“I do not know why FKF [Fat Kevin Federline] holds such fascination for me. I’ve never met Kevin Federline and do not know anything about him as a person, but I project onto him all the worst fears I have for myself: fear of wasted potential, fear of failure, of losing my family, of making terrible hair decisions. When I see those paparazzi images of FKF, sometimes sporting dopey cornrows, sometimes waddling across some anonymous poolside deck beer in hand, I imagine a guy who does not know who he is, what he is supposed to be doing, or how he wound up in the unexpected circumstances of his own life. This is how I feel about myself 90 percent of the time.”—Michael Ian Black, You’re Not Doing It Right
Everyone makes mistakes. It’s what makes us human. But it takes a staggering level of delusion and terrible judgment to transform the worst mistake of your life into a five-part television event on UPN, as Britney Spears did when she made her relationship with Kevin Federline the subject of the 2005 reality show Britney & Kevin: Chaotic. Britney Spears has made plenty of terrible decisions over the course of years in the spotlight. It’s a testament to Spears’ staggeringly poor choices that custody of her children was eventually granted to a man who is a ninth-grade dropout, Caucasian-cornrows enthusiast, self-professed former drug-dealer, current full-time stoner, former back-up dancer, famously failed rapper, and now professional celebrity-weight-loss-reality-show-competitor: Kevin “K-Fed” Federline, an insidious human parasite widely and rightly considered the worst human being in the history of the world.
Spears has made so many awful mistakes that it’s borderline miraculous she’s survived at all, let alone regained her footing as one of the most successful recording artists of our time. Then again, if Britney can survive a public courtship, marriage, and divorce to K-Fed, she can seemingly survive anything. No, scratch that. She definitely can survive anything. That Spears somehow avoided the fate of Amy Winehouse and Anna Nicole Smith is a tribute to the resilience of the human spirit and an often cruel and predatory public’s remarkable ability to forgive, if not forget. If Spears’ past is tragic in many ways, her unlikely survival is at least semi-heroic. She survived Federline when even the most optimistic pop-culture observers reckoned he would be her professional and personal Waterloo.
Britney & Kevin: Chaotic, which aired in May and June of 2005, was less a television show than a desperate cry for help, and less a dual self-portrait of a couple in the throes of giddy infatuation than a public form of professional self-immolation. The level of miscalculation is staggering: Spears apparently imagined that Chaotic would justify her love for Federline, that the world would look at his perpetually slouching, smirking, stoned form and fall as helplessly for him as she did. She was wrong.
In its inexplicably televised form—airing Britney & Kevin: Chaotic should have been beneath the dignity of the network that gave the world The Secret Diary Of Desmond Pfeiffer, Shasta McNasty, and Homeboys In Outer Space—the show was unrelentingly and unwittingly damning in its depiction of Spears and Federline’s relationship. But no clip is more horrifying, revealing, or unfortunately representative of the true nature of Spears and Federline’s toxic bond than this clip from what the DVD cheerily refers to as “never-before-seen footage from Britney and Kevin’s home movies.” In it, Spears—wearing a wife-beater, sweatpants, and T-shirt bearing the words “part-time lover/full time hater,” gloriously/sadly enough—stares vacantly and glassy-eyed into Kevin Federline’s uncomfortably voyeuristic camcorder in what clearly appears to be a coke-, ecstasy-, or speed-induced haze and complains, “I’m ugly” and then, “my jaw hurts” before murmuring sub-verbally and complaining that she’s been grinding her teeth relentlessly because she’s “nervous” before confessing that she’s not really nervous at all.
