In his Number Ones column, Stereogum’s Tom Breihan made a good point about how there aren’t many feel-good stories in the history of popular music. As much as I like writing about music let’s face it, fame for most artists is a difficult thing to deal with. Fame usually means sacrificing your privacy having all your actions big or small be scrutinized by the media. You also have to navigate an industry that often rips off and exploits talent for profit while working hard to keep up the success. That’s not an easy way to live.
Take Britney Spears. For my entire life, Spears has been in the public spotlight in one way or another. At 17, she had already become the newest pop music sensation thanks to the blockbuster success of her debut single “…Baby One More Time” and its accompanying title album which still stands as the best-selling album by a teenage solo artist. From there, Spears’ star power got bigger and bigger selling millions of more albums and singles before she was out of her teens. As a result, her life became a public spectacle to fans and the media alike with her eye-catching and provocative music videos and performances giving us some of the most iconic pop culture moments of the past few decades.
But almost as soon as Spears got big, she became subjected to the type of intense media scrutiny that seems particularly cringe-worthy now. At first, people questioned her virginity and whether the sexy image she projected was appropriate for the kids who helped make Britney Spears famous. Then as she got older, her personal life began to overshadow her music with her breakup with fellow pop star Justin Timberlake to her marriages and her kids often being cast in a bad light.
Of course, we all know how this ends up resulting in a tumultuous 2007 with Spears exhibiting a mental breakdown for the world to see from shaving her hair, attacking a car with an umbrella, an underwhelming VMA performance all while divorcing her husband Kevin Federline complete with a custody battle over her two sons. Things got so bad that since 2008 Spears has been living under a court-approved conservatorship where she has no control over her finances and career decisions being seen as not capable of making her own decisions.
While this condition seems weird to imagine for Spears who’s managed to comeback since it hasn’t been until the past couple of years when fans and celebrities alike began rallying for Spears to be freed from her conservatorship under the social media campaign #freebritney. This has been amplified by rare statements Spears herself has made wanting her father Jamie to be removed as the conservator. The campaign has brought up a lot of discussions from the nature of conservatorships to the broader discussion of how Britney Spears has been treated throughout her career, discussions that the New York Times is shining a light on in their new FX documentary Framing Britney Spears.
Director and producer Samantha Stark splits the documentary into two parts. The first part essentially acts as a retrospective of Britney Spears’ career showing how we got to the point where she needed to be put under a conservatorship. We see discussions about her early life growing up in small-town Kentwood, Louisiana and her early taste of fame singing on Star Search along with acting on the Mickey Mouse Club before getting signed by Jive Records. Then, we see her hitting the big time when “…Baby One More Time” takes off through various media clips and interviews as well as unseen footage of Spears before getting to her public breakdown period.
The second half then touches on her conservatorship with lawyers, legal experts, and #freebritney activists being interviewed. It highlights the strange dichotomy of the fact that this woman is able to return to a successful career while being told that she’s not able to make her own decisions. On the surface it all seems good again for Spears appearing on How I Met Your Mother, releasing more hit albums and singles, performing constantly including a hugely profitable Vegas residency, launching a perfume line, judging on The X-Factor, and making public appearances on late night and award shows. Footage from one of Spears’ 2009 concerts shows fans loving the show declaring that Britney is back but through all of this she has been under the careful control of her conservatorship.
Spears’ former lawyer Adam Streisand recalls meeting with her during the initial court proceedings over the conservatorship and felt she was capable of making her own decisions noting that Spears specifically didn’t want her father to be the conservator, a sentiment echoed by her brother Bryan in a rare interview last year with the podcast As NOT Seen on TV. For the longest time, no one seemed to take much note of the conservatorship until the hosts of Britney Gram, a podcast dedicated to Spears and her Instagram page, posted an episode where an anonymous lawyer connected to Spears’ family stated some concerns about the current condition after canceling another planned Vegas residency and entered into a rehab facility.
