Britney Spears is greater than her tabloid headlines
As Britney’s battle to reclaim her life and career from her conservatorship continues, remember that there’s an iconic artist behind it all.
Image from Britney's 'Oops!...I Did It Again'
A lot is going on with Britney Spears right now. For the last two years, the undisputed Princess of Pop has been at the centre of a complex and contentious legal situation regarding her conservatorship — a court ordered regulation which has appointed a guardian or protector, in this case her father, in charge of her financial and personal affairs — which she has been placed under for 12 years.
The details of this case are complicated, but can essentially be summarised as such: Britney no longer wants her father in charge of her affairs and, through her lawyer Samuel Ingham III, is attempting to petition the court to have him removed. In parallel to this, a fan-led campaign, #FreeBritney, has been supporting her efforts and sharing information about the case, her situation and how it came to be. The #FreeBritney movement is vast, comprised of everyone, from celebrities like Courtney Love, Cher and Miley Cyrus to lawyers who deconstruct the legal jargon for fans, and even the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), who said that the conservatorship threatens Britney’s civil rights.
At the time of writing, the most recent developments were two-sided: Britney’s wishes that the Bessemer Trust Company, a private corporate fiduciary, manage her estate were granted. However her request that her father be removed as co-conservator was denied. (Jodi Montgomery, who runs her own private fiduciary firm and is an experienced conservator, has been acting as conservator of Britney since 2019 on a temporary basis, although Britney, through her lawyer, has requested that Montgomery replace her father in this role permanently.) According to Ingham, Britney has said that she is “afraid of her father” and “will not perform again if her father is in charge of her career”.
The legal issues surrounding the conservatorship have once again put Britney and her life under intense press and public scrutiny. As with the events of 2007 and 2008, the work and impact of Britney Spears’s twenty-something years as a popstar have been overshadowed by events unfolding in her personal life. In fact, ever since Britney strutted down that corridor dressed in a school girl’s uniform, controversy, scandal and presumptions about her character, along with personal and legal drama have superseded the discussions about her artistry. And let it be known: Britney Spears is more than just her troubles.
The autonomy that pop stars have over their careers is always debated. The music industry is particularly unkind and predatory towards young women — we’ve all heard horror stories involving but not limited to Mariah Carey, JoJo, Megan Thee Stallion, Tinashe, Kesha and Lily Allen about alleged abuse, sexual misconduct or how women’s creativity has been stifled by the patriarchal major label machine. Running alongside this is a public and critical ugliness that perpetuates a narrative that women who make pop music are neither in control nor have the guts to be assertive about their careers, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary.
This misogyny has dogged Britney’s career ever since she released her debut single, “…Baby One More Time” in 1998. Despite now regularly being cited as one of the most influential and important pop songs of all time, many critics discounted the song as “vapid” on release, dubbing the then 16-year-old Britney an “industry puppet”. Baring her midriff in the music video — which should have been seen as harmless given the antics of Madonna and Janet Jackson years prior — was criticised by conservative parent groups, who deemed the sexed-up image, and thus Britney herself, a bad influence.
We now know that it was actually Britney who was responsible for the video’s horny teen aesthetic, and that throughout her career, she has regularly been in control of her visual output. She famously approached director Joseph Khan with the music video idea for “Toxic”, and told MTV in 2000 that the whole “Oops I Did It Again” video was her idea. “’I want to be in a red jumpsuit. I want to have a really cute spaceman, but there can't be any rockets,'” director Nigel Dick recalled her saying, adding that Britney even commissioned the red catsuit used in the video herself. In the 2008 documentary, Britney: For the Record, you can see where Britney comes up for the concept of the “Womanizer” video, with director Joseph Kahn telling MTV: “She pitched to me a very detailed idea of what she wanted to do. She wanted to dress up in costume, she wanted to follow her man to work, and she eventually wanted to show at the end that she is all three of those women.”
An area where less is said about Britney’s involvement is in the creation of her music. Throughout her discography, her name appearing in the song writing credits is an exception rather than the rule, especially with her early albums. That’s not to say that she wasn’t creatively involved with those records. “She’s a genius,” super-producer Max Martin told The Guardian in 2019. “So much had happened to her in that [early period] and she had to grow up quickly. We had conversations with her about what she wanted to do and what she wanted to say.”
These are sentiments echoed by other collaborators, with people like Justin Tranter and Will.I.am praising the singer’s work ethic and involvement. Her 2007 album, Blackout, which many view as a career highlight, is the only record that Britney has acted as executive producer for. Despite the turmoil that she was experiencing at the time, her producer Danja has said that Britney was fully invested. “She might have been going through more in her personal life than what we knew at that time, and it got a little crazier when we were deeper in the project,” he told The Fader in 2017. “But throughout the whole process, she was very present, attentive and interactive. She was one of the easiest people to get things done with — she would sit there and sing no matter how many times we had her do it.”
That’s not to say that Britney was a push over. Danja has said that you could tell by her face whether she was into a song or not. “I’m very stubborn when it comes to recording and will only record songs I love, which is why it takes me a long time to make an album,” the singer told Rolling Stone in 2011. “I have to feel connected before I record and the song has to spark something inside me. Very few songs do that. I guess it’s a good process because I love all of my music. I know there are a lot of artists that hate songs they recorded. I don’t feel that way.”
