We tell ourselves Britney Spears wants our attention. From the very outset of her fame, the idea that Britney wouldn’t put it out there if she didn’t want us to look made her audience feel better about gawking at the exposed midriff of a 17-year-old girl. But the three-note opening hook of “…Baby One More Time,” the song that would launch her to an almost unfathomable level of closely studied celebrity, is ominous, oddly funereal for a teeny bopper pop hit. It posed a question: “Oh baby, baby, how was I supposed to know/That something wasn’t right here?”And with her introductory line as a solo pop star, Britney was already pushing back against the idea that she was asking for whatever her audience gave her.
Britney the teenage pop star seemed to descend upon the world pre-fabricated: molded by the Disney corporation and gift-wrapped by the Jive Records fame machine’s marketing department, she was the perfect blonde package of a pretty icon, one that late-’90s America needed in order to collectively fetishize and punish its teenage girls. From the vantage point afforded by 22 years of hindsight—including Britney’s much-photographed 2008 mental health crisis and a subsequent 12-year conservatorship which has left her with no more right to autonomy than a child—it’s clear that Britney’s celebrity has always been foundationally not right.
But the captivating packaging marketers relied on to build her brand, along with audiences’ almost religious devotion to the product, also served as a snare, and in the mid-2000s the world watched Britney’s horror in real-time as she came to terrifying odds with the fact that there was no escaping herself. So many of Britney Spears’s live performances involve a team of dancers releasing Britney from a cage to writhe and dance to a catalog of songs that are largely focused on feeling alone in the spotlight. Over the course of her more than 30-year career, the media has loved, hated, and been concerned for Britney.
Millions of fans have also loved, hated, and been concerned for Britney, just as I have since I was about 14 years old, though not usually at the same time as the headlines. In fact, Britney’s figure—be it “Miss American Dream” teen idol, skin-headed and furious, or sweetly blonde again—has long been a graven image I use to mark time in my own narrative, caging my understanding of who Britney is with my own bullshit. Just like countless other fans, reporters, and paparazzi attempting to pick at the cracks in her persona to prove the “real” Britney mirrors whatever effigy they have made of her. Both lovers and haters at the altar of Britney make, tear down, and rebuild her in their own image, over and over again, ever confusing what is there with whatever it was they expected to see.
The first time I saw Britney’s matching pink maribou scrunchies, I hated her fucking guts. She and I are from the same place: born two years apart to working-class families in tiny, perpetually economically depressed Louisiana towns with just a couple hundred miles between. We were both raised Southern Baptist and were both crowned alumni of the child beauty pageant circuit. We would both move on to become princesses, though admittedly, our paths were dissonant. She was America’s pop princess with a TV and Broadway career to boast by the time she turned 14, and I was only ever the crowned sovereign of my high school gymnasium and once given the title of Little Miss Black Bayou, which some older boys shortened to Miss Swamp Thing and would yell at me when I was in my front yard.
As a 14-year-old girl, I ran into Britney Spears’s image everywhere I went, like a magnified funhouse reflection of the self I was both compelled to and punished for presenting to the world. In particular, I came of age in the overblown and ubiquitous cast of Britney’s much-discussed virginity. It was splashed across the pages of teen fashion magazines, speculated about in whispers among my classmates, praised by the youth minister at church. The “purity pledge” she’d taken was similar to a Wednesday night youth group meeting in the gymnasium of my church’s youth building, where we were asked to stand in front of our peers and promise Jesus we wouldn’t fuck until legally having signed a paper allowing us to do so. Women were born white roses, we were told, but every new sexual partner browned a petal; even one bruise blighted the flower and too many meant handing our future husbands a rotted, crumbling mess soiling the entire wedding bouquet.
My grandmother, a former town beauty, romance novel connoisseur, and ardent fan of Jesus, was of two minds about Britney. She hated the fact that such a pretty little girl wouldn’t put some clothes on, but she loved the idea of a child telling reporters she hadn’t fucked yet. “I lived like a normal Southern girl,” read Britney’s 1999 Unauthorized Biography, seemingly in response to my grandmother’s concerns. “I keep a prayer journal and I write in it every night.”
