John McCain’s Britney Spears/Paris Hilton campaign ad — associating Barack Obama with talentless, empty-headed celebrity — has a lot wrong with it. At best, it’s a tacky exit onto the low road, and at worst, so some speculate, it’s a vile attempt to resurrect the barely buried racist specter of the violation of white women by black men.
I doubt that the McCain campaign would intentionally stoop to the latter tactic, but what about the violation of white women by white men, as in McCain and his staffers casually impugning Britney and Paris for political purposes? They’re easy targets and others piled on. Recently on "This Week with George Stephanopoulos," ABC News senior correspondent Jake Tapper — another white guy — called Britney Spears a "ditz" and said that both she and Paris were in the ad because they’re "stupid."
I haven’t followed the careers of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton very closely — I couldn’t name any of Spears’ songs before I started thinking about this column and I’ve never seen an episode of "The Simple Life." But what’s stupid about recognizing and capitalizing on our American infatuation with sex and celebrity and then making a profitable career out of it?
And as far as talent goes, I wonder if John McCain knows that Britney Spears has sold as many records worldwide as the Andrews Sisters and Barry Manilow.
Spears’ music and videos may not suit John McCain’s taste, but it’s not hard to see why they’ve attracted a significant audience: the music is actually pretty good and her videos are creative and witty and produced with professional values and quite a bit of energy. True, she may not be Einstein: in a famous cameo appearance in Michael Moore’s "Fahrenheit 9/11" she says, "Honestly, I think we should just trust our president in every decision he makes." That wasn’t very smart, but plenty of Americans made the same mistake.
Nevertheless, to reach Britney Spears’ level of success as a singer and dancer requires considerable talent and a great deal of hard work. The values in her music and videos may seem at odds with what McCain thinks of as traditionally American, but she’s successful precisely because she’s managed to tap into values that are attractive to many citizens. In some ways Britney Spears and Paris Hilton are much more tuned in to our culture than John McCain is.
Meanwhile, John McCain was in Sturgis, S.D., where he said he could hear real America in the roar of 50,000 motorcycles echoing through the previously undisturbed homeland of the Sioux and Cheyenne. Very American, indeed. Thousands of motorcyclists rally every year in Sturgis, many of them ordinary, respectable middle class Americans. Bikers for Christ, and so forth.
But a significant strain of what goes on in Sturgis involves the macho flip side of whatever not-so-subtle implications that the McCain campaign makes about Britney and Paris. Hedonism abounds. Alcohol is a significant feature of the annual bike rally, "oil wrestling" takes place twice a day, and children are not allowed: if you bring your children, you have to sign legal waivers, "as it’s likely they’ll be exposed to nudity." I wonder if anyone ever smokes pot in Sturgis.
Sounds like fun. But the point is that anyone who goes to Sturgis to curry favor with biker voters doesn’t have much business committing sanctimonious condescension against Britney Spears and Paris Hilton.
But there’s a dark side to this flap. Our culture uses up young women like Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. We like them hot until the heat cools a bit, or until someone hotter comes along. We shower them with celebrity until their personal lives are a mess and a story in their own right, and then we enjoy watching them fade away.
Britney and Paris haven’t asked me for advice, but here’s a little: Don’t drink too much. Drive carefully. Put away money for old age. Take care of yourselves, because before long, this culture will cast you aside.
Finally, don’t pay too much attention to white-haired, wrinkled old dudes who imply that you’re stupid and untalented — nothing but a celebrity. They know you’re hot, and they’re just jealous.
(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail him at jcrisp(at)delmar.edu)