By Mark Guarino
If members of Congress had their way, they’d turn to Britney Spears and say, in the words of a prime time Donald Trump, “you’re fired.”
For Spears, a performer whose career lifeblood is controversy, that’s a pink slip she can cash at the bank.
Chart the raunch factor in Spears’ music since her debut five years ago, and you’ll see the slide from a G-rating to R. The end result is her new album and tour, a coupling of steamy fare designed for adult tastes. Her introduction to the public as a plucky, innocent virgin today seems quaint. Especially compared with the current overdriven campaign to catch up with the times, which includes casting her in videos in the latest girlie show regalia, kissing Madonna on MTV, grabbing global headlines with a quickie Vegas wedding and designing her current “Onyx Hotel Tour” as “what might happen if Penthouse magazine were edited by Beavis and Butthead,” reported the San Diego Union Tribune.
A year ago, who’d wince? Country stars, cable new channels and polls cheered the Bush administration’s plunge into Iraq, and the national mood seemed to defend harmless fluff as a cathartic outlet to counter the vulnerability felt since Sept. 11.
“When times are good, we look for (entertainers) we can have fun with who are more carefree. As opposed to when times are bad, we look for a serious type of individual who will take care of us and are more stable and emotionally secure,” said Terry Pettijohn, a social psychologist at Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa. whose research explores how social and economic factors affects the public’s preferences in entertainment.
At the war’s year anniversary, things have changed. With the economy on its downturn slide, the unemployment rate is rising. Bush’s poll numbers are dropping at the same pace body bags return from overseas. Headlines report terrorism is on the rise while the one movie a majority of Americans have made it their mission to see is one in which Christ is repeatedly flogged for nearly three hours.
The grim mood hit its first sour note with the millisecond cameo of Janet Jackson’s right nipple during January’s Super Bowl, an incident that became the bellwether of our times. It re-ignited the indecency debate in Congress which is all too reminiscent of the cultural wars of the mid-‘80s when political wives Tipper Gore and Susan Baker argued that artists like Prince and Guns N’ Roses were poisoning the nation’s children.
“The underlying moral debate is similar,” said Danny Goldberg, former manager of Nirvana and author of “Dispatches From the Culture Wars: How the Left Lost Teen Spirit” (Miramax Books). “There are people who feel the moralities of the country are damaged by what they consider to be vulgar … and there are other people who feel a free marketplace of ideas is more moral.”
Goldberg said the difference today is that the arguments are partisan to the political right and are taking place in an election year where issues like war, the economy and healthcare are on the forefront of people’s minds. “The country is more of a political place now because the issues are much more important — they’re literally life and death issues,” he said.
James Webster, professor of communication studies at Northwestern University said while it’s typical to have “certain segment of an audience that’ll be sincerely offended … in an election year you’ve got Congressmen who are only too happy to pander to that electorate.” “So you’re seeing a lot of breast-beating,” he said. “Here, the media is basically caving into pressure and I suspect that particularly after the elections, a lot of this will blow over.”
As it stands, the debate is rife with hypocrisy, especially in a world where multi-conglomerates say one thing and remain unchecked to do another.
At the same time John Hogan, CEO of Clear Channel Entertainment, apologizes for hosting Howard Stern on its airwaves because the shock jock dehumanizes women, his company produces and promotes the Spears tour in which the performer is less interested in singing than she is simulating sex with her dancers while lip syncing. (“We’re not looking at the Mickey Mouse Club fans anymore. We’re going after … the kids who have now grown up,” Clear Channel tour marketing director Tommy Ginoza tells Billboard.)
CBS and MTV, both subsidiaries of Viacom, argue who’s to blame for the Jackson mishap while respectively hyping “Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show” on CBS (two hours of women in thongs) and announcing to great fanfare that Spears videos will only be showed on MTV during nighttime hours. And BET — another Viacom sibling — invites Jackson back on television to host a 10-part series for Black History Month while CBS bars her from the Grammys.
If it looks like a sideshow and behaves like a sideshow, it just might be one. FCC Chairman Michael Powell, the leader of the indecency outcry, has been under scrutiny because of his affinity for deregulating broadcasting monopolies for Bush-friendly corporations. It helps to show he’s cracking the whip. But when you learn he was the only FCC member who pushed through the AOL/Time Warner merger at the same time his father, Secretary of State Colin Powell, sat on AOL’s board, his whip could use some oil.
It’s too soon to know whether Spears’ sexpot revue gets a free pass from the morality play on Capital Hill. The public has certainly cooled. Despite the media blitz accompanying its release, her new album “In the Zone” (Jive) has met diminished sales compared to her early work. The charts are also crammed with new more genteel competitors — Norah Jones, Clay Aiken — with no intention of disrobing at all.
But despite these facts, Spears’ raunchy spin into womanhood looks ensured. With Clear Channel handling her tour and Jive — a subsidiary of Zomba, which is a subsidiary of BMG, which is currently poised to merge with Sony Music, making it the second biggest music label in the world — it’s safe to say she’ll be fine.