Why does the caged bird sing? Credit: Noam Galai/FilmMagic

July 14, 2021   6 mins

Where were you when the End of History ended? I don’t mean 9/11 (I was up a hill in Scotland) or when Lehman Brothers collapsed (drunk in a bar in Covent Garden). I mean in 2007, the year the iPhone came out, when Chris Crocker had a meltdown about Britney Spears on YouTube, and the internet ate reality.

Crocker’s meltdown racked up more than 2 million views in the first 24 hours, and scored him appearances on CNN, MSNBC, The Today Show and the rest. It was in response to another, far more high-profile breakdown: the public psychiatric implosion of Britney Spears herself, whose forensically-documented mental health issues dominated celeb gossip for years, and culminated in the imposition of a “conservatorship” in early 2008.

Spears is now contesting the conservatorship, with another hearing scheduled for today. But it’s perhaps less a question of whether Britney can escape conservatorship, than of whether any of us can escape a culture and politics now dragging us all into a similar state.

Britney Spears first entered the public eye aged 11, as a star on the Disney Channel’s The Mickey Mouse Club alongside Justin Timberlake. She was 16, in 1998, when she donned a schoolgirl outfit straight out of a porno-flick for the video to Hit Me Baby One More Time. The song shot to no. 1 and catapulted Spears to megastar status, right at a hinge moment in our celebrity culture: the transition to the digital era.

But as the internet became a mass social phenomenon, the certainties that seemed so solid at the End of History began to melt away, even as the web sent the culture that promoted them roaring into overdrive. Britney’s megastardom and mental breakdown encapsulated that moment: a sweet, heady, fruit, perfectly ripe and moments from rotting.

Her Noughties videos drip with baroque, jaded eroticism: a pure End of History vibe. From XXX schoolgirl she blossomed to bondage-gear comic-book villainess; rubber-clad space vixen; dive-bar stripper. The images play with innocence violated, kink and commerce, class inequality and love and uncontrollable desire.

It’s all overlaid with a glossy knowingness that suggests for those who only know how to play the game, everything is within our grasp. We all have freedom, this imagery hints, to warp and disrupt every imaginable social and cultural norm. We can do so because we know liberal capitalist democracy has triumphed, history has ended, and the world has been flattened to a giant playground for freedom, sex, and shopping.

But even as the pre-internet music industry was manufacturing Britney Spears as a global megastar along well-trodden entertainment-industry lines, this entire approach to celebrity was under attack by something new: the attention economy.

Internet-dazzled futurists at the time pointed to the emerging landscape of social media and virality, the self-creating media stars of YouTube and the like, and extolled the promise of ‘disintermediation’ to give the whole world a voice. But if the digital revolution created new ways to find an audience, it did so in no small part by destroying and replacing the “legacy” media.

As reporters gave way to “citizen journalists” and vloggers, the once-clear boundary between celebrities and their audience wavered. Crocker himself epitomises this shift: he is one of the first individuals to become internet-famous, rather than having acquired fame offline. He initially went viral on MySpace, before his weeping YouTube defence of Britney took off.

The emergence of figures such as Crocker drove an appetite for intimate-feeling, rough-and-ready voyeuristic material. Meanwhile, the sheer endlessness of the internet drove a suddenly bottomless hunger for content, whether true or not, which put paid to any residual self-restraint or journalistic integrity in the brutal contest for eyeballs.

Though Spears had been famous for years, digital-age celebrity was something new. Publications such as Valleywag and Popbitch spawned a thousand imitators all fighting for clicks. Paris Hilton, who (along with Spears and another former child star, Lindsay Lohan) formed the Holy Trinity of Noughties celeb-gossip, describes the paparazzi in this era as “out of control”. “Fighting over getting the shot, pushing each other against my car, scratching it with their cameras. It was overwhelming and frightening.”

Many of the songs on Blackout, the 2007 album Spears released shortly before her breakdown, convey a sense of relentless exposure and — as in “Piece of Me” — of being devoured, bite by bite.

In February 2007, Spears appeared at a hair salon. As a mob of paparazzi hammered on the salon doors, Spears demanded the stylist shave her head. When the stylist demurred, Spears grabbed the clippers and did it herself. According to the hairdresser, she declared: “I’m sick of people touching my hair”: as though making herself ugly might stop people touching her, staring at her, wanting a piece of her.