The team of adults who mapped Britney’s success, including “…Baby One More Time” director Nigel Dick, have long maintained that both the sexiness and the proclamations of innocence were always Britney’s idea. In fact, Dick has said he was against the modified schoolgirl costume, a relatively tame combination of thigh-high socks, miniskirt, and white button-down tied at the ribs over a sports bra, that Britney wore to dance down the high school hallways. His recollection intimates that he was practically bullied into letting the child have her own way:
“‘Are you sure we should be going down this route with this young lady?’” Dick remembers himself asking at the time, according to a recent oral history of the video. “And the people who were in control, the record label and whatnot, said yes, this is the route we want to take.”
In a 1999 interview with Rolling Stone, Britney echoed the adults’ alibi while also passing some of the blame off on other teenage girls:
“‘All I did was tie up my shirt!” Britney defended herself to the grown man asking in a roundabout way what responsibility she bore for his and other adults’ reaction to her body. “I’m wearing a sports bra under it. Sure, I’m wearing thigh-highs, but kids wear those — it’s the style. Have you seen MTV—all those in thongs?’”
The year “…Baby One More Time” debuted was the same year my parents were so apoplectic at having discovered the white Calvin Klein thong I’d bought with my allowance money in the laundry basket that I had to lie and say a friend left it behind. That was also the year my father showed up drunk at an amusement park to collect me and the same friend I’d blamed for the thong, and raged from the front seat about the length of our shorts.
“You look like whores,” he told us.
“Are you sure you’re not just drunk?” I asked him.
He pulled the car over to the side of the road and got out to reach for a door I simultaneously locked shut before he could pull me from the car, for what I’d judged would most likely become a roadside beating. My stepmother got out and, illuminated by headlights, acted a silent movie conversation that ended with him getting back behind the wheel and wordlessly delivering us back home. I was wearing the same homemade Levi’s cutoffs the night a boy from school unceremoniously shoved his hand into them and began to inexpertly claw around. I didn’t like the hand, but I did like the attention. That year my stepmother, yet another former southern queen of various realms, also began to suggest highlighting my naturally dark brown hair a bit closer to a blonde that might “suit me better,” though I understood what she meant: make me prettier, like Britney and the countless other Louisiana girls who looked just like her. I did it out of some suspicion that life would be much simpler as one of the disconnected Barbie heads I’d played with as a child, a pleasant face framed by a halo of fluffy yellow hair with no body to draw attention or invite scandal.
In his 1961 polemic on the “processes by which fame is manufactured,” Daniel Boorstin complains that “the hero created himself; the celebrity is created by media.” And from that first time Britney Spears led a squadron of high schoolers down the hallway in a cheerleading competition dance routine, the complaints began, explicit in punchlines and implicit in think pieces like the Rolling Stone interview—Britney’s main talent was being telegenic. Britney couldn’t sing, they whined, while simultaneously accidentally admitting that they couldn’t actually hear her singing over the rush of blood to their giant boners.
“She came out, and she was singin’ about Pepsi. But you don’t know what she’s singing because she can’t sing,” comedian Louis Black yelled about Britney’s Super Bowl Pepsi commercial in a 2002 standup special: “Titty, titty, titty, ass, ass, ass! Titty, titty, ass, ass, more ass, titty, titty, titty, titty, ass, ass, ass, titty, titty, ass, ass!”
She was a product manufactured by suits in a boardroom, not an artist who deserved an audience, the joke went. But in her 2019 book The Drama of Celebrity, Sharon Marcus argues against the idea that media attention and clever marketing are the only ingredients for concocting a star: “If relentless publicity alone created celebrity, then every one of the many songs that ever benefited from payola would have become a major hit, and every heavily promoted actor would be a star,” Marcus writes. Audiences create celebrity every bit as much as media, marketing teams, and the talent of the celebrity themselves, according to Marcus. Stars rise and fall by their usefulness to the narrative an audience projects onto them.
