Is Britney today's Elvis??

(Source: Laura Barton, Guardian News Service, 6 Nov 2007)

Is Britney the Elvis of our times?

Huge hits, massive celebrity, failed rehab, disastrous love affairs and a penchant for catsuits and Las Vegas. The Princess of Pop's life echoes that of the King. But are we hounding Britney Spears to a similar fate

It is 1977. On stage, the performer in the tight spangly outfit is barely recognisable: doped up, spaced out, the once sleek physique swollen and spread, the singing slurred and unintelligible. The audience is aghast yet mesmerised. These are the dying days of Elvis Presley.

Skip forward 40 years, and Britney Spears appears at the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards to unveil her new single, Gimme More. The response is not good: "Spears was stuffed into a spangled bra and hotpants," jeers the New York Post, "and jiggled like Jell-O as she sleepwalked through the song."

The similarities between the lives of Britney and Elvis, two of the most successful acts in the history of pop music, are striking. Born in Mississippi more than 45 years apart, their lives have followed a similar course, encompassing not only No 1 singles, Grammys, wealth and fame, but substance abuse, divorce and a dubious attraction to Las Vegas.

This week, Spears launched her new album, Blackout, to critical applause, but after a year of increasingly unpredictable behaviour, failed rehab stints, attacks on the paparazzi and an ongoing child custody battle, it remains to be seen whether the Princess of Pop can navigate the immense celebrity - and attendant excesses - that destroyed the King. Both Presley and Spears were sturdily managed white pop acts who found fame repackaging traditionally black music for a white audience.

In the 1950s, Elvis combined rockabilly with the gospel music of his church and the rhythm and blues he heard in Memphis and gave it a pop spin. "He opened the door for black music," Little Richard once said. Britney, too, draws heavily on traditionally black musical styles: appraising 2004's In the Zone, Guardian pop critic Alexis Petridis observed: "There is southern hip-hop, deep house, Neptunes-style R&B, the ubiquitous Diwali beat and, most importantly, oodles of Madonna."

Both performers owe much of their ascent to stardom to the marketing of their sexual allure. The Elvis controversy was sparked by a performance on The Milton Berle Show in 1956, during which he performed a cover of Hound Dog, a song which, like Spears' 1998 debut... Baby, One More Time, carried blatant sexual undertones. But it was the performance as much as the lyrics.

With Elvis it was the pelvis, the seductive shake that drove female fans to distraction and saw one of his early TV performances, on the Ed Sullivan Show, censored so that viewers saw only Presley's upper body. Britney, of course, skipped into the public consciousness provocatively clad in school uniform and pigtails. Her currency was raised by the disclosure that for all her saucy cavorting, she was in fact a good little church-going girl and a virgin to boot.

There have been other visual similarities along the way - the hair-cutting for example: Elvis was publicly shorn for his stint in the military; Britney, for less explicable reasons, wielding the clippers herself before the baying paparazzi. They have both, too, demonstrated a love for catsuits and sequins, and last week, as Britney unveiled her newly augmented pout, there was an echo of the King's famous lip-curl.

And then there is the junk food. These days Spears is no longer the toned young popstrel we first met - at the VMAs this year, abdominal muscles were reportedly spray-painted onto her stomach, and she is frequently photographed with fast food takeaways, sugary drinks and packets of her beloved Cheetos. For his part, Elvis never lost his taste for fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches, cheeseburgers and hollowed out loaves filled with peanut butter, grape jelly and bacon, at 42,000 calories a pop.

According to the coroner who performed his postmortem, the last thing Presley ate was four scoops of ice cream and six chocolate-chip cookies. They have each had their Vegas moments, too. The King's 1968 comeback famously took place in Sin City to a magnificent reception.

In happier times, Britney performed her hit Slave 4 U at the 2001 VMAs in the city, accompanied by a live snake. Alas, Vegas was also to herald the start of a downward spiral for Spears: it was here in 2004, at the Little White Wedding Chapel, that she married childhood friend Jason Alexander, a marriage that was annulled 55 hours later.

Failed love affairs have blighted Spears and Presley. Soon after meeting dancer Kevin Federline in 2004, Britney married him and bore two sons in quick succession, only for the couple to divorce acrimoniously in 2006. The debate over custody continues, in an increasingly tormented fashion. Elvis married Priscilla Beaulieu in Vegas in 1967, and they had a daughter, Lisa Marie. Following allegations of infidelity, the couple separated in 1972, and agreed to share child custody.

After his divorce was finalised in 1973, Presley's weight shot up and he grew increasingly dependent on prescription drugs and the solace offered by books on spiritualism - when he died he was reading Frank Adams' A Scientific Search for the Face of Jesus.

Britney has followed a similar pattern; her weight gain has been the subject of constant media attention, and the judge presiding over her current child custody case referred to her "habitual, frequent, and continuous use of controlled substances and alcohol".

Recent paparazzi shots revealed a packet of the prescription medicine Provigil in her handbag. As his fame grew, Presley became increasingly isolated. Holed up in Graceland, with his private jets, jungle-themed room and pandering acquaintances, he was separated from the simpler life he had loved, and no longer sure who his real friends were.

Towards the end of his life, Presley was devastated by the publication of a tell-all book that included contributions by three of his former employees, who revealed the extent of his drug dependency. Britney, too, must be wondering who she can trust. She is alienated from her family, and already this year, former nannies and bodyguards, lovers and friends have sold their stories to the press - tales of wild sex, drugs, alcohol and debauchery.

Presley died 30 years ago, in August 1977, keeled over on the shag-pile carpet of his bathroom after a suspected drug overdose combined with long-running heart problems. It was an unceremonious end to a spectacular career. "Elvis Presley's death deprives our country of a part of itself," said US president Jimmy Carter.

"He was unique and irreplaceable... His following was immense, and he was a symbol to people the world over of the vitality, rebelliousness and good humour of his country." Now we see Spears, messed up, puffed up, drugged up, and wonder: are we hounding the pop princess to a similar fate?

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