Britneyland: The People and Places

It began with a story.

"Did I ever tell you about the time I visited Britney Spears' dad?" This was Chris Rose, an entertainment writer for the newspaper in Louisiana where I interned last summer.

"They used to have a sign up there that said 'Britney Spears: the Pride of Louisiana,' until somebody decided to spray paint the 'P' out of the billboard," Rose said.

They had since taken that sign down, but I became enamored with the idea of checking out the childhood town of one of America's most infamous divas.

The pop queen is a born-and-bred Louisianan, from a small dairy town of 2,600 on the border near Mississippi called Kentwood.

I drove for three hours to see the place for myself. I ended up staying for four days.

The old downtown was completely gutted except for a lone barbershop and a recently-closed furniture store with a proud sign proclaiming Britney as their own.

There is this strange disconnect between the fantasy image of the place of Britney's youth and the reality of Kentwood. The reality is that of a depressing, stagnant town, gutted of industry and history, except that of the overbearing glow of Britney, glaring past everything in its way.

But outside of that bright sunbeam of Britney, I found the real people of the town.

There was the curator of the Kentwood historical and cultural museum, who dutifully chatted with me about Kentwood's proud past.

Unfortunately, she expressed a quiet dismay for the museum's war heritage display, which was now being overrun by the three rooms of Britney Spears memorabilia, including a full-scale reproduction of her childhood bedroom.

I met a man who had never left the area around Kentwood in all his life, partly because he spent half of it in prison. He now works hard to raise a family and some dogs in his trailer home beside the road, a confederate flag hanging in his window.

I met Spears' dad, who had the week before threatened a batch of teenage Britney fans with a gun, telling them to get off his property.

I met adoring fans of hers from Wyoming, Florida and Arkansas, at the end of their thousand-mile pilgrimages to their own personal Mecca.

Kentwood is a lot like the town I come from. It's small. It's a quiet, closed community. This is a place where the people who leave never come back. Those that don't, never go anywhere else.

It's part of the American myth, to come from humble beginnings and then go on to become something greater. It's a story many wish to live themselves.

On my last day in Kentwood, I stopped by a gas station near the local water bottling plant. At the gas station, sitting on the shelf, was a makeshift compact disc cover of another young blonde, in a pose not unlike Britney Spears in her earlier albums.

Her name was Taylor Horn, and she too was a singer, being groomed to be the next big thing to come out of the town.

"Yeah, she's going to be the next Britney Spears," I remember the museum curator telling me.

And so it continues in America.



Originally published April 13, 2004 in the Spartan Daily