They shared a kiss at the VMAs and have both dabbled in Kabbalah despite a Christian upbringing. But now Britney Spears is literally taking a page from Madonna's playbook by including suggestive, religious-themed photos in the booklet for her new album, Blackout. Though, so far, the stunt doesn't appear to have raised the kind of holy outrage as some of Madonna's past provocations, it has gotten at least one Catholic leader upset at what he called a "bottom of the barrel" publicity ploy.
The pictures — one of which shows Spears wearing a cross and sitting on a priest's lap in what looks like a confessional booth while showing some fishnet stocking-ed leg, and another in which she leans suggestively against the confessional while the hunky priest sits on the other side of the partition — have drawn the ire of the Catholic League, an anti-defamation group.
"This girl is crashing," League President Bill Donohue told New York's Daily News. "She's not even allowed to bring up her own kids because she's not responsible enough. Now we see she can't even entertain."
Kiera McCaffrey, the League's director of communications, told MTV News on Tuesday (October 30, the album's release date) that the group considers the photos a "cheap publicity stunt that is a way to get people to talk about Britney Spears' album without talking about her music, which is what they should be focusing on. All we see is how troubled this girl is now, especially with her family, losing her kids, with her career on a downward slide. And now she's put out this album and this is her tactic to promote it? She should be focusing on singing and dancing and trying to be an entertainer without mocking a Catholic sacrament."
The photos are reminiscent of Madonna's 1989 "Like a Prayer" video, which drew fire from Catholic groups for its mixing of sexual and religious imagery. In that video, Madonna cavorted amid giant burning crosses, appeared to develop stigmata and made love to a saint, all while telling the story of a woman who is raped by a group of men.
McCaffrey said she's not surprised by the Spears photos, calling the misappropriation of Catholic imagery a "cheap trick" that is commonly used by people who can't find other ways to get a buzz going on their work. "Madonna does it often, rolling around on disco balls with crosses. These are powerful images and usurping that ... people think it's a way to get people to talk about them. Is that the way a real entertainer wants people to talk about them? What would be great is if she got serious about her religious faith and instead of mocking the confessional, maybe she could visit one for its intended purpose."
A spokesperson for Spears' label could not be reached for comment at press time. At a time when Spears has done no promotional appearances to hype the Tuesday release of the album, the album-art controversy adds to the list of bizarre story lines Spears is currently entangled in.
From her ongoing custody battle with ex-husband Kevin Federline to a number of traffic mishaps, the circus that surrounds Spears is a distraction from one of the most shocking stories involving the troubled 25-year-old singer: Her album appears to be a hit. With some of the strongest reviews of her career, and expectations that Blackout will top the charts next week and knock Bruce Springsteen from the #1 spot, Spears has fashioned a likely sales champ without engaging in any of the usual pre-release duties such as concert tours, late-night TV chats or visits to radio stations.