Britney Spears, a then 25-year-old world-famous pop singer, shaved off her long blonde hair on February 17, 2007. As a result, the world’s media became about as excitable as they did more recently over the death of Osama Bin Laden, reputed number one wanted person in the world, infamous terrorist leader, and leading jihadist ideologue of our young century. How can this be?
Such a flattening of values as shown in this (admittedly rough) comparison of the media reaction to Bin Laden’s death and Britney’s haircut should not be in the least surprising to us, of course: it is perhaps what we have come to expect of a mediatised world where values are little differentiated according to historical scales of morality and balance.
This post looks at the media construction of these events in a little more detail, seeing in the situation of Spears’ head-shaving a fascinating meeting-point of celebrity culture, gender norms, and consumer expectations. I am also seeking to draw on what I see as being a fascinating parallel with the situation of Spears’ own music, into which a similar sort of drama of confused subject-hood and disappearing subjectivity can be read.
So, why couldn’t Britney Spears shave her head? Why did it cause such controversy; how did it come to crown a sequence of media-backed calumnies – including driving with her child on her lap and marrying and then divorcing a childhood friend within the space of 55 hours – that plagued Spears in the years immediately preceding 2007, and continue to plague her, albeit in somewhat less extravagant terms, now?
In order to answer these questions let’s try and place Spears in her cultural context.
Emerging in 1999 with the schoolgirl iconography of the video to her song ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’, Britney Spears seemed to embody and clarify a nation’s obsession with female adolescence on her first album, and, with progressive intensity, its sense of raunch-laden female sexuality on later releases, such as on her breathy and sweaty spacefunk song ‘I’m A Slave For You’. This commercially dominant early period drew to a close with the release of her albums In The Zone and Greatest Hits: My Prerogative in 2003 and 2004 respectively, after which Spears took a career break in order to start a family.
Consistent throughout this early period was the presence of Spears’ long blond hair, an element of her image that enabled the singer to slot comfortably into the canon of Western sex symbols and Disney princesses who share such a look. Yet the category of the blonde starlet, from Monroe to Anna Nicole Smith, is a vexed one. Notions of the purity of the blonde have frequently served to repress a darker reality, whilst, externally, enshrining white hegemony and female stereotypes all the same. Hair has been a crucial category in identity discourse, a category whose iconicity has been as much of a help as a hindrance to those who seek its co-optation, or are co-opted by it. As Lady Gaga has recently put it: ‘I just wanna be myself, And I want you to know, I am my hair’.
The controversy over Spears’ head-shaving can thus be seen in this light: Not only had the media built a narrative throughout 2005 and 2006 of a rapidly deteriorating Spears, it could, with this event, demonstrate her eccentricity and delimit the full extent of her apparent deterioration in a hairdo. (Whether Spears was or was not suffering from personal problems at this time is immaterial: my point is that we have no access and no right of access to such a state of affairs). It is not for nothing, considering both the identity discourse that is so often built up around long blond hair, and Spears’ own complicity in that discourse in the early part of her career, that her head-shaving was taken to be emblematic of a sort of closing down – and I use this term with respect to the apocalyptic tone taken in many of the accounts of the incident – of her identity as a pop star.
The head-shaving was framed as a moment of no return, a loss of innocence through which the former American sweetheart had finally crossed from raunchy young star into troubled and addicted mother. A mother upon whom scorn and pity could be poured in equal measures. The dual sense of outrage and delight that defined the media reaction (and it would be hard to distinguish here between the media and the public served by and productive of such a discursive structure as the modern media) is thus little surprising, even if it remains galling.
If the head-shaving incident of 2007 occasioned a sort of closure for Spears, then what happened next? At this point I would like to introduce theorist Lauren Berlant’s notion of ‘combover subjectivity’. Berlant speaks to the metaphor of the combover as a way of accounting for the non-coherence of subjectivity, the bundle theory of Hume run into the fragmented sense of self common in twenty-first century theory. Berlant states that: ‘The subject of the combover stands in front of the mirror just so, to appear as a person with a full head (of hair/ideas of the world). Harsh lighting, back views, nothing inconvenient is bearable in order for the put-together headshot to appear’.
