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Britney's breakdown in Tarzana

This is not the sort of thing I would normally write about, but this story caught my eye yesterday morning while I was getting bagels. Britney Spears seems to be in the middle of a pointedly public breakdown; this is news to no one. But something about this incident seems especially desperate.

Britney's bizarre night began Friday at around 7 p.m. when the former Mouseketeer left her Malibu mansion in the SUV driven by one of her bodyguards.

She drove around aimlessly for about half an hour, and then pulled into Esther's Hair Salon in Tarzana, Calif., at about 8:30 p.m.

The Grammy-winning performer sat in her car for about 10 minutes, crying, before jumping out - still bleary-eyed from the tears - and heading into the cut-rate hair salon.

"We have no idea how she found us," a salon worker told Us Weekly.

Perhaps Spears, a sometime kabbalah devotee who was sporting a Star of David around her neck, was attracted to the name Esther, which is Madonna's Hebrew moniker.

Tarzana, a L.A. suburb in the San Fernando Valley, is not especially known as a celebrity haven. To be cruising around aimlessly in Tarzana can almost be extrapolated into an especially bleak existential condition, drifting past all the anonymous strip malls and ranch homes that constitute large indistinguishable swaths of America. And here is Spears, one of the least anonymous Americans, someone whose every moment is tracking and photographed. And clearly the attention has destroyed her; she is one of the few people for whom the dreariness of Tarzana might represent a lost dream, an ideal normalcy.

But Spears's flight from a rehab center in Antigua just before this head-shaving stunt suggests that she's lost the ability to live without a constant press of attention. The spectacle of someone losing her mind from a superfluity of recognition, something in short supply for the rest of us, is maybe what gives her disintegration its power to fascinate (that is, apart from the way it gives us all a nervous breakdown to participate in vicariously -- we can project our stress onto her behavior and aggrandize ourselves).

A photographer asked her why she shaved off her locks, which had alternated in the past few months between blond and brown.

"Because of you," a dazed-looking Britney answered.

I don't think to many gossip consumers are disappointed or surprised by the idea that too much fame can push you over the edge. In fact, it serves the supreme ideological function of dignifying our obscurity -- we ordinary Tarzanans are much better off, away from the soul-sucking media glare. But we are that media glare; we are doing the soul sucking. To then gloat over the misery we've caused her seems impolitic: It's disturbing, for example, to see the Post invite its readers to post their thoughts on Spears's "latest act of stupidity."

When the head-shaving is put in a quasi-Judaic context, which the Us Weekly reporter suggested Spears herself put her actions, we have to consider the practice of some Hassidic women of shaving their heads after marriage. This seems a matter of tzniut, the custom of modesty that dictates one's head be covered. Women's hair is considered especially erotic and must always be covered after marriage. Shaving it off makes this expedient, and it apparently makes ritual cleansing after menstruation a bit easier. What does any of this have to do with Spears, the most notoriously immodest celebrity in the firmament? (And does the fact that some rabbis hold that Orthodox men should be forbidden from hearing a woman sing mean anything?) I'm guessing Spears knows very little about any of these traditions; indeed, the tragedy of her situation in part is that she's caught up in something profound that she seems to lack the intellectual resources to transmute into a personal mythology or some kind of art. She is apparently incapable of giving her actions a private meaning, so accustomed to total attention has she become. The Jewish modesty practices she has essentially parodied here are about preserving that private meaning she's surrendered at this point. She's forced to consume her own notoriety just like everyone else to have any chance at understanding herself. But it still seems mysterious what prompts people in her position to embrace how they have been scapegoated, and act in a way which furthers it. She's trapped herself in a cycle of having to continually top her own outrageousness without seeming to understand no act will ever be outrageous enough to bring it to an end. She needs a Dylanesque motorcycle crash; then maybe she can hole up somewhere and work on her Basement Tapes.

It's also worth noting that just as women are apparently obliged to assume responsibility for the modesty that wanton male human nature allegedly requires, only female celebrities are hounded into public breakdowns, a kind of punishment for their youth and unusual reach their sexual attractiveness has. These meltdowns function as warnings to all women about the risk they run if they try to exercise their presumed powers of fascination and bewitchment. Just another little morality play among the multitude of them that remind all of us that lasciviousness is always the fault of the object who provokes it, not the person who experiences it.

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