By Brian C. Baer
“Really?” would be the inevitable response. “Her? You like Britney Spears?”
The revelation was always greeted by disbelief, but I was never certain why. After all, I was on my way out of middle school when “Baby, One More Time” debuted on Total Request Live. I attended a private Christian school, just as Britney did in the music video. I’d been drawn in by the oddly personal quality to that video; she had a way of looking at the camera as if it were a window and my living room was just on the other side of it. It felt like eye contact, like something secret was being shared.
So surely, I was in the right demographic, but maybe that was the issue. Maybe it was all too obvious. A crush on Britney Spears must have appeared too conventional for me.
By the time my feelings came to light, she’d released another album or two. I was in high school, and I was in a punk band. I’d become the kid who read Salinger and Thoreau during lunch breaks, the one whose thrift store clothes and hair dye were never quite within the boundaries of the school’s dress code. Much like Britney’s musical evolution, I was transitioning into adulthood but unwilling to let certain childhood inclinations fall behind.
I was also deeply insecure. This image I’d made for myself was a life preserver to keep me afloat amid the choppy waters of adolescence. At that age, everything I had felt like it could be snatched away so easily. So I grasped it tighter.
I learned to love what I loved, but at a safe, not-quite-serious distance. It couldn’t be a genuine thing. It all became ironic.
They would ask, “Do you really like Britney Spears?” And I would reply with a roll of my eyes, “Oh, yeah. Totally. Why, don’t you?”
“But you don’t like the music, right?”
“Let’s just say we can all agree that ‘Oops! I Did It Again’ was a less than inspired sophomore effort.”
They would laugh, and their laughter would explain it all away. But more, it inspired my enablers. I was given a locker-sized Britney Spears calendar, and I displayed it with pride. Next, the girls in my class who had actually purchased the CDs began to take scissors to the booklets. Day after day, I was gifted with new Britney cut-outs. They went up in my locker, too.
As the photos began to engulf the entirety of my locker door, word began to spread around school. Everyone said how funny my joke was. They called it the Shrine.
When I was a teenager, I didn’t think about the future. I couldn’t foresee the way my newly forming habits would impact the rest of my life. I didn’t consider how blending two distinct, opposing emotions, like appreciation and derision, could make it harder to feel or express sincerity. I couldn’t picture myself a decade older, unable to wholly love or completely hate anything. I never thought I’d live to keep everything kept at that cool, cold distance.
And it was cemented the day the vice-principal stopped at my locker. “A lot of the younger students look up to upperclassmen like you,” he said, “and we don’t want them all doing stuff like this. I know the Shrine is just a joke, and I think it’s funny, but maybe you should think about taking some of that down.”
I did think about it, but even that wasn’t a real consideration. It was all for the laughs.
Brian C. Baer is the author of a novel, "Bad Publicity" (Porfirio Press, 2015) and one non-fiction book, "How He-Man Mastered the Universe: Toy to Television to the Big Screen" (McFarland Books, 2017). His pop culture essays have appeared in Vex Mosaic and Comic Book Media.