There’s a Black Mirror episode — “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” — where Miley Cyrus plays singer Ashley O, whose minders distil her consciousness into a range of interactive dolls (the Ashley Too) for retail. As the real Ashley grows hostile to her bubblegum-cute persona, her aunt-slash-manager decides that she should be put in a coma and replaced with a hologram. A rogue Ashley Too recruits a fan to save the real Ashley, the hologram scam is scuppered, and the real Ashley gets even realer with some black eyeliner and nu-metal-ish music. Strike one for authenticity, guitar-based celebrations all round.
Except, if you knew about the #FreeBritney campaign, this felt like something else. Not a tech-flavoured parable about the commoditising effects of the pop industry, but a straight-up retelling of a story about Britney Spears, who for the past 12 years has had no legal control over her life while her family has made every decision for her. In 2008, Britney — who by then had been shockingly famous for a decade, since the release of “… Baby One More Time” — had a very public breakdown. She shaved her head. She attacked the paparazzi. She lost custody of her children for a time. She was taken into hospital strapped to a gurney, and all this was harrowingly documented by the eager press.
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Around this time, I woke up in the middle of the night, turned on the World Service, caught the latest update on the Britney situation, and semi-consciously decided that the first thing I would do the next morning would be to write Britney a letter inviting her to stay with me. She just needed someone to look out for her for a bit, and boy am I good at looking out for Britney, who I’ve loved since the first time I saw the “Baby” video. I put a poster of Britney in her teenage bedroom in my own teenage bedroom and had to, excruciatingly, un-out myself when this led everyone to assume I was mostly into girls.
No pop star has ever arrived with such a perfect statement of what they are, and what they mean. Here’s the former Disney Mousketeer, now 16, surrounded by a pounding Max Martin production, big-eyed in school uniform and moaning out every word, absolutely desperate with desire — with love, because Britney’s S&M-skirting invitation to hit her (figuratively!) one more time is all directed at one baby. And of course, we all knew she was a virgin. That was part of the sell. She had to be in on it, didn’t she?
Maybe my 17-year-old self was making some generous assumptions about how far Britney was directing this, but don’t teenage girls always make generous assumptions about their command over the world? Anyway, the Britney template was established: half unstoppable purpose (hit me!), half hopeless supplication (when I’m not with you I lose my mind!). On top of this, by her second album, the irresistible phoniness of this confection was being acknowledged in songs like “Lucky”, a ballad about a “Hollywood girl” who’s “lost in an image, in a dream.” She had to be in on it. Didn’t she?
The best of Britney’s fame songs is probably “Piece of Me”, which was released in November 2007. In it, Britney — by then well into her “hot mess” era, with two broken marriages and one abortive rehab stint — goes in on her tabloid image. “I’m Miss American Dream since I was 17… Mrs She’s Too Big, Now She’s Too Thin,” she chants. The refrain is classic Britney, part come-on and part threat: “You wanna piece of me?” It sounded like someone throwing her own coverage back in the media’s face and taking charge.
A few months later, she was strapped to that gurney and in charge of nothing. From that point, amid rumours of mental illness and substance abuse, she was put under a court-ordered conservatorship, which gave her father control over essentially her entire life — her finances, as well as her physical and mental health. In the public account of the Britney story, this is where the show got back on the road. Head shaving: out. In: mammothly profitable Las Vegas residencies. I saw the touring version in Scarborough, in 2018, and God she was good when she was performing.
When she wasn’t in motion, though, she seemed a little vacant, and I’m not fully sure she knew she was in Scarborough (the best we got was a “Hello UK!”). This is where a second version of the Britney story cuts in, the one that’s been assembled by supposition and guesswork. This is the version the #FreeBritney campaign is working to. For them, Britney, like fictional Ashley O in Black Mirror, has been wholly co-opted by the people around her — her family — who they believe are exploiting her for maximum financial gain. The ACLU has even offered to support her in challenging the conservatorship arrangement. Her latest attempt to remove her father from her affairs was just deferred by a court till 2021.
What’s actually going on with Britney is difficult to say, because the hearings on her conservatorship are all closed, and her family deny any charge of acting against Britney’s best interests. Fans have been left picking over her social media for clues, which is, it’s fair to say, opaque. But even the most generous guess at what’s happening leaves a bad taste. If this is a woman who really is incompetent to run her own life, and has to be overseen in every particular by her guardians, why was I squealing away in the stands watching her do hot Thatcherite self-determination anthem “Work Bitch”?
Being a hypocrite, I guess. Being a fan. Getting my piece of her. Other artists play off their persona and their private lives in their music: Gaga, Beyoncé, Taylor Swift — in fact, all the most exciting pop stars since Britney have followed her in making their music primarily a record of their relationship to fame. But with Britney, it seems as though the image long ago outran the woman underneath it, and even the supporters who want to free her still want her to be their Britney.
The most heartbreakingly implausible bit of that Black Mirror is that the pop star character gets her liberation, because it’s hard to see Britney’s way out. If she succeeds in cutting her father from the conservatorship — even if she’s eventually deemed too competent to be released from it entirely — what does freedom look like for someone whose entire adult life has been spent being famous for being Britney Spears? The most constricting part of celebrity isn’t the people who hate you: it’s the people who think they love you, and who think that love means they own you.