner suggests:
approach the year 2000 and enter a new cultural environment being dramatically
transformed by global media and computer technologies, we need a cultural
studies that analyzes the political economy of the now global culture
industries, the proliferation of new media technologies and artifacts, and
their multifarious appropriations by audiences.
Much attention throughout
the 1980s and 1990s was dedicated to the Madonna phenomenon. Madonna studies seem to have found a
special place in the heart and publication records of scores of postmodern
writers. Madonna, however, is old
and has not been getting any younger for a while. Young teens and pre-teens may have been exposed to the
‘'material girl-turned discohead-turned nimpho-turned-post-hippie-turned-a
monument to herself' through VH1, occasional MTV specials, and perhaps older
siblings' collections, but few music observers would disagree that the present
of music lies elsewhere, particularly in the commercialization of hip-hop and
the glamorization of Britney Spears, N'Sync, and related products. Madonna herself, as well as her
daughter, claims to be a Britney fan, along with millions of young and less
young individuals across the globe.
Indeed, researching the Britney Spears phenomenon is nothing short of a
prohibitive task. A simple
Internet search on Yahoo! for the words Britney Spears returns 96 web site
matches and 702,000 web page matches.
The same search in Sociological Abstracts and MLA Index returns none. Who Britney Spears is, however, ought
to be all but a mystery to any student of culture, as her images and sounds are
everywhere. Britney is the world's
favorite cheerleader, the next-door sweetheart, American apple-pie wrapped in
pink spandex (Ellen,
2000), global capitalism in a mini-skirt (Conrad,
Britney is also a
seductress. Among the 702,000 web
page matches, 1,001 offer to the gaze of the virtual Britney voyeur everything
from equine sex (Conrad,
2002) to orgies with Jennifer Lopez.
The more timid and romance-minded Casanova can instead opt to sign up
for the ‘'Society of Future Husbands of Britney Spears' (of which long-time
sweetheart Justin Timberlake ought to be named Honorary Chairman). Britney's coy charm sells, and she
herself and related puppet-masters certainly never shy away from profiting from
it. After singing anthems of such
caliber as ‘'Hit me baby one more time' and ‘'I'm a slave for you' Britney found
on her desk a $10 million offer to have sex with an American millionaire. Of course, she refused for her
virginity has become a matter of national security. For the millions of hormone-frenzied male teenagers and
their middle-aged counterparts, however, Britney leaves little to their
imagination. Her visible thongs
and sports bras have made the cover of any magazine you can find at the
supermarket. On a Rolling Stone
special she sported tiny ‘'Daisy Dukes' with BABY spelled out on one of her
highly cherished butt cheeks while riding a child bicycle. Her virginity has captured the
attention of more paparazzi than has her fantasized date with Prince
William. And if people really need
to see the ‘'real' Britney have ‘'real' sex, they can always watch her recent
movie Crossroads in which she is defoliated by a fallen angel figure.
Britney Spears represents
without doubt, a myth of our contemporary society. While Madonna admitted to having sex as a career move,
Britney is publicly (loudly) abstaining from it to make success last (Conrad,
2002). Without assuming that
Britney's success can be reduced to her sexual appeal (I will comment on other
reasons later), I believe it is important to understand her practices of
seduction. A provocative analysis
of seduction is offered by Jean Baudrillard (1991) in _Seduction_.
According to Baudrillard seduction represents women's symbolic power
over men, but seduction is always closely related with simulation:
of artificial practices: the peculiar ability of the painted woman or
prostitute to exaggerate her features, to turn them into more than a sign, and
by this usage of, not the false as opposed to the true, but the more false than
false, to incarnate the peaks of sexuality while simultaneously being absorbed
in their simulation. The irony
proper to the constitution of woman as idol or sex object: in her closed
perfection, she puts an end to sex play and refers man, the lord and master of
to his transparency as an imaginary subject. The ironic power of the object, then, which she loses when
promoted to the status of a subject (Baudrillard, 1991:15).
