Last week, as Kanye West continued to dig a hole of narcissism and headline-dominating exhaustion that only Kanye West could manage, a lot of us in the pop culture discourse struggled with how to talk about it. West is a towering figure of immense talent, who’s always been the biggest ego in the room at any given time. How we discuss him now is a completely different beast compared to how we discussed him even two years ago. We know of his mental illness struggles and he recently admitted to an opioid addiction, so the challenge comes with keeping that information at the forefront while refusing to justify or excuse bullshit like claiming slavery was a choice. One name kept coming up, and that was Britney Spears. Even Teen Vogue writer Lauren Duca felt the need to compare the West of 2018 to Spears of 2007. One ‘crazy’ musician is as bad as the other, right?
It has been eleven years since Britney Spears had the most public of celebrity breakdowns. It’s been close to eleven years since she performed at the MTV Video Music Awards, in a performance that felt like a televised declaration of giving up. It’s been over eleven years since she shaved her head, close to eleven years since she lost physical custody of her two sons, and over ten years since she was committed to a psychiatric ward and put on involuntary hold. For ten years, she has been under a permanent conservatorship, giving her father complete control of her assets. It’s been a lifetime in celebrity years, one that feels like a different plane of existence for some of us. I remember the Spears spiral with such clarity, even though I was in high school at the time and liked to pretend I didn’t care about those darn celebs. Everyone seemed to have an opinion on Britney, and they were seldom positive or even sympathetic. Looking back, it’s tough to stomach how actively we consumed such an obviously horrific sight as a young mother of two’s mental health struggle, and then packaged it into early evening news coverage.
Nowadays, Britney seems to be living a pretty lovely life. Her impeccably earnest Instagram page highlights those sweet moments, from breakfast photos to inspiration memes to giddy mom videos of her kids skateboarding to her intense workout regime. The latter often involves footage with her boyfriend and trainer, Sam Asghari, where they simultaneously do push-ups (she does it on top of him while he moves) or she rewards each sit-up with a kiss. It’s the sort of show-off Instagram fitspo coverage that makes most of us roll our eyes, but throughout it, Spears looks endlessly enthusiastic. In one video, the pair dance together and it’s truly adorable. She looks great, he is stupidly attractive, and together they’re the sort of good-looking couple you could never be mad or jealous at. If Britney is living her best life now, then it’s certainly with style.
It’s easy to root for Britney. Pop culture treats women as disposable, even more so when they’re in an industry with such a pathetically short shelf life as pop music. Given how omnipresent she’s been in the entertainment world for over twenty years, it’s almost hard to believe that Britney is just 36 years old. Not a girl not yet a woman; or, at the very least, forever timeless and of her time. She’s been through it all and survived.
Not only that, but she’s managed to move on from the kind of agonizingly public troubles that would kill most careers and do it without ever talking about it. There was never a sit-down confessional with Oprah, never a Vogue profile where she revealed what ‘really happened’, she didn’t write a memoir or do a TV special or go on the circuit giving inspirational speeches. It’s not that she ignored what happened: She simply put a permanent ‘no comment’ status on it.
To understand how rare and unique this is, it’s worth understanding what the gossip world was like at that moment in time when Britney’s life became public property. We were in the liminal moment between the domination of tabloid culture and the birth of Twitter. TMZ was at its peak, some of the most famous women in the world were having children around the same time - Spears included - and the Hollywood party girl was a dominant figure on the front pages. Britney was part of that sphere - Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Mischa Barton - but wasn’t defined by it the way others were. These women - beautiful, thin, white, surrounded by money and drugs, and as famous as they would ever be - provided great copy. They played up to the ever-present paparazzi who trailed them from club to club, they wore the most expensive brands but seemingly never had any underwear, and they would hang around with the most eager hangers-on of the Beverly Hills inner-circle.
