Sara Clugage describes her parallel spiritual journey with American pop icon, Britney Spears.
Who is like unto the Lord our God, who dwelleth on high?
–Psalms 113:5, King James Bible
Britney Spears once dwelt on high. Think back to the heady days of the early aughts: Britney was a chart-topping entertainer, a hot young thing, America’s favorite teen sexpot. It was before her public meltdown of 2006 and 2007. Before TMZ launched, before she fired her manager, when her team still had an iron grip on her image. The only things we knew about Britney Spears were what she wanted us to know. That was precious little—she rarely gave interviews, and when she did, she never said anything memorable. Her image was everywhere, but she had no opinions or convictions. She said little and stood for nothing. And I was fascinated.
At the time, I was negotiating the end of my faith in God. I was raised Southern Baptist, just like Britney, and I was a true believer. I was secure and right with the Lord. I heard His voice speak to me. At age 18, however, I had a mental breakdown of my own, and what were ecstatic visions became unwelcome hallucinations. With medication, the hallucinations disappeared as well, and I was empty.
I saw that emptiness in Britney Spears, too. Given an icon without meaning, we pour in our own souls, making gods in our own image. I saw a writhing mass of contradictions: a visual promiscuity but a verbal purity, a public persona but an unknown person, a Hollywood starlet but a Louisiana girl. I imagined her as a saint, one of the highly sexualized Catholic ones with a baroque mixture of pain, ecstasy, and physicality. A saint’s image is an anxious experience. It is an object of reverence, an excess of ideals, a thing against which we measure ourselves and are found constantly lacking. The stories of early Christian saints involve horrifying violence, and often with female saints, titillating sexual escapades. Early female saints are all sexualized in some way. Mary Magdalen is a reformed prostitute. St. Margaret of Antioch is a virginal martyr who goes to extreme lengths to defend her chastity; the anxious denial is itself a sexual narrative.
But as much as we strive to make saints our own, their strength is their inaccessibility. I tracked Britney Spears in tabloids, in her marketing campaigns, in concerts, on TV. I made a lot of artwork about her media presence: large, intricate weavings that mimic the Renaissance tapestries you see in cathedrals. I created a Britney Spears hagiography. But I know nothing about her, really. Britney became famous before gossip blogs became a force in the media; the rules of celebrity were different for her than they are for people who came after. Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga, and Taylor Swift have all based their careers on massive presences in social media. We expect them to make themselves vulnerable, to show their humanity, in a way that we never expected of Britney. Britney Spears has social media accounts, but they post the kind of innocuous things you would expect to see from a distant acquaintance: funny videos, magazine quizzes, pictures of her kids. Her social media is not a private look inside her life; it is an extension of her professional career in a way that feels precisely calculated to make her relatable. She is untouchable, and she is one of the only ones left who is.
I’m not sure anymore how I feel about Britney Spears. I feel like we’ve been on a parallel journey to define ourselves, our faith or lack of it, and our mental health status. Our paths have diverged of late, though. Britney seems to have recovered some of her Christianity. The evidence of this is scanty enough: paparazzi photographs of her going to church, a few vaguely religious songs on her newest album, a tweet in support of a well-known evangelical author. All glimpses into the spiritual life of Britney Spears are my own invention. Her life is a closed book, as is my Bible.
Sara Clugage is an artist and self-professed “life-long dilettante” living in Brooklyn. She is the Editor-in-Chief of Dilettante Army, where you can read more of her thoughts on Britney Spears.