Throughout _Seduction_ Baudrillard discusses the idea that the Other is no
longer killed, or tamed, or confronted, but rather produced. We produce the other and what is
produced is the effigy of ‘'masculine hysteria'. In this hysteria, the femininity of men, their desire is
projected onto the production of women who are then made to resemble man's
utopian fantasy. Is Britney Spears
such an invention? Perhaps she is
so desirable to many men because they have created her image , dressed her,
applied make up on her face, conditioned her body, and surgically shaped her
breasts. Baudrillard suggests that
such sexuality is a radical break with the past because erotic attraction once
came as a result of the fascinating encounter with the Other, but now erotic
attraction has shifted from otherness to sameness and likeness. The body has become a fetish, a project
to avoid destiny, self, and identity.
In plastic surgery (Britney scoffs at what she refers to as ‘'the whole
boob thing'), but also in toning, in makeup, in the performance of masculine
desire, destiny is exorcised. It
is as if the Britney myth becomes a myth of sainthood, not of sainthood
obtained through good deeds but rather sainthood obtained through the
transcendence of her self by the iconization of her body.
Much is made of Britney's
religiosity, her virginity, and her sexual appeal. Britney grunts  in her songs and now claims to be not a
girl but not yet a woman  and that she does not want to be part of
someone's Lolita thing. Yet
Britney remains a Lolita despite herself in our pornographic culture, or better
yet in our obscene culture which fetishizes simulacra: not only is she the simulation
of a woman produced by men, she is also the girl version of woman, the ageless,
the toned, the temptress exclaiming ‘'I'm not ready for sex but it sure is hard
to resist from temptation...'. Of
Britney we obscenely seek more, from her behind the scenes in concert, to
making the video, to making the ads, to making the movie, to the flannel
pajamas she wears in her bedroom in interviews almost as saying ‘'Oh you snuck
into my bedroom you naughty you, well now that you're here interview me,
publicize me, know more of me...'.
To Baudrillard this is obscene for everything is visible (Baudrillard,
1991:34) and her omnipresence is certainly a mirror of manhood. She is indeed everywhere men are, where
they play, fight, relax, and work: at the Superbowl, on a live satellite feed
to troops in Afghanistan, on anyone's favorite television channel, and soon in
the stock market. All in the name
of Americana, she works hard, inspires, and makes dreams come true. Just like when she goes to sleep at
night praying on the Bible asking the almighty to play her videos on MTV and network
2002), or while counseling prurient teenage Britney wannabes to enjoy their
femininity and live their sexuality while not giving in to sin until marriage (Conrad,
Indeed she remains a virgin
seductress for no seduction can ever take place through consummation
(Baudrillard, 1991). She remains
obscenely omnipresent while delighting in men's self-deception that she is
still available for their desire, lest the loss of her virginity reveal her
vacuity, her humanness:
Seduction does not consist of a simple appearance, nor a pure absence, but the eclipse of a presence. Its sole strategy is to be-there/not-there, and thereby produce a sort of flickering, a hypnotic mechanism that crystallizes attention outside all concern with meaning. Absence here seduces presence. The sovereign power of the seductress stems from her ability to eclipse any will or context. She cannot allow other relations to be established even the most intimate, affectionate, amorous or sexual (particularly not the latter) without breaking them, or repaying them with a strange fascination. She constantly avoids all relations in which, at some given moment, the question of truth will be posed. She undoes them effortlessly, not by denying them or destroying them, but by making them shimmer. Here lies her secret: in the flickering of a presence [...] Seduction supposes, Virilio would say, an aesthetics of disappearance (Baudrillard, 1991:85).
