The Tragedy of Britney Spears

This story originally appeared in the February 21, 2008 issue of Rolling Stone.

A pop star at the mall is an eternal cause for happiness, especially on a Sunday afternoon in the Val­ley. One moment, shoppers in the Westfield Topanga mall are living in the real world, monotonously select­ing a new shade of eye shadow or rubbing perfume on wrists, but upon the rapture of Britney Spears, they are giggling, laughing, orgasmic, already sharing their secret on cell phones. “Her legs are actually really skinny,” an adolescent whispers into her Sidekick, as Britney beelines for the Betsey Johnson boutique, pseudo-punk designer of evening dresses and splashy heels worn to suburban high school proms. In person, Britney is shockingly beautiful – clear skin, ruby lips, a perfectly proportioned 26-year-old porcelain doll with a nasty weave. She cuts through the crowd swiftly, the way she used to when 20,000 adoring fans mobbed her outside a concert, with her paparazzi boyfriend, Adnan Ghalib, trailing behind.

Only a few kids are in the store, a young girl with her brother and two blondes checking out fake-gold charm bracelets. Britney rifles the racks as the Cure’s “Pictures of You” blasts into the airless pink boutique, grabbing a pink lace dress, a few tight black numbers and a frilly red crop top, the kind of shirt that Britney used to wear all the time at seventeen but isn’t really appropriate for anyone over that age. Then she ducks into the dressing room with Ghalib. He emerges with her black Am Ex.

The card won’t go through, but they keep trying it. “Please,” begs Ghalib, “get this done quickly.”

One of the girls runs to Britney’s dressing room, explaining the situation through a pink gauze curtain.

A wail emerges from the cubby – guttural, vile, the kind of base animalistic shriek only heard at a family member’s deathbed. “Fuck these bitches,” screams Britney, each word ringing out be­tween sobs. “These idiots can’t do anything right!”

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Ghalib dashes over to console her, but she’s already spitting, growling, throwing a big bottle of soda on the floor so that it begins to spill underneath the curtain, and then she’s got a box of tissues and is throwing them on top of the wet floor along with piles of discarded merchandise. A new card finally goes through, but by then Britney is out the door, leaving her shirt on the ground and re­placing it with the red top. “Fuck you, fuck people, fuck, fuck, fuck,” she keeps screaming, her face splotchy and red as she crosses the interminable mall floor, the crowd behind her growing larger and larger. “Leave us alone!” yells Ghalib.

The siblings run after Britney to get a video to put up on YouTube, and some of the shopgirls run after her to hand off the merchandise she left behind, and there’s an entire bridal party wear­ing yellow T-shirts who have pulled out camera phones too. A crush of managers in black shirts and gold name tags try to keep the peace, but the crowd running after Britney gets larger, and now the shopgirls have started to catch up to her, one of them slipping spectacularly in her platform shoes, grazing her elbow. She pulls herself up, mustering the strength to tap Britney’s shoulder. “Urn, I’m from the South too,” she mumbles, “and I was wondering if I could get a picture with you for my little sister.”

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Britney turns to Ghalib and grabs his arm. “I don’t want her talking to me!” she screams. She whirls around and stares the girl deep in the eyes, her lips almost vibrating with anger. “I don’t know who you think I am, bitch,” she snarls, “but I’m not that person.”

If there is one thing that has become clear in the past year of Britney’s collapse – the most public downfall of any star in history – it’s that she doesn’t want anything to do with the person the world thought she was. She is not a good girl. She is not America’s sweetheart. She is an inbred swamp thing who chain-smokes, doesn’t do her nails, tells reporters to “eat it, snort it, lick it, fuck it” and screams at people who want pictures for their little sisters. She is not someone who can live by the most basic social rules – she is someone who, when she has had her one – and two-year-old sons taken com­pletely out of her care, with zero visitation rights, appeared at Los Angeles’ Superior Court to convince the judge to give her kids back, but then decided not to go inside, and she’s someone who did this twice. She’s the perfect celebrity for America in decline: Like President Bush, she just doesn’t give a fuck, but at least we won’t have to clean up after her mess for the rest of our lives.

If Britney was really who we be­lieved her to be – a puppet, a grinning blonde without a cool thought in her head, a teasing coquette clueless to her own sexual power – none of this would have happened. She is not book-smart, granted. But she is intelligent enough to understand what the world wanted of her: that she was created as a virgin to be deflowered before us, for our amusement and titillation. She is not ashamed of her new persona – she wants us to know what we did to her. While it may be true that Britney suffers from the adult onset of a genetic mental disease (or a disease created by fame, yet to be named); or that she is a “habitual, frequent and continu­ous” drug user, as the judge declared; or that she is a cipher with boundless depths, make no mistake— she is enjoy­ing the chaos she is creating. The look on her face when she’s goofing around with paparazzi – one of whom, don’t forget, she is dating – is often one of pure excitement. “For years, everyone manipulated Britney,” says a close friend. “There was always a little game. If she didn’t want to come out of the trailer, the label would come to me, saying, ‘Please talk to Brit­ney, make sure she performs, and we’ll take you on a shopping spree.’ Now this is her time to play.”

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