Searching For The Real Britney Spears

The fan battle to #FreeBritney raises uncomfortable — and maybe unanswerable — questions that have long plagued her brand.

“Hi guys, just checking in with all of you who are concerned about me,” Britney Spears said in an Instagram video posted April 23. “My family has been going through a lot of stress and anxiety lately, so I just needed time to deal. But don't worry — I'll be back very soon.”

The video was a response to the #FreeBritney social media campaign that had gathered steam earlier that month, sparked by the Instagram-parsing fan podcast Britney’s Gram. The podcast got a call from a man claiming to be a paralegal with information that Spears was pressured into checking herself into a mental health facility, through the conservatorship she has been under for the last 11 years. The legal arrangement, imposed during a turbulent moment in her life in 2008, gave her father Jamie Spears control over her financial and physical well-being.

“You guys are onto something,” said the anonymous caller in a voicemail, referring to suspicions the podcast hosts, comedians Barbara Gray and Tess Barker, had voiced in a previous episode about Spears’ sudden absence from Instagram. The paralegal explained that he had worked for a lawyer involved with the conservatorship, which Gray and Barker said they’d confirmed. “What is happening is disturbing, to say the least,” the caller said. “From what I understand this was not a decision she made at all.”

Gray and Barker were convinced that this apparent insider information was credible — and that it needed to be shared with the world. “As it stands, there are a lot of people who make money because of the money that Britney makes. It would be in their favor to control that money in a certain way,” Gray told BuzzFeed News. “There’s a culture of fear that has kept a lot of people from speaking out about this particular situation.”

“There are a lot of people who make money because of the money that Britney makes.”

Britney’s Gram listeners began sharing a #FreeBritney graphic and hashtag, seeking to end the conservatorship, and it quickly went viral. Throngs of Spears fans gathered outside the West Hollywood City Hall on April 22 with signs like "Truth Will Set Her Free” and “Britney’s MGMT is Toxic.” Miley Cyrus called out the hashtag in a concert. Rapper Eve wore a shirt with the sentiment on The Talk.

Events since then have only added fuel to the online speculation about Spears’ life behind the scenes; in May, she appeared before a judge for a hearing on the state of her conservatorship. There has been no official statement from Spears since, and the April Instagram post remains a strikingly rare — and characteristically guarded — instance of Spears talking back to fans and the media and acknowledging some of the complexities of her private life.

To some, #FreeBritney is another manifestation of stan culture gone wild; an ethically gross invasion of privacy. To others, the campaign and its impact are more complicated than that — part of an emerging, and fraught, genre of fan sleuthing as a form of journalism.

Questions and projections about Britney Spears’ freedom and agency (or lack of it) have a long history, and are, arguably, central to her celebrity. Both her fans and the press have long imagined that some innocent, “authentic” Britney lurks behind a manufactured facade, waiting to speak out. But now that she’s actually talking back on social media — staging a “Leave Britney alone!” moment of her own — her fans seem unwilling to take her words at face value. Instead, they’re wrapped up in wrestling with the contradictions of an image that has, in the two decades Spears has been making music, become larger than real life.

America met Britney Spears in the late ’90s as a sweet Southern girl performing erotically tinged innocence. Her first hit, “...Baby One More Time” — featuring that titillating baby voice — sold a distinct style of coy schoolgirl sexiness, which was on full display in the blockbuster music video. That persona was cemented with a now-iconic 1999 Rolling Stone cover story, with a teen queen fantasy photo spread, shot by David LaChapelle, that upped the ante on the video by featuring Spears in her childhood bedroom, wearing only her underwear.

It all seemed designed for a creepy, Lolita-craving male gaze that Spears, at just 16, couldn’t possibly understand it would appeal to — or so the media furor sparked by the photos suggested. People magazine, the “minivan majority” bible, raised concerns about America’s pigtailed purveyor of Christian purity and wondered if she was Too Sexy Too Soon?