A clearly addled Spears is unable to hold on to a thought for longer than a few seconds. She asks Federline if he’s had butterbeans. She rubs her foot ecstatically and asks, with offhanded, unintentional pathos, “Mama, see what you passed down to me?” She belches and giggles. She struggles to collect her scattered thoughts. She whipsaws from moony absentmindedness to inexplicable aggravation when she suspects Federline is zooming in on her—because that would be disturbing and wrong, not a man sadistically capturing, for posterity, his ostensible soulmate in a pathetic, desperate state of drugged-up confusion for all the world to see—while complaining nonsensically, “Why you looking through the peephole? You’re acting like a cameraman! Stop looking through the peephole”
Finally, Spears heroically manages to align the misfiring synapses in her brain into something resembling a coherent thought—she really, really wants to see the crystal-meth-themed dark comedy Spun. But even that fragment of a thought becomes hopelessly confused: She becomes incredibly agitated when Federline tells her it’s already on DVD and might even be on their tour bus—given Spears and Federline’s mental state, it’s entirely possible they may have just actually watched Spun—and insists Federline is lying. When Federline tells Spears he watched Spun four months ago, she clearly doesn’t know how to process such mind-blowing information. In her fragile, distorted headspace, that information alone seems to rip a hole in the time-space continuum that must be addressed. How could Federline have seen that movie four months ago? Is he a time-traveler or a shape-shifter of some sort? Is there no limit to his unholy powers?
The clip seesaws manically between comedy and tragedy, between unintentional humor and aching, agonizing sadness. When Spears says she’s been “missing out on life,” it’s hard not to agree with her. For all its ostensible glamour, Spears’ life, as documented in Chaotic, is largely an incredibly sad, lonely, narcissistic bubble of interchangeable live performances and bus rides, plane rides, television appearances, and empty, meaningless conversations with people paid to tolerate her and, even worse, the controlling and manipulative Federline. When Federline tells Spears she might feel like she’s missing out on life “because of all the partying” (probable code for “all the drugs we’ve been using”), Spears blurts out a defensive, “huh” and becomes instantly angry, hurt, and defensive. Then the conversation starts to get a little strange and Spears’ behavior becomes a little questionable.
With heartbreaking and hilarious earnestness, she asks Federline if he’s seen Back To The Future and consequently can tell her conclusively whether people can actually time-travel in real life. She’s not joking. When Federline assures her that they can’t, Spears says that maybe they can but haven’t quite gotten around to telling her yet. The clip ends with Federline, in a voice rich with unearned self-congratulation, arguing that if scientists had invented time-travel, they wouldn’t tell anyone because then everyone would want to go back in time and change shit. If Spears could travel back in time, I reckon, she’d probably prevent herself from ever encountering Federline, fuck that “killing Hitler” shit. (If I could go back in time, I would do the same, and I’m Jewish.) This explosive bombshell—Spears tends to treat every dumbass idea Federline puts forth like a profound spiritual revelation from a modern-day prophet—affects Spears deeply on a mental and physical level. After Federline unleashes his explosive theory, Spears recoils backwards as if retreating sharply from the impact of an explosion.
It is worth mentioning this horrifically embarrassing footage of a (presumably) drugged-up Spears nattering semi-coherently while clad in the official redneck uniform of a wife beater, sweatpants, and trucker hat was not leaked anonymously by someone with a grudge against Spears and Federline, or stolen from Federline’s computer by a savvy cyber-criminal. In blatant defiance of common sense and common decency, Spears and Federline did not sue to keep this humiliation from becoming public. On the contrary, they wanted people to see them this way, or at least they did when Chaotic drunkenly lurched its way to DVD infamy. That alone says everything there is to say about the avalanche of unintentionally humiliating self-disclosure found on Britney & Kevin: Chaotic itself.
I can think of many uses Federline might have for this footage. Blackmail is the most obvious. Alternately, he could use it to shame Spears into entering rehab or use it during custody proceedings as conclusive evidence that Spears is such an unfit parent that their children would be better off in a Dickensian orphanage, salt mine, or Chinese child-labor sweatshop than they would be in the custody of their birth mother. I cannot, however, imagine that Federline looked at the clip in all its unvarnished ugliness and saw flattering, amusing footage to include as a lighthearted bonus on a DVD and reality series chronicling their love affair, engagement, marriage, and the conception of their first child.
This trainwreck of a clip unwittingly captures Federline and Spears’ relationship in miniature. It spotlights Spears’ raging insecurity, problems with drugs and alcohol, endless, mindless self-absorption, and surreal disconnection from the world around her. More than anything it captures the bizarre, counterintuitive power imbalance at the heart of Spears and Federline’s relationship. Spears may be the world-famous, multi-millionaire sex symbol ogled and desired by tens of millions, but Federline is the one with all the power in the relationship. In Chaotic, Spears looks to Federline for the approval, validation, and affection she gets constantly from the entire world, but he’s able to control and manipulate her by strategically withholding them. In her mind, she’s the lucky one. She’s the one dating an older, wiser, more sophisticated man who’s kind enough to let her experience the benefit of his wisdom.
