Fans of Britney Jean will already know that there are two kinds of trouble in Spears paradise. The first is an old story, the one where Britney in 2008 refused to hand over her kids to former husband Kevin Federline’s people. The police arrived, suspected she was on something, and she was 5150’d—i.e., involuntarily committed to psychiatric care. She lost custody of her sons. Her father Jamie Spears and a lawyer named Andrew M. Wallet became Britney’s conservators, a role for those who usually care for the extremely old, demented, or otherwise very ill. Over a decade later, the conservatorship remains in place, severely limiting Britney’s ability to make decisions for herself. Britney is not allowed to drive a car. Every one of Britney’s purchases is documented for legal posterity. Britney is not allowed to have a smartphone. Britney is 37 years old.
The second drama is more recent, and related to the first: #FreeBritney. You may have seen this hashtag online. Various explainer articles pick apart the labyrinthine details, but the gist is this: In January, Britney dropped out of a Vegas residency to enter a psychiatric facility, citing stress from her father’s colon rupture.* In March, Wallet resigned from his position, leaving Jamie Spears her sole conservator. Already suspicious over an uncharacteristic emoticon in one of Britney’s Instagram posts (she prefers emoji) announcing the cancellation of her Vegas show, a fan podcast called Britney’s Gram then aired a call from an anonymous source who alleged that Britney was being held against her will at the facility after refusing to take her medication or to heed the prohibition on driving. The source also claimed that her father had canceled the Vegas gig in retaliation for her misbehavior. The hosts of Britney’s Gram told Jezebel that they verified the source’s identity, but have not released any corroborating information.
Picking up on Britney Gram’s story, the hashtag spread across Twitter and Instagram. Various celebrities have begun to repeat the refrain: It appeared on the rapper Eve’s shirt during a TV spot, and Miley Cyrus recently ad-libbed “Free Britney!” during a live performance. The viral rumors might be all guff, of course, but that barely matters to her fans: The hashtag is just the most recent expression of outrage at Britney’s years-long predicament. As far as we know, she has no illness debilitating enough to warrant a conservatorship under the ordinary application of the law. She was once branded crazy, so crazy she remains: totally without autonomy, cut off from the world, at the mercy of people who control her access to her children. It’s no wonder that the plight of Britney Spears continues to haunt us.
For a particular generation, Britney was the star. Whether they listened to her music or not, for the elder slice of millennials there was no avoiding the princess of pop. Without smartphones or on-demand digital entertainment, kids and tweens of the peak-Britney era (roughly 1999 to 2004) received their pop culture via television, radio, and magazines, which centralized and made concrete her celebrity.
What did she mean, then? Both everything and nothing. She was an appointed role model, with her compulsory virginity, those compulsory abs, that compulsory smile. She was kitsch and apolitical, on the surface of things. Her celebrity stood for a kind of ideology—sex-drenched chastity, beauty seen in the torso—divorced from anything in particular aside from her origin myth in Kentwood, Louisiana: Simple Bible Belt child gets a taste for fame on The Mickey Mouse Club. As in Vox Lux, Britney’s break came after she shopped a demo in New York at age 15. Jive Records sent her to record an album in Sweden, and she soon became the biggest pop star in the world.
So, for “us”— the people who were the right age to be changed forever by the superstardom of Britney Jean Spears—she was a cultish idol. Her mythology has now been emptied out, since it turns out she was doing drugs and having sex while pretending not to, like everybody else. When she danced alongside Michael Jackson or was kissed by Madonna, she was anointed successor to a throne that no longer exists. She was 18 in the year 2000, as if born to usher in a new millennium. Then 9/11 happened and the internet altered the transmission of entertainment forever, obliterating her particular brand of Pepsi-shilling, pretty-girl redemption.
Then she collapsed under the weight of her colossal fame. The day Britney shaved her head—February 16, 2007—was the pop culture equivalent of an earthquake, beamed globally. Her raw anger, which found its expression in Britney removing her hair and making ugly faces, was a shock to some, but relatable to anyone who has felt trapped by the entertainment industry’s visual standards. For the fans who spent their teenage years emulating her and suffering in the process, the revelation that Britney was suffering, too, represented an enormous ideological myth popping like a balloon.
That disillusionment was generational, and not confined to the world of pop music. Between the years 2007 and 2010, as the economy ground to a halt and Iraq burned, millennials learned en masse that their authority figures had been corrupt and dishonest. Britney is just one person, of course, with her own specific travails, but celebrity has a way of transforming the personal into the political, and her madness roughly coincided with the shattering of the millennial American dream. The most American pop star turned out not to have been a pure persona, after all, but a human being forced to suffer the same bullshit as everybody else.
That core demographic’s identification with Britney has never really wavered, and it is partly why Britney’s ongoing conservatorship troubles people so deeply. Chris Crocker’s “Leave Britney Alone” video in 2007 was among the first viral clips of the YouTube age, amusing because he was so abjectly upset over somebody who did not know of his existence, but again relatable because her fans also suspected that only they were really on her side.
Now we take mental illness in our celebrities seriously. We worry for Kanye West and other bipolar stars who don’t seem to be receiving proper treatment. But back then, in the late aughts, all those collapsing starlets were fodder for the tabloids. Nearly every one of them—Tara Reid, Lindsey Lohan, Mischa Barton—had been a child star, puppeteered by shadowy older executives. When their creations started to become defective, those star-makers abandoned their protégés, just as their fans were abandoned by their own elders. It felt as if every person over the age of 50 was throwing up their hands and saying, “Oops! We did it again.”
At the very moment Britney’s generation became adults, they realized that their parents were idiots and that their idol was mad. Not mad with self-hatred, exactly, or mad like the madwoman in the attic, but mad because the very ingredients of her public persona guaranteed that it would unhinge her mind. The madness was in us, too, like one of those crawling scorpions from The Matrix.
The media industry has recently been engaged in a project of rewiring our memories of the 1990s, focused on redeeming controversial women like Monica Lewinsky, Anita Hill, and Lorena Bobbitt. There is space in that canon for the fallen starlets of the 2000s. Like much else in our gilded childhoods, those women lived fictions created by adults whose betrayals came unstuck all at once. Vindicating Britney Spears would mean vindicating ourselves and the future. And the main problem right now is that Britney is not free to even read this article on a smartphone.
It’s easy to forget how sad a lot of the early Britney songs were: “From the Bottom of My Broken Heart,” “Everytime,” even “…Baby One More Time.” In each, she pines, regrets, and pleads. Picture her now, whipping her head to one side then back again, her big eyes wetly beseeching some absent, universal lover.
She doesn’t really dance anymore. Instead, Britney now pitches her comeback material squarely at her key demographic: adults who see the intelligence and joy in her silly glamor. She knows that pre-2007 Britney produced canonical works of pop that shaped the hearts and minds of 2019’s adults. On “Work Bitch” (2013), she sang “You want a Lamborghini? Sippin’ martinis? / Look hot in a bikini?” in a ridiculous British accent. I hope she knows how much we love her for it.
Last Friday, Britney and both of her parents appeared in a Los Angeles court that had been emptied of press and fans. By the end of the hearing, Judge Brenda Penny had decreed that Britney would undergo a “730 expert evaluation,” a type of independent assessment that courts often order during custody disagreements. Whether the evaluation will concern Britney’s custody of her children or her own conservatorship is not known at this time.
*A previous version of this article stated that Spears dropped out of her Vegas residency in October 2018. She dropped out in January of this year.