The story of Britney reveals the hollowness of the American dream, which she so self-awarely identifies herself as the epitome of in Piece of Me. Even at the pinnacle of fame and fortune, freedom, happiness and artistic independence seem elusive
To any child of the ‘90s, Britney Spears is a pop culture icon. The saying goes, “if Britney survived 2007, you can survive today.” As I watched her testimony this week in her court case to end her 13-year conservatorship, which gives her father, Jamie Spears, a shocking amount of control over her estate and her person, I was reminded of her song Piece of Me. The song, which came out in 2007, is her most honest, in my opinion. It was released around the time that she had her very public meltdown and the conservatorship was put in a place. It spoke of the insanity of the media circus that surrounded her. The “bad media karma” that she mentions in the song contributed to the case against her, particularly in the court of public opinion. The tabloids and paparazzi, driven as they are by shock and awe for profit, harped on the breakdown she was having at the time because she was a hot topic.
Piece of Me excoriates the paparazzi’s obsession with her, and the sexism of their coverage. It tells the story of a star who is simultaneously objectified for profit and mocked for being an object. Free Man in Paris, Joni Mitchell’s 1974 song about her friend and music agent David Geffen, laments his life as a cog in “the star-maker machinery behind the popular song”. Having become an international superstar at the age of 17, when her first LP, Baby One More Time, broke all records for the sales of an album by a teenage artist, Britney’s life was taken over by this “star-maker machinery”. As is often the case with child stars, it seems that this is a life that she was pushed into to serve the interests of her family and industry executives, rather than something she actually chose.
The story of Britney reveals the hollowness of the American dream, which she so self-awarely identifies herself as the epitome of in Piece of Me. Even at the pinnacle of fame and fortune, freedom, happiness and artistic independence seem elusive. She is as much a slave to the corporate machine as anyone else, if not more. As a child she was groomed to be the sort of pop artist that makes millions and becomes a household name. Now, as an adult, she still hasn’t managed to get out of her father’s and handlers’ coercive control.
There seems to be a confluence of several systemic social injustices that have conspired against her. There is the stigma and dehumanisation of people who suffer from mental illness, the sexism faced by a woman in the entertainment industry, who has been objectified and sexualised for commercial purposes, and a greedy and self-serving parent’s inability to relinquish control of his adult child. Beyond Jamie Spears, the “star-maker machinery” has contributed to robbing Britney of her agency. It is quite ironic that a person who appears, on the surface, to be amongst the one top percent is unable to escape the corporate hamster-wheel that is the entertainment industry.
In today’s world, the Britney brand, as it existed in the ‘90s, feels a bit passé and irrelevant. Her pop Barbie image seems to have hurt her rather than helped, feeding, as it does, into the sexual objectification of women and the toxic, unrealistic beauty standards that the entertainment, cosmetics and fashion industries set for young women. There is an element of sexism to the perception of Britney in the public imagination. It’s the stereotype of the vapid, pop starlet, whose life revolves around partying, looking pretty and generally seeking fame for fame’s sake. The industry that created her, caricatured and demonised the persona that it had created. It became convenient, then, to forget that there was a real person behind the brand.
Since 2009, the eerie silence from Britney following the establishment of the conservatorship set off alarms for many of her die-hard fans. They felt that underneath the pop star’s upbeat social media presence lay a dark reality and, despite her silence, the Free Britney Movement was born. As the lyrics quoted above show, there were always signs that something was not right. The unrelenting fans deserve most of the credit for the fact that journalists and the legal system are now taking her case seriously and giving her a chance to be heard. The recent New York Times documentary, Framing Britney Spears, which is now streaming on Hulu, also takes a look at the movement that was initially scorned and perceived as conspiratorial but has now been widely embraced.
The details of Britney’s conservatorship make it sound more like slavery and less like a legal safety net to prevent someone who is mentally unwell from harming themselves or others. Not only is she effectively forced to work against her will, she doesn’t have control over her money, her estate or her reproductive rights. During her testimony, Britney declared that she will not work as long as her father controls her life, career and money.
It is stunning that a 39 year old woman who has made millions over the course of her career needs her father’s consent to take out her birth control implant, buy a new car or decide whether or not to take a job. Britney’s attorney has emphasised the contradiction that while she is expected to work full-time as an entertainer, she is not considered legally competent to manage her personal life.
She is being represented by a court-appointed public defender, while her father’s lawyer is making $30,000 per month (paid for through Britney’s estate). The legal aspect of the story is a bit complicated, but if the court’s intent was to protect her due to her mental health issues, this conservatorship is having the opposite effect. Her father is paid $18,000 a month for his services as the conservator of her estate, which begs the question of whether, in defending the conservatorship, he is protecting his primary source of income or acting with Britney’s well-being in mind.
Despite the fact that this case is somewhat unusual and in some ways unprecedented, critics of conservatorship laws believe that it exemplifies the potential within the law for the exploitation of mentally unwell or vulnerable people, those with developmental disorders and elderly people who suffer from Alzheimer’s or dementia. Conservatorship laws particularly affect elderly people in nursing homes, those suffering from neurodegenerative diseases and those who don’t have any immediate family to take care of them, and allow them to fall prey to exploitation. Legal experts say that people rarely get out of these conservatorships once they are put in place.
There seems to be something inherently abusive about Britney’s relationship with her father. He engineered her career from behind the scenes when she was a child and unable to stand up for herself. It seems like it has taken her nearly forty years to challenge her father’s exploitative control of her, but she has finally found her voice.
For most of the past 13 years, Britney has not spoken out for fear that no one would believe her, but the millions of tweets in her support and the massive crowds outside the courtroom show that we do. As is often the case, there seems to be a disconnect between the person and the celebrity persona. Her fans feel that the Britney they heard in her heart-wrenching testimony was the real Britney: a woman fighting for her dignity and her agency to make her own decisions and mistakes. It was poignant because she spoke from a place of honesty and pain.
With the mass public support pouring in from all quarters, there seems to be hope for Britney. The conservatorship of her person is easier to fight because she simply has to show that she is capable of taking care of herself in the most basic sense, and it seems relatively straightforward to show that a person who performs in front of large crowds regularly can feed and clothe herself. But the conservatorship of the estate is much harder to fight, particularly because she has genuinely struggled with her mental health in the past and is reluctant to undergo a psychological evaluation, which is usually required to re-evaluate the rules of a conservatorship. In this case, perhaps appointing a more sympathetic family member (her mother for instance), who can work with her and not against her could be the right solution. But more broadly, perhaps this case will lead to a re-evaluation of mental health laws that seem prudent in theory but have unintended real-world ramifications.
Only once she is able to reclaim her agency will she be able to truly discover who she is as a person and as an artist. I have a feeling that once she can finally find her voice and write songs that are true and come from a place of pain, resilience and self-awareness – rather than regurgitating generic, mass-produced, flash-in-the-pan hits – she will be brilliant.
The writer is a staff member