The tabloids had real clout in those heady days. TMZ was at the forefront of internet-based gossip, and for the briefest of moments we all took Perez Hilton seriously, but the meat of the coverage came from the magazines. They bought the paparazzi images, they crafted the narratives, and they milked this fad for all it was worth. Marriage and babies and glowing family moments makes for solid coverage, but nothing sells like a ‘love to hate’ story, and they all sold the same ones about Britney, Paris, and company: Look at those train-wrecks. It’s just disgusting, but don’t you ever look away.
Paris went to prison, Lindsay fell down and never got up, Mischa seemed to disappear, and Britney? We all know what happened there, in part because she was never left alone. They blinded her with camera flashes, screamed abuse and asked invasive questions, and then acted surprised when she found it all to be too much. Nobody stopped her from stumbling because they would have missed the shot. Her team never pulled the plug lest it meant lost dollars. The pain was scrawled across her face, but she still got invited to perform and talk, and by the time she was at the VMAs, her life had become a human version of bear baiting. Everyone made jokes about it, to the point where it became headline news when Craig Ferguson refused to do so.
In the Golden Age of Hollywood, if Spears were an actress struggling in the limelight, she could have had the protection of a studio and its fixers behind her to prevent such public pain. If it were to happen now, the volume of the struggles would possibly be more amplified than ever, but the chances are she could take to her own social media platforms to ‘set the record straight’. She’d be talked about more as a mentally ill woman and victim of circumstance, not a ‘train-wreck’. Instead, she just moved on. The elephant in the room would be alluded to now and then - literally in the case of an MTV promo she did with Russell Brand - but it was almost like the secret we universally agreed to keep. Some people cope with tragedy through candidness while others lock it all down. Given how much of her breakdown became everyone’s business, can you blame Spears for just not talking about it?
The Spears image was always one rooted in fantasy: The sexy schoolgirl, the blushing virgin who was a slave 4 U, the double-denim romance with Timberlake, the songs of want and need and hunger and S-E-X. Throughout several albums and minor reinventions, the central look of Britney has remained the same, unlike her most obvious influence, Madonna, who makes changes to keep ahead of the curve. Britney makes sexy pop-dance music, and there’s always a need for that. The tone’s gotten a little more camp - work, bitch! - but the objectives never shift. It seems to be the same for Britney herself - do the work and keep on trucking.
Spears’s residency in Vegas provided a more stable foundation for that trademark Britney style. She could do the shows, meet the fans, and then go home at the end of the night to her kids. As a singer and performer, Spears’s talents have always been questioned, and it’s clear that there are some nights where she isn’t as invested as others. Yet as a vessel, for music and emotions and fan investment, Spears is unbeatable in the modern pop realm. Everyone can sing along to her songs, way easier than, say, a Christina or Celine number. Everyone can enjoy those lyrics, be they delightful camp or tooth-rotting earnestness. Everyone can get behind the woman who hurt and struggled then got back on her feet and has never seemed happier.
We’re sick of watching fragile women in the public eye be torn to pieces, even though it still happens on a daily basis. It helps that we no longer seem to have the hunger for cannibalizing a struggling mother’s pain in the way we used to. If nothing else, we’re less direct about such assaults. Now that anyone can be a star with more urgency and accessibility thanks to social media, the pool of targets has widened exponentially. The sad chances are that the future will see more breakdowns of major stars in the Spears vein, simply because humanity refuses to learn.
Nowadays, Spears has normalcy, or the Hollywood megastar approximation of it. She’s the over-enthusiastic mother who’s mega proud of her sons’ achievements, from their skateboarding to their Dragonball Z fan-art. She excludes herself from most political discussions, but is happy enough to share earnest platitudes about women sticking together and breaking the glass ceiling. Of course, there’s also the trainer boyfriend, who’s exactly the kind of man you want to see Spears with now she’s got her groove back. She provides enough of an insight into her world - however carefully choreographed it may be - to keep the press off her back, and it’s enough for us. The copy’s better when people fall, but nothing can beat the innocent thrill of seeing someone at their best. And Britney deserves her best life.
(Header photograph from Getty Images. You better work, bitch!)