An academic recounts the troubled pop star’s life, and explores her cultural meaning. But is it yet more exploitation?
The industry built on Britney Spears is a vast and adaptable beast. Ever since the singer first appeared on the scene in 1998, at the age of 16, she has been a profitable asset. She has sold many millions of records and concert tickets and given her name to countless products, from soft drinks to cameras to perfume. Her personal life has also sold, and continues to sell, newspapers and magazines. She has kept gossip sites and paparazzi operations in rude health for decades. Now, the world seems to be asking, what was the cost?
An old episode of South Park posed this question as early as 2008. It was made around the time that Spears was admitted to a psychiatric ward, and she and her estate were placed under the conservatorship of her father, Jamie, a controversial arrangement that has only just begun to shift. The episode, Britney’s New Look, was an excoriating satire on the savage treatment doled out to young women in the public eye; it ended with cartoon Britney being ritually sacrificed by the townsfolk, with the blame shared out between the press and the people.
The current phase of the Britney industry, still evolving rapidly, owes much to the tone of this old 20-minute animation. It is both fascinated by her suffering and disgusted by this fascination with it, trapped in a conflicted state of concern and curiosity. For a while, the #FreeBritney movement, which began as a campaign by fans to liberate the singer from the conservatorship that remained in place for 13 years, looked like a well-meaning conspiracy theory, to outsiders at least. Fans looked for signals that the singer might be asking for help in her Instagram posts. But as allegations about the dark nature of the conservatorship surfaced, the fans’ cause went mainstream.
This year, a number of documentaries have attempted to expose the truth of what has happened to Spears since 2008. These films – Framing Britney Spears, Controlling Britney Spears, The Battle for Britney and Britney vs Spears – have used the unravelling of the conservatorship to reassess Spears’s place in the cultural canon. They employ a tactic of revisionism that takes media coverage from the time and condemns it from a 2021 perspective. Yet they also draw heavily on the material they condemn, and can lapse into a state of queasy piousness.
Now Being Britney: Pieces of a Modern Icon joins the fray. The book does not appear to report anything new; rather, it gathers up fragments of news stories, fan gossip, documentaries, chat forums, opinion pieces and more, to scrabble together a biography of sorts. This fractured style is fitting for the digital age in which we live, and its tone recalls the hot-take rapid-churn of the internet.
Otter Bickerdike is an academic and cultural historian who dedicates each chapter to a big talking point or scandal or victory in Spears’s career, from the … Baby One More Time video to the famous double-denim look she wore to an event with Justin Timberlake, to media speculation on whether she had breast implants, her rivalry with Christina Aguilera, the horrors of her 2008 crisis and the ongoing fallout from that time.
She is interested in Spears as “a cultural vessel”, and the book sets up the star as a blank canvas on to which audiences can project whatever they like. Spears can be a businesswoman, a canny pop genius, a victim, a survivor, an icon, depending on which way and when you look at her. But its broad brushstrokes can make for a wild read. There is a chapter about Spears fleeing a supposedly haunted house, which she sold to the actor Brittany Murphy and her husband, Simon Monjack, who both later died there. “Perhaps the ‘disturbed’ couple Spears encountered were the future ghosts of Murphy and Monjack?” Otter Bickerdike suggests. Perhaps!
Crucially, Spears is positioned as relatable, with the author arguing that despite the star’s troubles, she is “showing us all how to be bloodied and bruised yet seemingly unbreakable, no matter how daunting the circumstances”. But I am not sure that the Spears saga lends itself to universal lessons about triumph in the face of adversity. What this line of argument misses, surely, is the uniqueness of Spears’s situation.
What happened to her is grotesque and extreme. She is one of the most famous women in the world, living with unimaginable scrutiny, and yet she has spent more than a decade allegedly under the control of her father – who, she told a court back in June, medicated her, threatened her with being sent to a psychiatric unit if she disobeyed his orders to work, and gave her a contraceptive implant to stop her having more children. In response, Jamie Spears said he had no power over his daughter’s personal affairs for nearly two years, and that when he was conservator over her personal decisions, he did everything in his power to support her wellbeing, including consenting to her getting married in 2012 and sharing conservatorship duties with her fiance.
“I just want my life back, and it’s been 13 years and it’s enough,” Spears said then. But the pieces of her life continue to be arranged and rearranged, for our entertainment.
Being Britney: Pieces of a Modern Icon is published by Bonnier (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.