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Thursday, May 18, 2006

A Unified Theory Of Stephin Merritt and Britney Spears
Recently on the Internet, a number of people were moved to debate whether Stephin Merritt, a Caucasian songwriter who is generally less popular than John Mayer, is a racist. For the most part the discussion was - though maybe not for Merritt himself - kind of funny.

First, because Merritt's actual attitude towards other races is entirely unknowable - especially since he is an unknowable artist, meaning that all of his actions are subject to potential irony. For instance, even if Merritt expressed an interest in Hitler and appeared to offer a Nazi salute, this would not automatically make him a Nazi (see Bowie, David). Similarly, even if Merritt was photographed hugging a number of black pre-schoolers this would not automatically make him a tolerant human being. He might just be running for political office.

Second, since Merritt's actual attitude towards other races is entirely unknowable, the discussion about Merritt's actual attitude towards other races came to be about everyone else's actual attitude towards other races.

It's the sort of thing Britney Spears might understand.

You see, while the Internet was debating Stephin Merritt's possible racism, the rest of the world was busy trying to come to terms with Britney's latest adventure in breeding. The reaction was largely negative and mocking, but this is nothing new. Because Britney is quite possibly the most criticized artist in pop music history. In fact, almost everything she has ever done, or seemed to do, has met with some level of criticism.

A small sampling of her alleged sins includes: over sexualizing young girls, succeeding without sufficient talent, not practicing proper hygiene, disrespecting the bonds of holy matrimony, falsely proclaiming virginity, falsely proclaiming natural breasts, not obeying local traffic laws, falling short of education standards and, of course, getting fat.

It doesn't really matter if Britney is guilty of anything. Indeed, she may be completely innocent on all charges. Her breasts might be real. And she was at one point, one assumes, a virgin. The easy and typical answer for the scrutiny that Britney endures is that she is merely unfortunate enough to exist at a time of unprecedented fascination with celebrities.

This is only sort of true.

What's more true is that we all secretly hate celebrities. Or at least enjoy hating upon them. And what's even more truer than that is that Britney exists at time when society, thanks to the Internet and Nancy Grace, has completely abandoned the pursuit of reasonable discussion. There are only sides now. Republicans and Democrats, Red Sox and Yankees, Brad and Jennifer, Kobe Bryant and The World, Taylor and Katherine, and so forth. Someone has to win. Usually the bad guy.

(This is not to suggest that, say, the 1950s were a period of great enlightenment when entire towns could gather after church to work out the problems of the day over Sunday brunch. Quite the opposite probably. But in 50 years we have gained all the tools and freedom to discuss whatever we want with whoever we want, only to discover we haven't the faintest idea how to actually talk about stuff. It turns out Sports talk radio didn't signal the end of civilization, it actually foretold the future.)

Issues that do not lend themselves to yes or no answers are, then, difficult to discuss. But they must be discussed. We want to discuss them. So we project them on to celebrities we find so fascinating/distasteful. Through Britney, for instance, we've been able to implicitly explore sex, the mysteries of success, proper hygiene, marriage, sex, cosmetic enhancement, traffic safety, education and, of course, weight gain. Also: sex.

Try and get through even a single day without thinking about at least one of those subjects (even if you eliminate sex, this is nearly impossible). Now try to think of a single public forum in which you could imagine a reasonable and balanced exchange of thoughts on said subjects (anywhere involving alcohol probably doesn't count). Such a place, if it ever existed, is not readily available to the majority of the population. So we have Britney - who is available to everyone, all the time - and after her an endless list of singers, actors, actresses, athletes, disgraced Survivor winners and synth-pop songwriters. Through them we can discuss anything we want from a reasonably safe distance.

So, sure, Stephin Merritt probably isn't a racist. But the world is probably a better place for him having been accused of such. Because that way, everyone wins. Except Stephin Merritt.

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