All the hand-wringing was predicated on the idea — prevalent once again with #FreeBritney — that Spears needed to be protected from herself, her management, or both. Yet she took credit for the sexy imagery. “I had this idea where we’re in school and bored out of our minds, and we have Catholic uniforms on,” she explained to Rolling Stone about the “Baby” video. “And I said, ‘Why don’t we have knee-highs and tie the shirts up to give it a little attitude?’ — so it wouldn’t be boring and cheesy.”

The juxtaposition of sex with white-teen sweetness was catnip for the press, which loved to highlight any behind-the-scenes transgressions that conflicted with the seemingly manufactured innocence of the Spears persona. That same year, for instance, breast implant rumors prompted late-night gags about teenage Britney’s denials. (“She did say, though, that she was putting a dollar away for the boob fairy,” joked Conan O’Brien.)

But all the speculation only fueled the growth of the Britney phenomenon, arguably because of the fact that Spears neither talked back to the press nor unapologetically owned the ambiguities of her image. Instead, she framed her teen pop star persona as playing dress-up. “I’m not going to walk around in hot pants and a bra on the street,” she told People, “but when you’re an artist you sometimes play a part.”

In a 2000 essay analyzing the appeal of early Britney, memoirist Elizabeth Wurtzel tried to figure out what was so captivating about the pop sensation: “Is it Britney Spears herself, or the way she seems not to get it? Or is it the wink-wink way in which she appears to be a complete constructor of her own sexiness, feigning innocence?” Wurtzel ended by noting that in the novel Lolita, the prepubescent protagonist “did not age very well; awareness destroyed her.” She wondered, “How long can Britney Spears linger in paradise before all of us notice that her eyes were wide shut all along?”

Spears’ transition into adulthood was, indeed, rocky. Her music alluded to some of the confusion of her emerging womanhood through generic songs like “Overprotected” and “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman,” which served as the theme song of Crossroads, the 2002 road trip coming-of-age dramedy (written by Shonda Rhimes) she starred in. But the biggest and most compelling Britney story was, increasingly, offstage.

Britney's love life quickly became fuel for a slut-shaming tabloid industry that delighted in trying to expose her proclamations of innocence as totally manufactured. After she’d discussed remaining a virgin until marriage in teen magazines, for instance, Justin Timberlake revealed they had had sex and then made a whole song and video about how she cheated on him. Fred Durst famously talked to Howard Stern about having sex with her. Spears herself got in on the naughtiness by famously kissing Madonna at the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards, years before that kind of queer-baiting became commonplace.

Yet she still used the same strategy of feigning ignorance when asked about any of her supposedly scandalous actions, or about reports of her cocaine consumption and partying. Amid rumors that the Madonna kiss would lead to a more risqué image for her fourth album, 2003’s In the Zone, she told Rolling Stone: “I’m not gonna come out on this record and show my crotch or anything.”

In the Zone became Spears’ fourth consecutive No. 1 album, breaking records for women artists. But, while her first two albums went diamond, with over 10 million units sold, each of the second two sold less than half of that. The album’s biggest radio hit was “Toxic,” but it is arguably most famous (or memorable for fans) thanks to the song “Everytime,” which Britney wrote herself.

“Everytime” is a delicate and haunting ballad that was widely speculated to be a response to Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River.” In the video, featuring Britney and a Justin lookalike fighting and getting harassed by paparazzi, Britney’s character kills herself and is seemingly reborn as a baby.

Watching the video now, there’s an added layer of symbolism — as if on some level Spears understood that growing up in the Britney brand might be an impossible project, and the only narrative possibility was death and reborn innocence. Not incidentally, that was the last album era in which fans had access to the Britney Spears phenomenon as they had once known it — with the star herself giving in-depth interviews as she sold her brand of “not that innocent.”

Years before #FreeBritney emerged, fans were already hoping for, and imagining, a rawer Britney liberated from the music industry machine they believed was holding her back. And Spears herself stoked those fantasies. In 2004, she showed up in person at a radio station to unveil a new single, “Mona Lisa,” which she said was going to be part of an album she wanted to call Original Doll, alluding to the banality of her Barbie aesthetic. “They want her to break down / Be a legend of her fall,” proclaim the lyrics of the song, which speak to the public fascination with tabloid train wrecks.

