To say that paparazzi are a recent development in celebrity culture would display an alarming lack of historical knowledge; the hugely popular Confidential was the flipside of Hollywood fan magazines in the 1950s, and it was hardly the first scandal sheet—merely the most notable. That being said, the Internet, with a potential for reproduction beyond anything Walter Benjamin could have ever imagined, has had a not-insignificant hand in shrinking the range of the monoculture while simultaneously increasing its scope and depth of focus. In this way the eye of the paparazzi turned towards musicians as much as towards actors and actresses. What was once a shortcoming of fame only faced by music megastars like Elvis, John Lennon, and Michael Jackson, was now a problem facing basically any ingénue in the music industry. (It’s no coincidence that the coverage skews young and female.)
In some cases, paparazzi coverage can be advantageous to one’s exposure and public image. (See Molly Lambert‘s excellent piece on Blake Lively at Grantland and Anne Helen Peterson‘s follow-up. Or think about how concerned Brooke Hogan really sounded when she sang about the paparazzi on “About Us” while she was regularly appearing on our own Hogan Knows Best.) The strongest anti-paparazzi statements in music videos tend to come from artists whose tabloid coverage has directly affected their lives and/or livelihoods. Lindsay Lohan‘s “Rumors” certainly feels much stronger in retrospect, seven (!) years of life, drama, and tabloid coverage later. Just today she wryly remarked that her house arrest gave her the opportunity to do some much-postponed decorating.
Which brings us to Britney, the most vocal opponent of paparazzi in music video since Michael Jackson. MTV News helpfully gave us a rundown of paparazzi appearances in her videos, noting six examples, one from each album, starting with Oops…I Did It Again, and without even including “I Wanna Go” (the cameras-as-alien-probes imagery in “Hold It Against Me” stands up for Femme Fatale). Her relationship with the tabloid media has never been entirely pleasant, and the relentless coverage of a series of personal and, later, legal struggles she faced in 2006 and 2007 didn’t exactly endear her to paparazzi (or vice versa).
Rihanna faced similar troubles when her own personal and legal struggles became everyone’s business, and she fired back with her video for “S&M.” That video, interestingly, does not paint Rihanna as the blameless victim but rather portrays a complicated series of power relations, and her Bajan heritage also comes under discussion. Potential David LaChappelle plagiarism aside, the video fits snugly in the traditions of current Caribbean visual art, concerned as it is with identity politics and the question of whose words colonize whose bodies. Britney‘s struggles, on the other hand, are not as historically complicated, and thus are portrayed more plainly and accusatory.
Of course, it took twelve years and an enterprising director’s pitch to bring Britney to the point of retaliating against paparazzi, rather than just wryly, if ineffectively, commenting on their role in her life. And yes, the paparazzi turn out to be robots, which helps the viewer not feel guilty for the glee at Britney’s Battle Royale microphone strikes. (Russell Crowe, Ms. Spears ain’t.) Even still, Rolling Stone published excerpts of their Katy Perry cover story yesterday, in which the California dreamer claimed to be “part of the problem” of fame in America. It’s a weird moment, especially for those of us who feel for our favorite stars even if we (perhaps guiltily) keep up with the reports that the tabloids provide. It’s heartening, at least, to see that Britney can joke about it.