“Are you here to see Kentwood’s World War II collection, or Britney Spears?” The elderly woman behind the desk at the Kentwood Museum already knew the answer. I was there to see Britney Spears, or rather, the mishmash of Britney memorabilia that comprises most of the museum’s content, stowed in a small house in Spears’ hometown of Kentwood, Louisiana. A poster of the pop star hangs in the window. Everyone knows what the draw is.
The woman behind the desk tells me that the museum is free, but it will cost three dollars to pose with a set of angel wings that Britney wore onstage. She steered me towards the darkened half of the house dedicated to the singer. “Let me get the lights.” Fluorescent lights buzz on, illuminating a room filled with image after image of Britney’s flawless face and body.
Most of the items in the museum are from the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, when Britney dominated the pop charts. This makes sense, given where the objects in the museum largely came from: Britney’s rabidly loyal fanbase and Britney ’s family. Both camps are interested in primarily showcasing her talent and beauty while downplaying her intense personal struggles. I came to the museum wondering how a town would choose to memorialize someone who climbed to the top of celebrity, then publicly crashed and burned for nearly three straight years.
Britney debuted on the scene with the single “(Hit Me) …Baby One More Time” in 1998. She was marketed as a classic American sexual trope: a good-girl pushing the envelopes of morality, inviting the public to explore her body with her. Britney was a Baptist school girl from Anywhere, USA, even though she delivered her interview answers in a charming Southern accent, while smacking on pink bubblegum. Her debut album (titled after the single) sold 10 million copies in the first year, and her second album, Oops!… I Did It Again sold 1.3 million copies in a single day. The media praised her as she began to take more control of her music and her image, moving away from sexy-girl-next-door to femme fatale. Although many young stars have difficulties navigating this transition, Britney’s troubles, both in their scope and how the media and public reacted to them, were unique.
In 2006, Britney veered off script and subsequently careened through 2007 and 2008, a pop star imploding into a supernova threatening the world with immolation. Her spiral was somewhat triumphant at first, full of humor. Her marriage to back-up dancer Kevin Federline, the bridal party wearing Juicy Couture tracksuits reading “Pimps” and “Maids,” seemed playful. Shortly after, we saw Britney, braless, wearing a trucker hat barely covering an unraveling weave, chain-smoking like a middle schooler playing mean; followed by Britney out on the town with Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan, none of them wearing underwear, collapsing drunk in a club on New Year’s Eve. Then it became worrisome, with Britney lashing out at paparazzi, driving around Los Angeles without shoes on, or running in and out of gas stations for Red Bulls. She let her new puppy shit on a $6,800 dress during a photoshoot, and left the shoot wearing $14,000 worth of clothes that were not hers.
Every stage of her descent into crisis was documented by a camera flash: Britney shaving her head, scared of being drug tested by the courts and having her children taken away. Britney sporting a bright pink wig and blue contact lenses, speaking in a strange English accent. Britney wielding an umbrella, bashing at the cars filled with paparazzi that followed her constantly. Britney’s hot white spiral became dangerous—to her kids, dropped out of high chairs, held unsecured in her lap while she drove at breakneck speed through the L.A. hills; and to herself, taken out of her mansion strapped on a gurney, bound for a psychiatric hospital.
The public discourse surrounding Britney changed as she did. Britney’s body was communal property, and she was vandalizing it. She had reigned as a pubescent fertility goddess for nearly a decade, her form contorted into a thousand provocative photos omnipresent across the media landscape. But as Britney’s actual physical embodiment separated from her photographic one, she drifted into a grotesquerie. She wore panties stained with menstrual blood, her increasingly fleshy body spilled out of her dancing costumes, and pimples sprouted on her chin. Britney devolved from a sex icon into something else. She became white trash.
“White trash” is a slur that has difficult borders to define. It has to do with race and class and, very often, geography. White trash usually refers to poor whites who live on the margins of society, largely divorced from accessing political or economic power. There’s often a perceived element of criminality, either due to a willful refusal to abide by the laws of society, or stemming from an ingrained stupidity that makes compliance with society’s rules and norms impossible. The phrase is also primarily linked to place of origin: white trash folks are primarily rural and Southern.
Prior to her descent, Britney’s family and hometown were relegated to roles of wholesome background props. Her mother, Lynne, was mostly described as a loving second grade teacher; her father, Jamie, a hardworking contractor. But as Britney’s public image shifted, so did how the media portrayed her background. The 2008 Rolling Stone cover story “The Tragedy of Britney Spears” quotes an anonymous former manager as saying, “She is the product of some very, very bad genetics.” Trailer parks began being featured in her origin story. Depictions of Lynne now cast her as a depressed “momager” and Jamie as an abusive alcoholic who gambled. The family went bankrupt and were often too poor to buy groceries. Britney’s uncles were accused of eating roadkill. Her grandmother had committed suicide, shooting herself on the grave of a child who had died in infancy. The media insinuated that mental illness was in every branch of her warped family tree.