For Berlant, everyone in fact satisfies the conditions of combover subjectivity: ‘The combover subject literalizes the plaint of ordinary subjectivity to be allowed to proceed in its incoherence and contradictions’. All of us, according to Berlant, are complicit in the process of identity illusion suggested by her theory. This notwithstanding, however, I want to suggest that the figure of the modern pop star, particularly one so fractured across and within images as Britney Spears has been, provides a particularly vivid exemplary case of the combover subject. When a pop singer mimes – even when they simply contribute to a track whose emergence from the contemporary digital ecology means it exists far from conventional notions of the organic and instead entails an ‘artificial’ process of appearing ‘just so’, they enact a form of combover subjectivity; or at the very least they enact a hyper-subjectivity typical of our times, where a cyborg-like meeting of human and machine produces a pop music of subjective flux.
As explored above, Britney Spears-without hair simply could not be Britney Spears. The liberating possibilities of Spears’ shaved head were rejected, for whatever reason. A hasty collective sleight of hand – an authorisation of something like combover subjectivity – allowed her in fact presently to continue as a sort of Britney Spears manqué. In the videos shot immediately following the shaving of her head, such as ‘Gimme More’, Spears appears as a hollow figure attempting to appear ‘just so’, using the subterfuge of wigs and make-up to recapture the fading flux of Spears mark one. (It only adds to the grandeur of the situation that this period saw the release of what many have described as the best album of Spears’ career.)
In a more embedded way, the later music of Spears expresses a combover-like veiling of her subject-hood in its extensive use of heavily layered vocals (particularly with voices other than Spears’ own), auto tuned vocal tracks, and pitchshifted melodies on tracks such as ‘Piece of Me’ and ‘‘Till the World Ends’. Spears’ own voice is distant in these (wonderful) machine-tooled tracks. The formlessness at the heart of combover subjectivity is not only apparent, then, in the media constructions of the Spears’ persona; it is also present in the very procedures of Spears’ own music.
Yet whilst Spears’ enacting of combover subjectivity in her later career is somewhat easy to track (remembering of course that the combover is merely a metaphor), I want to argue that combover subjectivity also provides a suggestive framework for her early work. For what is a pop star, any pop star, but a bundle of non-coherent images and impressions formed out of media representations and audience reactions?
In the case of Spears, the presence of the nebulous, masked, illusory subjectivity suggested by the metaphor of the combover is particularly ripe; in her later career for reasons given above, but also in her earlier work, where her subject-hood, represented by her voice on her recordings and her appearance in videos, in public, and in the media, is caught in a comparatively intense state of flux.
Spears’ voice appeared in her songs then as it has more recently as heavily processed; her own part in the authorship of her material was and is obscure; and she rarely sang live in concert, preferring to mime to the simulacrum of presence and subjectivity that is enshrined in the processed, chorused, and layered vocals of tracks such as ‘Baby One More Time’ and ‘Overprotected’. Fleetingly, Spears allowed something a little less mediated to emerge in live performances of the song ‘Everytime’ on Saturday Night Live and sometimes on tour from 2003 onwards, but the dominance of lip-synching has been almost total in Spears’ public musical engagements. Such dominance is not necessarily an aesthetic problem, incidentally: I am not seeking to lament the situation, but rather to use it to support my comparison of the combover subject and Britney Spears the abject (i.e. neither subject nor object) pop star.
What Britney Spears’ early career helps to show us is that the position of the modern pop star, particularly for women (who have to contend with much more cultural pressures than men), is one in which subjectivity of any stable form is a difficult state to obtain; is one that might even be comparable to the tragic figure of times past: fated, flawed, and consigned to a predictable narrative of misery and collapse.
Bringing Berlant’s theory into contact with both Spears’ pop persona (and it is to this persona that we must ultimately respond, not Britney Spears herself) and her music perhaps has little explanatory power, but it does two things which can be considered worthwhile: one, it adds a theoretical element to our understanding of Spears’ persona, and, two, in its intensification of that understanding in theoretical and cultural terms, it adds a poignancy that seems highly appropriate to the subject. For, ‘poignancy’ entails morality, and the moral question, considering that our own participation in the callous media tornado which continues to swirl around Spears should not be dismissed, is paramount.
It may feel futile to attempt to resist media depictions of women and of pop stars, and perhaps it is, but within limits the work of theory offers us a chance to be critical of those depictions.