how the #freebritney movement took stan culture too far
Ever since she checked herself into a mental health facility, fan speculation has been rife about what is really going on with Britney Spears
National Enquirer UK civer
In some way or another, we were all complicit in what happened to Britney Spears in 2007. That period was a symptom of a number of things: the rise of celebrity gossip blogs, lax laws regarding the paparazzi, an insatiable thirst for all things famous and an inability to see the human being in the middle of it all.
Thankfully, that situation avoided full on catastrophe, and for the last decade Britney has managed to not only emerge still determined to be a popstar but, with her Piece of Me Las Vegas residency, she has thrived. Sure, things have never quite been the same — the dancing is stiffer and the lip syncing more prevalent — but even seeing her on stage last summer during her short world tour, Britney was having fun. Spending four years consistently in Vegas seemed like it worked for her, and so when she announced that she’d be hopping straight into a new residency for 2019, Domination, it might not have been what fans wanted but there was an understanding that, for Britney, it’s where she wanted to be.
That was until January 4 2019 when everything started to unravel. In an Instagram post, Britney and her team shared that her father, Jamie, was unwell and had nearly died. Due to that, the singer announced she was taking an “indefinite work hiatus” to focus on her family. After being spotted driving through an In-n-Out munching on a burger three days later, Britney Spears apparently disappeared.
For a few months, this disappearance wasn’t particularly remarked upon. While fans on forums and stans on Twitter may have debated the “real reason” for the cancellation of her Vegas residency (mutterings of lacklustre ticket sales was, at the time, the most popular theory), there wasn’t any reason to assume that anything was awry. That was until a report by TMZ on April 3 claimed that Britney had checked herself into a mental health facility. A post was shared on her Instagram page, too, of a yoga mom meme — a Britney specialty— with the caption: “We all need to take time for a little ‘me time.’ :)”. Still, it all feels fairly innocuous. After the way the media behaved in 2007, there was a more measured response. Britney was praised for putting herself first and fans rallied around her in support.
At least that was the case until April 16, when an episode of the podcast Britney’s Gram intensified speculation regarding the singer’s wellbeing and kicked up a fan and media furor. According to an anonymous tip from a paralegal who allegedly used to work at a firm involved with Britney’s affairs, the singer had been held in the mental health facility against her will since January.
It all comes down to her conservatorship, a court ordered regulation which places a guardian or protector in charge of the financial and personal affairs of an individual deemed mentally or physically unable to manage them. Britney has been under such a conservatorship since 2008, with her father and a lawyer, Andrew M Wallet, managing her estate and persons. The legality and necessity of the agreement has been debated by fans and in the press for years, most recently in depth by the New York Times.
According to the anonymous source, Britney had come up against her father and Wallet regarding the medication she was taking and had refused to move on to a new drug. Under the conservatorship, they said, Britney had to take the medication, even if she didn’t want to. The source continued, alleging that Jamie, her father, had threatened to pull her residency if she didn’t comply. When Britney fought back, Domination was cancelled and her father’s illness used as an excuse. Along with that, the whistleblower said that Britney wasn’t allowed to drive without permission. The sighting of her at In-N-Out in the driving seat was the final nail and, he alleged, she was sent away.
While the podcast’s hosts, comedians Tess Barker and Barbara Gray, said they had verified that the source had indeed work at the law firm that handled Britney’s conservatorship, there was no way of confirming the accuracy or validity of the claims. However, the account was paired with reports that Wallet had requested to be removed as co-conservator, stating in legal documents that “substantial detriment, irreparable harm and immediate danger will result to the conservatee [i.e. Britney] and her estate if the relief requested [i.e. Wallet’s resignation] herein is not granted on an ex parte basis”.
Egged on by the hosts of Britney’s Gram, fans on social media started to flood Twitter and Britney’s Instagram comments with the hashtag #FreeBritney. Conspiracies detailing what fans know about the conservatorship and some alleged “evidence” that proved Britney was in someway compromised began to multiply, some getting thousands of retweets. Soon, news organisations and even Vanity Fair began to speculate what could be going on, picking up on tweets and the podcast. It wasn’t long before things had devolved so entirely that gossip rag The National Enquirer UK ran a cover with the line: “Psycho Britney: locked up and losing her kids.” On Monday 22 April in LA there was a protest organised by fans. Stans on Twitter began sending death threats and making extreme accusations regarding the alleged machinations of her family. All of a sudden, the muted response to Britney’s stay at a treatment facility had spiraled out of control on a concoction of rumours, gossip and speculation.
For the most part, Britney’s team has remained quiet. The singer has stayed fairly incognito, spotted only once during this whole period by a fan while she was getting her hair done. Then, perhaps to dampen the fire that had begun to spread, some paparazzi pictures of Britney and her boyfriend, Sam Ashgari, appeared. But rather than put out the flames, these pictures threw on gasoline. Britney looked dazed, as if she had just woken up from a nap, and the pictures felt like a set up. While speculation continued to mount, the singer’s sister Jamie Lynn shared on Twitter that fans and the media needed to “GTFOH with all the comments about what you don’t understand”, warning people not to “come for me or the ones I love anymore”.
Things reached their peak, however, when for the first time since January Britney herself appeared. In an Instagram video, she explained that her family had been going through “stress and anxiety”, adding in a caption that “I am trying to take a moment for myself, but everything that’s happening is just making it harder for me”.
She dispelled any allegations that she was being held against her will and, perhaps for the first time since 2008, (sort of) publicly addressed the conservatorship. “My situation is unique, but I promise I’m doing what’s best at this moment,” she wrote. “You may not know this about me, but I am strong, and stand up for what I want!” She has since shared a very Britney-esque video of herself working out.
Still, the damage feels done. Based on nothing but a rumour and the whispers of an anonymous man left on the voicemail of a podcast run by two comedians, a woman who deserved privacy and our respect had her world invaded on rumours and hysteria. Naturally, fans care about Britney. For some people, her music has soundracked their entire lives. The situation regarding the conservatorship, while literally no one’s business, has always stunk, mainly because Britney herself has spoken about how she dislikes constrictions, but at the end of the day it should not, and does not concern us.
How tragically predictable that despite everything Britney has been through, no lessons have been learned. In fact, stan culture and the anonymity of social media has created its own digital version of photographers that swarmed the singer in 2007. The posts feel disingenuous, shared only for likes, retweets and follows. Like kids sharing gossip on the playground, stan Twitter often feels more like a popularity contest than a genuine way to lift up and support your favourite artist.
Instead, a line was crossed. This time around we owed it to Britney to stay away, to not speculate but to show our support. We failed. We dragged a woman out of her recovery to deny rumours and conspiracies while continually reminding us to give her privacy. Once again, be it for the sake of a headline or a few tweets, the world forgot that underneath the celebrity, rumours, speculation and pop hits, Britney Spears is still human. Now really is the time to leave Britney alone.
This article originally appeared on i-D UK.