From there, attention exploded with #freebritney becoming a rallying cry by supporters to get Spears out of her conservatorship. We see celebrities joining in solidarity and supporters rallying in public including at a November court hearing where a judge denied Spears’ attempt to remove Jaime as conservator but did allow the company Bessemer Trust to come on as co-conservator as part of her wishes. Despite all this attention, it’s safe to say this battle isn’t going to end anytime soon.
Since the entire Spears family either declined or didn’t respond to the Times’ invitation to participate in this documentary, the analysis we get is understandably limited but also insightful into the logistics of the conservatorship and the various cultural attitudes that allowed us to treat Spears the way that we did. One insight that stood out for me was when critic Wesley Morris noted Spears’ rise to fame amid the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal and how it led to society discussing sex more openly but in an often misogynistic way that shamed girls for their sexuality hence the questions about Spears’ virginity and her sexy image.
Other insights I found insightful were with people who knew Spears giving us the closest picture of her that we get here. People like Kim Kaiman, former marketing executive at Jive Records, and former backup dancer Kevin Tancharoen described Spears as a determined person who knew what she wanted. Her former assistant Felicia Culotta talked about her years of supporting Spears on her tours and how she gave everyone in her hometown $10,000 for Christmas after getting famous. Culotta seems like someone who was just happy to see Spears do well saying she wanted to speak to remind people of why they fell in love with her in the first place over 20 years ago.
One point I took issue with was when Kaiman described the musical atmosphere of the late ‘90s as being all about boy bands which seems ignorant when you consider that era was dominated by girl groups and singers like the Spice Girls and Destiny’s Child. Considering Kaiman was in a position where she would have known about what was happening in music at the time, I don’t know how she wouldn’t know that.
As someone who was too young to remember any of this, it’s weird watching a lot of the old media footage and seeing how people were perfectly OK with this. Aside from asking a teenage girl about her virginity, we see one reporter ask Spears about her breasts, journalists like Diane Sawyer and the now disgraced Matt Lauer causing Spears to break down crying in interviews, the First Lady of Maryland expressing her desire to shoot Spears, late-night hosts making jokes about her public breakdown, and the game show Family Feud poking fun at her breakdown with the survey “Name something Britney Spears lost in the past year.”
One major takeaway from Framing Britney Spears is the classic tale of how the press and we as a society for as much as we built up Britney Spears were also happy to take her down for our enjoyment. An example highlighted in the documentary is how Spears’ relationship with Timberlake was seen as the perfect pop music fairytale but when they broke up everyone started blaming Spears for the relationship ending. Timberlake added to that narrative with his classic hit “Cry Me A River” whose lyrics were inspired by the breakup and got a Britney lookalike to appear in the video in a sort of revenge fantasy. There’s also audio of Timberlake on a radio show where he admits to having sex with Spears with him and the host acting like the immature high school guys who brag about sex all the time.
As we get later into the 2000s, we’re told the uncomfortable truth that both the paparazzi and Britney Spears needed each other and that headlines about her helped with their business at the height of celebrity tabloid culture. Even as she started showing clear signs for help, that was still a lot of people who were happy to profit off of her suffering. And the sad part of it all is that even as people have become more sympathetic toward Spears and mental health issues, there is still no happy ending to this chapter. Outside of a coordinated MTV documentary in 2008, Spears has rarely talked about the conservatorship so we don’t know outside of court documents and speculation how she really feels about it all.
A lot of what’s discussed in Framing Britney Spears isn’t exactly new when you know about Spears’ history but it is an interesting watch nonetheless. It’s an investigative look into a modern pop icon who from the moment she broke through became the victim of a misogynistic media culture that almost destroyed her and in some regards is still living with the consequences of it. Ultimately, it’s a documentary where like much of these stories of fame there is no feel-good quality and you’re left to wonder how we all allowed this to happen.
Framing Britney Spears is currently available to stream on Hulu