It didn’t work. Later that year, another swarm of paparazzi photographed Spears strapped to a gurney, being wheeled away into an ambulance.

But her longing to re-assert personal boundaries, and some measure of private existence, wasn’t in the interests of those around her. Following a similarly public breakdown over roughly the same period, Lindsay Lohan more or less abandoned celebrity, and has since largely disappeared from the limelight. But rather than allowing Spears to withdraw like Lohan did, the Britney-industrial complex sent her to rehab, then deprived her of personhood with the “conservatorship” legal arrangement — before putting her back to work as Britney Spears the celebrity.

Since she was deprived of control over her own affairs, Spears has released three albums and undertaken four stadium tours. We could debate whether or not this is an ethical thing to ask of someone who is deemed by the courts not to have capacity to manage her own affairs. But from the point of view of the fame machine, Spears’ inner life and personhood are largely beside the point. For there’s no money in privacy.

Lohan retreated into private life, and has been (by celebrity standards) skint ever since. Spears made, or was forced to make, the opposite trade – and the Britney-industrial complex has cashed in. Where she was reportedly down to her last few million at the point of breakdown, the New Yorker reports that she’s worth more than $60m now.

In the intervening years, the collapse between public and private that drove Spears and Lohan to breakdown has come for all of us. Every public social media post positions us as our own paparazzi: curators of our own micro-celebrity mythos, in exchange for the dopamine hit of one more “like” or “share”.

And in a world where privacy is increasingly meaningless, the fantasy-worlds of movie and music seem increasingly don’t cut it. Stronger, more intimate stuff is what garners the clicks. We’ve moved on from voyeuristically documenting the mental health difficulties of attractive young celebrities; now, it’s a race to give a platform to whatever is darkest and most baroque in the human psyche.

Chris Crocker’s own career trajectory epitomises the insubstantiality and sleaze of this new environment. Since 2007, he has cycled through every form of digital-era micro-celebrity imaginable, including attempts at reality TV and a music career, a stint in porn, and recent migration to — where else? — the intimate-seeming subscription porn website OnlyFans.

The hunt for dark, intimate, click-worthy curiosities has spawned a whole genre of (often female) confessional, including an entire sub-genre devoted to women losing things up their vaginas. If it’s not confessional, it’s grotesque: a Netflix dating show dresses contestants in given prosthetic makeup so a shark and a devil can go on a date. Drag queens read stories to children in public libraries. A male who identifies as a woman “breastfeeds” a real newborn baby on US television, and it’s treated not as child abuse but entertainment.

More subtly, every time we post, like, or share, we’re part of it. We’ve all acceded to the trade that was forced on Spears: hyper-visibility, at the expense of a private inner life. What does “privacy” even mean, in a world where hundreds of millions of people are happy for Google to index the content of their private emails in exchange for bottomless email storage?

It’s ironic, then, that Spears should have launched her legal campaign to end her conservatorship in 2020. For the pandemic has given us all a taste of the Britney lifestyle. Under Covid we were all suddenly in conservatorship: mediated, surveilled, shorn of autonomy, every movement controlled. And, also, pressured to go on working even as the norms of what we thought about citizenship dissolve around us, real-world social institutions collapse, and we transfer ever more of our inner lives into the attention economy.

The end of history, it turns out, actually was peak liberal democracy. We all laughed at Crocker, but he wasn’t just complicit in the new economy. He was also right about its tradeoffs. “All you people care about is making money off her,” he sobbed. “She’s a HUMAN!!!”. Crocker recognised the way Britney Spears’ personhood was already collateral damage, in the rush to transform her into a never-ending source of lucrative content.

Her song ‘Gimme More’ was fitting, Crocker declared, because “All you people want is more, more, more. Leave BRITNEY ALONE!!!” But instead of listening, we turned him into a meme. And now it’s too late: we’re all memes as well, passing figures in a parade of grotesques, our personhood discarded in exchange for free apps, hygiene theatre or a moment in the online limelight..

We need to reclaim a sense of what we won’t offer up to the entertainment machine: to find a way back to some measure of private life, as Lohan did. For it’s already becoming clear that a culture willing to replace private life with never-ending public carnival will be governed as Britney Spears is governed. It will be run as a therapeutic conservatorship by those who know best, whether we like it or not.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.