Everytime you look at me / my heart is jumping, it’s easy to see.
2007 was an auspicious year for Britney Spears, beginning on New Years Eve when she passed out at a nightclub and was hauled out by her bodyguards. By mid-February, she was roaming hotel pools in obscure California towns, asking random strangers to lend her their bathing suits, swigging liquor straight from bottles and ultimately, in one of the most memorable rock-bottoming scenes of all time, shaving bare her bloated, pimpled head.
In July, her divorce from Kevin Federline was finalized, and in August he filed for custody of their two cherubic kids.
It was around then that her epic comeback narrative began to form. She was pouring herself into a new album, it was reported. She was healing through her music, her catchy, poptastic, admit-you-always-loved-it music. I had always loved it, at least, from the early jailbait crackle of Baby One More Time to her pinnacling appearance in the 2001 Super Bowl halftime show.
Now, I know I’m probably biased because the Giants made it that year, having inexplicably beaten the Vikings at their own long-passing game 41-0 two weeks before, but dude, that halftime show! The whole world was in that halftime show. N Sync. Mary J. Blige. Nelly. Aerosmith. And Britney, whose verse during the ensemble grand finale Walk This Way was one of the entire Super Bowl’s lasting highlights, rivaled only by an epic Pepsi commercial that also featured … Britney Spears.
The Giants lost that game, then Britney lost her mind.
But six long and tumultuous years later, she was poised and ready to strike, and it was announced that she would do so as the headliner at the Video Music Awards. I was amped. I tuned in right on schedule. I knew this would be great. At the very least, I trusted the know-how of MTV, and the power of kicking-your-ass-into-shape on a national stage. Britney was a performer, and I knew she would perform. The show began. Britney had her black leather bra-and-undies’d back to us. The lights went up.
She turned around. “It’s Britney, bitch,” she spat. Fuck yeah it is! I thought.
* * *
It was apparent from the very start last night, from the insane voiceover that sounded scrumtrulescently like Will Ferrell-as-James Lipton (at one point, LeBron was gravely said to be the most coveted free agent “in the history of the world”) that this was gonna be a cringer. As the hour unfolded, so did my horror: everything was off.
Like, for starters, the location, which illustrated every element of what went wrong this week. We had the wave of staid one-liners (“Greenwich has a Boys and Girls Club?” yuk yuk yuk) flowing up through my Twitter in the most predictable of swells, first at the hands of basketball writers and, days later, still gathering steam among even those who think his name is James LeBron. (I overheard someone at my office make the crack this very morning.) We had the defenders who kept toadily reminding us that the event was raising funds for charity.
And of course, we had my own absurd complicity: swept up by the tide, I deemed the choice of Greenwich an important clue and overanalyzed accordingly. This means New York will be the play, I thought, and then I rolled my eyes. God, how easily manipulated I was being! Clearly it was a decoy, meant to make us THINK it was New York, which meant it wasn’t New York at all. Or was it? Etc etc etc.
As the show began, I had the brutal dawning realization that the lame jokes had been right: the Greenwich Boys and Girls Club really did comprise a clan of wealthy-looking freckled blonds; a freaking polo collar poked out from beneath one boy’s Club shirt. Why were these kids here? Why were these kids cherrypicked? If you answered “to audibly gasp in disappointment when LeBron didn’t choose New York,” then you’d be right. When the camera panned back out, giving us that woeful barstoolish wideshot of LeBron and the sniveling Jim Grey, the formerly rapt children were all fidgeting and bummed. The damage was long done at this point, the whole operation’s oof-itude reflected through the eyes of babes.
I’d go on, but you’ve read it elsewhere, or probably you lived it: the weird perspiring discomfort of Chris Broussard, who waffled and hedged in the final moments before the show like an unqualified candidate on a job interview, unable to cling to any confidence in his (ultimately correct) sources. Or Jon Barry’s on-the-beating-pulse references to the movie… Trading Places, a well he went to not once but twice.
Or the giant logos on the screen for Bing and, even worse, the University of Phoenix, whose alleged connections to Jim Grey would be possibly intriguing if they weren’t so mundane. There was the lame ad for “DecisionWater” and the beefcake one for some insurance company that was clearly meant to pander to the ladies in the crowd, the ones who tuned in to see what all the fuss was and were probably left wondering, “is this what sports is like?” And Dan Gilbert’s angry missive, reading like the lovechild of Buzz Bissinger and Mark Cuban and, in another case of life imitating middling Twitter jokes, actually rendered in comic sans.
Oh god, everything. So awkward! It was a game of Mad Libs brought to life by David Lynch, or a wall in an asylum upon which a game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey has just transpired.
My friend Joe used to, at like 3 in the morning during the last gasps of a house party, put all the remaining alcohol in a blender with ice and serve the resulting concoction to unsuspecting late night guests. “What…is this?” they would ask, having bravely sipped the foul brew. “It’s a Jersey Turnpike!” he’d respond, delighted, waving his hands as if to illustrate a web of tangled roads. “Everything just mixed up all crazy. Is it good?”
It was never, ever good.
* * *
Back to Britney. So slurry was her singing in those initial seconds, so noodle-y her sways, that for a brief shining minute I assumed it was an act. A brilliant act: here she was, in on the joke, performing a pitch-perfect caricature of her messed-up self. Any minute now there was going to be some huge music beat, I simply knew it, cause I trusted MTV, and the lights would flash and she’d break out that arm-pumping, leg-kicking, show-stopping choreography that had always been her deal.
Maybe she’d, like, do a backflip off the stage. We’d be giddy. Holy shit! we’d say, looking at each other openmouthed and wide-eyed. Did you see that? That was awesome! She completely had me fooled!
The only difference between Britney in ‘07 and LeBron James last night was that it didn’t take me that first full minute to know I wasn’t fooled, I was just a fucking fool. The rest was all the same: my hopes had been just as high, and in hindsight, just as senseless.
I was projecting so much onto so little, hoisting my imagined narratives onto these superstars and expecting they’d be held. Just as I assumed that Britney would bring it as she’d done since her Mickey Mouse Club days, I felt LeBron would play the game impeccably, like the global icon that he is. I thought they both would leave us dazzled.
In one particularly embarrassing fantasy conjured minutes before 9pm last night, I mentally cast LeBron in the role of wisened social sage, seated high above us all, knowing more than we could guess. He would appear not from the Greenwich Boys and Girls Club after all, as breathlessly reported, but from some undisclosed location in a city in Ohio. He would gently chide the media for getting so worked up, joshing folks for buying into all the baseless rumors that had been bandied to and fro.
"I didn’t book 25 hotel rooms in Miami," he would say, "Or look at houses in Westchester. I didn’t change my tax domicile to Chicago or make a pact with Bosh and Wade. I’m remaining here in Cleveland, and I hope you’re all ashamed."
Those last three words, it turned out, were the only ones that I got right.
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