When the Rays rocked the World Series, we were the center of the country. When the Super Bowl rolled through town, we were the center of the world.
But today, boys and girls, gawkers and gossip hounds, we are the center of the universe, the pop-culture universe, for better or ... ugh.
With apologies to Evan Longoria and Kurt Warner, those dudes have nothing on pretty, and pretty dramatic, Southern poplets Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson, both of whom perform in the bay area tonight.
It's blond on blond, rumor vs. scandal. In just the fourth stop on her first tour in five years, Spears plays the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa. Simpson, trying to reinvent herself as a Nashville nymph, closes out the Strawberry Festival in Plant City. Having the paparazzi magnets just a few zip codes apart just might slow the Earth's rotation.
Sure, Celine Dion and Mariah Carey catch our attention in checkout aisles, but they are incredibly talented and, as a result, otherworldly. Uber-couple Beyonce and Jay-Z make us rubberneck, too, but they might as well be slinging lightning bolts and partying with Zeus.
For all their beauty and big bank accounts, Spears and Simpson are different. And by different, I mean not-so-different from us at all. Their problems are funhouse-mirror reflections of our own: weight gain, infidelity, insecurity, overbearing parents, the inability to discern poultry from fish. Heck, by flipping out and shaving her dome a few years ago, Britney even gave a cosmic bear-hug to bald folks the world over.
For most of the 21st century, when celeb-watching has gone "real time" on computers and smartphones, the 27-year-old Spears has been the most-searched person on the Internet — No. 1 with a bullet, a belly-button ring and really tough night at the tattoo parlor. We've been held rapt as the former Mousketeer has made a midriffed mess of matrimony and motherhood.
Simpson isn't as buzzworthy as Spears, but hoo boy, it's not for a lack of trying. The 28-year-old Texas native started as a tween-popper, then became a reality star who didn't know the difference between tuna and chicken, then the cheerleader girlfriend of a Dallas Cowboys quarterback, then — yee haw and pass the Advil — an unconvincing country singer.
Simpson's latest was showing up onstage in ill-fitting jeans and an extra chin. We cracked jokes as we stuffed our faces with Haagen-Dazs.
You can debate their artistic acumen all you like (don't hurt yourself). But you can't deny that Spears and Simpson, who share an unmistakable sweetness, are not unlike the Disney princesses — albeit Cinderellas with spray-on tans and a Kevin Federline problem. They are both unreal and all-too-real, fragile and resilient but cute in a Miss 4-H Club sort of way.
And yet, here's the magic hook: Brit-Brit and Jess's problems never seem to stick around longer than the next issue of US Weekly, a magazine that routinely shows up in our mailbox at the same time as the mortgage statement. Oops, they did it again, and again, and again. Trouble-targets one minute, Teflon the next. They move on, comebacks and failures galore, a new soap-opera twist to replace the last one.
When Britney, touring behind her new Circus album, plays the Times Forum, there will be as many people rooting for her success as her failure. Same with Jessica at the Strawberry Festival. But in the end, we're all envious and thankful, jealous and applauding. We like them/us and hate them/us for the very same reasons.
So enjoy your time in the center of the universe, Tampa Bay. Sing — or boo — along. Because who knows when the stars will align to bring Britney and Jessica back into our orbit. After all, they have places to go, hearts to break, dreams and nightmares and lousy boyfriends to uphold.
We're counting on it.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.