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Britney Spears Is Finally Sober. So Why Does She Seem So Sad?

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Acting out is no longer consistent with Britney's billion-dollar brand.

By Sam Lansky

06/08/11

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(page 5)

Inside the arena, all I could hear was the thunderous, deafening roar of the audience, twenty thousand women and gays screaming at once. Some chanted, “Britney! Britney! Britney!” in cultish, rhythmic cadence. Others just screeched unintelligibly. My own shouts over the throng, cracking as my voice went hoarse. I screamed. I cried. And Britney put on a show.

In For the Record, a 2008 MTV documentary about Britney that chronicles her attempts at a comeback, Britney speaks candidly about the experience of performing. “There’s no passion,” she says. “It’s like Groundhog Day, every day.” She pauses for a moment and her eyes shine with tears. “I’m sad,” she says.

I’ve heard addiction called “the loneliness disease,” for the strange phenomenon that I, and many alcoholics and addicts I know, experience from time to time (or, for the less fortunate, constantly). No matter how many people are close to me, supporting me, cheering me on, telling me that they believe in me—no matter how many fans I have—I still find myself mired in isolation, loneliness, and the chronic fear of my own fundamental unlovability. This is a universality of addiction, and when I think about how this must manifest for Britney—to be perennially surrounded by sycophants, distant relatives, business associates, and ostensibly well-intentioned “assistants” who are always waiting for a crisis to defuse and a scandal to sell—the loneliness must be enormous.

Celebrity certainly has its well-documented vicissitudes, and the oeuvre of Britney Spears has explored the theme of fame from many angles. Her single, “Lucky,” is a chanson à clef about the eponymous starlet, described as “so lucky [because] she’s a star, but she cry-cry-cries in her lonely heart.” In “Piece of Me,” she describes herself as “Mrs. Lifestyles of the rich and famous,” and, “Mrs. Oh my God that Britney’s shameless.” In “Kill the Lights,” off her sixth studio album, Circus, she snarls, “Mr. Photographer, I think I’m ready for my close-up tonight, make sure you catch me from my good side—pick one.” (A prime example of inflated alcoholic ego.) One could argue that these sentiments are the product of a media-savvy writing team, eager to invert the tabloid frenzy of Britney’s life in a bid for self-effacement, rather than Britney herself acknowledging the folly of her celebrity. But this is the fallacy of the Britney Spears circus. As a manufactured pop artist, when Britney’s music is effective, we credit her producers and management, but when Britney’s life collapses in shambles around her, we blame her for her recklessness and irresponsibility. In actuality, Britney’s descent into drug-binging insanity mirrors that of all great artists—so tormented by private demons that only the creative product can illuminate the artist’s private life. But never before has a musical artist been so meticulously micromanaged by a crack team of experts, experts whose primary responsibility is to keep Britney from slipping up and betraying her humanity. The pop retains its glossy, impersonal remove, and Britney’s eyes stay dull and empty.   

In an environment of media hypersaturation, with unprecedented access to the private lives of the stars whose lives we follow with apotheotic fascination, it’s inevitable that some of those stars will battle mental illness, get sober, and relapse on the macrocosmic scale of the global gossip factory. But it’s become very difficult for me to watch Britney in her current state, because—arrogant as it may sound—I want so desperately to give her my serenity, and yet, I know that I can’t. Aided by a potent cocktail of mood stabilizers, Britney has retreated into some private metaphysical space where the cameras and the fans don’t exist, where she can be alone, at least, if not lonely. I don’t blame her. The transient gifts of beauty, wealth, and stardom can’t be worth the loss of privacy, integrity, and anonymity that are part and parcel with fame—and fame has destroyed Britney, maybe more so than the drugs did. I can’t imagine emerging unscathed after battling a host of mental health issues on a public stage; it nearly swallowed me whole when I was alone. It is a gift that our paths diverged, Britney’s and mine, and for this reason, among so many others, I consider myself lucky. 

Sam Lansky is an editor at Wetpaint. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/samlansky.

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