Britney Spears: another pop princess trapped in a man-made fairytale

One contributor is notably absent from the new film about Britney: herself. But from Rihanna to Beyoncé to Taylor Swift, female stars have always struggled to tell their stories

In the closing song of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, we are invited to ponder the question: “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” It is a powerful message about legacy and ownership, as relevant to any modern public figure as it is about one of America’s founding fathers.

I think about this lyric whenever my mind strays to Britney Spears, who has found her life back under the microscope following the release of the documentary Framing Britney Spears. The story the film chooses to tell is contextualised by what we now understand as the rampant misogyny of the mid-to-late 00s, painting an empathic portrait of a woman who had not previously found much sympathy in the mainstream.

This reappraisal doesn’t come out of the blue. In the last year, Britney has appealed to end the conservatorship – the legal arrangement that puts her father, Jamie Spears, in control of her personal life and finances – that has governed her for the last 13 years. Framing Britney Spears aims to explain the events leading to the conservatorship’s institution, aided by archival footage and the insight of journalists, lawyers, Britney’s former assistant and the prominently featured #FreeBritney movement, which agitates and sows theories around her situation.

Notably missing is Britney herself. In closing, the film-makers reveal that they don’t know whether their interview requests even reached her. Her absence gives the film an odd texture – akin to how Amy or Whitney: Can I Be Me handle their deceased subjects: in retrospect and with hindsight. Framing Britney Spears hews closely to the established rags-to-riches narrative that provides the framework for these stories. It begins with a struggle: Britney the poor kid from Louisiana, Amy from a working-class background in London, Whitney born into “the hood” of Newark, New Jersey. Each had a talent and a passion inside them, some sort of undeniable magic. And when that magic was harnessed, by a manager, or a record label – a man who knew how to wield it – it transformed these women’s lives beyond their wildest dreams … until they flew too close to the sun and died. The end.

‘Each had a talent and a passion inside them – some sort of undeniable magic’ ... Amy Winehouse.
‘Each had a talent and a passion inside them – some sort of undeniable magic’ ... Amy Winehouse. Photograph: Karen Robinson/The Observer

Women in music and especially pop have historically struggled to control their narratives. Part of the difficulty is that the male perspective permeates every single part of the creative process: writing, producing, A&Ring, styling, shooting, managing, selling. It can be tricky to pick out the woman from the male distortion.

Often, female artists do not get to assert their position until they have “paid their dues”. This may come with time and consistent financial achievement, though it also comes with caveats: the woman must make the right type of music, date the right type of men, wear the right type of outfits and, should a derailing event force them to change course, make the right kind of moves in order to turn retain public favour as well as authorship of their own stories.

It seems no coincidence that Beyoncé’s almost complete withdrawal from the media came after 2014’s “elevator incident”. After footage leaked from security cameras at the Standard Hotel post-Met Gala showed Solange berating and physically attacking Jay-Z, allegedly in emotional defence of her older sister, Beyoncé has not given an interview of substance in almost six years. She addressed the incident once, in a remixed version of Flawless. “Of course sometimes shit goes down when it’s a billion dollars on the elevator,” she admonishes without embellishing. No one knows what happened that night and why, and Beyoncé has made sure no one will ever be at liberty to ask her about it.

Beyoncé: Flawless remix ft Nicki Minaj – video

When life gives you an embarrassing domestic scandal that undermines the projected image of a perfect power couple, make Lemonade. Beyoncé’s first post-elevator record covered infidelity, generational pain and the burden of womanhood – what it takes to heal a heart, a marriage, repair the family unit. The autobiography is assumed, especially following the release of Jay-Z’s album 4:44 (a putative companion work in which he admits to infidelity) and the couple’s subsequent On the Run II Tour and the joint album Everything Is Love, which neatly united and closed their individual narratives on a unified note, stronger than ever. It would be remiss to diminish Beyoncé’s agency in all that she has been a part of since 2014, but I can’t help but wonder what stories she might have told if the elevator incident didn’t happen, or at the very least did not reach the public eye.

Rihanna too, was hemmed into a choose-your-own-adventure story with only one path forward after the night of 8 February 2009 changed the course of her career. The day before she was due to perform her hit Disturbia at the Grammys, a violent attack by her then boyfriend, singer Chris Brown, derailed the image of the good girl gone bad and made her a world-famous domestic abuse survivor. As if the tabloid press picking over the details of a traumatic personal event wasn’t painful enough, LAPD officers leaked images of Rihanna’s facial injuries.

In the immediate aftermath, Rihanna was praised for her resilience. She threw herself into work, dropping the Rated R album eight months after the attack: on the track Stupid Love, she berates herself for trying to salvage her relationship with Brown. By 2012, however, the couple were reunited and the critical response to her album Unapologetic was far less generous. The media depiction of a Rihanna that had been broken and rebuilt, stronger and independent of her relationship with Brown, was shattered by Nobody’s Business; Brown’s guest spot was a full deviation from the script. In reconciling with Brown, and thus failing to deliver the satisfying conclusion to the narrative the media had woven on her behalf, Rihanna was deemed the “wrong” kind of victim, healing in the “wrong” way.