The seductress offers no satisfaction to desire but rather the fantasy of resolution (Baudrillard, 1991). Britney does not offer love, sex, affection, or intimacy but rather seduction through a pervasive web of appearances and simulation. She is not the incarnation of desire for there is no carnality to be found, but simply myth, the myth of just, like, this geeky person from Mississippi (Britney's words reported in Conrad, 2002) covered in shimmering makeup, glamorous clothes, and mass aura. Uncover her and all is left is a high school dropout from a small town in the South with an annoying habit of overusing the adverb ‘'totally', a big nose, and creepy skin. Yet, as she often proclaims, she is ‘'for real', but only a real that is better than the real, a simulated version of womanhood that seduces for its appearance rather than substance. Britney then is a seductress not only of men but also of women, as I will examine later. Her seduction of women is a seduction of possibilities, the possibility open to all women to become like her through strategic consumption and simulation.
Britney is indeed as real as
a god wearing makeup and Tommy Hillfiger drags a god, her God that commands
women to refuse the diabolical temptation of adorning her body with revealing
clothes, or tattoos or piercings.
Yet Britney seems to transcend her God's will or feminist critique. She remains a toy, shimmering in her
appearance, in her unreal defiance of [her] prostitution of signs
(Baudrillard, 1991:92). In her
unreal defiance she moves beyond sex, she becomes the festive representation of
freedom, the devotion to a biker God wearing a star-spangled banner on the back
of His leather jacket, the ceremonial performance of religiosity and at the
same time the emancipation from religiosity. She follows her duty to appear magical and supernatural,
she astonishes and bewitches (Baudelaire reported in Baudrillard, 1991: 93)
her own artifice does not alienate [her] but mysteriously alters her
(Baudrillard, 1991:94). Do we not
indeed respond to God's appearance/concealment in the same way? Do we not recognize sovereignty in
utopian iconolatry? Just as there
is no God behind the images [...] the very nothingness conceal[ed] must remain
a secret (Baudrillard, 1991: 94).
I have briefly offered my
view on the Britney Spears myth in the form of a rather superficial
semiotic/discursive analysis. I
have also quickly treated the issue of Britney's religiosity and the function
this plays in relation to her persona.
In the next section I will tackle the issues of the social construction
of gender and sexuality in contemporary society and the historical and cultural
significance of the Britney Spears Inc. phenomenon. I will do so by mainly using the ideas of Michel Foucault.
In the _History of
Sexuality_ Michel Foucault (1980)
discusses the idea that Western culture has long been fixated on
sexuality. Foucault argues that
the need to investigate sex scientifically and control it administratively has
resulted in creating an endless discourse around it and in making sexuality
ubiquitous. Foucault writes of
people's urge to confess anything that has to do with sexuality, what he calls
confession. Such confession is not
merely to be intended in the sense of a Christian expurgation of sin, but
rather as the urge to find the meaning and ‘'truth' about sexuality. Our society as a whole suffers from a
compulsion to confess and talk about anything that is sexual. We do it on newspapers columns, talk
shows, music videos, movies, and certainly Britney Spears does so as much as many
of us combined. Foucault argues
that such urge comes in part from the Christian need to purify one's soul by
acknowledging temptation and sin.
When sexuality is seen as treacherous, any attempt to contain it and
sanitize it is made publicly so it can be controlled.
Sexuality has now exploded,
it governs many of our goals and actions, and certainly it governs the logic of
making a star such as Britney Spears.
To understand sexuality we must, however, first understand power. Power is always manifested in
discourse, that is, in the relations among people, in everyday speech, and in
what we know. Power is ubiquitous
and it shapes our ideas and actions.
Beyond her appeal as a
seductress Britney Spears has become a model of femininity for many women, young
girls and adolescents, as well as many younger and older men. To understand her popularity we must understand
the prevailing ideas on gender roles and sexuality and the role sex plays in
Foucault argued that
discourse on sexuality is marked by ethical codes of moral and physiological
healthiness that have neither repressed nor controlled sexuality, but rather
produced it. Sexuality is then a
social construction, not a product of biological codes but rather of power as
manifested in discourse. Britney
embodies America's doubts on sexuality and gender. She performs the eternal adolescence of a country swelled
with desire and petrified with fear of sin. Her body has become a shroud to imposition, the imposition
of Christian chastity and the imposition of tanned beauty .