Britney & Kevin: Chaotic immediately establishes a tone of noxious self-absorption with frenetic opening titles crowing, “Britney, in very close collaboration with Kevin, presents ‘our story.’ Starring Britney and Kevin. Cinematography by Britney and Kevin. Produced by Britney and Kevin. Britney & Kevin: Chaotic.” I should probably mention at this point that Britney and Kevin were both apparently involved in the creation of Britney & Kevin (I dimly recall their names popping up in the opening credits somewhere) so they have no one to blame for it but themselves.
Britney & Kevin: Chaotic begins as simply Britney: Chaotic. The five-part reality show opens with a bored and hyperactive Britney in the midst of her 2004 Onyx Hotel Tour using a shitty video camera to chronicle both her life as a touring artist and her pet obsessions with love, sex, commitment, and marriage. (Foreshadowing!) After the opening credits, the first image we see is a shot of Spears’ knees with Spears observing, “They look like boobs! But they’re not. They’re my knees!” before whipsawing backwards to the camerawoman/star cackling maniacally at her non-joke. Spears spends much of the series laughing uproariously for reasons only she can fathom; there isn’t much humor in Chaotic, but that doesn’t keep Spears from acting as if she’d just inhaled a truckload of nitrous oxide all the same.
In her role as a fearless homemade documentarian, Spears interviews what for her qualifies as a broad cross-section of people about their feelings on marriage and commitment, conversing with everyone from the gay dude who does her hair to her personal assistant Felicia, who would qualify as her sidekick and foil if Spears were interested in anything other than herself and Federline. The pre-Kevin Britney is sassy, horny, uninhibited in talking about sex, and incredibly manic. When Spears all but vibrates with uncontrollable energy while preparing for an appearance on the British Total Request Live, Felicia quips that she’s had her Starbucks for the day, which would make sense only if Starbucks had recently started selling cocaine along with lattes overseas.
Spears’ loneliness comes to an abrupt end when she reveals that she met this totally cute, cool guy while clubbing in Los Angeles and is flying him out on tour so that he can be with her. The rogue in question is of course Federline, whom she describes as “very mysterious” as only a high-school dropout and former LFO back-up dancer can be, and the clattering, unlistenable solo that has been Spears’ life on tour becomes an even more insufferable duet.
The titular pop star is instantly besotted. Of Spears’ inner circle, only her hulking bodyguard Mo is remotely suspicious of Federline and his motives. In words that ring eerily prescient, he says of Federline, “When I first saw him I’m like, ‘This guy’s just out here for a free ride. I don’t like the way he looks. I don’t like the way he walks. I don’t like his hair.’ There was nothing to like about Kev the first day that I met him. It was the big brother in me.”
Spears won’t hear of it. She’s soon aglow with delight and can’t stop talking about her wonderful sex life with Federline and making out with him in sickening close-up that renders their faces a sloppy blur of lips, hideous facial hair, bad skin, and saliva. When that doesn’t prove stomach-churning enough, the oversexed pair begin making out in close-up shot through night vision, the incredibly unflattering green-tilted filter favored by Marines on nocturnal missions and people taping themselves having sex with Paris Hilton.
A fitting alternate title for Chaotic would be Britney & Kevin: Watch Us Make Out. Other, more appropriate titles include, Britney & Kevin: Why Are We Letting The Public See Us Like This?; Britney & Kevin: Yes, He IS That Big Of A Douchebag And She IS That Big Of A Flake; Britney & Kevin: What The Fuck Are They On And Where Can You Get Some?; and Britney & Kevin: Celebrate Our Stomach-Churning Ephemeral Infatuation. Like many heterosexual men, I once found Spears sexy and attractive. Chaotic disabused me of those notions, and not just because she spends so much of the show locking lips and gazing dreamily at Federline, or because the ultimate message of the show boils down to, “I’m having sex with Kevin Federline and it’s awesome!”