“She’s the antichrist,” I told my mother about Britney, unwittingly joining the media in creating a symbol on which to project the meanness that so often goes hand-in-hand with America’s collective desire. I didn’t yet have the vocabulary to explain that I was furious at her managing to get famous off perfecting the beautiful clueless virgin act when I was still trying to navigate how to pull it off without getting clawed at and beaten. But I can see now the bars of the cage in which her jailbait image, and how my participation as a hate-follower of it, locked Britney into the performance.
In that 1999 Rolling Stone interview, Britney was finally 18, the legal age of consent. The cover styled her in silky pink pajamas, top unbuttoned to reveal a black push-up bra. In one hand she holds a cotton candy-colored phone, in the other, she clutches a stuffed Teletubby. “Inside the heart, mind, and bedroom of a teen dream,” the cover copy promises. But writer Steven Daly used the opening paragraphs of the report to describe the exterior he was now allowed to openly fetishize—“Britney Spears extends a honeyed thigh across the length of the sofa,” he begins before launching into a delineation of her trademark blonde hair and “ample chest” that reads like a product description of something for sale in a catalog. But immediately after the sales pitch, Daly warns the reader, and by proxy himself, not to fall into the “carefully baited trap,” teased by Spears’s beauty, her body, and the Catholic schoolgirl setup of her video for “…Baby One More Time.” Daly implies Britney herself, much like the crop tops in her videos, was likely a scam, titillating but ultimately revealing nothing.
But the interview is the trap, designed to trick Britney into giving the world “a sign,” to borrow her own phrase, of how smart she was, how aware of her own exploitation. In the conclusion of the piece, Daly concludes he doesn’t know much more than he did when he started. Britney was a well-built catalog offering he couldn’t reverse engineer: “Whatever Britney Spears ends up ‘growing into,’ she stands today as the latest model of a classic product: the unneurotic pop star who performs her duties with vaudevillian pluck and spokesmodel charm.”
As Britney got older, her story naturally shifted. She symbolically lost her virginity for us at age 21 in the movie Crossroads and released a single literally declaring “I’m Not a Girl”—but lest she comes off as too old, parentheses tempered the statement with the caveat that she was also (Not Yet a Woman). Her media appearances too flirted with the dichotomy that she was old enough to be sexual but wasn’t really a bad girl at heart. There was the strange Colin Farrell fling covered breathlessly by the tabloids, with Spears tempering the rumors by coyly insisting that the two hadn’t done more than kiss. Then she kissed Madonna in a wedding dress during a performance at the VMAs in 2003, explaining later that she thought Madonna had been her husband in a past life.
But in step with her manufactured move to distance herself from her virginity, men also crawled out of the woodwork, seemingly in competition to retroactively reveal cracks in Britney’s purity narrative. Justin Timberlake told Barbara Walters that he knew from experience Britney Spears’s virginity pledge was just for show and released a video for a single, “Cry Me a River,” that implied their three-year relationship had ended because she cheated (a claim he regurgitates every time he has a new album to promote). Then Fred Durst would go on Howard Stern’s talk show and claim he’d had sex with Britney Spears. The 2003 film Love Actually makes a joke of the fact that so many men in the music industry suddenly had stories of their sexual encounters with Britney. Bill Nighy’s over-the-hill rocker character claims to have shagged her and judges her performance “rubbish.”
Snake-anointed “I’m a Slave 4 U”-era Britney was the last time her public image would be so cleanly manipulated by a marketing team. What came next was a 48-hour marriage to childhood friend Jason Alexander, rumored to have been fueled by a molly- and cocaine-addled New Year’s trip to Las Vegas. Then came the short marriage to the perpetually ribbed white tank top-clad Kevin Federline, a man the world collectively agreed was bad for Britney as if she were a high school friend suddenly spinning out in college.
“Federline gave Britney license to fully embrace her white-trash side,” wrote Vanessa Grigoriadis in her 2008 Rolling Stone essay “The Tragedy of Britney Spears.” As evidence, she presents tabloid photographs of Britney Spears committing the sins of walking shoeless into a gas station, nearly dropping her baby while paparazzi pressed in on her outside a hotel, “coochie flashing” as paparazzi snapped upskirts outside a nightclub, and the more actually serious incident of driving with her one-year-old son perched on her lap, something Britney says was an incident of trying to evade photographers.