Her image embodies
power. The power to which she is
subjected and the power to look like her, to which her fans are subjected (and
ironically to the women who despise her but still need to appeal to men
accustomed to her sexual appeal).
The Guardian cites the
story of Jenna Franklin, a 15-year-old British teenager desperate for breast
implants after the example set by her role model Britney. Britney herself comments on her body
and identity (on an HBO live feed to troops in Afghanistan):
You know, I know I get a lot of flak for what I wear, and what I say, and what I don't say. But ... I'm not a little girl anymore. And I guess I do those things because the way I feel inside. And I also know that I'm a young lady and I have a lot to learn and a lot to experience. And I guess what I'm trying to say is, is that, the way I feel right now inside, I feel so wonderful because I'm doing exactly what I love to do. And I'm experiencing all of my wildest dreams. And my advice to you is to never, ever, lose your passion to dream. Please, don't.
And as you dream away please
do consider purchasing her. Not
just her CDs, soft drinks, clothes, sunglasses, books, magazines, movies,
makeup, but consider purchasing her, her body, her identity, her sexuality, her
lifestyle. Here is where power
creeps in, in a quick change of clothes to please her target audience, in a
pink mini-skirt and a Bible, in a customized spectacle of the senses, not hers,
2001). Power insinuates itself
in and through the body, the body of Britney and other stars and starlets, and
the bodies of her audiences.
Britney sells herself first, her products secondly. Her appearance is what matters for it
symbolizes sexuality, youth, success, and power. And yet her appearance is, as said, carefully produced. Britney, as she herself admits, is a
‘'goob,' a ‘'dork,' the next-door neighbor girl yet she is more. Just like the boys of N'Sync and the
Backstreet Boys, Pink, Christina Aguilera, and others, she is ‘'normal,' yet
also a dreamer, a hard worker, some girl from Middle America. Britney represents the normality of her
global constituency of consumers.
What makes her special is her self-commodification: her flashy clothes,
her shiny makeup, her stylish hairdo, her tanned skin, her studio-produced
moans, her health-club chiseled body, her plastic breasts. Her body speaks of the power of
consumption, a liberating power that her fans have access to if they want to
transcend their ‘'normality', if they desire to look like a star. This is a power much subtler than the
one spoken by Foucault (1979) in _Discipline and Punish_, yet an instance of the same. Foucault follows Nietzsche in stating
that the body can be modified and experienced in different ways, ways that
follow cultural expectations (Dreyfus and Rabinow, 1983). The body, as Foucault suggests, has
been at the center of the functioning of power systems throughout history.
There may be a knowledge of the body that is not exactly the science of its functioning, and a mastery of its forces that is more than the ability to conquer them: this knowledge and this mastery constitute what might be called the political technology of the body (Foucault, 1979: 26).
One form of power in the
advanced stage of capitalism is in the production of body image. As Baudrillard suggests, the body, and
especially the female body is a complex production onto which male ideals and
resources are invested. It
constitutes a quintessentially contemporary American project of improving
oneself through a logic of superficial appearances. This is the American dream applied to a life of imagery:
work out hard, consult professional dieticians, tan nicely, purchase the right
seasonal look, invest on artificial body enhancement and you will look good and
happy just like Britney and friends.
The success of Britney also
lies elsewhere. In the _History
of Sexuality_ Foucault (1980) isolates
four great strategic unities in which the political technology of the body
has manifested itself. Two of
these unities are of particular interest here. First, children's sex is pedagogized. Adults mobilized themselves to treat
children's sex as a dangerous epidemic and children as non-sexual beings. Second, some pleasures are deemed
perverse and have consequently been medicalized. Pedophilia represents one of these instinctual drives that
ought to be regulated by the state through its medical institutions. Britney seems to be caught in the
middle. As a late adolescent she
represents a taboo, a temptation with which the pedophilia-phobic adult gaze
cannot but struggle. As a
blossoming young woman, ‘'but not a woman yet,' her sexual urges are made public
for they are scandalous, yet these are issues with which her average female Christian
fan from Middle America identifies and sympathizes.
