I knew about Britney Spears a few months before the rest of the world. What I mean by this is that I was a viewer of The Box in 1998. You could call into The Box to request a video, and the idea was that at some interval after you had made your call, the video you had requested would appear. I sometimes thought about doing this, but the logistics of it seemed daunting to me, and I could never muster the nerve. Instead, I was content to watch the videos that others had chosen, which were not the videos I would have chosen. To judge by the videos that did play—and there seemed no difference between this pseudo-democracy and the usual kind of pre-programmed channel, since the same handful of videos rotated with numbing regularity—The Box catered to an “urban” demographic underserved by MTV, which was then in a transitional phase of its existence, long past the heroic days when it featured gender-bending synth-pop from limp-wristed limeys with a perpetual sob in their voice, and just at the beginning of Carson Daly’s brazen ascent at TRL.
The Box played the trashiest videos by the trashiest acts with the lowest production values. And many of these videos showed a lot of skin, which made them an indispensable resource to young men caught in the New Jersey suburbs. Back then, in the days of dial-up Internet access (and it may be hard for our younger readers to conceive of this) it was hard to find things to masturbate to if you weren’t ready to admit—as mostly people weren’t, back then—that you were a disgusting pervert willing to spend money to see women treated like objects in front of a camera.
If you had one of the old cable boxes, you could press channels 3, 5, and 7 simultaneously and get a flickering, distorted look at the Playboy Channel. Sometimes the screen resembled a gold mosaic bearing the faint outlines of an image; other times a chaos of harsh colors in scrambled flux. Occasionally, it would resolve into a clear image, though only for a few seconds at a time. You would see a breast surging in slow motion as it passed through a sprinkler, brushed by the water’s prismatic spray, or cut-off jean shorts shucked off onto a haybale. Or a car wash would degenerate into a naked sudsy free-for-all. Though you could not hear, you could imagine the various soundtracks—the perfunctory fiddle and banjo accompanied with the airless syn-drum beat; the wart-hog growl and squeal of a neon pink BC Rich, as the guy with the black-painted fingernails eased off the whammy bar. Time was short: you had to be ready to respond to these inducements, to answer the call to solitary arousal.
If you wanted to see a picture of a penis penetrating a vagina, you had to venture out to a former warehouse space on the West Side Highway and pay $25 for a magazine that came hidden in a brown paper sleeve. You had to put yourself in the company of seedy characters bathed in blear light amid the all-pervading odor of ammonia. If this was your interest, you desired something known then as “hardcore” pornography, which was ostensibly against the law as recently as the early 1990s. It was a curious time to be trapped in the hormonal tempest of that period of life—between the Meese Commission’s report on pornography, and the publication of Catherine MacKinnon’s groundbreaking work (and more than thirty years after the release of the Beatles’ first LP)—when one of the consequences of sexual exploration was death from an incurable illness, and when Christian morality and radical feminism both inveighed against what the consumption of pornography was doing to the heart and soul and loins of a people.
We took these dire admonitions at least partially seriously, we earnest youth of America, because though we didn’t really believe in any Christian creed, we believed that there was something inherently precious and singular in everyone (but particularly in ourselves) that deserved to be loved, something that was endlessly fragile and needful of protection. Even if we held the hysterical aspects of campus feminism at a remove, we believed that equality was the foundation of the true love that would express itself in an intimate, mutually fulfilling eroticism. That’s what we thought back then.
My mood in those days was somnolent. I drove a 1989 Nissan Pulsar NX that my parents had bought me for $500. I was working as a reporter at a free weekly newspaper in East Brunswick, NJ, earning $15,482 a year and living in Milltown, NJ. I would drive down a peculiar strip of Route 18 that looked like one of those long tracking shots that filmmakers rely on to establish a mise-en-scene of anonymity and cheapness—those garish colors attenuated by years of grime, those ghostly commercial icons suspended on massive pedestals projecting into the sky, and all those tons of polished metal darting around the off-ramps bearing their vulnerable human cargo. You grew accustomed to risking death at the jug-handled turn ramps that were unique to New Jersey highways. It felt like the end of the world.