Mo’s initial suspicion of Federline (acting as an audience surrogate he asks, “What the heck does she see in this guy?” and vows to get rid of him) is brought up solely so that Federline—who, we should remember, is the cinematographer, star, and executive producer as well as the husband of the other producer, star, and cinematographer—can win him over just a few minutes later. Mo praises Federline as a “down-to-earth dude” which is untrue only in that it couldn’t be more false. Oh, if only Spears had listened to Mo and his dead on first impression!
Mo and other people paid to tolerate Spears enthuse that her relationship with Federline brings out the best in Britney, but if the footage of them together in Chaotic represents Spears at her best, I hesitate to imagine what she might be like at her worst. (Does she club baby seals? Communicate solely in gibberish? Stab random homeless people?) It isn’t long, however, until a slithering snake appears in Spears’ sex-saturated Eden. When Spears professes her undying love to the auspiciously sedentary K-Fed, y’all, the smirking little bastard—who spends so much time slouching sloth-like and stoned on a couch that he intermittently appears to not possess a spinal chord—refuses to return the favor.
In a heartbeat, manic Britney morphs into depressive Britney. It feels a little silly attributing Machiavellian qualities to Federline, given his justly merited reputation as a world-class dumbass, but in Chaotic he is remarkably savvy at manipulating Spears’ emotions, bottomless need for validation, and massive insecurity to his own ends. So when Federline finally does tell Spears he loves her, she is so deliriously happy and grateful that it isn’t long until she asks him to marry her. Yes, she is the one who proposes. She is, after all, nothing but a humble Southern gal, y’all, and he is a font of boundless wisdom.
Britney & Kevin: Chaotic ends with Spears making the biggest mistake of her life legal with a surprise wedding. It’s telling that of all the guests, the only one who appears appropriately horrified by the union is Spears’ dad James, who is unable and/or unwilling to conceal his understandable horror at his daughter marrying Kevin Federline. James did such a terrible job as a parent that his daughter grew up to be Britney Spears and marry K-Fed, yet even he is able to see through Federline.
After the wedding, Federline and his even oilier, even more repellent posse change into matching white sweat-suits emblazoned with the word “Pimps” on the jackets. Let’s see: Pimps are professional parasites who manipulate and control naïve, vulnerable women’s sexuality and insecurities for their own financial gain. That seems like a pretty fair representation of Federline’s relationship with Spears.
Britney & Kevin: Chaotic doesn’t just fail as television, a reality show, or entertainment; it fails as home movies. It never meets even the low standards of shaky, amateur camcorder footage of birthday parties and babies and puppies acting cute. If a disclaimer were added to every shot in Chaotic reading: “Britney Spears and Kevin Federline are drunk and high on all sorts of shit right now,” Chaotic would suddenly become the most convincing piece of anti-drug entertainment this side of Requiem For A Dream.
While professing to correct and remedy the public’s rampant misconceptions about Spears, especially her relationship with Federline, Chaotic ends up verifying every negative portrayal of her in the media as ditsy, oversexed, self-absorbed, drugged-up, mentally ill, superficial, bizarre, and utterly detached from reality. It’s an enduring shame masquerading as a proud public proclamation of endless love (that lasted about two years, give or take, before nearly destroying Spears’ sanity, life and career). Britney & Kevin: Chaotic doesn’t just reflect poorly on Spears, Federline, and their disastrous union; it reflects poorly on everything it even vaguely touches upon: heterosexuality, premarital sex, marital sex, making out, romantic relationships in general, fame, celebrity, music, performance, home movies, the whole gaudy shebang.
Also reflecting poorly on Spears, Federline, music, hip-hop, and existence as a whole: Kevin Federline’s notorious 2006 rap debut (and, to date, swan song) Playing With Fire, which has the distinction of boasting the lowest Metacritic score in the website’s history. Billboard gave the album its highest rating (a ridiculously generous 30 out of 100), though the nicest compliment it could manage was, “In general, Federline enunciates well.” I would argue that’s actually a tremendous flaw. If Federline delivered his rhymes in a mealy-mouthed slur, we could at least pretend to mishear him saying something interesting or worthwhile. Instead, it’s crystal clear just how repellent the ugly, inane thoughts rattling around in Federline’s smug little head are.