An analysis of the Britney
Spears Inc. phenomenon cannot be complete without looking at her fan base as
well as at the political-economic context of production and distribution of her
image and sound. In the next
section I will combine the theoretical framework laid down by Douglas Kellner
and Stuart Hall.
Britney Spears Inc. and
the Political Economy of Global Bubbalicious
One of the most compelling
critiques of Adorno's work comes from British Cultural Studies, and Stuart Hall
in particular. At its onset the
CCCS undertook the project of dispelling the lingering behaviorist bias
implicit in early Critical Theory analysis of mass communication without
depriving culture studies of its critical stance. Stuart Hall (1980) remarked that the content of any form of
communication is not like a tap on the knee cap (p. 131) but rather a
component of a complex structure articulated in distinctive moments. Hall, following Marx's approach to
commodity production and consumption, suggested that the communication process
is a continuous circuit specifiable in five phases: production, circulation,
distribution, consumption, and reproduction. The clear advantage of this model is that it does not
presuppose audiences to be cultural dopes gawking while waiting to be fed
information. Rather, the CCCS
clearly distinguished the process of production from that of consumption and
posited that the act of reading (or seeing) is a complex semiotic act. Meanings are communicated in the form
of symbolic messages of a specific kind through specific codes operating in the
general realm of discourse. At the
production level these meanings are ‘'encoded' in symbolic vehicles and
circulated outside the apparatus of production. Once distributed these discourses must be decoded by
audiences. The decoding process is
a process of translation of discourse into social practice. Meaning is derived when a message is
‘'consumed' but given the possibility of endless interpretation it is untenable
to assume that a ‘'preferred reading' will take place. Audiences may in fact engage in alternative readings the
following example excerpted from an Amazon.com consumer review of one of her
books may elucidate.
is full of bubble gum talks, come on, can she be sooo nice and sweet, this book
made her look very dumb and stupid, very immature and childish. [...] They
describe Britney so sweet, innocent, she sound very dumb for a girl her age. In
one part of the book her mother said, "We didn't had much to eat sometime
but we always had ice cream coz that what make Britney happy!" My God so
dumb thing to say! (Amazon.com
consumer review on Britney's book _A Mother's Gift_ (Spears and Spears, 2001)).
While it is true that Britney
Spears has achieved universal fame it would be foolish to conclude that all of
her audiences receive her with a favorable impression. If this was the case there would be no
possibility for cultural criticism or for the existence of alternative
productions. Indeed the work in
which critical students of culture engage is not too different from the
everyday interpretive hermeneutical practices of lay audiences. Stuart Hall (1980) hypothesizes there
are three positions from which decoding of communication takes place, the
dominant-hegemonic, the negotiated code, and finally the oppositional
code. Without reinstating the surpassed
analytical distinction between denotation and connation of the early Barthes,
Hall suggests that at the oppositional code level viewers/listeners/readers
detotalize the message in the preferred code in order to retotalize the
message within some alternative framework of reference (1980: 138). This is not to deny the presence of
hegemonic discourse, rather it is to account for, in our case, the extensive
popular criticism moved to the messages present in Britney's texts.
Hall and British Cultural
Studies, however, have made a considerable effort to study the hegemonic
properties of discourse. Hall
(1980: 137), following Gramsci, defines a hegemonic viewpoint as having two
a) that it
defines within its terms the mental horizon, the universe, of possible
meanings, of a whole sector of relations in a society or culture; and b) that
it carries with it the stamp of legitimacy it appears coterminous with what
is ‘'natural,' ‘'inevitable,' ‘'taken for granted' about the social order.
If we set out to read traces
of the presence of hegemonic discourse in audiences' interpretation Britney's
texts we can easily find, for example, the theme of the American Dream:
Gift is one of the best books I have ever read. I am not a big reader, but this
book actually kept my interest, and I enjoyed reading it. Probably, because the
mood of the book was very happy and uplifting. [...] The story explains that if you live a happy and spiritual
life, anything that you love, dream and want, can come true. As long as you
live your life right. When I read this book, it made me want to start working,
praying, and live my life to the fullest, so I can start making my dreams come
true. I would defiantly say that this book is a very inspiring book (Amazon.com
As specified above, Britney
Spears is often described as a self-starter, a determined hard worker, a
dreamer confident in her success.