The revelation of this new, messier Britney was what Steven Daly had been searching for with his investigation of the Britney trap, and tabloids, along with their readers, reveled in having been right all along. Britney was secretly another Southern stereotype, the “inbred swamp thing who chain-smokes, doesn’t do her nails, tells reporters to ‘eat it, snort it, lick it, fuck it,’” as Grigoriadis gleefully declares in an essay for the same publication that had labeled her a honey-thighed teenage dream six years previous.
I fell in love with barefoot gas station Britney. The tabloid frenzy around the “real” Britney suggested we had even more in common than I knew: a formerly celebrated Louisiana princess now rumored to have a violent alcoholic father and a bit of a drug problem. Sometime around the point when Britney publicly declared herself “Stronger than yesterday” with assurances that her loneliness wasn’t killing her anymore, I’d begun smoking, snorting, and swallowing anything that would make the remainder of a miserable childhood pass faster. A few months before my 18th birthday, my town crowned me its princess in that high school gymnasium. On my 18th, a bail bondsman and small-time drug dealer in his late twenties rented a hotel suite to throw me a party that I knew he was hoping would end in the consummation of my legality. After a lot of lines and vodka mixed with sugary soft drinks, I managed to escape that guy, though I heard another high school girl had slept with him after I left. A few months after that party, all the dark shit that I felt was chasing me caught up, and I shattered my face against the headrest of another friend’s car when she crashed into an embankment. The accident left me in a coma for two weeks, and when I woke up, half of my prize-winning face was liquified, a loose eye floated in the shards of a socket, an entire cheekbone had been lost to a biohazard bag discarded with the rest of the hospital waste alongside seven teeth pumped from a stomach additionally overwhelmed by several pints of swallowed blood, itself poisoned with alcohol and a bouquet of other substances. It took three years and over 20 surgeries to reconstruct something approximating a normal face, but I’d never be a honeyed approximation of Britney again. To add literal insult to actual injury, the small-town gossip mill meant that everyone who’d ever known me had heard all my secrets before I even woke up. “Make sure to keep your children close” the marquee sign of a local business warned as my mother drove me home from the hospital a month or so after the wreck.
I am wrong for the way I consumed the darkest days of Britney’s breakdown as a non-fiction allegory for my own, much smaller-scale experience with the tragedy vultures of my town, not that there was a right way to consume it. I checked multiple times daily as TMZ and Perez Hilton published shot after shot of Britney devolving from American dream to cautionary tale: Pantsless and walking into a clothing store wearing soiled white panties reminiscent of the brown rose I’d been warned against becoming or shots of paramedics pulling Britney on a gurney from her California mansion. “Leave Britney alone,” Chris Crocker cried on a now-famous YouTube video, and I agreed, but I also read tabloid speculations about the caloric content of Britney’s Starbucks order and looked at paparazzi upskirts so frequently that I began referring to my own vagina as my “Britney.” Watching Britney was also rooting for her, remembering my father acting as bouncer to the line outside my hospital room door of kids I barely knew from high school with their mothers in tow, hoping a “Get Well Soon” balloon would earn them a peek at the “inbred swamp thing” I had devolved to after years of a much prettier performance.
In his poem “Poor Britney Spears,” poet Tony Hoagland says a critic described Britney’s lackluster rendition of “Gimme More” at the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards as that of a “comatose piglet.” The consensus is that during this meticulously documented time of incrementally more terrifying behavior, musically, Britney was barely there on her heavily electronic dance-pop album Blackout.
But Blackout is my favorite of her catalog. Britney is no longer singing about her loneliness killing her. She’s fucking furious. “It’s Britney, bitch,” she famously declares in the opening of “Gimme More,” prefacing an album where the electronic background music lends a dystopian feel to songs that are no longer passive pleas to be allowed to dance or elegies to sexy loneliness. “Wanna see crazy, we can show em,” she talks-sings in a song called “Freakshow,” part of a running thesis for the album which seems to declare “You can look, but stop bitching about what you see.”
