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the living dead

Britney Spears and Zombie Fame

Over her twelve-year career, Britney Spears has established herself not only as a multiplatinum pop and paparazzi sensation, but as the canary in the coal mine of 21st-century tabloid and TMZ-fueled fame — the side effects of celebrity happen to her first. Since she appeared in 1999, catchily asking someone to hit her, she’s been the first to deal with all the thorniest consequences of growing up as a young, famous female in the 24-hour gossip cycle, from our national obsession with her sexual purity, through her very public breakdown. And now, with this morning’s release of her seventh record, Femme Fatale, she’s pioneering zombie fame, that outgrowth of modern notoriety in which a celebrity lurches on, long after their careers are moribund.

Spears is now at a unique place in this story: after it. The worst of the craziness is behind her, but she's not quite herself (assuming that the cheerfully monosyllabic 20-year-old she once appeared to be was actually herself). She's still under conservatorship, and still seems sedated. Spears can't dance like she used to, and her press has been highly controlled. She doesn’t seem to be in charge of this comeback (“When they told me I’d be working with [Will.I.Am] I was just like ‘oh my God, I can’t wait!” she told Ryan Seacrest), or even look that happy to be participating. It's like she's a slot machine rigged to spew out radio singles: The people around her are just pulling on the handle. No, Spears isn’t the first musician to profit long past her creative peak, but when a band like the Rolling Stones (or even the Backstreet Boys) keeps going, it’s knowing and willful. They’re working hard to stay in the public eye, whereas Spears would only have to work that hard if she wanted to disappear.

Spears is now at a unique place in this story: after it. The worst of the craziness is behind her, but she's not quite herself (assuming that the cheerfully monosyllabic 20-year-old she once appeared to be was actually herself). She's still under conservatorship, and still seems sedated. Spears can't dance like she used to, and her press has been highly controlled. She doesn’t seem to be in charge of this comeback (“When they told me I’d be working with [Will.I.Am] I was just like ‘oh my God, I can’t wait!” she told Ryan Seacrest), or even look that happy to be participating. It's like she's a slot machine rigged to spew out radio singles: The people around her are just pulling on the handle. No, Spears isn’t the first musician to profit long past her creative peak, but when a band like the Rolling Stones (or even the Backstreet Boys) keeps going, it’s knowing and willful. They’re working hard to stay in the public eye, whereas Spears would only have to work that hard if she wanted to disappear.

Once you're as famous as Britney, we're stuck with you, for much longer than we would have been if your fame was mostly, let alone only, about your creative output. Zombie fame continues long after what was vital about an artist has died (or, in the cases of Tupac and Biggie and their endless new releases, not just what’s vital about them), and either the performer or the audience, or both, is so exhausted that neither has the energy to break the relationship off, to move to a paparazzi-free state, or to stop reading the Internet. Performers who should be off enjoying their millions, or at least giving us the break we need so that we can look forward to that “where are they now!” special and upcoming reunion tour, are instead ubiquitous, sometimes because of their work, and just as often because of their trips to the grocery store. Britney, Lindsay Lohan, and a newly resurgent Paris Hilton will soon be joined by Charlie Sheen, and someone from Miley’s generation, to lurch around for years to come. As Jon Caramanica put it in his review of Femme Fatale, "There’s something irretrievably last-decade about Britney Spears," and yet, here she is, with a record that's not half bad — but not that good, either. Her fame is undead.

Photo: Max Morse/Getty Images