Her audiences, at least generalizing from the individual review above
might then read her as an ‘'inspiration' for their lives, as a role model who
works as a spur to work more, pray more, look ‘'better', etc. Gramsci would recognize this Britney
version of the American Dream to be an instance of the process whereby a
fundamental alliance of upper class strata has fortified its material supremacy
by expanding into cultural, social, and political leadership. This is, of course, what Stuart Hall
would also find at the hegemonic level of many Britney Spears texts. Of course, much research remains to be
done at the negotiated and oppositional code level. It seems to me that numerous studies of great interest could
come from studying the reception (Stuart Hall's communication consumption
phase) of Britney Spears by her audiences in more depth than I could afford to
do here. There is a wealth,
perhaps even a daunting amount, of commentary on Britney's movie, books,
videos, songs, CDs, image, products readily available on the Internet and other
media for students of this phenomenon.
Of course, following the lead of the CCCS, what is needed is also
ethnographic work. My upcoming
dissertation will in part deal with the consumption of popular culture and its
significance in the personal lives of individuals across the life course, but
much more work is needed in this area.
Certainly, a thorough understanding
of Britney's success cannot take place until we shed light on the dynamics of the
distribution of her products and image.
Gramsci, for example, never speaks of a ‘'ruling class' but rather of
social, political, and economic alliances. This idea also lies at the basis of late capitalism
(Jameson, 1991) in brief, the view that we have shifted from state monopoly
capitalism to a state of:
and global capital that valorizes difference, multiplicity, eclecticism,
populism, and intensified consumerism in a new information/entertainment
society. From this perspective,
the proliferating media culture, postmodern architecture, shopping malls, and
the culture of the postmodern spectacle became the promoters and palaces of a
new stage of technocapitalism, the latest stage of capital, encompassing a
postmodern image and consumer culture.
As Kellner (1995) suggests
the postmodern turn in cultural theory has often resulted in privileging the
study of leisure, consumption, and identity-construction at the expense of
macro approaches to the study of economics, history, and the politics of the production
of popular culture. This shift
away from the master-narrative of Marxism (Lyotard, 1985) is not occurring
without costs for our understanding of cultural phenomena. Culture industries' increased
differentiation across the globe has resulted not in a decrease but rather an
increase and diversification of their ideological power. At first glance Britney's
British/Australian label ‘'Jive Records' appears as innocuous as the next self-started
garage-rock indie, only except for the fact that its annual sales topped $800
million in 2000 (Kafka and Pulley, 2001).
In reality BMG has a high stake in Jive Records. BMG is in charge of distributing Jive
recordings of acts which include, among others, Britney Spears, the Backstreet
Boys, and N'Sync. BMG is also the
owner of 20% of Zomba Recording, a consortium of labels grouping Jive and
others. BMG in turn is owned by
the German giant Bertelsmann Group which reported sales of $8.65 billion during
the 2001 fiscal year (Lottman, 2002).
The Bertelsmann Group is the largest media group in Europe and its
expansion in States has been constant over the recent years, for example,
through its acquisition of Random House Publishing and Dell (Getlin,
2000). The Bertelsmann Group is
also interested in increasing its share in American show business (Getlin,
1999) and through its global distribution of its three big acts above whose
combined sales totaled 120 million albums and more than $ 400 million in
concert tickets between 1998 through 2001 (Leeds, 2002) they appear poised
for continued expansion.
