Britney Spears never used to be an enigma. In the early years of her career, she did interviews for print, TV and radio. She held press conferences and endured day-long junkets. She shot behind the scenes videos, documentaries, TV specials. Britney was candid and trusting. “I’m from the south,” she told the Observer in 2001, “so I’m a very open person and I’ve had to teach myself not to open up to too many people.”
These days however, if Britney interviews are granted, they are conducted under such strict terms that few publications have bothered. Even the radio and TV appearances when she has a record to sell are strictly surface level. Her music gives few clues to her state of mind. Her last four albums offer up sexy party tunes that don’t reflect the artist’s lived reality: now 39, by her own account she doesn’t drink, keeps a small circle of friends, only went out clubbing twice in the four years she spent in residence in Las Vegas, and prior to meeting current boyfriend Sam Asghari in 2016, was “over” dating.
So now, others speak on Britney’s behalf. In recent months, a glut of documentaries have either aired or gone into production with the aim of revealing “the truth” about the conservatorship she has lived under for 12 years, which gives her father, Jamie Spears, control of her estate and affairs, and Britney few more rights than a child. These all appear to have been completed without Britney’s involvement or consent and she has condemned them in Instagram posts, saying of the New York Times’ Framing Britney Spears: “I’ve always been so judged … insulted… and embarrassed by the media … and I still am till this day 👎🏼👎🏼👎🏼… I didn’t watch the documentary but from what I did see of it I was embarrassed by the light they put me in … I cried for two weeks and well … I still cry sometimes !!!!”
With opportunities to hear from Britney so scarce, it is little wonder then that her conservatorship hearing on 23 June, at which she is expected to address the Los Angeles court in person for the first time in three years in order to affirm her lawyer’s suggestion that she wants her father removed from the arrangement, has become such an anticipated fixture in the Britney calendar – it is so rare to hear the star speak, and know beyond doubt that it is her.
I'm in a transition, she said last week, and I'm enjoying myself. That's it
As well as doing no interviews, Britney hasn’t worked since cancelling her Vegas residency in January 2019, and in March last year she shared a meme vowing: “We will feed each other, re-destribute [sic] wealth, strike”, which some took to mean that the star herself had downed tools in protest at her lack of agency. Last week, she posted a short video on Instagram in which she said that she had “no idea” whether she would ever perform again, adding by way of explanation: “I’m having fun right now. I’m in a transition in my life and I’m enjoying myself, so that’s it.”
Britney’s happiness has been hard-won. Having rocketed to global fame aged 17, in 2007 she suffered an agonisingly public mental health crisis that led to her father taking over her affairs. In November 2008, just 10 months after she had been essentially sectioned, MTV aired a documentary, For the Record, in which Britney addressed the crisis. Over 60 minutes, she paints a portrait of herself as a lonely young woman, unsure who to rely on and struggling to cope. The conservatorship – at that time, still temporary – is spoken of in the abstract. Britney refers to the “groundhog day” feel to her life now that she is under such strict control, how there’s no excitement any more. She tells us she’s sad, and she cries. But she also displays a steely resilience, rejecting pity, and resolutely staying positive. The film is the last time the public heard from Britney in any substantive way. As time passed and her conservatorship was upgraded from temporary to permanent, she has withdrawn – or been kept away – from the media.
Britney’s Instagram account is now the only direct communication she has with the public. The content she posts – freeform dance videos, the same selfie multiple times, constant references to a mysterious project called “RED” – have led some fans to speculate that her “team” are editing her content in order to make her seem odd, though they are in fact pretty consistent with the Britney we know – someone who has been through some tough times and is committed to her own happiness: “Why highlight the most negative and traumatizing times in my life from forever ago ????” she asked in a 3 May post in which she discussed the BBC’s The Battle for Britney documentary.
The letters she wrote on her website between 2004 and 2007 were discernibly in the same voice, spelling out her desire for stability, for family, to experiment with all different types of art. “I just want the same things in life that you want … and that is to be happy,” she said in a post dated 28 May 2007. Some fans don’t believe in the authenticity of Britney’s Instagram because she doesn’t speak out about her legal issues – but maybe she simply doesn’t want to.
Britney did go off-script once – at a taping for an appearance on The Jonathan Ross Show in 2016 when promoting her album Glory. Although the conversation was edited out of the broadcast, I was in the audience. In a response to a question from Ross about why it had taken so long for Britney to have creative control over her music, she said: “I’ve been under this conservatorship for three years and I felt like a lot of decisions were made for me, so I wanted this to be my baby and I’ve been really strategic about it.” “For three years” was an odd detail given that she had been living with the conservatorship for almost a decade. It was perhaps a reference to a 2013 amendment filed by Jamie Spears and lawyer Andrew Wallet that gave them more power to change the way Britney’s money is invested because of “changing market conditions”. This was the first time their powers were extended – in subsequent years, further petitions were filed and granted that gave them increasing authority over Britney’s business dealings. Later in 2013, Britney announced her first Las Vegas residency supported by an album – Britney Jean – which was touted as her “most personal album yet”, but turned out to be anything but.
In September 2020, Britney’s lawyer, Samuel Ingham, told the court she was “vehemently opposed to this effort by her father to keep her legal struggle hidden away in the closet as a family secret”. She also welcomed the “informed support” of her fans, a statement seen widely as an endorsement of the Free Britney movement which campaigns for her release from the conservatorship, but which reads more closely as an expression of Britney’s desire to present the world with truth rather than speculation. There has since been greater transparency in proceedings, and more information has been made available to the general public. The BBC’s The Battle for Britney revealed a document on which her father had ticked a box saying that the singer was suffering from dementia at the time the conservatorship was enforced.
She posts that she is taking time to enjoy the little things, like dancing, trying on clothes and recreating a sandwich
Jamie Spears has never spoken publicly about the conservatorship but, in response to Framing Britney Spears, his attorney Vivian Thoreen told Good Morning America that he is a “fiercely loving, dedicated and loyal father who rescued his daughter from a life-threatening situation”, and that at the time of her breakdown she was being exploited – financially and otherwise – leading him to take control. “I understand that every story needs a villain,” Thoreen added, pointing out that father and daughter had spent a fortnight with other family members in Louisiana at the beginning of lockdown. “The people have it so wrong here.”
Perhaps the truth will be revealed on 23 June. Britney’s attendance in court is rare – she last appeared in 2019, accompanied by her mother Lynne, for a status hearing on her conservatorship. Fans from the Free Britney movement picketed the courthouse in support. That hearing was closed to the public at Britney’s request; she wished to keep information such as her medical records, information pertaining to her two teenage sons, and her business secrets private, a reminder that this is not an online mystery to be solved by armchair observers, but a real person’s life.
“People can take everything away from you, but they can never take away your truth,” Britney stated at the top of her cover of Bobby Brown’s My Prerogative, released in 2004. Who knows whether she feels the same way after 12 years of being silenced, misinterpreted or ignored. But if her posts on Instagram are to be believed, her legal issues aside, she may never have been happier.
She posts that she is taking time to enjoy the little things, like dancing, trying on clothes, recreating a sandwich she remembers fondly and generally having a normal life. There may just not be much more to Britney Spears than this, and she’s not overly concerned with whether you like it or not. “Hi my name is Britney Spears … nice to meet you,” she captioned a 30 April image of a small child sticking her middle finger up. “One of my strongest gifts is that I’m pretty straightforward.”