Adorno's Legacy:

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 including:

1)   A semiotic and discourse analysis of Britney Spears' texts;

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;

4)    A historiographic approach to the study of her popularity;

5)    A political-economic analysis of the conditions of production and consumption of the Britney Spears icon in light of the expansion of the Internet and growth of media technology;

6)    An ethnographic approach to the rise of the Britney Spears phenomenon in relation to the consumption of her image by teenage and adult audiences;

7)    At last, such study ought to delve into the constitution of Britney Spears as a global corporation [1] 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 approach.


Oops...! Adorno Did it Again?


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 suggests:


Thus, 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.


The more 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 [2].


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:


The actual 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 Approach


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 intense scrutiny.     


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:


We 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, 1990).


Na-na-na-na-na [3]


Adorno's model of passive use of music listening [4] 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:   


As we 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.


Oublier Madonna


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, 2002).


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:


The irony 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 sexual reality, 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 [5] in her songs and now claims to be “not a girl but not yet a woman” [6] 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 radio (Conrad, 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, 2002).


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.


‘'This Is Not a Teenager's Body' (or is it?)


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 lifestyles. 


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 [7].


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, ours (Baer, 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 consumer review of one of her books may elucidate. 


This book 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!  ( 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 components:


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:


A Mother's 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 ( consumer review).


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:


Transnational 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.  (Kellner, this website).  


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:


The 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. 





[1] Hence I refer to Britney Spears as Britney Spears Inc. following Ellen (2000).

[2] 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.

[3] 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).

[4] Adorno is also heavily criticized for failing to test his model on actual music listeners (Strinati, 1995). 

[5] 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!

[6] Quotation from her movie Crossroads.

[7] Britney travels on a tour bus equipped with a tanning salon.





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Riesman, David (1990).  “Listening to Popular Music”, in S. Frith and A. Goodwin (Editors): On Record,Rock, Pop, and the Written Word.  London: Routledge.


Spears, Britney, and Spears Lynne (2001).  A Mother's Gift.  Doubleday Dell. 


Strinati, 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 manuscript.



Phillip Vannini is a doctoral student in sociology at Washington State University.  He can be reached at


Pullman, WA: May 3, 2002.