Last week saw an astonishing play of parallels across our media screens – a twinned spectacle of attempted resurrection which, while occupying two very different sets of cultural coordinates, were perhaps not so distinct when examined closely. If it’s true that the personal is the political, then the popular must be political too; and it’s no great stretch to say that, in contemporary media culture as well as contemporary politics, the rituals of rejuvenation are more alike than dissimilar.
Britney Spears’s opening number at the MTV Video Music Awards on September 9 has by now been thoroughly masticated and absorbed by the fast-moving digestive system of blogosphere critics, with TMZ and Perez Hilton leading the way. I won’t belabor Britney’s performance here, except to note that when I, like much of the nation, succeeded in finding online video documentation the next day despite the best efforts of MTV and Viacom, it was just as fascinatingly surreal (or surreally fascinating) to watch as promised: a case where the hype, insofar as it was a product of derision rather than promotion, accurately described the event.
The other performance last week was, of course, George W. Bush’s September 13 address to the nation discussing the testimony of General David Petraeus before Congress. Again, there is little point in rehearsing here what Petraeus had to say about
What stands out to me is the perfect structural symmetry between Britney and Bush’s public offering, not of themselves – I’m too much a fan of Jean Baudrillard to suppose there is any longer a “there” there, that the individual corporeal truths of Britney and Bush did not long ago transubstantiate into the empty cartoon of the hyperreal – but of their acts. Both were lip-synching (one literally, one figuratively), and if Bush’s mouth matched the prerecorded lyrics more closely than did Britney’s, I can only ascribe it to his many more years of practice. I’ve always considered him not so much a man as a mechanism, a vibrating baffle like you’d find in a stereo speaker, emitting whatever modulated frequencies of conservative power and petroleum capital he was wired to. Unlike his father or the avatars of evil (Rove, Cheney, Rumsfeld) that surround him, Bush has never struck me as sentient or even, really, alive – he gives off the eerie sense of a ventriloquist’s dummy or a chess-playing robot. (Admittedly, he did at the height of his post-9/11 potency manifest another mode, the petulant child with unlimited power, like Billy Mumy’s creepy kid in the Twilight Zone episode “It’s a Good Life.”)
Britney, by contrast, seems much less in synch with the soundtrack of her life, which is what makes her so hypnotically sad and wonderfully watchable. I flinch away when words emanate from Bush the way I flinch when the storm of bats flies out of the cave early in Raiders of the Lost Ark; Britney’s clumsy clomping and uncertain smile at the VMAs is more like a series of crime-scene photos, slow-motion film of car wrecks, or the collapsing towers of the World Trade Center. Like any genuine trauma footage, you can’t take your eyes off it.
Where Britney and Bush came together last week was in their touching allegiance to strategies that worked for them in the past: hitting their marks before the cameras and microphones, they struck the poses and mouthed the words that once charmed and convinced, terrified and titillated. The magic has long since fled – you can’t catch lightning in a bottle twice, whether in the form of a terrorist attack or a python around the shoulders – but you can give it the old college try, and even if we’re repulsed, we’re impressed. But is it stamina or something more coldly automatic? Do we praise the gear for turning, the guillotine blade for dropping, the car bomb for exploding?