Six years after that February night, Rihanna told Vanity Fair of her unease at how the attack loaded her with baggage she was reluctant to carry. “For me, and anyone who’s been a victim of domestic abuse, nobody wants to even remember it. Nobody even wants to admit it. So to talk about it and say it once, much less 200 times, is like … I have to be punished for it? It didn’t sit well with me.”

Kanye West takes the microphone from Taylor Swift during the MTV Video Music awards, 13 September 2009.
Kanye West takes the microphone from Taylor Swift in 2009. Photograph: Jason DeCrow/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Then there is Taylor Swift, equally as adroit at public relations as she is at songwriting. From the beginning of her career when she was spelling out secret messages in her liner notes and planting Easter eggs in her music videos, Swift has made art out of weaving together the text, the subtext and the sub-subtext into an ongoing saga with A and B plots, callbacks, spinoffs and sequels that can feel impenetrable to a casual fan. The truth is what she says it is – in the Taylor Swift Cinematic Universe, she is writer, producer, director and star.

Swift is anomalous among these other A-list music stars. Her origin myth is a riches-to-more-riches tale – the precocious kid who grew up on her parents’ Christmas tree farm appears less folksy when you learn her father was a stockbroker who purchased a 3% stake in her first record company, Big Machine and hired a guitar tutor to work with his daughter in twice-weekly three-hour sessions. But a privileged straight white woman is still liable to suffer under patriarchy. Swift has dealt with stalkers, sexual assault and the frustration of having her life’s work traded between men – at least one of whom she despises – in a deal that appears to be part good business sense, part petty personal dispute.

Swift’s feud with music manager Scooter Braun, who in 2019 purchased Big Machine (and with it Swift’s masters) for $300m, has deep roots. Braun manages Kanye West, who interrupted Swift’s acceptance speech at the 2009 MTV VMAs, setting in motion a narrative that she has never been able to control – and not for lack of trying. She has pitied West (on 2010’s Innocent), befriended him (presenting him with his MTV VMA Vanguard award at the 2015 ceremony), blasted him (after his 2016 song Famous, in which Kanye boasted “I made that bitch famous”) and retreated from the public eye for a year (after West’s wife, Kim Kardashian-West, shared a video that appeared to show Swift had approved the song ahead of time – which a longer clip leaked years later then seemed to contradict). Parrying the decade-long antagonism has undoubtedly been an unwelcome distraction for Swift, even inciting a creative swerve – she emerged from her self-imposed exile in 2017 with Reputation, her darkest and most explicitly vengeful record.

Her relative privilege tips the scales in her favour just enough for her to be able to exploit that small advantage. Even now, as she begins rolling out re-recordings of her old material in an attempt to devalue the original masters, she is adapting the narrative to better suit her needs. “Taylor’s Version” of her 2008 hit Love Story renders the song not as an impassioned appeal to a star-crossed lover, but a testament to her loyal fans. And what could be more loyal than to stream “Taylor’s Version” in favour of the one that now belongs to Scooter?

To gain power – and crucially, to retain it – you need a reserve of it to begin with. Too many young women in pop are forced to build their foundations in shifting sands, which leaves their careers liable to topple when the media wrecking ball swings around.

‘Unknowable’ ... Britney Spears in Las Vegas, 18 October 2018.
‘Unknowable’ ... Britney Spears in Las Vegas, 18 October 2018.
Photograph: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Which brings us back to Britney, who truly did come from nothing and nowhere to become an icon. Marooned by her own unfathomable celebrity, she has supposedly become “unknowable”. But this convenient characterisation disregards what she has always shown us of herself – a small-town southern girl with immeasurable talent not just as a singer or a dancer, but as a person who can connect with others. Perplexed by her guilelessness, the media forced her into a virgin/whore dichotomy that presaged her fall from grace.

Even today, when authenticity is the currency of social media and we are all to some degree in the business of image curation, Britney’s un-manicured presentation jars, perhaps even invites suspicion. But that has always been Britney. She is only ever groomed at work. She doesn’t wear designer streetwear for a Starbucks run. She is more likely to be spotted filling a trolley at Target than window shopping on Rodeo Drive. Her makeup is never perfect, the tracks from her extensions are often visible and she rarely bothers with a bra. Anyone trying to extrapolateBritney’s mental state from her looks fundamentally misunderstands her relationship to her own image.

After an initial wave of acclaim for Framing Britney Spears, critics have started to question the documentary’s centring of the #FreeBritney movement – a group that claims to act in her best interest yet is simply the latest party to project its narrative on to the star. Only Britney has the right to tell her own story, but her legal situation makes this seem unlikely, at least for now: her requests that her father be removed as conservator have been met with half-measures, with a judge instituting another party alongside Jamie Spears to run her affairs.

It took Mariah Carey, another global icon from humble beginnings, 30 years to find the voice to reclaim her story in her own words – in last year’s memoir, The Meaning of Mariah Carey – and in doing so to assert her humanity and agency, and to cast a disparaging light on the forces that profited from undermining it. You can imagine a Britney memoir doing similar work. Until she has her say, her story will remain pitifully incomplete – framed as a historic morality tale when she is eminently capable of another triumphant act. The tale of the pop princess locked in the ivory tower doesn’t have to be a tragedy.


Grace Medford

The GuardianTramp

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