As disturbing as it may be, the saga of Britney Spears's downfall serves pretty well as a cautionary tale for young American consumers.
She started out as a cutesy, innocent little girl, playing it fast and loose by asking for us to hit her baby, one more time. Then, oops, she did it again! And so did we. Young Americans kept gobbling her up, a sign of things to come when savings rates would hit rock bottom a decade or so later. Then comes the mature cycle of Britney, where she discovered the ability to pleasure herself just by the touch of her hand, when she pronounced that she was a brave new girl, and that she was going out that night. This when the only thing that seemed to get anything flying off the shelves anymore were models with perfect breasts/pectorals, the employment of idealized figures run amok. Brit said she was a slave for us. It seems that we liked it that way, while more and more it seemed like the relationship really went the other way around. Who was slave to whom? We almost left her as she suffered a near total collapse, complete with rumors of suicidal tendencies and severe substance abuse problems, all after that last-ditch appeal to her innocent days with a marriage to that total loser Kevin Federline. Operative word: almost. Then she comes back, releases an album and says she wants more. Gimme, gimme she says. And ooh she tastes/sounds so yummy, even if her tummy's showing the signs of her fall from godliness.
Doesn't it seem like we're oddly in sync with Britney? Like her, we want more, more, more, and now, now, now. She's strung out still, in withdrawal, pleading for, what, an economic stimulus check?
Maybe she needs it to pay for gas. In any case, the likeness between Britney Spears' lyrical trends and young Americans' consumption and attitudes toward it is a little, well, scary. Yes I am being a bit facetious here, and I'm able to comment mostly on young people's spending and consumption. But come on, the Paris Hiltons and Nicole Ritchies, the Britney blowups, the Lindsay Lohans, how disgustingly coincidental is it that the good girl icon got blown sky high by sex, drugs, and anorexia at the same time that the economy has gone bust?
The Britneys got out of control, and young America is catching up. More and more "premium" stores, McDonalds selling "premium" chicken whatevers, and retailers running out of ways to sell you the same t-shirts so fast that they build whole consumer "experiences" to differentiate their barely discernible merchandise. Anyone who hasn't been into Abercrombie and Fitch recently really needs to go to a mall. You don't even have to go into the store--the smell of the cologne they pump into the air is noticeable within a 25 yard radius. Just walk by and you get a sense of the Abercrombie "lifestyle," loud music, tight clothes, muscles/anorexia, and intoxication. Breathe it in, baby, gimme gimme more. Even Apple Computer, which doesn't resort to skin as a defining element of the high-tech lifestyle, has built alternate realities around their products, ones that are equally consuming but that revolve around earbuds, or tapping away at the interface of an iPhone/iPod Touch, or sitting in front of the built-in iSight webcam while you talk to your friend on iChat.
While marketing and merchandising has become a brilliant exercise in building alternate realities, for instance the Abercrombie world where I, as consumer, am made to think there is actually a chance of having washboard abs, there are other realities that aren't going to let us get away with all this unreality. All the talk of recession and foreclosures and gas prices is generally pitched toward an older audience, but let's not pretend that a younger generation, which is used to a lot more material comfort than previous ones, shouldn't be worried about what hard times mean for the material realities that marketers try harder and harder to make our lives revolve around.
It's a neat coincidence that this fatuous example can mimic the boom and bust in prosperity of the late 90's into the early 00's. It's almost funny that Britney serves so easily as a cautionary tale about consumerism. She is and was catchy, devoid of substance, and everywhere--just like the rampant consumerism that continues to be a defining feature in young Americans' lives.
When Britney sings "you want a piece of me" it's both an invitation and a warning. We should see the same thing in the invitation to consume.