The music I preferred on these excursions were hissy dubbed cassette tapes of Glenn Gould playing Bach in that bludgeoning, affectless style he invented, so remorseless in its inhuman power. The music, turned up all the way so as to be audible over the wide open windows—the car had no air-conditioning—felt a little bit like purgatory, and a little bit like anesthesia, and most of all like the cold rapture of thought struggling to transcend its surroundings. I’ve never felt as alone as I did in that little box, the hot wind battering my face, cutting through those desolate stretches of big box stores, passing through the newly built subdivisions that had sprung up on raw pastureland. But sometimes, when the music was high, and the sun was a hot smear at high noon, or you were hurtling down an empty stretch of road at night, you felt the immense power of the car you were driving to propel you beyond yourself and into—Jameson called it the hysterical sublime.
Those were the days when (if I wasn’t watching the Box) I would work my way through the dense thickets of the pseudo-philosophical jargon that proposed to name this condition in which I was living, to dignify it with a lofty vocabulary that radiated a paranoid dread that seemed to be the only feeling worth feeling back then, the only feeling that was real and alive. What was this malign historical stasis I was living through, that my own life seemed so helpless a product of, in which there was no fate beyond bored passivity in the face of capitalism’s triumphal march?
When I first saw Britney Spears on the Box, in the fall of 1998, what I thought about was Britny Fox. Now, Britny Fox was a terrible hair metal band that had scored a hit earlier in the ’90s with a song called “Girlschool.” It featured a classroom full of Catholic schoolgirls gyrating to the beat in defiance of a stern teacher. They roll up their shirts to expose their abs, and muss their hair, but they don’t go any further—there isn’t anywhere further to go. Thus the video, which started off promisingly, reaches a narrative impasse, and the women just keep swaying around in the classroom for the rest of the song.
But that was a sexist video by a horrible hair metal band that exploited women. Britney Spears was something else—an inflection point in the culture. TRL‘s arrival in Times Square was an important signpost in that neighborhood’s new identity. Giuliani’s quality-of-life police ran out the junkies and the prostitutes. Disney remade the square as a gleaming, candy-colored monument to anodyne, family-friendly, corporate-sponsored mass entertainment. Britney, the former mouseketeer, literally straddled the divide between Times Square’s old and new identities. It was a further elaboration of the “winner take all system” that still obtained in the world of 1998, whereby all the money that might once have supported an ecosystem of joke-tellers in the Catskills was sitting in Jay Leno’s pocket. Instead of an army of diseased whores, there would be one perfectly airbrushed youth whom the whole world would watch together.
Now, none of this became clear to me until the spring of 2001, when Pepsi ran an amazing ad in which Bob Dole is sitting alone in his bedroom, bathed in that eerie blue light cast by the TV screen, watching Britney Spears dance around singing an anthem of generational change that is also a paean to Pepsi. And this one-handed war hero and Presidential aspirant who was, by that time, better known as a commercial spokesman for Viagra, is as engrossed by the image of the young Spears as any man who would like to have an erection but requires the help of cutting-age technology would be. His dog barks, and Dole says: “Down Boy.”
And there was something about this moment more eloquent, radical, and true than anything I had read in those candy-colored paperbacks. It was like a wild utopian novel condensed into a single, electric image: freedom, spontaneity, youth, and a sexuality that was boundless, innocent, and all-encompassing confronting age, authority, infirmity, limitation, subsuming and vanquishing it. Or it was like a dark dystopian satire folded into an instant: a man of power and authority prostituting himself to the seduction of a dream world concocted by corporate masters who feed out endlessly deferred dreams of power, success, and love in the name of fizzy, corn-syrupy water. The commercial did not merely suggest, but actually demonstrated in the most palpable way, that no man had the dignity to rise above this fate.
Most of all, it was a picture of the world as it was, it felt like the American present, and it felt like life. I went on Amazon and liquidated what remained of those theory books, while they still retained some value. It was the spring of 2001 and American prosperity was at its height. We had elected George W. Bush president, Britney Spears was the biggest pop star in the world, and I had finally acquired a broadband connection. I was ready for what was to come.