Amid the bleak horrors of endless lockdown there is presently one certain source of joy. It’s Britney Spears’ Instagram account.
Inspirational quotes, cute selfies and objects of material desire are a consistent theme across many accounts on the platform, especially among the “30-something western white girl” demographic the pop star Spears inhabits.
Yet since Spears’ chilling 24-minute statement to a California court on 22 June, pleading for the “conservatorship” she’s lived under for 13 years to end, there’s a vaguely perceptible shift in tone. From the kind of content that you can imagine her narrating “I’m fierce, I’m a fierce woman, I can do this” like a pre-breakfast exercise affirmation, since her courtroom speech the vibe has more … hope? There are favourite desserts, a cat in sunglasses and a sweet note of thanks to Selena Gomez for a girly gift. More significantly, there’s a pastel drawing of a young woman with a third eye, quotes like “She wore wild flowers in her hair” and a video of Spears doing an endless parade of cartwheels around a lake.
This last is captioned with “I feel GRATITUDE and BLESSED !!!!”. She thanks her fans for supporting her through her ordeals in court. “Coming along, folks,” she writes. “Coming along!!!!!””.
I admit, this might be me wilfully creating an Instagram narrative out of my own hopefulness; I really like Britney Spears. I was a just a smidge too much older, too drunk, and haughtily obsessed with Bob Dylan to be much interested in her music when her teen pop anthem Baby, One More Time appeared in 1999. By the release of her Blackout album in 2007, though, I was struggling to manage my expectations of becoming an adult with the responsibilities that “growing up” entailed. There was something painfully relatable in the lyrics of Piece of Me. When Spears sang “Another day another drama / Guess I can’t see no harm / In working and being a mama / And with a kid on my arm / I’m still an exceptional earner / You want a piece of me?” … it sounded so worldly, so disappointed. The empathy flowed. I became an instant fan.
What makes pop stars into pop stars is the dark, precious magic that enables them to sing a simple tune in a way that encapsulates a complex, otherwise inexpressible generational feeling. Some acts only manage this for a small window of years or even a single song. Rarities like Spears manage it for far longer, becoming an avatar not just of a cultural moment, but of that moment’s people. As a human mirror to a vast collective self, it’s unsurprising that the same loyalty that motivated so many fans to buy her albums has also mobilised them to paste #FreeBritney on placards and march for her liberation.”
It’s hard not to be reminded of the Piece of Me lyrics given the latest revelations. Until recently, the conservatorship legally empowered Spears’s father alone to control major decisions of his daughter’s life, '“from business to health, to voting and marriage”. Now, he still oversees the money and business dealings, while Jodi Montgomery, a care professional, oversees Spears’s personal decisions. She said she’s prohibited from driving a car as well as removing an IUD, and has been forced to take physically punishing lithium. California law typically assigns a conservatorship to enable care for someone who can’t “care for himself or herself or manage his or her own finances”; it’s more commonly applied to people with severe developmental disabilities or dementia.
There’s a lot we don’t know about Spears’ mental health diagnoses in the wake of her nervous breakdown and substance abuse struggles of 2008 – but what the whole world knows is that the woman considered too unwell to look after her own money somehow wasn’t considered too unwell to keep working. Since she lost control of her own decisions, someone has decided that she should release several albums, host a television show and tour relentlessly. An “exceptional earner”, indeed.
We also know that Spears was only 26 when the conservatorship began. It’s an age not typically associated with making brilliant life choices, even when most 26-year-olds are not also burdened with vast fame, wealth, constant pursuit by the paparazzi, two small children and an ex-husband. Her treatment since provokes unsettling questions about how pop stars are punished for their success by becoming the targets of other people’s opportunism. I can’t face watching the episode of Black Mirror in which Spears’ real-life friend, Miley Cyrus, portrayed a pop star sanitised and controlled into insensibility so the parasites around her may continue to feed on the wealth she creates. Part of the relatability of pop icons used to be that they could make bad decisions like the rest of us – blow fortunes, love dickheads, sing “regrets, I’ve had a few” and remind us all that money’s only money and the paths of glory lead but to the grave.
Instead, Britney Spears lives trapped in a state of permanent legal adolescence, personally traumatised by other people’s decisions to keep the human pop star enterprise that she was at 26 permanently intact. As our generational mirror, Britney Spears currently reflects back to us a miserable capitalist world where all relationships are transactional and everything else an asset-management calculation.
As the star’s own Instagram reminds us; solidarity is not only our human instinct, it’s our moral duty. #FreeBritney!