From Blackout comes my all-time Britney Spears song, in which she declares “I’m Miss American Dream since I was 17” before launching into “Piece of Me,” a dance number that is, at its heart, a song about the billion-dollar business built around criticizing her. At the time, the AP had at least 22 reporters covering Britney news, and pictures, generally of mundane events like her trips to the grocery store, accounted for 20 percent of paparazzi agencies’ total celebrity coverage in 2007, earning millions of dollars for paparazzi agencies. Meanwhile, the wounded subject at the heart of this industry was obviously scared, desperate, and in need of help. She’d lost custody of her children after a terrifying incident in which she barricaded herself with them in the bathroom of her Beverly Hills home, and she had parted ways with most of the team surrounding her since she was a teenager, including her parents. As Grigoriadis notes in her tragedy, Britney drove aimlessly around Los Angeles for the attention of the paparazzi and by extension, the public, offering soliloquies about her loneliness to photographers in a British accent. She was also mad as hell, furiously buzzing the blonde hair that made her famous into a trash pile on a barbershop floor and attacking a waiting paparazzo’s SUV window outside with an umbrella. Unfair as it was for me to root for Britney as some misplaced outlet for my own trauma, I wish she’d shattered that fucking window.
During those years, my face had mostly been patched back into a facade that never quite recaptured the splendor of the original but was still too aesthetically pleasing for graduate school, where I was attempting to parse my own rage in fiction classes. “Asking me to care about this narrator is like asking me to care about Paris Hilton,” one of my male classmates scribbled across the top of a manuscript. “And I don’t care about Paris Hilton.” When a visiting Pulitzer Prize winner awarded a prize to a similar story, the same classmate asked a group of my other male colleagues and a few professors to vote on whether I’d slept with the Pulitzer winner in exchange for the award. One confessed the conversation to me, but other men I saw every day had likely voted behind my back. When I heard the story, my first thought was of the old joke from my teenage years: “Britney Spears can’t sing. Titty, titty, titty. Ass, ass, ass.” When Britney angrily growled, “You want a piece of me,” it wasn’t a question; it was a statement about being whittled to nothing.
In 2008, following her second involuntary psychiatric hold, a California judge ended Britney’s public unraveling. Her father, Jamie Spears, was appointed as her conservator, which gave him complete control over her $250 million fortune as well as final say on all her business contracts and control over which people are allowed access to Britney—who has reportedly not been allowed to vote, drive a car, get married, or have children without permission since its inception. She is also obligated to pay over a million dollars a year for the privilege of being re-caged for her own safety.
That same year, she released a new album, called Circus in order to ostensibly assure the public that Britney was not a freakshow like she’d declared a few months before. She was a well-managed act, perfectly safe entertainment. In the eponymous single, a freshly blonde Britney in a clean, glowing weave declares, “I’m like a ringleader/I call the shots” before inviting “all eyes on me in the center of the ring just like a circus.” The message was clear. It was okay to look at Britney again.
During her conservatorship, Britney released four albums, served as a guest judge on X-Factor, and performed 248 shows as part of her Las Vegas residency titled “Piece of Me,” earning a reported $500,000 per show. To date, she’s had 13 top ten hits and five number ones over the span of her career. But in light of the fact that she has only really ever been allowed to spend a handful of publicly disastrous years outside the total control of her father, managers, lawyers, and PR team, it’s hard for me not to see Britney as she often appears in her live performances, an animal let out of a cage in order to sexily dance in her underwear for our amusement.
In his 2009 poem, “Poor Britney Spears,” Tony Hoagland argues that of course Britney isn’t running the show. She’s still fighting, possibly against her will, for our attention:
“Or is she nothing less than a gladiatrix
who stalks into the coliseum
full of blinding lights and tigers
before a vast stadium of witnesses with naught but her slim javelin of talent
and recklessly little protective clothing?”
Britney is a circus animal, Hoagland concludes, but she’s our circus animal:
“Oh my adorable little monkey,
prancing for your candy;
With one of my voices I shout, Jump, Jump, you little whore!”
Much like my grandmother in 1999, Hoagland is of two minds about Britney, wanting to look and also understanding the cruelty of looking. He concludes the poem with yet another echo of my grandmother: “Put on some clothes and go home, sweetheart.”