Britney's interests are,
however, largely more encompassing than album, merchandise, and concert ticket
sales. Nickelodeon TV, and the
Disney Network which also encompasses MTV and VH-1 have been capitalizing
solidly on the former Mickey Mouse Club cast member. The beauty of what has happened with these pop artists is
they've gotten kids into buying CD's and concert tickets [and every other
related product author's note] earlier than they had heretofore [...] What
Radio Disney and Nickelodeon did is brought kids earlier said Jive President
Barry Weiss. Of course, as Disney
Radio and Disney TV profited from the advertising revenue of a young Britney
Spears' shows (1998-1999), as she now becomes ‘'not just a girl anymore', MTV
and VH-1 can profit from her soft-core videos and sexy appearances while
younger children's ‘'needs' are satisfied by Britney-inspired acts such as
Jessica Simpson, Mandy Moore, Hoku, and others. Far from representing just a form of commodification of the
life course, artists' hormonal developments allow Bertelsmann, Disney, and
other giant media companies to avoid the growing pains of past failures of acts
like Tiffany, in whom audiences lost interest as biological growth
occurred. This is, of course where
specialization occurs. Christina
Vidal, 19 years of age is slated to replace the aging Jennifer Lopez while
assuring the success of Latino-infused pop across younger audiences. Aaron Carter, younger sibling of
Backstreet Boys Nick Carter is promising to be the next Caucasian hip-hop
version of Ricky Martin while still in middle school. Little Bow-Bow also seems to be headed for a future of
simulated gangster-like stardom after his predecessor Snoop Dog. Britney is only of many successful
commodities as purchasing power extends across the life course and technology
makes distribution easier (Leeds, 2002).
The recent increase in
computer technology, for example, makes it easier to access customized
entertainment and information. The
internet alone, notwithstanding the toppling of Napster and its subsequent
corporate takeover by BMG, is a bottomless source of videos, clips, blurs,
MP3's, live celebrity chat, interviews, fan communities, streaming feeds of
shows and concerts and more. As
the Internet expands and younger generations learn to supplement their
consumption of television with internet-mediated interactive information,
programming, individualization and specialization take on a new meaning. Segmentation of markets means
differentiation of pop culture products while separate ownerships profit from
different stages of the production/distribution/consumption process. And this happens as communication, as
in the case of Britney Spears, transcends traditional state and culture
barriers. It is not difficult to
see the global significance of the Britney Spears Inc. phenomenon: partly owned
by a German giant corporation and a British/Australian label, this American
product is advertised through MTV, MTV Europe, MTV Asia, MTV Latino,
distributed globally by a transnational corporation, and publicized over the
Internet with the end result that some Chinese 8 year-old girl will want to buy
for $24.95 her ‘'virginal' pink sports-bra which her own mother made at a sweat
shop and got paid a nickel for making.
And of course, with it, she will buy a piece of the American Dream...with
glitter gloss on it.
I began my search for questions to the Britney Spears Inc. phenomenon with an analysis of Adorno's work on popular music. Adorno's work and the early tradition of critical theory present clear shortcomings but undoubtedly continue to offer contemporary students of popular culture much valuable lessons (see Kellner, this website). Following Kellner (1995) and Jameson (1991) I agree that the continuities between the development phase of Western capitalism and the present stage are such that we cannot properly speak of ‘'post'-modernism, but we rather ought to speak of late modernism, or late capitalism. Focusing on these continuities will allow us to understand the current social structure and contemporary cultural trajectories in light of their historical significance. As Kellner explains:
hegemony of capital continues to be the dominant force of social organization,
perhaps even more so than before. Likewise, class differences are intensifying,
media culture continues to be highly ideological and to legitimate existing
inequalities of class, gender, and race, so that the earlier critical
perspectives on these aspects of contemporary culture and society continue to
be of importance.
Early critical theory's
contribution to an informed transdisciplinary approach to cultural studies in
the late-modern era is of crucial importance (see
Kellner, this website). As I
have attempted to show with my exploration of the Britney Spears Inc. phenomenon,
the study of texts ought to be accompanied by a multi-faceted analysis of
discourse, of political-economic conditions of
production/distribution/consumption as well as of the historical relations
between texts and socio-cultural context.
