Britney Spears and a Digital Fan's Meltdown

By Richard Menta 917/07

You don't have to be a psychologist to know that Chris Crocker craves attention. He was already a most minor of celebrities on MySpace and YouTube before Britney Spears' performance at the Video Music Awards. The author of a series of overwrought video blogs that, in the end, only set him up for that moment when Seth Green did his spot-on, if somewhat mean-spirited, impersonation of him on The Soup this week.

Yet to me Crocker's emotional plea for Britney Spears was a metaphor, if you can believe it, for a record industry that is breaking down and in the process losing a disillusioned young audience.

I remember Spears on Saturday Night Live several years ago and what struck me then was how tight her and her crew's dance moves were. It was an industry professional who appeared that evening. Her performance was sharp, well-rehearsed and impressive. In contrast, her performance on this past MTV Video Music Awards more closely resembled Ashley Simpson's infamous SNL appearance. In this case it wasn't the music that broke down, but Britney herself. Her lackluster motions and off-sync lip-singing did the worse thing that could be done to a career and an industry. What she did was bare the cold and calculating machinery that powers today's top pop stars.

Chris Crocker

During his meltdown, constantly replayed on television, 19 year-old Croker cries over how both the media and the public abuse poor Britney for that performance. In reality, I suspect, he is really crying over a performance that he himself cannot forgive. But he is Britney's biggest fan!?! That leads to the excuses a bitterly distraught Crocker makes for Britney on his video blog.

I myself ran into Britney by chance back in 2000 or should I say I was almost run over by her. Back in those days I was a young pre-bust dotcom exec meeting some other soon-to-be-doomed dotcom execs for lunch at 30 Rockefeller Center where Spears had just finished a performance for a couple of hundred screaming pre-teen girls by the statue of Prometheus. Surrounded by six bodyguards who made my six foot frame look puny, Britney never looked up as they rushed her to whatever safe room NBC designated on that school day. These children did skip school to see her, after all. I guess there is no tougher audience than a 13 year-old cutting class.

Crocker was 12 in 2000, the right age to join the Britney wagon. It's just conjecture on my part, but it doesn't take a genius to figure that even back then he probably didn't fit in with the boys in little league. My guess is Britney brought him acceptance from the girls in his school and he rewarded the singer for that with blind fandom.

In the months before Napster appeared in 1999 finding a specific track could be a difficult affair. Most people traded music back them by putting the MP3 tracks on their personal web pages. There were several now defunct search engines in these pre-Google days that polled the Net to find these tracks, but it still was a chore to find even the most popular music. Well, music popular with the Baby Boomers and Generation X.

I remember having a hell of a time trying to find links to even the biggest hits from the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Britney tracks, on the other hand, flooded the Net. One of the first things I noticed in my early musings on digital music was how plugged-in the fans of Britney Spears, N-Sync and the BackStreet Boys were. It was one of the gauges I used then when the subject came up about the age of the average file trader. The two boy bands are now gone, but Britney still rides the tabloids and that made this comeback move by her front page news.

Crocker is one of those digitally savvy teens. He grew up with the blog, the podcast, and theYouTube video confessional. He used these media to embrace the music he let define him. The Soup showed another YouTube video that had the shirtless Crocker on his bed swimming in his collection of Britney Spears ephemera. The major labels love this type of obsessed fan. Fans who usually spend more money than they should on anything and everything the labels can stamp out. Crocker bought it all, the entire Britney Spears brand effort, and wrapped himself in it. As he sold this fandom on his own blog what's interesting is how effective Crocker is at using the very online tools the major labels prove ineffective leveraging.

Crocker has been searching for his 15 minutes of fame for a long time now and his reverence for Britney finally delivered it to him. As Eli Sanders described Crocker in his May 2007 article on him "He is a train wreck of marginal characteristics—effeminate, Southern, flamboyantly gay at a young age, uncensored—and they make it hard to stop watching." This is what garnered him millions of video views before the MTV awards. Of course, these are the characteristics the Crockerati are really punishing him for. Granted, the paparazzi pile far more abuse on Paris, Lindsey, and Britney herself, but those three at least make a living off of their notoriety.

The Crocker who screamed angrily in front of his video cam was a 19-year old who finally realized it was all crashing to an end and it hurt him like hell. Do you know what that makes him? A music fan. Sure, he's a little different, if a bit extreme, when compared to other over-obsessed music fans, but a fan nonetheless. I wonder how many of the more anonymous Britney Spears fans felt likewise betrayed by the VMA performance. I wonder how many already moved onto the independent music scene that is successfully luring the late- and post-high school crowd via Facebook and word-of-mouth.

As major label CD sales continue to plummet I can't help but take it as a partial vote of no confidence from the fans. The labels blame it all on file sharing, but there is a far broader disjoint going on here between consumer and supplier. Britney Spears fans stood by her firmly for years, while non-fans held her up as the epitome of what's wrong with the record industry today. If she really is a symbol for the industry then what did it say when her performance fell apart?

As harsh as it sounds it was a hack the industry delivered to the Video Music Awards. No, it wasn't fair to pick on Britney's figure that night; because every woman wishes she looked that good after having two kids. Sure, the bikini costume was ill-advised as were the dance moves that had her undulate her stomach, but it was the lethargy of her performance that deserved the criticism. The Stones dogged it in concert many times over the years, but their performance was never tied to Mick Jagger's chicken strut like Britney's performance is tied to the precision, complex choreography that marks her shows. Also, Satisfaction is a far more powerful song than Oops, I Did it Again, even when played badly. Of course, maybe the boys are just given much more leeway than the girls. Britney's bikini is certainly a better sight that an over 60 year old Jagger in spandex.

Spear's implosion that evening made her, her label and MTV look bad and elevated Crocker into a national joke. The question I have focuses on the reverberations. In the long run will this incident equate to a symptom of industry decline or resiliency? Or am I simply stretching to think this is somehow a reflection of how the under-twenty crowd will evolve as music consumers.

Disillusioned youth don't always make for loyal customers. They do grow up, of course, as will Chris Crocker. The majority of us learn our lesson once the bruises heal. What that means over the next few years regarding how we consume music is anybody's guess.

Other MP3 stories:
Record Industry Woes Aggravated by Years of Bad PR


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