And in the past year, Britney has given subtle signs that she is ready to do just that. In 2019, she canceled another scheduled Vegas residency and checked back into a mental health facility. Her father and conservator was investigated for an alleged domestic violence incident involving her son Sean Preston. Britney’s long-term manager Larry Rudolph declared to TMZ that “her meds” stopped working just before her visit to the mental health facility and warned that she may never work again.
These new reports read dangerously close to the bad old days of 2008, but instead of Jamie Spears emerging as Britney’s savior as he was portrayed last time around, in this new narrative, only Britney’s fans can save her. In April 2019, Britney’s Gram, a podcast in which comedians Tess Barker and Barbara Gray normally riff on Britney’s Instagram posts, took a much more serious tone in an “emergency episode” declaring her conservatorship dangerous. Not long after, an anonymous voicemail left for the hosts from someone claiming to be a paralegal for an attorney representing Britney alleged that Jamie Spears had orchestrated the cancellation of the Vegas residency.
From there, the #FreeBritney movement took off. A small but dedicated team gathers outside the Los Angeles courthouse ahead of each new hearing in Britney’s ongoing conservatorship and scans her Instagram for clues that she hears them and supports their mission. Her father, some Free Britney truthers believe, collaborated with various Los Angeles powers that be in order to have Britney declared unfit so that he could be ready with conservatorship paperwork. Andrew Gallery, a photographer who worked closely with Spears, claims he was let out of an NDA and can now freely allege that she told him the only reason she’d allowed the conservatorship to go on uncontested was because she’d been warned her children would be taken away if she attempted to change the terms. A Change.org petition called “Britney Spears: Right to her own lawyer” currently has over 260,000 signatures, and in court on September 3, Britney seemed to endorse this new narrative. Though Jamie Spears has recently characterized Free Britney advocates as conspiracy theorists, Spears herself has indicated she would like to be liberated from her father’s control under the conservatorship, though chances of that happening, for the moment, appear slim. On November 11, a judge rejected an attempt to have Jamie Spears removed as conservator, despite Britney’s lawyers arguing that she is “afraid” of her father and that the two do not have a “viable working relationship.” And though the judge has said the door is still open for future challenges to the conservatorship, the ruling is just the latest in a long string of decisions in which Spears desire for greater transparency around her bizarre situation have been denied, ostensibly for her own protection.
In early September 2020 attorneys for Spears asked the court that records from her conservatorship be unsealed, other court filings on Spears’s behalf say that though the conservatorship is voluntary, Spears requests a change of conservator, substituting corporate fiduciary, Bessemer Trust Co., for her father. Permission to look seems to come, this time, from Britney herself:
“At this point in her life when she is trying to regain some measure of personal autonomy, Britney welcomes and appreciates the informed support of her many fans,” her attorney Samuel D. Ingham III, wrote. “Although the sealing motion is supposedly for her ‘protection,’ Britney herself is vehemently opposed to this effort by her father to keep her legal struggle hidden away in the closet as a family secret.”
Fans took this statement personally. “Reading the latest court document brought tears to my eyes,” organizer Megan Radford told the Los Angeles Times. “We’ve always known our movement was on the right side of history.
But everyone who watches Britney thinks they understand her while simultaneously centering their narratives on their own perceptions of her. Steven Daly looked at Britney and saw his own desire, Vanessa Grigoriadis a predictable outcome for the excesses of the Bush era, Tony Hoagland a dancing monkey that simultaneously compelled and repulsed him.
I think about Britney Spears like she is a childhood friend I grew apart from but still keep up with via social media, not even using her last name when I talk about her. On Instagram, I watch my personal Gothic heroine spin barefoot circles on a tile floor, model peasant crop tops, and stand up rod-straight for her best angle during a beach vacation. She is usually alone, looking up at the camera with the same giant, dark woodland creature eyes the world fell in love with when she was 17, begging the question: How was I supposed to know that something wasn’t right here? To me, these images mean something, but then again, when it comes to Britney, I am always looking for clues to confirm the fact that I am right about her. So does everyone else. To contradict Daniel Boorstin, she is a celebrity and a hero, perhaps born of the media but raised by the stories her fans tell ourselves about her. And, as always, our desire becomes Britney’s problem.