Reframing Britney Spears in the cultural landscape

What can we learn from a retrospective look at Britney Spears’ time as a pop star?

What does Britney Spears have in common with a can of Pepsi?

They share the neuron that’s fired in your brain.

“A celebrity face may function as a reinforcing stimulus whereas the product is a neutral stimulus,” according to a study that analyzes celebrity product endorsement.

Translation: consumers with a positive association to a celebrity will generate warm favouring to the product they endorse, even when their stance was otherwise neutral to the product, as seen in neuromapping.

The recipe goes like this: place a celebrity next to the product in a commercial, and the product will tap into some of the happy memories you have of the celebrity, located in the cerebral cortex of the brain.

So, we see how this relationship impacts the product — Pepsi inherits the feel-good memories I have when I think of dancing to Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time” when I was five years old.

But how does this connection between product and person impact my impression of Spears?

Do we start to relate Pepsi more to Spears, or is it the other way around?

I’m talking about human objectification. I’m talking about concepts like “celebrity brand” and, its echo, “finding your brand,” which flips a profit off self-objectification.

On the page, this may read like a jump to you — the idea that self-branding is an act of violent objectification. But the brain doesn’t parse between “positive” objectification, like a lucrative advertising campaign, and “negative” objectification, like vicious online threats to celebrities.

The brain cannot tell that I am only self-objectifying, as in “branding,” in order to, say, sell myself to this company I want to work for. The brain only fires neurons.

The normalization and commodification of objectifying ourselves and others works to divert our attention from who people are to how people appear. This distinction facilitates cruel online “trolling.” It turns people’s suffering into memes. It rewards snappy hatefulness.

Objectification of ourselves and others is ultimately subversive to the age-old battle for women’s equality, as it reinforces systems of violence that exclude women from medical, legal, and financial independence. Example: Spears.

Reality check: Spears’ first hit single, “Baby One More Time,” with its super suggestive lyrics and iconic baby-doll school uniform, was first released when she was just 17 years old.

From a young age, we drank Spears like lemonade on a hot summer day. Her “brand” in the early days of her career — a girl next door type who played dumb half the time and spoke in a baby voice — made it possible; encouraged it even. As she grew up, our consumption of Spears intensified, with paparazzi following her every step for our benefit. I want to watch her personal life unfold. I want to know why Britney and Justin broke up — whose fault was it? As this objectification intensified, it did so with consistent sexist bias.

Our brains are elastic. They learn from repetition, reinforcement, and other sly tricks. The dawn of neuromarketing broke open a new day in the advertising world. Its repercussions permeate public identity, culture, celebrity fate, moral shifts, personal finance, and so much more.

Spears is the intersection point of all these other consequences.

A recent documentary by The New York Times Presents, “Framing Britney Spears” chronicles the experiences that have led Spears to endure a lifelong pursuit from paparazzi, suffer various mental health episodes before an unforgiving public, and to experience a conservatorship for more than a decade, which charges her father with managing her fortune, among other things.

Looking back, we can agree that what happened to Spears was unacceptable, and many who were ousted in the recent documentary have come forward with their own reckoning with the situation. I remember watching the 2007 “Leave Britney Alone” video in high school, tickled by the outburst, and completely oblivious to the rightful urgency of the message.

But the issue of objectification persists in mainstream culture and news. Jojo Siwa, a child celebrity who self-identifies as the first person “to be licensed as a brand,” is celebrated as a feminist icon for “owning” her brand.

Siwa is 17 years old, around the age Spears was when she first released “Baby One More Time.” These are people, who are literally children, celebrated for the relatability of their brand. People are congratulated for living an experience publicly that appears authentic while they treat their real life experience as a commercial, with products seamlessly embedded into their human experience. This is called an “ownable” brand.

The major distinction between Siwa and Spears is the latter’s sexualization for profit. Spears was sexually objectified from a young age, a phenomenon many of us can now agree is wrong (don’t ask someone whether they’re “still” a virgin during a televised interview!). Siwa’s team, in contrast, have managed to create a brand that exploits Siwa’s youth and bubbly — almost childish — personality, rather than cash in on her sexuality.

This distinction is not a feminist celebration. This is not a success. Spears is a living example that even the most talented and wealthy women can still be subjected to unimaginable harms and systemic oppression that excludes them from financial, medical, and legal autonomy.

Our brains can’t distinguish between “good” and “bad” objectification. The problem isn’t that sexual objectification, such as the objectification Spears endures, is bad, it’s that objectification in itself changes how our brains perceive the world, which then impacts how we relate to one another.

Humans were made to connect because together we are stronger. But if our brain no longer distinguishes a person from a product, then that weakens our natural inclination to bind at a granular level. It weakens our capacity to communicate effectively, to form meaningful bonds, to have each other’s backs.

For decades we drank Spears the persona and Spears the person.

