Britney Spears: Not that innocent … and not that sensible. A temptress … and train wreck. A pop tart … and problem parent … and paparazzi goddess. Like it or not, this has been the fall of Britney Spears. These days, who doesn't want a piece of her?
Even in a fall that featured new releases from some of the biggest and most revered names in music and in a week that offered the much-awaited reunion of Led Zeppelin, Spears has consistently dominated the media landscape, if not the CD sales charts.
Other pop stars write their own songs, or have better singing voices. Doesn't matter. Spears has consistently turned out some of the most irresistible singles of her era, from her first teen efforts to her most recent one, "Gimme More."
Above all, in an endlessly atomized pop culture universe, the 26-year-old singer — with her two children, her contentious divorce from Kevin Federline, her trip to rehab, her adventures behind the wheel and her taste in clothes … and out of them — is one of the few personalities whose outsized life still commands everyone's attention, and opinion.
Get a first look at Britney Spears' new music video, "Piece of Me," tonight on "20/20" at 10 ET
YouTube offers countless clips dedicated to all things Britney, from the now-famous "Leave Britney Alone" plea to ESPN football announcer Mike Patrick wondering during coverage of a college football game, "What is Britney doing with her life?"
Why do we care so much? Because what Elvis Presley did for early rock 'n' roll, Spears has done for new-school, video-driven Web sites: provided an endless series of "hits" that has made possible the success of a whole new medium.
Sites like TMZ.com, PerezHilton.com, and x17online, and many more, have seen Spears' doings turbocharge their traffic.
And like a greatest-hits CD, everyone has his or her favorite Britney-in-public video moment: shaving the hair off her head … getting out of a car with Paris Hilton but without undergarments … running over a paparazzo's foot … dancing in a leopard-print bikini … running into the ocean without a bathing suit … appearing to leave her two kids in the car with her court-ordered parenting coach as she entered a store to shop for chandeliers … or this week, appearing to take a lighter from a store and forgetting to pay.
On the print side, it's as if she's moved onto the front covers of the tabloids like a kid moving back in with her parents after college: vowing to leave, but staying regardless.
Along the way, she's revealed her … well, pretty much everything. What she hasn't done, for a long time, is explain herself publicly. In an interview with me in 2000, she declared that she would vote for whomever her parents told her. Now, it would seem, no one tells Britney Spears what to do. No one. Whether you view that as the spirited, long-overdue rebellion of a showbiz child who did exactly as she was told for years, or as the horrifying downward spiral of a troubled young woman without the good sense to act in her own best interests, you'd have to admit one thing: No one can stop watching.
And that's because, in part, no one has stopped watching her, around-the-clock, all over town. Her every move in public, no matter how banal, gets chronicled by a swarm of videographers. Their constant presence has even generated some bizarre exchanges, like when the paparazzi pumped her gas, got her coffee or advised her on the Malibu fire.
As the video clips pile up, how much of what we're now seeing is objective reality, and how much is Spears playing the media-savvy provocatrix? At last, we may be getting some answers, since she's turned the tables on those who've besieged her in her latest music video for her new single, "Piece of Me."
With its sassy paparazzi kiss-off, as they battle to photograph her behind and capture her disguised face, its bathroom tryst cut short, and its eventually uninhibited night-with-the-girls dance floor throwdown, Spears gives it back to her media pursuers with a wink and an upraised middle finger, all while looking (if not moving) a lot more like the pop siren so many have always savored. If it's hard to know where the Britney carnival is headed, at least for now there's a glint of self-consciousness to go with all her antics.