Twenty feet away from me, Britney Spears is pantless. Her sculpted hair makes her look like Marilyn Monroe on a date with DiMaggio, assuming they're going to Manhattan's finest pantless restaurant. She's wearing a sweater that probably costs more than my parents' house, and her white heels add five inches to her five-foot-four pantless frame. Oh, and did I mention she's pantless? She's not wearing any pants. This is a hard detail to ignore because the men who have seen a pantless Britney belong to a highly select fraternity: It's Justin Timberlake, her gynecologist, the photographer who's doing this particular photo shoot, and maybe the frontman for a third-rate rap-metal band from Jacksonville, Florida.
That's more or less everybody. And -- perhaps stupidly -- I actually thought I was about to rush this semipathetic frat; I honestly believed the reason I was invited to this photo shoot was to glimpse Britney's secret garden and write about its cultural significance.
Somehow, that seemed like the only logical explanation as to why her naked ass was being unleashed on the cover of this magazine; this whole affair must be an aggressive, self-conscious reinvention. I mean, why else would they have invited the writer to the shoot? Why else would Spears have just released the "news" that she lost her virginity at the age of eighteen a story that surfaced only twenty-four hours before this very photo session? Isn't this how the modern media operates? Isn't everything wholly overt? Britney's womanhood will not be seen this afternoon, or at least not seen by me.
All her pictures are ultimately shot behind a fifteen-foot-high opaque partition, and nary a heterosexual man is allowed behind it. Apparently, the reason I am here is to be reminded that the essence of Britney Spears's rawest sexuality is something I will never see, even though I know it's there. Culturally, there is nothing more trenchant than the fact that Britney Spears will never give it up, even though she already has.
Over the next ninety minutes, I will sit next to a purportedly fully clothed Britney and ask her questions. She will not really answer any of them. Interviewing Britney Spears is like deposing Bill Clinton: Regardless of the evidence, she does not waver. She says she doesn't dress provocatively. It is not that Britney Spears denies that she is a sexual icon, or that she disputes that American men are fascinated with the concept of the wet-hot virgin, or that she feels her success says nothing about what our society fantasizes about.
She doesn't disagree with any of that stuff, because she swears she has never even thought about it. Not even once. That's strange, and I don't think about things like that, and I don't want to think about things like that. Why should I? I don't have to deal with those people. I'm concerned with the kids out there. I'm concerned with the next generation of people. I'm not worried about some guy who's a perv and wants to meet a freaking virgin.
And suddenly, something becomes painfully clear: Either Britney Spears is the least self-aware person I've ever met, or she's way, way savvier than any of us realize. Compared with the depletion of the ozone layer or the political future of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I concede that the existence of Britney Spears is light-years beyond trivial. But if you're remotely interested in the cylinders that drive pop culture, it's hard to overestimate her significance.
She is not so much a person as she is an idea, and the idea is this: You can want everything, so long as you get nothing. Obviously, Britney is the naughtiest good girl of all time. But what makes her so different from previous incarnations of jailbait purity -- Tiffany, Brooke Shields, Annette Funicello, et al. Case in point: On the day of our interview, Britney was photographed for this magazine wearing only panties and jewelry, and she pulled down the elastic of her underwear with her thumbs.
If she had pulled two inches more, Esquire would have become Hustler. But that reality does not affect her reality, which is that these pictures have nothing to do with sex.
Britney: Haven't you ever seen girls on magazine covers before? Did you see the J. Lo cover? She was wearing a bikini. Did you see the Cameron Diaz cover? Britney: Because it's the freaking cover of Esquire magazine!
Why not? You get to look beautiful. It's not that deep. Britney: I don't know. Maybe because those people are pretty and appealing, and they work their asses off, and they believe in themselves.
Britney: Well, some people might say it's just to make money and sell magazines. But another reason -- a better reason, and the one I choose -- is that they do it to inspire people.
Britney is almost like the little kid who freaks out Keanu Reeves in The Matrix. You say you want to bend a spoon? Well, the first thing you need to realize is that there is no spoon. Viewed retrospectively, there's no doubt that the romance between Justin Timberlake and Britney helped Timberlake's career more than hers -- especially since Spears always insisted she was a virgin, even after they bought a home together.
Optimistic thirteen-year-old girls could imagine Justin as the ultimate gentleman, perfectly content to keep his paws to himself while the foxiest girl on the planet sat around the house in her underwear, sucking on Popsicles and telling him to wait until she was ready.
This is why it was so jarring to hear Fred Durst graphically discussing his alleged sexual dalliances with Spears on The Howard Stern Show in February. Her encounter with the Limp Bizkit frontman -- regardless of whether it's true -- publicly cemented Spears's fall from grace; Durst is universally perceived as rock's sleaziest joke. He was a nice guy. And at the time he was trying to come on to me, I wasn't in the right frame of mind to have a relationship with anybody.
So maybe I did hurt his ego, and [going on the radio] was his way of dealing with that. But I learned my lesson. And at the time, I was kind of confused, because my tour had just ended. Me and my girlfriends went out one night, and I was feeling like a free bird. But I really don't want to talk about this.
I have no idea what those last few statements are supposed to mean; either she obviously slept with him, or she obviously didn't. The odds are fifty-fifty. And this is a balance Britney either a consciously strives to sustain, or b sustains without even trying. As long as she never dictates her character -- as long as Spears never overtly says, "This is who I am" -- everyone gets to inject his own meaning. Subconsciously, we all get to rebrand Britney Spears. This might be a weird analogy, but it's like watching Friends. You just get what those people are talking about.
It's funny to you, and you're drawn to them. On the surface, this statement is insane. It would seem that anyone who watches Friends would never argue that it's successful because of its "honesty," nor would it seem as if its characters have conversations that reflect any kind of tangible normalcy. But every single week, twenty million people watch Friends. They see something in Chandler Bing and Phoebe Buffay that makes them happy.
And what those twenty million people see is something that Britney sees -- and perhaps Britney understands -- in a way that most of us do not.
That was my dream, because I love kids. Either that, or an entertainment lawyer. But it's not a joke. But it's brilliant. Schoolteacher, entertainment lawyer, pop star, African warlord -- what's the fucking difference? But in my weird little head, I just think we're all here to inspire each other.
We're all equal. We just bounce off each other and show the world what we can do. Logic would suggest that Spears's upcoming fourth album will be a reinvention, and that she will try to attract a more mature audience much the way Christina Aguilera did with her album Stripped and her freshly conceived Gothic-hooker persona. Britney says nay. I'm still doing what I love to do.
So that settles it. Don't be fooled by the photos that accompany this story, true believers: Britney Spears is not going to become some kind of sex thing. She is still the person you want to imagine. She always will be. And she is making that decision; you are not. And my dad would say, 'Britney, put some clothes on, we have people over. We were earthy people. I've never been ashamed of my body. We were very free people.