Her manager says she may never perform again, and honestly I understand the decision. She expressed that she’s “taking time to be a normal person,” a rightful boundary that swells me with shame, as it should.

My brain registers Spears like a can of Pepsi: the person, the persona, the product — despite her humanity. Now it’s my job to rework that understanding, to retell her story with respect and compassion as I reflect on the times I danced to her music, soaking it up.


Photo collage by Kit Mergaert


Top Ten: Signature Montreal musicians of the 2000s

In the wake of this year’s South by Southwest music festival, Montreal has been dubbed by many as the new ‘Brooklyn.’ Talented artists and hipsters have flocked to the NYC borough for almost a century to rub shoulders with like-minded people, but now it seems as if the tides are turning towards our faithful city.

Consider this an introduction, merely scraping the surface of what your home has to offer. These are the musicians that laid the foundation in the 2000s for today’s incoming creativity, in no particular order.

Arcade Fire: Funeral, Arcade Fire’s 2004 debut, has the second most appearances on decade-end album rankings, trailing only Radiohead’s Kid A. In response to winning the 2011 Grammy for Album of the Year for The Suburbs, Win Butler, the band’s frontman, initially responded with ‘I can’t believe it, we won. Merci Montreal!’ And the feeling appears to be mutual, for when the band played a free show at Place Des Arts last September, tens of thousands packed the streets, many just to watch on big screens around the corner. We are fortunate enough to live in the city that their music pays homage to. This is a band that Montrealers have welcomed into their homes. Spin a few records and you may understand why.

Grimes: Though fresh faced and a relatively new addition to Montreal’s new music scene, Claire Boucher, better known as Grimes, has become our mascot. Boucher is a workaholic; she has released 3 albums in two years and, according to her twitter feed, almost never stops touring. Montreal can thank Grimes for bringing its underground electronic scene to the forefront.

Patrick Watson: Patrick Watson has long been a quiet staple and full participant in Quebec’s music family. His latest release, Adventures in Your Own Backyard, was recorded in a home studio right next door to his family’s home in Plateau. The lyrics are inspired by the concept of home, which for Watson and his band, is Montreal. “I’d like to write songs that people can carry with them in their daily life and bring them some sort of adventure,” says Watson.

Karkwa: In 2011, Karkwa won the Polaris Music Prize for their fourth album, Les Chemins de Verre, in what was called the “longest and most emotional deliberation in Polaris deliberations” by Liisa Ladouceur, who oversees the selection committee. “The short-listed records are all of extreme high quality and they truly resonated with members of the jury whether or not they completely understood the language of the lyrics,” claimed Ladouceur. Language politics will always make headlines in this country. When a band that sings only in french succeeds in defying language boundaries, it has got to be good.

Leonard Cohen: Leonard Cohen is Montreal’s resident Renaissance man, but to the rest of the world, legendary. According to critic Bruce Eder, he is second only to Bob Dylan and Paul Simon in terms of cultural influence, particularly because of his ability to single-handedly hold an audience through four decades of music making.

Chromeo: Nowadays, dance music dominates the music charts, both independent and top 40. Montreal is home to countless DJs, but Chromeo is perhaps the first of our electronic musicians to appeal to indie, dance, and pop crowds. The duo are childhood friends that embody Montreal’s cultural diversity; P-Thug is Arabic and was born in Lebanon and Dave 1 is Jewish. If you’ve ever stepped foot on a Montreal dancefloor, chances are pretty high that you’ve heard a Chromeo remix. Little known fact: the duo used to work at Celine Dion’s studio.

The Dears: As a six piece orchestral, hard rocking outfit, The Dears paved the way for bands like Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene, and Stars. They toured the globe on the heels of The Tragically Hip, Sloan, and Keane, and were shortlisted for the 2011 Polaris Prize for Degeneration Street, their fifth studio album.

Plants and Animals: Magical things can happen on Parc Ave, or at least thats what the members of Plants and Animals think. Their 2008 debut album, Parc Avenue, was released in the wake of their love affair with Montreal. Warren Spicer, Matthew Woodley, and Nic Basque met as music students at Concordia, but truly dug their heels into the Plateau music scene as residents of the Mile End.

Sam Roberts Band: Since his 2001 debut, The Inhuman Condition, Sam Roberts has become a Canadian household name. He is a frosh week staple, an instant Much Music video hit, and almost always a Juno nominee. The Inhuman Condition remains one of the bestselling independent releases in Canadian history. Roberts is a West Island native, and like many other Montrealers, trilingual.

Stars are veterans of both Montreal and North America’s indie-pop music scene, having released their debut, Nightsongs, in 2001. They found fame quickly; their dreamy, lovesick tunes proved to be the perfect soundtrack for the teen dramas, like The O.C., that defined the decade. To this day, Stars still calls Montreal home. Even their upcoming September 4 release, The North, uses an image of Habitat 67 as their album cover.


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