The idea of that Original Doll album, which was never released, became an early fantasy of a freer, more woke Britney. She’d supposedly written songs about same-sex marriage and her own experiences. And it does seem, in retrospect, like she was coming into her own professionally and personally and trying to set boundaries. Her surprise Vegas wedding to a childhood friend in January 2004 seems, now, like a rebellious act against management overworking her. (“I was on the road for a while, and whoever scheduled my tour must have been out of their mind,” she said later in an episode of her 2005 reality show, Britney and Kevin: Chaotic. “I was doing way too much stuff. I was over it.”)

She married Kevin Federline later the same year and started using her official website to communicate directly to her fans and the media. "I've actually learned to say 'NO!'” she wrote in a blog post. “With this newly found freedom, its like people don't know how to act around me. Should we talk to her like we did when she was 16 or like the Icon everyone says she is? My prerogative right now is to just chill & let all of the other overexposed blondes on the cover of Us Weekly be your entertainment… GOOD LUCK GIRLS!!"

But as the aughts rolled on, fans instead watched as the supposedly manufactured Britney came apart in the rawest way. Her divorce and child custody disputes with Federline in 2006 turned her into sensational content for the tabloid mill yet again, but this time she was less as an object of fascination than a tragic, pitiful story. Once the pinnacle of young Southern sweetness, she was now depicted as white trash and an irresponsible, baby-dropping mother.

The shift from “good” to “bad” Britney almost single-handedly kept the gossip industrial complex churning for years. (“We serialize Britney Spears. She’s our President Bush,” TMZ titan Harvey Levin said at the time.) And the media’s obsession with her went into overdrive when the ultimate “overexposed blonde” rebelled against all the contradictory fantasies projected onto her, shaving off her sex symbol tresses and angrily pointing her umbrella at paparazzi in February 2007. If that was meant to be a plea for privacy, it didn’t work; that Spears’ polished pop star image was unraveling — seemingly outside of her control — only made her more relevant than ever.

Spears had become the object rather than the subject of her own story.

The 2007 MTV Video Music Awards performance that followed Spears’ head-shaving, months later, was widely characterized as a disaster — but that didn’t mean it was meaningless, or unsuccessful from a professional point of view. Spears wore obviously fake hair extensions, and a bedazzled two-piece that elicited fat-shaming comments about her body. Media commentators speculated wildly about what was going on with the pop star, leading to Chris Crocker’s now-famous viral scream to “Leave Britney alone.”

And the Britney phenomenon only continued to grow. “Gimme More,” the pulsating electro bop about the public’s rapacious desire for sex and drama that she performed at the awards, became her highest-charting hit since “...Baby One More Time.” The album that followed, Blackout, debuted at No. 2 (missing No. 1 only because of a last-minute chart rule change), and, with its tabloid clapback songs like “Piece of Me,” is now considered one of her best albums.

Offstage, things were more complicated. In 2008 Spears was placed in two “5150 holds,” under a California law that allows someone deemed a danger to themselves to be placed under psychiatric observation without their consent. The first hold, in early January, was prompted when she refused to hand over one of her children to Kevin Federline at the scheduled time. Spears was held in Cedars-Sinai for less than 72 hours. The second hold about a month later, according to Lynne Spears’ memoir, was orchestrated by Spears' then-manager Sam Lutfi, whom her parents blamed for her offstage problems.

During that hold, Spears’ parents filed for a restraining order against Lutfi, who’s been described as “young Hollywood’s most infamous svengali.” (Lutfi sued Spears’ mother for defamation over the claims in her memoir, but the lawsuit was ultimately dismissed.) It was also during this time that Jamie Spears filed for a conservatorship that would put him in charge of his daughter’s financial affairs and physical well-being, which was also granted.

By then, Spears had become the object rather than the subject of her own story. The media mostly seemed to accept the idea that Spears had been “bad,” a tragic figure who probably needed rescuing from outside forces. And she has never quite regained control of her own narrative.

