britney spears was the og vlogger and her reality show proves it
On ‘Britney and Kevin: Chaotic’, the popstar not only preempted today’s YouTubers but also reclaimed her own narrative.
What happens when the biggest pop star in the world decides to take control of her own narrative and speak directly with the public? In 2019, not much at all. In fact, it’s surprising not to read at least one celeb Notes app statement per day, and it’s rather ordinary to see Cardi B on Instagram Live again, which you can either join for a second or catch the best bits, re-uploaded by fan accounts on Twitter.
In 2004, however, before she could strut down our Instagram feeds in her homemade fashion shows, Britney Spears couldn’t be reached by phone. After two years of foul scrutiny over her virginity, fidelity and sobriety, hungry tabloids had stripped her of her power and she desperately wanted to take charge of her story. The Internet as we know it was in its infancy and reality shows were the hot thing for celebrities to achieve that much-desired authenticity and reclaim power from sleazy rags -- and Britney wanted in.
Production began in April 2004 for OnTourage, a six-part series pitched as the ultimate backstage pass to the European leg of her Onyx Hotel Tour. It was to be filmed by Britney herself on a hand-held videocam and early reports compared it to Madonna’s Truth or Dare film, suggesting that episodes were being shopped around for $1 million a pop. Just days into production, she was taping more in her hotel rooms, tour buses and planes than backstage, a pivot that occurred after she invited her then boo Kevin Federline to join her in London. Thus Britney and Kevin: Chaotic was born.
Deemed “career suicide” by one critic, Chaotic was a startling five-episode series that chronicled the first six months of Britney and Kevin’s relationship via their own personal footage. Revisiting it now, it’s fascinating how her vlogging habits predate the endless oversharing that we commonly encounter on our timelines and in our subscriptions every day. The show documented their whirlwind courtship, engagement and wedding filter-free, made up by a bunch of night-vision make-out sessions and under-the-influence conversations. From super-zoomed, prolonged clips of the pair French kissing to hazy midnight chats about her ex Justin Timberlake (“Personally I think ["Cry Me A River"] is kinda pussified,” she quipped), nothing seemed to be off limits as they used a single videocam to get to know one another.
“I didn’t know [Kevin] that well, and when I got the camera out, it made me feel better,” Britney said in a press interview at the time. “It’s really weird because it was like all this tension at first. We were so nervous together. I’m really shy, and when I had the camera in my hand, it made me feel more outspoken.”
MTV had made household names out of popstars Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey on 2003’s Newlyweds, playing out like a real-life PG-13 sitcom. In contrast, Chaotic pulled Britney from the spotlights of MTV to something more suited to a late-night pay-per-view cable channel. Until this point, Britney had hopscotched the line of girl-next-door and raunchy pin-up masterfully. She may have kissed Madonna on live TV and simulated sex onstage as part of the tour that Chaotic was filmed during, but she maintained this was Britney The Performer, the liberated alter-ego of America’s Southern Sweetheart.
"Britney was the guinea pig of modern fame. She suffered at the flashes of paparazzi for our shock and tea-break chatter. Her every move was debated as though she wasn’t actually human."
That went out of the window from the very first episode. The 20-minute ride around the UK shows her, behind-the-camera, quizzing everyone from her support act to her personal drivers about their favourite sex positions, trying to hook up her personal assistant for a long overdue shag with a dancer named Miguel, and the first of many filmed steamy moments between her and K-Fed. They’d repeatedly tell each other how incredible their sex is. She would film him from above on the tour bus as he tells the camera that she’s “butt ass naked” while dancers are asleep in the bunks beside them. In another episode, she asks if he wants to skip tanning to “fuck all day”.
The relentless horniness displayed throughout the series made Britney a target for slut-shaming, as ruthless critics almost universally painted her as a one-dimensional, sex-crazed doll. Cheap comparisons were made to the leaked sex tapes of Paris Hilton and others. Entertainment Weekly’s review, published when the show aired in 2005, claimed that “ [Chaotic] makes Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee’s home video look coy”.
Britney was the guinea pig of modern fame. She suffered at the flashes of paparazzi for our shock and tea-break chatter. Her every move was debated as though she wasn’t actually human. Journalists asked about her virginity during press interviews as a teenager, reporters branded her a cheater when her first relationship ended at 20 years old, and the drunken mistakes of her early twenties became worldwide news. It is very telling that her sexuality had dominated public conversation when it was inappropriate and without her consent. Yet, once she decided to share self-recorded footage of herself being intimate with a consenting partner on her own terms, it was no longer interesting to the same reporters. Whether (usually male) critics thought it was in good taste or not, she fearlessly said “fuck it”.
Chaotic wasn’t just about lust or sex, though. The show captured the raw realities of an untouchable superstar craving human intimacy, as well as an attempt to find normality and sanity in the surreal world of celebrity. As such, it revealed just how awkward and messy all ordinary relationships could be. What Federline described back then as a “documentation of love” now comes across as an eerie record of a self-described “bored and lonely” young person finding comfort in a camera and its ability to simultaneously shield and lay herself bare. In 2005, this behaviour was lambasted for an unimaginable narcissism that only a dangerously self-obsessed diva like Britney could have. Today, it’s a bankable format that has earned YouTubers a fortune and the reason why your next door neighbour is talking about their missing Hermes parcels on their Instagram Stories.
Britney’s hand-held vision disrupted the celebrity reality show format -- established by blueprint The Osbournes in 2002 –- as she refused to be another famous person filmed and edited by others to be gawked and laughed at. Unlike Carmen Electra’s ‘Til Death Do Us Part, Newlyweds or Travis Barker’s The Osbournes rip-off Meet the Barkers, her show didn’t have skits, set-ups or storylines to mimic the emotional cues of fictional television. Britney and Kevin: Chaotic was honest, surprising, endearing, sexy, cringeworthy and uncomfortable. At times it was mundane, and sometimes sad. It was ultimately hopeful in the final episode when she played the part of blushing bride, in scenes which combined hand-held footage with wedding photos, confessionals and professional video.
Spears has only spoken of the show once publicly since it aired. “That was really bad,” she said in 2013. “That was probably the worst thing I’ve done in my career.” Perhaps she sees it differently now that she uses Instagram; perhaps not. Ultimately, though, Chaotic allowed Britney’s fans see her personality, offstage and unfiltered, and hear her thoughts and opinions, just as vloggers do. The difference is that her vlogs were uploaded a year later to national TV, the lack of immediacy leaving her just as much an enigma as ever.
In Britney’s videography, Chaotic sits between two defiant “fuck you!’ statements to the press -- “My Prerogative” and “Piece of Me” -- as the 'real' side of her glossed-up video star persona. Between 2004 and 2007, she was on a mission to be free, as evidenced by her work, her online letters to fans that would come after the show, her interviews and her decisions. It was impossible to separate her life from her art, which is what makes Chaotic so special. It could never happen again.