MTV's recent homage to Britney Spears at the 2011 Video Music Awards was filled with awkward moments. From the producer's choice to have young girls dress up and dance like Britney's past music video performances, to the bizarre, symbolic "manhandling" of Britney by Lady Gaga in drag, the night was simply not a good one for Britney.
She seemed caught off guard accepting a memorialization of her work. Why pay respect to a performer still on the road pushing her new record Femme Fatale? She seemed caught unaware that she was no longer herself, but someone whose career seemed to be slipping into the shadows of a full-blown tribute.
But really, has she ever had a time in her life when she owned selfhood, belonged only to herself?
While ownership is one of the primary emotions of the fan (Don't mess with my Britney!), within the context of Britney's story, being "owned" has a more complex meaning. Remember that Britney emerges from a Southern Baptist upbringing, one in which God's proprietorship would have been theologically paramount in the young girl's imagination. First and foremost, Britney belongs to God.
But as Britney became a performer and a product, both her body and her art were bought and sold. As such, she was owned by much more than God. Even as far back as her years with Disney, she belonged to the hegemonic Mouse and his kingdom. Always she was someone else's, rarely her own person.
She would have been accustomed to this condition of being owned, again because of her belief that she was a child of God, destined to do "the good work." The problem with this, of course, was that the role of servant, or commodity, became her comfort zone. Because along with being owned comes love and attention. A constant, cultural stage of adoration. A temptation for anyone let alone someone who felt a calling to do it.
But soon enough, as her music and performances became more "mature" (why we expected her to stay young and innocent is still puzzling), North American religion took ownership of her as well. They became consumers just like the rest of us.
Evangelical Christians and Catholics were the first, the former playing the angry mother and the latter playing the role of the protective father. The common evangelical argument about Britney was that she had failed to live up to her potential as a soldier for the Lord. Penny Maxwell, co-pastor of the Freedom House Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, wrote that Britney is just like other talented but failed Christians, called prematurely to ministry. Within this Christian picture of Britney, her downfall of 2006 was more than a cultural faux pas; it was a separation from God. A writer for Christian Today compared her fall from grace to the parable of the prodigal son (although, Britney never seemed to make her way back to the family).
In his YouTube blessing of Britney Spears, father Jeffrey of the Society of St. Paul invites Britney to walk through life in a "godly fashion," avoiding the hellish temptations that surround her. This potential moment of sanctity lost all its generosity by judging the young celebrity while trying to save her. For this halfhearted offering, Britney (or at least those who produce her images) fought back with her own form of judgment: appearing half naked in a confessional booth in the artwork for 2007's Blackout.
She had the right to be angry. As is often the case, religion has a way of perverting the possibilities of the Church, and its mission of shalom. In trying to protect her, these folks were simply claiming ownership over a lost soul who they thought needed correcting. They might've done better to simply offer her community.
The institution of celebrity runs on one insatiable request: that stars, women in particular, give everything to the machine of stardom. The church, on the other hand, should help all of its members give everything to God.
Religious institutions have at their disposal the theological terminology and imagination to understand exactly what Britney needed in 2006, and what she needs today. They understand that as a fellow believer (for she did and does claim to be one), she is on a journey towards meeting God. She is, in other words, a pilgrim on a path that will no doubt cause stumbling. That just like them, just like us, she has the right to fall and get back up again.
Though she fell in line with other speeches and thanked him for winning the Best Pop Video of 2011, she did not thank God for her Michael Jackson Video Vanguard award at the Video Music Awards. Perhaps she has figured out that real gratitude belongs between her and God, not the Church. His ownership matters now as much as it did in the beginning.