I am writing a love letter to pop music. Not particularly respectable pop music. I am not even talking about the Robyns or the Adeles or the Kate Nashes of the world, nor anything that you might feel even remotely comfortable to be caught blasting should your roommate walk in on you dancing around your room when you thought he was at work. I am not talking about music that you announce proudly to the people that you know. God bless Patti Smith, but this certainly does not concern her. For the moment, Justin Vernon is welcome to stay in his cabin in Wisconsin. I am talking about the soundtracks to awful breakups and lengthy road trips, weeks spent studying for the GREs or learning how to file oneâ€™s taxes. I am talking about three-sheets-to-the-wind karaoke. I am talking about music for which you are not the target demographic. Which is to say, I am pretty much talking about dreams.
I imbibe pop music the way middle-aged housewives in the Midwest imbibe romance novels: with reckless abandon, minimal intellectual engagement, and few regrets. I canâ€™t say for sure when my obsession with bad taste began. What I can say is that my Saturday nights in college were routinely spent making gin and tonics with my housemates and dancing to â€œToxicâ€ by Britney Spears in someoneâ€™s room, while singing along in the earnest manner with which we did everything, an earnestness you are unlikely to find anywhere outside of a womenâ€™s college dorm room on a weekend in western Massachusetts. Our dance moves would naturally devolve into a synchronized run to the fountain near our house. At this point, clad only in underwear and jewelry we had forgotten to take off, towels spread out behind us like a little boyâ€™s imitation of a superhero, we would look up at the stars and slur our collegeâ€™s official song as we ran around the fountain in drunkenly careful circles, an accomplishment when under the influence, since the fountain was small, and our school song happened to be in Latin.
Sometimes we tried to go to frat parties at the coed schools across the valley, but in our pursuit of what we thought surely must be the typical college experience, we mainly just got bored, or referred to as snobs, or offered too much Jaegermeister, or our rarely-worn stilettos became too muddy from sinking into damp grass, and anyway we had blisters. Defeated, we would take the bus back to campus where we would nervously watch â€œChelsea Latelyâ€ while drinking cheap wine and feeling deeply concerned that we would probably never, ever have boyfriends. Sometimes we felt like we had signed up for a four-year purity ball instead of a progressive liberal arts college. Then we remembered that Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan had gone to Smith, and then we felt guilty, and also like bad feminists.
Britney Spears may have been our patron saint of weekends, but during the week, we would rarely admit to liking anything but indie rock. We would talk about Regina Spektor and Andrew Bird like they were our friends. We would occasionally get into obscure band knowledge fights with the snobby girls who ran the radio station and wore fanny packs. However, this all changed the day Britney Spears shaved her head in Tarzana, California hair salon.
That day, I was reading a hefty volume of seventeenth-century poetry I didnâ€™t really understand when my friend Huelo shoved open my door, and announced, with a look of simultaneous bemusement and abject terror, â€œBritney Spears just shaved off all her hair!â€
â€œWhat!â€ I said incredulously, slamming John Donne shut.
â€œFor real! Look it up on the internet!â€ said Huelo. John Donne was relegated to the floor beside my bed, while we proceeded to gawk at a video feed of Britney Spears holding a razor to her freshly bald scalp, a tangle of hair she hadnâ€™t yet gotten to trailing down her neck like a rattail. The reporter, a smug blonde woman, said something about how Britney Spears didnâ€™t want people to touch her, at which point, there was a shift. Laughter became impossible.
â€œThat makes me really sad,â€ said Huelo.
â€œMe too,â€ I said. â€œI justâ€¦â€ I couldnâ€™t finish my sentence. It was then that I realized how dismayed the news report was making me. But that did not make sense. I was better than pop music. I listened to the Clash. I was an art minor! I read John Donne! And sort of understood parts of it. But it didnâ€™t matter. In that moment, it had become cool to root for Britney Spears. Furthermore, sort of involuntary. â€œI just. I really hope sheâ€™s okay.â€
â€œMe too,â€ said Huelo.
Once we became emotionally invested in Britney Spearsâ€™s well-being, it was like a switch was flipped in our lives. There were our lives before Britney Spears went crazy, and our lives after Britney Spears went crazy. In the days following Britney Spearsâ€™s involuntary psychiatric hold, we took careful note of her progress, glued to Perez Hilton and E! like football fans in a pub. During the Superbowl. Possibly during one of those high-stakes moments in sports people get so wrought up about.
Increasingly, we set down our papers and lab reports to watch the Britney report. We listened to â€œStrongerâ€ on the treadmill at the gym, hoping to send her vibes of strength through our maximum incline settings. We talked about her at dinner while we ate extra dessert while occasionally getting into arguments over which one of us had the most papers to write. We played her music at our parties. We rediscovered the campy-as-hell video for â€œToxicâ€ and watched it repeatedly on Youtube. We watched her so-called disastrous performance at the 2007 VMAs and deduced that ladyface would have been fine if sheâ€™d just had a better weave. Our obsession was real and did not leave our tiny campus.
That was also around the time the Dalai Lama came to our school. Students from the five colleges in the valley packed our indoor track facility and I donâ€™t really remember anything he said, but I do remember he talked about compassion. And while our obsession with Britney Spears was never not voyeuristic, maybe compassion, or at least empathy, was at the root of it. Because in that moment in the barber shop, Britney Spears seemed more vulnerable than a calculating Kardashian or a Jessica Simpson announcing her virginity pledge in 1998 or even an affectedly precious Joanna Newsom or us, with our occasional tendency to couch our anxieties in arguments over workloads and obscure bands.
For better or for worse, Britney Spears was a mentally ill woman living out her nightmare in the pages of Us Weekly. She had also become human to us in a way that was identifiable. And if anyone could relate to a woman who was going a little crazy, it was surely the women of Smith College. We were a rare mix of estrogen and neuroses. Most of us were on antidepressants. We went to our six free counseling sessions every semester like it was our job. After about two days at Smith, you learned that if you saw a girl bawling on the steps of the library, you let her do her crying in peace. It wasnâ€™t so much that we were unhappy as that we were swimming in age-appropriate confusion, and trying to be proactive in the face of our anxieties. And we were beginning to suspect that Britney Spears was one of us.
In fact, in a way, she was us. When we talked about Britney Spears, we may have been talking about something else entirely. We may have been talking about ourselves. Somehow, a pop star we hadnâ€™t much thought about before 2006 had given us license to discuss our very real fears about anxiety and mental illness in a safe, coded way. Britney Spears became the ultimate in, â€œOh, Iâ€™m just asking for a friend.â€
If it seems strange to say that Britney Spears made us feel less crazy, I would argue that sometimes comfort comes from strange places. When Britney Spears finally put out a new album in 2008, we listened to it nonstop, and when she released a music video for â€œCircus,â€ we noted that her tattoos were kept visible and her eyes looked less dead, and her weave, in 1920s pincurls, actually looked really good. She looked happy, like she was possibly even maybe having fun, and this gave us hope. Itâ€™s possible that her handlers were just doing a better job. But we were nothing if not earnest, and if Britney Spears could fight obscurity and bipolar disorder and even temporarily win, anything seemed possible. We listened to â€œCircusâ€ for an entire semester after it came out, and long after, and talked about how much we appreciated it â€œas a pop album.â€ We never said anything more about Britney Spearsâ€™s mental state, emphasizing instead the distinct possibility that we just really liked to dance.
Megan Burbank is from Seattle, and now lives in Chicago, where she is an MFA candidate at the School of the Art Institute. Most recently, her writing has appeared in The Stranger and is forthcoming at elimae.