I grew up listening to Britney Spears. My precious yellow Sony Walkman permanently housed Oops… I Did it Again. The scratches on the CD resembled a wrecked windshield by its end of life, making me wonder how exactly it still played.
Early on, listened to “Lucky” repeatedly, all the while aspiring to be Britney. Her allure and talents – singing, dancing, acting, and beauty – all swirled into a insurmountable cliff to climb. How could we mere mortals ever hope to be Britney Spears?
What I did not realize was there was a young girl, very similar to myself, that also weighed these hefty comparisons. Her name was Jessica Simpson. That would be Jessica Simpson, famed singer, dancer, actor, and beauty – with a wildly profitable clothing empire.
The unbelievable podcast “You’re Wrong About” shared with me the paragon of Britney Spears using Jessica Simpson’s tell-all memoir as source material. Themes a plenty, the formerly veiled introspective child-star-turned-pop-star-turned-reality-star explores her experiences of destructive micromanagement in her book. The ringing wake up call is not her time with fame, but the tightly-drawn confines we placed her in.
Jessica Simpson from a young age was sculpted into a revenue-returning facade by managers, record labels executives, and even her own parents. When sold into overtly provocative messaging, she shriveled into a uneasy, concentrated version of herself. Jessica was fed diet pills, censored, and edited meticulously to achieve a 90’s image of “American girl”.
From the Mickey Mouse club, she stood in the shadow of Britney’s illustriousness. Music critics and the general public baselined Jessica’s artistic contributions against Britney and other pop “princesses”. Teeny bopping girls, like myself, were led to believe you could not house an appreciation for both Jessica and Britney.
Living as Jessica surely felt inauthentic. Decision regarding her wardrobe, song lyrics, and interview scripts incited outrage and ridicule. Critics lambasting these decisions directed each choice to Jessica who surprisingly had little agency over herself. As Jessica’s image balanced between young appeal and sultry idol, even her parents, supposed guardians of their daughter, were exempt from the fiery chastisement that Jessica received.
The public rarely sees depth in pop stars. Pop lyrics are bubble gum – short, sweet, and fleeting in flavor. The stars’ personal lives, dating and religious boundaries, are exalted and disparaged. We revel in the subsequent public flogging and feast over headlines that poke embarrassment of the stars’ publicized choices.
Pop stars (especially of the 90’s) – at their purest – are products for us to consume, rate, and review. Simpson, Spears, and others carried the expectation of morality with the crushing push for salaciousness. We craved them for their idealistic portrayal of “young woman”, but we also were able to pounce on moments caught deviating from this impossible standard.
It reminds me of other female-driven hypocrisies. There is an equivalent of the constraints placed of the Britney’s and Jessica’s. The pop star standard of “You must be pure, but sexy” is the board room match for “You must be nice, but not too nice”.
These stringent standards are not what we remember of the late 90’s. The ingratiated memories are the cataclysmic episodes of Britney shaving her head and Jessica flippantly fumbling through “Chicken of the Sea” Tuna. These moments live forever. What is forgotten are the two adolescent girls who spun in a washing machine of expectations. Everyone coaching them had a paid motive. Everyone close to them demanded a performance in return. Family members had vested interest in their profitability.
Erase the human foundation of support, trust, and confidence, and our constitution will deteriorate. The damage reverberates as young girls, with yellow Sony Walkmans, watch closely, triangulating how to be desirable, but not too desirable. Have values, but not opinions. Exhibit strength, but follow diligently.
Jessica Simpson will likely never receive the credit she deserves for weathering the bidirectional throes of fame. We ought to have the grace as humans for acknowledging we were wrong, but more importantly, actively resolve to be better.
There’s a story behind a judgment, and before we pick up a pen to draw boxes around people, it first makes sense to ask why.