All the questions around Britney Spears can be condensed into this one: who should we blame? For a long time, there was a comfortable narrative that the pop star’s decade-long descent — from virginal queen of teen in 1998, to junk-food scarfing, twice-divorced single mother, to broken woman being transported to hospital in restraints — was wholly her own doing. Britney was a train wreck, white trash, a hot mess and, all in all, no better than she ought to be.
The fact that her career recovered dramatically after she was placed under a conservatorship arrangement in 2008 (giving her father ultimate control over her life and finances) seemed to prove that the under-lying problem had been her freedom. Under his watch she got thin again, and her Vegas residencies made astonishing money. But from this point on, there was an untenable conflict in the Britney machine.
Her persona was of someone in command and at ease with her status as an icon. In ‘If You Seek Amy’, made post-conservatorship, she teases: ‘Love me, hate me, say what you want about me/ But all of the boys and all of the girls are begging to, if you seek Amy’. (Say it out loud, away from children.) It has swagger, but sung by a woman who couldn’t legally decide who she spoke to, never mind slept with, this was hard to take.
Some fans spotted the contradiction, and a rival version of the Spears story emerged. What if she wasn’t a self-destructive young woman restored to function by a kindly patriarch, but an exploited victim of legally enabled coercion? What if her supposed derangement — the partying, the head-shaving, the lashing out at the press — was actually an understandable response to the extreme pressure of being inhumanly famous for her entire adult life?
In 2019, she abruptly withdrew from performing and recording and launched a series of legal challenges to the conservatorship. Her testimony in those hearings was shattering: she talked of being forced to take medication, of being fitted with an IUD against her will to prevent pregnancy (hard to sustain the Vegas run with a baby on your hip) and of living in fear of her father.
A new set of potential culprits for Britney’s fall emerged. First, her father, who in this version had leveraged his child’s vulnerability to enrich himself. Second, the media, which had glutted itself with sanctimony about Britney for nearly two decades, while scrutinising her in humiliating detail, from her hymen to her breasts to her competency as a mother. And third, everyone in the world who had consumed Britney’s life as entertainment.
Jennifer Otter Bickerdike’s book is firmly a product of the Britney revisionist era. The portrait she assembles here is of a young woman devoured by the relentless processes of 21st-century celebrity: ‘Dehumanised Britney was a product to be purchased, consumed and, inevitably, thrown away.’ It follows the outline sketched by the documentary Framing Britney Spears earlier this year, and if you’ve already seen that film (or one of the many similar efforts to have followed it), Bickerdike’s analysis will add little.
Even if you’re new to the Britney story, the prose here might deter you from learning much anyway. ‘She is a conduit of culture who rarely gets the acknowledgement she deserves for being a unique catalyst for radical change and empowerment among countless fans,’ writes Bickerdike, like a student frantically busking for the wordcount, before concluding on a note of deepest banality: ‘What cannot be denied is that Britney Spears is a bad-ass.’
Structurally, Being Britney is a less accomplished version of the kind of collage biography Craig Brown has made his own. Some of the fragments are intriguing. A run-through of products endorsed or advertised by Britney, from Skechers trainers to an Italian fast-food chain, is a snapshot of brand Britney’s development. A section on American ‘purity culture’ in the 1990s smartly contextualises the obsession with Britney’s virginity.
Elsewhere, things are less enlightening. Bickerdike wants Britney to function both as an exemplary victim of the age, but at the same time to reclaim her as a unique genius of show business. It’s a difficult line to walk, and leads to odd generalisations: ‘This is the brilliant alchemy of Britney Spears — she allows the public to see her struggles in a way that her contemporaries do not.’ This seems startlingly forgetful of Amy Winehouse and Whitney Houston, who both fell apart in the noughties in full view of the world.
Sometimes Being Britney is pompously trivial. Did wearing all-denim to the American Music Awards in 2001 really ‘completely redefine the possibilities of denim’s full remit’? Some parts are arguably hypocritical: Bickerdike slates the press for speculating about Britney’s mental health, then launches into her own theory that Britney may have been suffering from postnatal depression in the noughties. Some are bizarre, such as the suggestion that Britney’s house was haunted by the ‘future ghosts’ of a couple who died there after she sold it on. It also has the problem of having been overtaken by events. Between proof and publication, the conservatorship was dissolved, which means large chunks of this book are asking a question to which readers know the answer: will Britney ever be free? Well, she is now.
‘Britney is, in many ways, just a cultural vessel for our own projections,’ writes Bickerdike in her conclusion, loftily and obviously, ending in exactly the same place as she began. Of course the people we call stars do not simply generate their own light but shine with the pale fire of reflecting their society’s neuroses. Britney has spent a lifetime carrying a planet’s worth of angst about feminine propriety. Turning that into a boring book should be impossible, but (as Britney might say) if you seek Amy, Bickerdike has done it.
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