It will probably come as no great shock that I am not a Britney Spears fan. To my ears, she is a talentless hack famous for one and only one thing. To my eyes, she is, well, justifiably famous. And therein lies the American Dream and the American Nightmare. Somehow we have arrived at a peculiar moment in our culture in which image totally overpowers content and substance. And when the image includes beautiful bodies, drug and alcohol abuse, bizarre behavior, and nervous breakdowns in front of the camera, all the better. There are a few cultural outposts that still fly the old, tattered flag of substance and quality, Paste Magazine among them. And I’m thankful for them. But I watch the news at 11:00, and it’s not The Decemberists or The Hold Steady who command the leads-ins to Today’s Top Stories. It’s people named Anna Nicole and Paris and Lindsey and Britney, who self destruct right before our eyes, in high definition video, and who are big enough and dazzling enough to transcend the normal gossip shows and somehow become International News.
In a strange twist of fate that has me smiling, I will be traveling in a few weeks to a music conference at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan to participate in something called Bandspotting. Bandspotting is a variation on the American Idol theme. In this case, two judges (Asthmatic Kitty label head Michael Kaufmann and me) will listen to some musicians/bands looking for their big break, and declare one musician/band the Grand Prize Winner, complete with the opportunity to perform before the assembled conference masses. And if you know me and my antipathy to all things American Idol, you may see the humor in that, too. For me, American Idol is nothing less than the scourge of the music world, a show that contributes like no other to the cultural lobotomization of America, a worthless hour, now beamed into our homes two or three days per week, in which marginally talented Vegas wannabes do karaoke to songs that weren’t very good in their original incarnations, and eventually win enormous recording contracts and sell millions of albums to people who don’t know anything else. So I don’t know if I’m supposed to be Simon or Randy, but it probably doesn’t matter. In either case, there is a fair degree of ambivalence.
What helps is that the music I’m listening to from Calvin College is really good. It’s an amazing contrast. They just planted Anna Nicole in the ground, and Britney may be headed there any day now, and still the American Idol masses scramble to become the next Britney. At the same time, a bunch of kids have recorded some songs in their bedrooms, or maxed out their credit cards so they could spend a few hours in a recording studio, and have written and recorded songs in which their hearts are laid bare, and done their damndest to pin down the ineffable and the transcendent in rhyming couplets and major and minor chords. Michael and I are put in the impossible position of declaring only one of them a winner. And so, before that happens, let me go on record as stating that I salute them, all of them. None of them are losers.
Meanwhile, there are the disturbing images of a woman with a newly shaved head bearing the insignia “666,” an unsuccessful suicide attempt in a rehab center, and a media frenzy that simultaneously decries and celebrates the insanity. I truly don’t like Britney Spears’ music, but that’s not the Britney Spears I think about these days. I think about a young woman who is desperately crying out for help, and I can’t help but feel sad for this poor, lost kid who doesn’t know who she is, who has grown up in such an artificial, strange, soul-sucking world that she can’t tell what is real from what is glittering and shiny and empty. And that’s the person I pray for, regardless of whether she ever “sings” again. What happens when image is everything and you look in the mirror and see no reflection? I don’t know. But I hope she finds herself.