It wasn’t until MTV aired the carefully curated comeback documentary Britney: For the Record in November 2008 that Spears briefly addressed what she was thinking during the “bad” Britney era. “People shave their heads all the time. I was going through a lot,” she said. “But it was just me feeling a form of a little bit of rebellion, or feeling free, or shedding stuff that had happened.”

Now endlessly parsed by fans, For the Record is neither an old-school, cathartic Oprah tell-all nor an intimate Demi Lovato–style YouTube doc. Instead, it follows Britney as she prepared to promote her next album, Circus, with occasional allusions to her “bad” years and sobering references to her everyday reality.

In the documentary, her father expounds on his wider philosophy regarding his daughter: “The best thing for her is what she’s doing right now. She’s in her element. She’s in her world, keeping her busy. Like me, I like to go fishing; she likes to sing and dance. She likes to work.”

But Spears herself dreamily talks about marrying a hypothetical man of her dreams and having more babies. She chafes against her father trying to take her phone away from her and calls him an “asshole.” At one point she gets emotional, complaining that Team Britney doesn’t listen to her. “When I tell them the way I feel, it’s like they hear me but they’re really not listening. They’re hearing what they want to hear,” she says, getting increasingly emotional. “They’re not really listening to what I’m telling them, it’s’s bad.” (A letter that she purportedly wrote at the time echoing these sentiments were recently uncovered by tabloids.)

“If I wasn’t under the restraints I’m under right now,” she says in an oft-cited moment where she directly addresses the conservatorship, “you know, with the lawyers and doctors and people analyzing me every day and all that kind of stuff — like, if that wasn’t there, I’d feel so liberated and feel like myself.”

Ultimately, the special raised more questions than it answered. There were no direct references to her parents or Lutfi, or any deeper explanation of what led to the events of 2007 and 2008. It seemed that Team Britney — and Spears herself — simply wanted everyone to move on and focus on the music, without giving fans access to what they really wanted: Britney telling her full story on her own terms.

Since 2008, when Spears engages with the press and the public — whether promoting a new residency or a fashion line — it’s been through tightly choreographed outings, with preapproved questions that are all business.

In 2016, a much-debated New York Times article finally asked, “Is Britney Spears Ready to Stand on Her Own?” The report gave the first real behind-the-scenes information about what Spears’ life is actually like under the conservatorship, including the fact that even her significant purchases must be approved by her father. It’s in many ways the only window into her backstage life that her fans have ever gotten.

But the yearslong information vacuum around Spears hasn’t stopped fans from speculating about her and crafting their own narratives and theories out of what they’ve been able to find. And the rise of social media and podcasts has given them new material and platforms to share their findings. One Instagram account, @britneyspearschronology, is devoted to parsing a seemingly endless archive of pictures of Spears from 2007 to 2008. In the comments, fans debate the meaning of photos where she appears with her children, where she smokes, where she seems happy, where she looks sad.

The hosts of the podcast Eat, Pray, Britney, self-described “Britney historians,” revisit her life and career through the lens of the events of the 2007–2008 era. They pore over press accounts and legal documents like pop culture detectives. For instance, they describe the 2004 quickie Vegas wedding (and equally quick annulment) as “the first time that we hear on the record that Britney’s team is sort of utilizing her faculties as a means to intervene in a legal matter.” They also raise questions about the different interests of Spears’ management, her parents, Lutfi, and how these all play out in the press. (TMZ, they claim, has been especially sympathetic to the narrative of Spears’ father as her savior.)

There have also been more lighthearted projects. One 2015 episode of the podcast Mystery Show was dedicated to the question of whether Spears had ever read the unheralded novel To Feel Stuff, something the author wondered after she saw a photo of Spears carrying the book. (The answer, procured after the host purchased a fan meet and greet, is that Spears read it and loved it.) Another podcast, It’s Britney, Bitch, is hosted by two longtime Spears stans who debate all the merits of her different musical eras and albums. And Gray and Barker initially started Britney’s Gram — which would eventually spark the #FreeBritney uproar — because they were delighted by Britney’s Instagram presence, chock-full of inspirational quotes and pictures with her children.

