Now not everybody with Britney’s background turns out like Britney but, even so, this should not deflect us from an assessment of the grand social experiment in which the popstress has been involved for much of her young life. In a comprehensive Observer piece by Elizabeth Day, we learn that from the age of eight Britney was groomed to be an entertainer. It’s at about that age that little girls (and boys) are awakening to the power of this particular elect and start, some of them, to dream about acquiring membership one day. To be enrolled in entertainer classes at this point must be profoundly confusing – the distance between subject and role model suddenly collapses, the sense of a future in which personal development must take place is eclipsed and the possibility of fantasising about other ‘things I want to be when I grow up’ is removed, possibly for ever.
Far more damaging, however, is the winding down of the interior life in favour of its learned imitation. When you are tap dancing, for example, it is advisable to smile. In ballet classes it is best to look solemn. When acting in plays it is good to foreground your feelings to the extent that nothing should be expressed without expression. Your body, when not actively engaged in an act of impersonation, should impersonate centredness, openness and willingness. (I must apologise if I have inadvertently given valuable advice to readers – this was certainly not my intention.)
Once the business of show has been mistressed, the rest is relatively easy. How long does it take to ‘train’ a young entertainer in the basics? Two or three years, maybe, especially if they attend stage schools or talent academies. So by the time the child is 11 or 12 a workable vocabulary of response is in place. A vocabulary of initiation is a trickier proposition.
Clearly it is desirable to appear to be both motivated and proactive. If the wherewithal for this has been systematically diminished then processes of identification may prove more than adequate to the task. By which I mean that when interiority is treated (as in ‘treating damp rot in the timbers of the roof’) a residue always remains. (Surely it can’t be long before this quantity can be neutralised.) It has its uses. The young entertainers (the term is now used to describe not just showbiz kids but all those unwittingly participating in the grand experiment) are able to associate themselves with those who are proactive, use their training to ‘get into their character’ and thereby present a learned, imitative vocabulary of initiation.
I’m not suggesting that the government rings up Britney’s parents and says “We have a marvellous new personality type on the drawing board – your daughter could be its polished standard bearer – get to it!” The shaping of persons by pernicious consumerism is subtle, protracted and certainly the worthwhile subject of a book I’m not equipped to write. What is clear, though, is that the mere display of goods is not enough – shell-like consumers must be recruited, their exteriors of painted sugar, their interiors echoing and free of psychological residue.
Britney, then, has been rousted from the trenches and sent over the top to field-test the kit. She took some bullets and went down. But there are lessons to be learned from this. If the progress of capitalism is to be untrammelled then certain personality types are needed. Essentially, you need empty people. People who want to feel filled. But it’s a bugger emptying the bastards. A small amount of residue is actually needed but, because it is psychological, it is unreliable. (A bit like the idea of the ‘hostile witness’ in a judicial context.)
The great experiment, part of which consists in show business functioning to communicate the desirability of the business of show, is largely successful though. In the United Kingdom, for example, hundreds of thousands of people have been successfully converted to celebrity worship. The cost of this success has not been excessive – for every celebrity meltdown there are dozens of examples of those who can play the game rather well. Mind you, it’s handy Britney is a woman because the attack on her behaviour is subsumed under the general attrition of wayward women of any stripe.
Britney has certainly let everybody down. She wasn’t meant to fall to bits – there are plenty of myths offering strategies of colourful bohemian survival that she might have utilised. When something like this happens there are no winners and everyone is betrayed. Not to worry though, Britney, waiting in the wings of the great social experiment (in which new person types are trialled) (hate that verb) are those who would counsel the waverers: cadres of recently trained counsellors who, as long as the waverer cancels her subscription to the psychological, will deliver her from evil in six weeks. These longbowmen of the post-interior persuasion – often known as cognitive behavioural therapists – are skilled at overcoming those who only have spears.