Warren Foster
Warren Foster

If you see Britney, give her a hug

Congratulations to the very young Jody Williams for winning over the hearts of thousands of South Africans and becoming the South African Idol for 2007. It’s not hard to see why she won: she’s cute, she can sing, she’s got spunk (though it took some time to emerge) and, most importantly, she’s the perfect pick for the target audience. Idols is a kids’ show; the entire pop scene is a kids’ show — not in that it only holds appeal to the very young, but in that they run the show. People tipping Jody’s competitor, Andriette Norman — with her more bronzed and professional sound — have not been paying very close attention to the pop scene.

While I was resident in Cape Town in 1999, one of the local radio stations made a noble attempt to pay homage to the millennium past by having a vote-in competition for the top 100 songs of the millennium. Not surprisingly, nothing of classic composers Franz Liszt, Frederic Chopin or the more modern Sergei Rachmaninov featured. Also not surprising was the absence of jazz greats Miles Davis, John Coltrane or Louis Armstrong. The Beatles made the cut; Elvis Presley also featured a few times. When the hour came, however, (I thought I detected a modicum of shame in the presenter’s voice) the number-one song of the past 1 000 years was revealed to be Jennifer Lopez’s If You Had My Love — a single released just six months prior.

Which should tell you something about the voting block that concerns itself with such things. This is an adolescent’s game. The queen of the popular scene is undoubtedly Britney Spears, wife and mother. She was just 17 when she first crawled out of the woodwork, with Mickey Mouse Club colleague Christina Aguilera hot on her heels. She’s widely considered an “idol” to young girls everywhere. I recently had a conversation with a young relative of mine, who is aged just 12, asking her what her interests were. She read it as the old “What do you want to be when you grow up” and answered that she didn’t have any; she just knew that she wanted to be famous, expressing that fame was the only route to relevance in this life. I laughed it off until it occurred to me that Britney Spears joined the Mouse brigade at aged 12.

And I have to wonder just how much you know when you’re 12; if your only ambition is attention. Some of my colleagues believe, as I do now, that Poor Britney is a victim of circumstance. We seem to enjoy a culture of celebrity, where the biggest-selling publications are those which concern themselves with gossip “news”. We create celebrated persons out of just about anybody; the absolutely talentless — at least to those of us who haven’t seen her boudoir video — Paris Hilton is proof of that.

I have no idea what’s behind that; a study conducted at Duke University a few years ago suggests that this might be a primal trait we share with monkeys. But whatever the reason, I believe it’s a corrupting part of our nature. Poor Britney probably relished the attention. She must have felt loved, admired even. But being devoured like that by millions every day must be taxing. As much as you have your supporters, you will have detractors to boot.

I can’t imagine that it’s easy to believe you’re part of the world when you’re constantly being leered at, when you’re every move is either praised or mocked and, ultimately, your “self” is treated as public property. And there’s that phenomenon of Schadenfreude — don’t we just love it when they fall? Poor Britney was dumped by Justin Timberlake and laughed at. She had a flash-in-the-pan marriage that was also maliciously derided. When she picked up weight as a result of pregnancy (as women do), it became a public spectacle.

A friend of mine once commented on how she couldn’t understand why she was constantly aware of what Poor Britney was up to; also noting how tragic it is that we seem to know more about the pop princess than we do about current affairs. Do we blame the tabloids or the consumers of the tabloids? The cause of the phenomenon is a chicken-and-egg story, but there’s no doubt that it’s a mutually reinforcing relationship keeping the gossip pages in circulation.

Lucky for Jody Williams, South Africans are not as dedicated to their own celebrities as they are to American ones. Past Idols have faded into relative obscurity less than one annum after their crowning victory. For the next few months we can look forward to being bombarded by her new single, Love Is All Around, and be happy for her that she will join her own idol, Celine Dion, on stage next year. After that, I’m hoping young Jody keeps working on refining her vocal ability, continues with her schooling and that our local media keep their attention where it should, on the public interest.

Jody’s top almost fell off during her closing performance this evening. It will be interesting to see where the headlines will focus tomorrow — on “praise” for her victory or “shame” for her near-embarrassment.