“We would have fun with it, because she seemed like she was having fun a lot of the time,” Gray told me. “But then sometimes there were cryptic things that she would post that would seem to make sense coming from someone who was very controlled and didn’t have as much freedom as you would hope.”

The yearslong information vacuum around Spears hasn’t stopped fans from speculating about her.

It’s not an accident that the podcast dedicated to parsing Spears’ Instagram gave rise to #FreeBritney, because her account is the only ongoing window into her life that her fans now get. When Spears stopped posting on the platform last winter, Gray and Barker started speculating about what might be going on behind the scenes. Then, in early January of this year, Spears abruptly canceled a scheduled Las Vegas residency, citing her father’s health problems. By April, TMZ reported that she had checked herself into a mental health facility because she was “distraught” over her dad. And then, in mid-April, Britney’s Gram received the fateful call from the self-described paralegal about Spears’ supposedly involuntary stay in a rehab facility, claiming that she had been institutionalized because she declined to take her medication, and that it was her father’s idea to cancel the residency and blame it on his illness.

Gray and Barker recorded an “emergency episode” to get the word out, and the #FreeBritney movement quickly spawned many headlines and a vigorous online debate. Since Spears’ heyday, the conversation around women celebrities and mental health has evolved; there was plenty of Twitter backlash to the campaign, suggesting that the podcasters were irresponsibly speculating about Spears’ mental health.

“I would say that we didn’t feel we were speculating about her mental health,” Barker told me in May. “I think we were talking about something that we had been talking about for a while, and that there is something troubling about her being conserved in this way, and that this was really more about what had been going on for 11 years.”

Not unlike the people who rallied behind the #FreeKesha campaign, Spears fans see themselves as speaking truth to power against entertainment industry forces, the legal system, Spears’ family, and her management, none of whom they believe have looked out for her best interests. And the podcasters see their questions about Spears’ conservatorship as pushing back against a sexist double standard in the way women celebrities are disciplined when they engage in any kind of unruly behavior.

“There are a number of very famous men that have behaved in egregious ways, that Britney’s never come close to, that nobody has ever raised the issue of whether they need to be protected,” Barker said.

But of course, these fans are largely speculating, and imagining an imprisoned, powerless Spears fighting to get out. Unlike Kesha, who spoke openly in court, in public, and in letters written to fans about her personal and legal fight against Dr. Luke, Spears herself has asked for privacy, and refused to be taken up as a cause. “Your love and dedication is amazing,” she wrote to her fans in an Instagram caption in April, “but what I need right now is a little bit of privacy to deal with all the hard things that life is throwing my way.”

On May 10, Spears arrived at court in Los Angeles holding hands with her mom and looking, in the words of the press, “calm and composed.” The media was removed from the courtroom — but, according to TMZ, Spears did claim that her father had forced her into the rehab facility against her will. The judge ultimately ordered an expert evaluation and a follow-up hearing, which will take place in September.

Jamie Spears is now suing a #FreeBritney blogger for defamation, an oddly aggressive tactic to employ against a fan and supporter of Spears and her career. Spears’ manager, Larry Rudolph, says he hasn’t heard from her about working, leading to headlines worrying that Spears might never perform again.

While Spears herself is now venturing back to Instagram, it’s been mostly to mock conspiracy theories claiming that she doesn’t create her own posts, and to call out the media for altering photos of her to look unflattering. “You may not know this about me,” Britney said in April on the platform, “but I am strong, and stand up for what I want!”

After years of communicating through suggestion, and letting speculations run their course, Britney is now (as she did with her early-aughts blog) using the internet to subtly reassert herself, talking back to media — and fan — narratives. In turn, some fans seem to believe that Spears is getting ready to step out from behind a curtain and reveal everything. They speculate about unconfirmed rumors that she sat down for a tell-all interview with Gayle King, the kind of thing she hasn’t done since before the conservatorship began.

At one point in For the Record, the documentarian asks Spears why she never spoke out during the “bad” Britney era. “I didn’t think it was anyone’s business, really,” she replies. The public and her fans have always felt that they know or see things about Britney Spears that she doesn’t herself. Will they be able to hear her if she says otherwise? ●

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