Take an attractive young girl with talent, or maybe just a certain "it factor." Slim her body down; pump her breasts up. Make her blonde. (This works for black girls, too. See Beyonce.) Find some songs dripping with sexual innuendo, better yet, blatant come ons. Polish her voice in the studio and find a hot video director. Oil your product up and have her crawl on the floor, grind, thrust and booty bounce. Make sure she's ready for the haters with some vague talking points about girl power and embracing female sexuality, maybe something about a naughty alter ego. Get her on magazine covers, secure a makeup endorsement deal, start a line of perfumes. We're guaranteed to eat it up. We'll snatch up the magazines, and obsessively scour TMZ.com for photos of our pop starlet on vacation with her bad boy companion. We'll read the exclusive Vanity Fair interview and discuss our star's personal life obsessively at the water cooler, in chat rooms and on message boards. We'll confuse pretty and semi-talented with role model material.
We'll clamor for more and more and more, until our constant gaze begins to reveal cracks in the manufactured picture. We'll notice that the star seems vacant and tipsy a lot. We’ll complain that her skirts are too short, her choices in men abysmal, and that heavy makeup and fake eyelashes look trashy in the light of dawn. We'll notice that girls who skip too much school in order to tour and make records aren't always so smart and articulate. We'll see that the slavish attention of the public and media has made our star a little entitled and bratty. We’ll find that girls who are taught to sell their sexuality sometimes believe that’s all they have to offer. We’ll start to call her a bitch, a whore and a bad mother.
Clink…whiz…pop! That’s the machine—make them and break them.
I don’t mean to suggest that the Britneys of the world have no hand in their own downfall. After all, girls become women and women are responsible for the choices they make. But I can’t help thinking, if Britney has killed any chances of a successful career and a fulfilling life, didn’t the recording industry and the public put the gun in her hand.
You hope that young girls entering the entertainment industry are armed with self-esteem, strong family support, wise counsel and a clear idea of how much (or little) fame is worth to them. You hope that when they are asked to trade their dignity for dollars, they'll be able to say no or that someone with their best interests in mind will say it for them. Britney is what happens when a young star and her parents are willing to give away too much in exchange for fame. But what happens when a girl resists pop tartification, and her family supports her in standing by her principles?
Have you heard of Keke Palmer? She’s the sweet-faced girl from the Disney Channel and Akeelah and the Bee. Keke is also a singer. She signed a record deal with Atlantic Records in 2006, when she was 12 years old. That’s when the machine cranked up. Atlantic tried to persuade Keke to record a host of inappropriate material, including “A Freak Like Me,” the 1995 hit by Adina Howard that featured the lyrics:
cause I will be a freak until the day until the dawn
and we can pump, pump all through the night till the early morn
come on and I will take you around the 'hood on a gangsta lean
'cause we can pump, pump any time of day it's all good for me
When Keke refused to record what the company called “urban music,” Atlantic responded by pulling marketing support for her album, “So Uncool,” that was released in September. (Read the whole sordid saga at What About Our Daughters.)
Keke stood up for herself, and as a result, may see her hopes of a recording career dashed. I hope not. Maybe she’ll go the Lily Allen route and work the social media to get her record heard. But where is the outrage? If the Britneys of the world so offend us, where is the anger at Atlantic Records for trying to manufacture more stars like her? An article about Britney’s woes, or even a record review like the one that ran Wednesday on Salon.com, brings out commenters eager to weigh in on what’s wrong with the star as a singer, mother, daughter and woman. But the Web is eerily silent on Keke Palmer, except for a few mentions in the black blogosphere.
Will you buy Keke’s album? Will you talk about her tomorrow at the water cooler, in chat rooms and on message boards, even though there are no sexy songs or scandalous behavior to titter at? Are you part of the Britney factory?
Hear more of Keke’s music at kekepalmer.com.