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Britney Spears and the Market of Celebrity Meltdowns

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Britney Spears may not have become more famous in the past few months, but it certainly seems that way. Press coverage of her every wobbly move seems more pervasive than ever. Once again, Britney Spears is major business. This time, however, her music is not the commodity being exchanged in the marketplace; it's her life, or, to be more precise, the unraveling of her life. In other words, she is losing her mind, and other people are profiting from it.

What does it say about us as people when we delightfully feast on the destruction of one person's life? Why is there so little sympathy for someone who is clearly in the midst of a complete nervous breakdown? Granted, none of us asked to have Britney Spears in our lives, but is this fair payback? Does this merit the glee with which her meltdown is being consumed? We're all so busy ogling her downward spiral that we're forgetting to ask what's brought her to this point.

Spears rose to the top of the charts by commodifying her voice and, more convincingly, her body. Her very being was transformed into a product, but this is standard. The female pop artist is a product, and the product must perform in order to maintain market dominance. Call it Glamour Darwinism. The female pop artist must constantly reinvent herself in order to survive. Take Madonna: she has stayed alive by unveiling a new and improved product every few years. There are exceptions, of course, your Meryl Streeps and Norah Joneses, women who have not had to commodify themselves in order to succeed in showbusiness, but these are two names in a sea of objectification, and it is this sea that Ms. Spears is currently drowning in.

Britney Spears has been reinvented as a defective product. She is New Coke. She is the DeLorean and the Corvair, and she is in the middle of a major factory recall, but unlike GM, she will not have a team of lawyers or managers to bail her out. It's a fire sale, and everything that is Spears must go.

But that doesn't mean people can't make a ton of cash while the ship is sinking. Enter the Disaster Capitalists, the carpetbaggers who have shown up to sell marshmallows fresh-roasted on the Britney bonfire. Meltdowns of the Rich and Famous is a fabulous business model, provided that the rich and famous self-destruct slowly and painfully, the slower the better. The worst nightmare in the minds of those "news outlets" covering Britney's long march to the bottom is that she'll die before they're able to wring every last dollar out of her tattered life. They want a prolonged, videotaped custody battle, more inebriated photo shoots, more dazed live performances, more flab (even though she's hardly fat), more bad songs, more pantless public appearances, perhaps a failed suicide attempt or two during the holidays -- anything except death itself, because they want this product to stay on the market forever, or at least until their profits go down.

This is the sad fate that awaits Britney Spears. No one is looking to understand what's happening to her, no one is looking to help her, everyone simply wants to look, to curl up on the couch and watch the train wreck that is her life. And when the flames have been put out and the paramedics have thrown a sheet over her immolated remains, we'll speed up and be on our merry way, her pain and suffering forgotten before we reach the next rest area.

This isn't simply a matter of "pop stars are people too," or some sappy call for sympathy for a poor little rich girl. This is simply a call for honesty. This is nothing to celebrate or get excited about. This is not a comedy. This is a tragedy, and a common one. People have mental breakdowns and traumatic custody battles every day, and no one asks for it. The fact that it's happening to someone famous should not make any difference.