In her 2005 song “Mona Lisa,” Britney Spears wrote about the public’s obsession with an iconic woman. “They want her to break down,” she warned, ”And be a legend of a fall.”
The song was never released as a single, but Spears fans have long speculated about and obsessed over its prescience: Britney calling out pop culture’s love of downfalls.
Throughout the aughts, the pop star’s troubles kept tabloids and gossip blogs in business as her own career and personal life seemed to unravel in front of the world. She was locked into a conservatorship in 2008 and spent the rest of her 20s behind a wall of family spokespeople and preapproved interviews, even as the music, tours, and residencies kept coming.
She’s used court appearances and social media to stage an unprecedented public reckoning with the trauma and alleged abuse she endured, from curtailment of vacations, to invasions of her body and control over her music.
"I guess it seems odd to most now why I don't even do my music anymore," she wrote in an Instagram post late last year. "People have no idea the awful things that were done to me personally...and after what I've been through, I'm scared of people and the business!!!!"
When she confirmed rumors earlier this month that she had recorded a duet with Elton John — her first new material since the 2016 album Glory — her fans were elated. And the song, titled “Hold Me Closer,” isn’t just a compelling meeting of two pop titans. (It has already reached #1 on the iTunes chart.) It’s also a reminder of the power of Britney’s stardom, and a resonant, full-circle moment for the themes that have always animated her music and celebrity.
From the moment “...Baby One More Time” came out in 1998, with its blockbuster visuals of Spears in that schoolgirl outfit, she has been an enduring symbol. Her sexualized white teenhood meant different things to different audiences: Girls and gays cheered on her seeming self-empowerment, while parents pearl-clutched about lost innocence and tabloids sensed a newsworthy contradiction between person and persona.
It became very easy, amid all the drama, to overlook how talented she was as a pop star. Though the naughty nasal tone became her trademark, foregrounded in the biggest singles from her first two albums, 1999’s “…Baby One More Time” and 2000’s “Oops…I Did It Again,” she was vocally versatile. She leaned into deeper bluesiness on ballads like "Don't Let Me Be the Last to Know" and “From the Bottom of My Broken Heart,” where she soft-growls with the country western grit first displayed in her child-star days.
She was only a dancer though, went the naysaying; she was a producer’s puppet. Yet after her first big tabloid crisis — her breakup with Justin Timberlake — she self-penned the delicate 2004 ballad “Everytime,” about feeling haunted by a lover’s absence.
It remains one of her most powerfully minimalist vocal performances, and it continues to get covered to this day. And from “Lucky” to “Slave for You” to “Me Against the Music,” her songs have consistently explored forms of intimacy and connection, both public and personal: dance, romance, sex, fame.
By the time of 2007’s Blackout, she had experienced fame’s dark side, as her divorce from Kevin Federline and child custody disputes overtook her public image. She translated these themes into the starker, pulsating sounds of songs like “Piece of Me” (“Miss American Dream since I was 17”) and “Gimme More,” about crowds watching while she dirty dances.
These statements about the rapaciousness and pleasure of public attention seemed like attempts to turn the gaze back on the public and her family. And in 2008, the conservatorship was put in place.
Initially, even after the conservatorship had begun, you could still hear Spears as the confident pop star the world had known beforehand. 2009’s Circus contained bops like “If U Seek Amy” and “Circus.” These songs spoke frankly about “all of the girls and all of the boys” wanting her, and being a “put-on-the-show kind of girl,” continuing the themes of Blackout, though with a more playful tinge.
2011’s Femme Fatale, meanwhile, was a cohesive dip into EDM that kept Britney current, with a hint of apocalyptic sophistication. Both albums hit No. 1 on the charts, spawned her first no. 1 songs since her debut — “Womanizer” and “Hold It Against Me” — and sparked record-breaking tours.
It was her massive success as a touring artist that led to the 2013 Las Vegas residency in Planet Hollywood. That seems, in retrospect, to mark the beginning of the end of Britney Spears as we knew her.
Since then, documentaries have explained how the routine and strictures of the residency meant she was never outside the surveillance of her family and management. Spears has said how exhausted she became by the demands of constant performance, as the residency kept getting extended year after year. “I’d been doing Vegas for four years and I needed a break in between,” she explained at a hearing. “But no, I was told this is the timeline and this is how it’s going to go.” She couldn’t even drink coffee or hang out in the city.
The albums released in that period lacked the zest of her previous work. 2013’s Britney Jean felt like a cash grab for the residency announcement. A rare second self-titled album with her full name, it had the least of her personality in it, stuffed with duets with her now-estranged sister and producer Will.i.am.