Critical theory, Cultural Studies, and new French theory provide
students of cultural phenomena the tools to carry out such complex tasks (Kellner,
this website). Even though
Adorno's study of popular music in the 1930s was marred by its implicit
opposition between high and low culture and real and false needs, by its
anti-empirical stance, and by its failure to recognize the possibility of
oppositional readings and differentiation in production, a re-evaluation of the
validity of his project seems extremely useful.
 Hence I refer to Britney
Spears as Britney Spears Inc. following Ellen (2000).
 This phenomenon has
recently assumed an almost eerie character. Celebrities' deaths are marketed as spectacle and seem to
serve exclusively a publicizing function.
The recent death of TLC's member Lisa ‘'left-eye' Lopez has occupied
airwaves for days while that of Alice in Chains' singer Layne Staley has been
swept under the carpet.
 First line of a song
performed by Britney in her movie Crossroads. Britney
claims her songs and characters are based on her poems: Sometimes the words
come to me when I'm, like, in the bath or stuff (Britney Spears interview
quoted in Conrad, 2002).
 Adorno is also heavily
criticized for failing to test his model on actual music listeners (Strinati,
 Interestingly her grunts
are over-produced in the musical studio.
It is never Britney's unmediated voice that grunts but rather her producers'
idea of what a sexy grunt should sound like!
 Quotation from her movie Crossroads.
 Britney travels on a tour
bus equipped with a tanning salon.
Adorno, Theodor (1991). The Culture Industry. London:
Jean (1979). Seduction.
Translated by Brian Singer. New York : St. Martin's Press
Certeau, Michel de
(1990). The Practice of
Everyday Llife. Trans. By S. Rendall. Berkeley:
University of California Press.
Dreyfus, Hubert, and Rabinow,
Paul (1983). Michel Foucault, Beyond Structuralism and
University of Chicago Press.
Foucault, Michel (1979). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of
the Prison. Trans. By Alan
Sheridan. New York: Vintage,
Foucault, Michel (1980). The History of Sexuality. Volume I: An Introduction. Trans.
By R. Hurley. New York: Vintage,
Fugazi (1990). Repeater (Written and Performed by). Washington,
DC: Dischord Records.
Gettlin, Josh (1999). What to Read Into Bertelsmann's
Acquisition of Random House? The
Los Angeles Times, January 24, p. 1.
(1991). Postmodernism, or the
Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.
Durham: Duke University Press.
Encoding/Decoding. In Hall
et al., Culture, Media, and Language: Working Papers in Cultural Studies
1972-1979. London: CCCS University
of Birmingham Press.
et al., (1980). Culture, Media, and Language: Working Papers in Cultural
Studies 1972-1979. London: CCCS University of
Hebdige, Dick (1979).
Subculture, the Meaning of Style. London : Methuen.
Peter, and Pulley, Brett (2001).
Jive Talking. Forbes, March 19, p. 138-140.
Kellner, Douglas (1989). Critical Theory, Marxism, and
Modernity: Development and Contemporary Relevance of the Frankfurt School. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Douglas (1995). Media Culture:
Cultural Studies, Identity, and Politics Between the Modern and the
Postmodern. London, New York: Routledge.
Leeds, Jeff (2001). Kid-Generated Pop Turns into a Gold
Mine. Chicago Tribune, January 6, p. 1.
Lottman, Herbert R. (2002). Bertelsmann Sales Hit $8.6 Billion in 'Stub Period'. Publishers Weekly, April 1, p. 16.
(1985). The Postmodern Condition.
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Riesman, David (1990). Listening to Popular Music, in S.
Frith and A. Goodwin (Editors): On Record,Rock, Pop, and the Written Word. London:
Spears, Britney, and Spears
Lynne (2001). A Mother's
Gift. Doubleday Dell.
Dominic (1995). An introduction
to Theories of Popular Culture. London, New York: Routledge.
I would like to acknowledge
Aaron McCright for the assistance provided throughout the preparation of this
Phillip Vannini is a doctoral
student in sociology at Washington State University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pullman, WA: May 3, 2002.