Curation is an oft overlooked skill in pop, and Britney Spears is a master at it. Throughout her career, she has managed to maintain a personal narrative through her song choices, despite remaining fairly impersonal and anonymous in the lyrics. Her songs and videos have provided the perfect canvas for tabloids to paint their own story about her maturation from teen pop sensation to a woman scorned by fame, all while the real Britney remains almost entirely unknowable. This might be frustrating for some, especially in a sexist world where women in music are expected to be personal, confessional or diaristic in their songs, but in Britney’s case it demonstrates an innate understanding of her power as a popstar.
Regardless of the content of the songs, they are never faceless or generic, but entirely her own property, defined by her distinct vocal timbre and that je ne sais quoi that makes Britney Spears who she is. Indeed, while “…Baby One More Time” was offered to everyone from TLC to Toni Braxton, Britney, Martin has said, “added another dimension” to the song. Songwriter Justin Tranter, who worked with Britney on her 2016 album, Glory, had similar things to say about the singer. “There’s something about her that’s not of this world,” he told Beats 1.
She also has an ear for picking idiosyncratic songs that other artists might balk at, “Toxic” being the most obvious example, and there are tracks peppered throughout her discography that seem at odds with a media narrative that suggests her music prioritises commercial fizz. Take “Freakshow” from Blackout, which fused the wobbly doom of dubstep with pop all the way back in 2007, or the video game-like hyper-pop of “How I Roll” from Femme Fatale, a song so glitchy that SOPHIE would be jealous. On Circus, there’s “Unusual You”, a vulnerable electro-ballad that sees Britney’s voice drenched in vocoder, as if the robotics could protect her from heartbreak.
This skill is most obvious, though, on 2003’s In The Zone. Released while Britney was at the height of her powers as a popstar, the record is a dive into the heady hedonism of young adulthood, sexual discovery and vulnerability. Merging slick house music, Southern hip-hop and avant-garde pop, the album isn’t as chock-a-block with big named producers and songwriters as her others, instead opting for a more nuanced approach. “I did it right,” she told Billboard in 2003. “I waited to find myself with other people that I really had chemistry with and could really be creative with.”
This environment, as well as the fact that she co-wrote half of the songs, comes across on In The Zone; the coming of age record acknowledges any previous coquettish provocations, baby-voiced girlishness and her knack for pop music mastery, and stretches them out like the aural equivalent of a growth spurt until they are recognisable but reformed. For that reason, it’s perhaps her most honest and personal album; recorded in her early 20s during the transition from teen superstar to global pop icon, it’s an album about arriving at womanhood.
With In The Zone, Britney’s creativity could have pivoted in any direction, and with its follow up Blackout she similarly subverted any assumed preconceived notions about her artistic progression. However, both records and her evolving artistry were submerged by gossip, tabloid stories and the events of 2007 and 2008. All this paired with previously held beliefs of pop puppetry, and Britney’s creative agency was all but erased. “Britney had nothing to do with it,” Caroline Sullivan wrote for The Guardian in 2007 about Blackout. “Why did so many reviewers give credit where it wasn't due? They must have been romanticising like mad — they'd have to have done, to be able to see in the lumpen Britney a parallel with the tragic heroines whose creativity really was at its most fruitful during periods of anguish… Spears is not a musician, or even a ‘singer’, as such — she's an entertainer who hasn't been beaten with the talent stick.”
It would be disingenuous to suggest that after her breakdown in 2008 and the implementation of the conservatorship, the passion and creative vigour Britney displayed during In The Zone and Blackout weren’t diminished. While all her albums since that period have demonstrated, in some way, her position as a pop music savant (especially 2016’s Glory), there has been an inescapable feeling of detachment on Britney’s part, be it impersonal vocal delivery or, in the case of Britney Jean, actually splicing her vocals with that of another singer.
However, given what we now know about her feelings regarding the setup of the conservatorship, could her disinterest also be an artistic choice in the face of such suppression? That is conjecture, but given the way that Britney has manipulated and crafted a media narrative for herself through her music and visuals, it’s not necessarily farfetched. And while we can practically hear the scoffs already, throughout her career Britney Spears’s intelligence and agency has consistently been underestimated, both because of sexism and because of classist assumptions about working class people from the American south.
In fact, the situation that’s unfolding right now regarding the conservatorship comes from Britney’s father underestimating his daughter’s fortitude and tenacious nature. Her refusal to perform, tour and record not only cuts off the essential revenue stream that those associated with the conservatorship seemingly rely on, but firmly places the reins back in Britney’s hands. As demonstrated by the negative reaction to upcoming curio release “Swimming in the Stars” — a song from the recording sessions for Glory that is, inexplicably, an Urban Outfitters vinyl exclusive — fans don’t want to buy into anything that doesn’t seem to originate from Britney herself.
Of course, the revelations that Britney “will not perform again if her father is in charge of her career” could mean that having spent over two decades in pop, the singer is ready to hang up her head-mic — if anyone deserves to retire before they’re 40, it’s Britney Spears. But it could signpost something else: escaping the restraints of the conservatorship might finally eradicate the distractions and allow Britney to make the transition from popstar to pop auteur that others have been afforded and which she has been denied. Britney Spears would finally be in a position to reclaim her artistic legacy.