2016’s Glory made news mostly for the controversy over the (unusually boring) video for its lead single, “Make Me.” Director Dave LaChapelle later spoke about how Britney’s original, darker vision for the ideo, where she wanted to be caged and die, was replaced with a management-friendly release.
She’s written since about how her desire to make music on her terms was stifled. Remixes of her hits were given to her sister to sing. And it was a dance move she wanted to perform differently for the residency that led to her finally starting to speak out.
In the past year, though, Spears has been slowly taking back her relationship to her body and her love of performing. On Instagram, she shares videos of herself dancing to random songs, just enjoying herself, free of professional obligations. “I'd much rather share videos YES from my living room instead of onstage in Vegas where some people were so far gone they couldn't even shake my hand,” she wrote in one post.
In July, she posted one of her most strikingly vulnerable videos so far, revisiting her biggest hit, “…Baby One More Time.” “This is me yesterday doing laundry and separating clothes,” she wrote in the caption. “I haven't shared my voice in an extremely long time… maybe too long… and here's me playing at my house with a different version of ‘Baby.’” She replaced her famous teenage vocals with a ’90s-style Natalie Merchant angsty contralto, bringing out some of the sadness and desperation that always lurked in the song’s plea for a sign.
The plaintive style was a reminder that Britney had hoped to do a Sheryl Crow–style rock album before she collaborated with Orlando teen-pop-boom producers like Max Martin. In the post, she said she had “asked for what I wanted for 14 years… a different version of 'Baby' but have the producers actually work for me and put it together.” That month, Elton John reached out to her about a duet.
Like Spears, John has been reimagining his back catalog. In the tradition of late career music stars like Barbra Streisand and Tony Bennett, he’s been using duets with newer pop stars to do so. Last year, he collaborated with Dua Lipa on “Cold Heart,” a deconstruction of his ’80s hit “Sacrifice.” Lipa’s 2021 debut album, the ’80s disco vehicle Future Nostalgia, made her a natural fit for reinterpreting lyrics from John’s “Rocket Man,” about not being “the man they think I am at home.” In that way, “Sacrifice,” originally a heterosexual adult contemporary ballad about marriage and monogamy, becomes a queer dance bop about desire. It also got John back on the US charts for the first time in over two decades.
John and Spears’ mash-up of his bombastic ’90s love song “The One” with his iconic ’70s piano ballad “Tiny Dancer” follows the same pattern, yet it’s more cohesive as a stand-alone single. These tracks are reworked in the tradition of dance songs about ephemeral connection. “I saw you dancin' out the ocean,” Spears sings in the opening. “A spirit born of earth and water.”
The lyrics about nature match the production: chill disco with a summery vibe, and Spears’s vocals sound clear and intimate. In the original “Tiny Dancer,” the chorus is addressed to a mystery woman, a collage of earthy, blue jeans–clad women of the ’70s, inspired by Maxine Feibelman, John’s collaborator and cowriter Bernie Taupin’s then-wife. In the new song, Spears becomes the performer in charge of the message, not just a muse.
As Britney and John riff on the famous “hold me closer” refrain, there’s an ethereal quality to the merging of their voices. And the song’s meaning shifts, from an address by one straight guy to a woman, into a love letter to Spears as an icon. John has a history of celebrating women celebrities whose images were swallowed up by fame, as in 1973’s “Candle in the Wind,” written for Marilyn Monroe and then tweaked and re-recorded in 1997 after Princess Diana’s death.
Spears has lived long enough to be able to correct the record herself, rather than have people lionize her after its already too late for her to benefit from it. And there’s an added layer to her staging a comeback alongside one of the world’s most respected gay pop stars. Their collaboration feels like an acknowledgment of the role of queer people — especially gay men — in #FreeBritney and her passionate fandom.
Of course, Spears doesn’t need saviors. It’s ultimately speaking for herself that set in motion the events that led to her freedom. It was her reclaiming her body that allowed her to reinhabit the love of dance and music that had once been her prison.
In “Mona Lisa,” Spears warns that a woman has been cloned, but she’s there to “release her from her spell.” “She's the original,” Britney sings, almost to herself. “She's unforgettable.”
In an Instagram post late last year, the pop star listed all her record-breaking sales and accomplishments, "reminding myself and the world of who I am !!!!" She also shared her sadness about having been diminished by her “‘classy’ white family,” which caused her to retreat into a state of denial.
But she sounded excited about the promise of new music. "Pssss new song in the works … I'm gonna let you know what I mean 😉 !!!!!" She’s already making herself heard. ●