We make all manner of allowances for great rappers. We don’t just excuse their criminal pasts, rampant egotism, and drug and alcohol problems; we glorify them because of their capacity to transform the pain and suffering and sins of their past and present into art that says something insightful about the world we live in and their own inner struggles. It’s impossible to make such allowances for K-Fed. With Federline, the ego that drives so much of hip-hop becomes monstrous and grotesque. Where the Snoops and Dr. Dres and Devin The Dudes of the world imbue the stoner lifestyle with outlaw glamour and laconic charm, Federline makes being stoned constantly seem ugly and pathetic. Like Britney & Kevin: Chaotic, Playing With Fire registers as unwitting anti-drug propaganda, brutal evidence that smoking as much pot as Federline claims to smoke (the only “boast” of Federline’s that rings true) hinders creativity, renders users lazy and apathetic and, worst of all, leaves smokers burdened with the inexplicable delusion that they can, and should, rap.
On Playing With Fire, Federline’s subject matter can be boiled down to the following, endlessly recycled topics:
- He smokes a lot of marijuana and is drunk constantly. This, for some reason, is a source of incredible pride.
- He professes to own a lot of expensive sports cars. This somehow renders him better than you or I.
- He is equally coveted by models and your girl despite being married to a woman whose superstardom and incredible fame matches his own. This is a persistent theme. There’s even an interlude where a cackling jackass friend of Federline’s brags that his email signature is, “Does it make me a thief that I stole your girlfriend’s virginity?” This, of course, reduces Federline to manic cackling, and is so important and hilarious to him he decided to devote an entire track to it on what he must have known deep down would be his last chance to bare his soul to an uncomprehending public
- He is the Bisquick or pancake man and used to sell drugs, possibly while employed as a back-up dancer for LFO. It’s also possible that Federline sold drugs while back-up dancing for LFO, which would be a remarkable feat of multi-tasking.
- The media hates on him because they don’t understand the real Federline, a perpetually drunk, high sports-car enthusiast desired by models and world famous because of his incredible rap skills.
- He can be found in the club with his boys every night getting drunk and high instead of staying at home and taking care of his children (he had two at the time with ex-girlfriend Shar Jackson and another one on the way with Spears) or working on his music.
The video for the single “Lose Control” offers a master’s class in Federline’s pet themes in addition to providing a taste of Federline’s sneeringly simple flow and loathsome anti-charisma. It’s as good as Playing With Fire gets and it’s still fucking terrible.
On Playing With Fire, Federline behaves as if success is sexually transmitted and the first time he became intimate with Spears he acquired her achievements, which, whatever you think of her music or personality, are substantial. Spears has earned the right to sing and write about her massive success and fame because they are real and not the product of narcissistic self-delusion so massive it’s downright pathological. Playing With Fire’s dour, witless braggadocio (for a walking punchline, Federline has no sense of humor) would be insufferable if Federline legitimately was a successful rapper instead of an overgrown little white boy making pretend to be one into his hairbrush at night while admiring his cornrows in the mirror before bedtime.
There’s something inherently compelling about massive egotism and arrogance untethered to actual accomplishment. That morbid fascination is only amplified when the runaway sense of entitlement comes exclusively from the egotist’s vicarious relationship to fame, celebrity, and success. That’s why I find the Twitter feed of Tom Hanks’ “rapper” son Chet Haze fascinating. Haze behaves as if he was the one who won those three Oscars and starred in that movie with the slobbery dog (I believe it was called Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close) rather than a man whose sole accomplishment so far is beginning life inside the testicles of someone who has actually has done great things. To paraphrase Ann Richards’ line on George W. Bush, Haze was born on third base and thought he hit a triple. Federline married into fame, money, and celebrity (or rather celebrity’s feral cousin, infamy) and acted as if he’d come about them through virtue of talent, hard work, and his breathtaking lyrical skills.
Before I listened to Playing With Fire I thought it would be impossible for it to live down to its reputation as one of the worst albums ever released in the history of recorded music. Dear God was I ever wrong. It really is that bad. And it may even be worse. Watching Britney & Kevin: Chaotic and listening to Playing With Fire in rapid succession made me despise Kevin Federline with a passion, purity, and ferocity I never imagined possible. You only think you hate him now; really, you have no idea.
Britney And Kevin: Chaotic: Failure, Fiasco Or Secret Success: Fiasco
Playing With Fire: Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Failure