While all of these things may be true, none of them were overwhelmingly present in the public discourse until she began exhibiting signs of extreme stress, probable drug abuse, and a palpable mental health crisis. And as the jeers grew louder, she welcomed them, famously snarling at a fan asking for an autograph, “I don’t know who you think I am, bitch, but I am not that person.” Britney herself would say that she was white trash, using the label as a Calvinist explanation to her struggles—white trash as a predestined role, something that can be subverted for a time but never escaped. The frenzy surrounding her became a form of collective punishment for her inborn defects right up to when the spectacle became truly tragic and she was hospitalized.
Another Rolling Stone quote, this one from 2003, opines on Britney’s sexual exploits: “Perhaps the low point came when Fred Durst appeared on the Howard Stern Show to share an extremely graphic kiss-and-tell, including descriptions of Spears’ pubic hair. The mental image of the balding, goateed Limp Bizkit singer getting it on with America’s jailbait sweetheart was, with the possible exception of those death photos of Uday and Qusay Hussein, easily the year’s most disturbing.”
Comparing the image of Britney Spears’ body being enjoyed by another proud member of the white trash tribe to the bullet-ridden corpses of sociopathic war criminals is an extreme example of the dissonance between how the public wanted to see Britney Spears and who she actually was. It is not shocking in the least that this pressure, combined with our culture’s toxic and judgemental views of mental health crises, formed a crucible inside of which she burned.
The first room in the Britney section of the Kentwood Museum is primarily composed of calendars, posters, and DVDs—not particularly remarkable items, considering that they were all mass produced for sale. This collection was donated by the family of Keith Collins, who passed away of a brain tumor several years ago. His family wanted his treasured items to find a safe home where they could be appreciated and cared for the way Keith would have liked.
The innocent teen queen who once slept on that bed cannot re-enter this diorama.
The strangest room of the museum is the only one you cannot enter. At the very rear of the house, behind a pane of glass, is Britney Spears’ teenage bedroom. It is a painfully recreated illusion, down to photos of Britney as a teenager goofing off with non-celebrity friends, a stuffed teddy bear wearing an NSYNC t-shirt, and her collection of porcelain dolls from childhood. A photo from a Rolling Stone shoot is taped to the glass, showing Britney reclining in her bra and panties against the dresser, her high heels pressed against the same blue carpet. It’s a habitat for an exotic animal at a zoo, only the attraction has escaped.
It is also a physical embodiment of the cage of nostalgia. “You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood… to singing just for singing’s sake… back home to places in the country… back home to someone who can help you, save you, ease the burden for you, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time,” wrote Thomas Wolfe in You Can’t Go Home Again, one of the quintessential Southern novels of the 20th century. Home is a constantly shifting illusion, and for most of us, time eventually erases the monuments and spaces of our origins. The innocent teen queen who once slept on that bed cannot re-enter this diorama.
But the complicated Britney of the late 2000s does not exist within this museum. The relentless positivity of the collection, the childhood dance shoes and teddy bears, hides facets of her identity that are truly fascinating: what it means to be white trash, an elastic phrase that passes judgement on appearance, intelligence, family, sexuality, and political meaning; what it means for white Southern-ness when times of crises, deviant behavior, and self-destruction are cast as immutable traits or inescapable flaws; how someone like Britney becomes, and un-becomes, white trash.
What makes Britney able to transcend being white trash are the same things that leave her vulnerable to its deployment against her: her fame, her money, and her desirability. Britney’s willingness to embrace the slur was a way to empower herself as she was being continually denigrated and judged.
Deciding to avoid this period in Britney’s life must have been difficult for the museum. There’s a popular saying in the South: “We don’t hide crazy. We put it on the front porch and give it a cocktail.” This is true for Britney herself: she cannot always hide who she is. But the public demands that much of her backstory, and her behaviors, remain hidden. Only when she is able to successfully perform the role expected of her— that of sexualized pop princess—is she absolved of the sins of her origin.
After umpteen starts and stops, comeback album after comeback album, she has regained her throne. For the past two years, she’s been in residency at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas. Night after night she performs a retrospective of her career, shapeshifting again from a young ingenue into a femme fatale, a fantasy woman dancing for millions in a fantasy city. Gone are the negative comments about her background, her body, her choices. Gone are the questions of drug abuse or mental health issues. A December 2015 post to her Instagram account has her mugging for the camera, her crop top reading “Mean People Suck,” displaying her incredibly toned form. The internet rejoiced, with dozens of articles from entertainment websites declaring that once again, Britney was back. Her re-ascendance necessitates shedding the distasteful baggage of having poor white Southern roots. The cultural icon’s compliance with the static narrative of who a pop star is—smiling, sexual, and non-threatening—renders her as two-dimensional as the pin-ups lining the walls of the Kentwood Museum. Britney is easier to digest as a photograph or a piece of memorabilia than she is as a person: irrevocably Southern and profoundly complicated by fame.
The Kentwood Historical & Cultural Museum is located at 204 Avenue E, Kentwood, LA 70444. Open Tuesday through Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. For more info, check out kentwoodmuseum.tripod.com