The first time I interviewed Britney Spears she was 16: an instant, overnight superstar on account of her just-dropped single ... Baby One More Time. This was 1998 so I asked her about the other biggest story of the day – the affair between Bill Clinton and White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
“I just think the president is a very decent man,” she began in her honeyed drawl, “and it’s really not fair what all these people are saying about him and that gir–”
That was about when Britney’s handler, a dark-haired Southern lady who sat in the room with us, cut us off: “Maybe y’all should stick to fun topics?’”
I saw the handler again this week. She’s a key interviewee in the documentary Framing Britney, which has been airing in the US and is due to launch in the UK this spring. It’s a film decidedly light on “fun topics”. Turns out she was actually Britney’s nanny (official title: assistant), a trusted family friend hired by the star’s mother to travel with her daughter after her first record deal – one of the many seemingly decent people swept out of Spears’s life in the years that followed.
I interviewed her a second time two years later. By then she was at the absolute pinnacle of her fame. The PRs (there were layers of them by then) warned me, “NO tits, NO virginity”. I was not to ask whether the rumours were true about either a boob job or whether she and her ex-boyfriend, singer Justin Timberlake had, in fact, had sex despite her declared intention to “save herself” for marriage. I spent the interview in a state of panic since “tits and virginity” were the only questions my editor (or any editor) – and this was at the Globe and Mail, Canada’s paper of record – wanted answered. I was not much older than Spears myself and, like her, felt the need to do a good job for the ‘grown-ups’.
The documentary has triggered a backlash against the way Spears has been treated in the past and Timberlake last week publicly apologised for his comments about Spears after their break-up in 2002.
Stardom was followed not long afterwards by marriage, children, divorce, remarriage, divorce, a custody case resulting in the loss of her children and a dramatic, drawn-out public breakdown that resulted in her forcible detainment in a psychiatric hospital. People did not speak much of “mental health” back then – less clinical terms were preferred like “train wreck” and worse. Like most people, I lost interest in the saga of Spears in the late naughties.But the story of her recent years is in many ways more harrowing than the tale that preceded it.
Twelve years ago the star’s father Jamie, until then a distant figure in her life, swooped in and was granted legal “conservatorship” of his daughter’s life and career. What this means is that the court granted him full control of all decisions involving her finances as well as all decisions regarding her physical and mental health. Conservatorship is usually granted only to relatives of the severely mentally ill, comatose or fragile elderly. Despite working steadily over a decade since (including a sellout showcase in Las Vegas), Spears, now 39, has remained entirely subject to her father’s legal control – this despite an ongoing battle to regain agency over her life and fortune. LA courts have been besieged by fans demanding her release as part of the #FreeBritney movement.
The legal story of Spears beggars belief but I am still fascinated by that first mega-hit single, the artefact that made her but also, prophetically, foretold her demise.
So much has changed today. Pop culture is no longer spoken of as a coherent concept – it’s too diffuse, fragmented. It’s easy to forget the power that a single catchy pop song with a slick video could have in the pre-internet era.
What made Spears famous was not her act but her apparent authenticity – a quality that was almost unheard of in the boy-band-choked era of the late 90s. In the ... Baby One More Time video, she wasn’t play acting. That was the trick. She was a virginal, bored and sexually curious small-town schoolgirl from Kentwood, Louisiana. She wasn’t childlike, she was an actual child. She was who she was pretending to be.
Until, of course, she wasn’t. At this point, Spears was stripped of flesh and blood(“objectified” does not even begin to cover it). She became a human punchline, the answer to a thousand awful trivia questions – and heroine to suffering smalltown high school outcasts everywhere. A YouTube clip of a sobbing Southern gay teen begging the world to “Leave Britney alone!” became one of the internet’s first viral videos. But she wasn’t left alone because, even at her lowest ebb, too many saw her as “great material”, a money maker. Long after the Lewinsky jokes wore thin, chat-show hosts like Jay Leno were still working the spectacle of her suffering.
The same quality that made her famous – her realness, her inability to mask her true self – was perhaps also the thing that devoured her. With any luck, she’ll finally break free and we can all look away.