adroitBritney Spears has found her life back under the microscope following the release of the documentary Framing Britney Spears. The story the film chooses to tell is contextualised by what we now understand as the rampant misogyny of the mid-to-late 00s, painting an empathic portrait of a woman who had not previously found much sympathy in the mainstream.
This reappraisal doesn’t come out of the blue. In the last year, Britney has appealed to end the conservatorship —the legal arrangement that puts her father, Jamie Spears, in control of her personal life and finances— that has governed her for the last thirteen years. Framing Britney Spears aims to explain the events leading to the conservatorship’s institution, aided by archival footage and the insight of journalists, lawyers, Britney’s former assistant and the prominently featured #FreeBritney movement, which agitates and sows theories around her situation.
Notably missing is Britney herself. In closing, the film-makers reveal that they don’t know whether their interview requests even reached her. Her absence gives the film an odd texture —akin to how Amy or Whitney: Can I Be Me handle their deceased subjects: in retrospect and with hindsight. Framing Britney Spears hews closely to the established rags-to-riches narrative that provides the framework for these stories. It begins with a struggle: Britney the poor kid from Louisiana, Amy from a working-class background in London, Whitney born into “the hood” of Newark, New Jersey. Each had a talent and a passion inside them, some sort of undeniable magic. And when that magic was harnessed, by a manager, or a record label —a man who knew how to wield it— it transformed these women’s lives beyond their wildest dreams … until they flew too close to the sun and died. The end.
Women in music and especially pop have historically struggled to control their narratives. Part of the difficulty is that the male perspective permeates every single part of the creative process: writing, producing, A&Ring, styling, shooting, managing, selling.
It seems no coincidence that Beyoncé’s almost complete withdrawal from the media came after 2014’s “elevator incident”. After footage leaked from security cameras at the Standard Hotel post-Met Gala showed Solange berating and physically attacking Jay-Z, allegedly in emotional defence of her older sister, Beyoncé has not given an interview of substance in almost six years. No one knows what happened that night and why.
Rihanna’s career changed course the night of 8 February 2009. The day before she was due to perform at the Grammys, a violent attack by her then boyfriend, singer Chris Brown, derailed the image of the good girl gone bad and made her a world-famous domestic abuse survivor. As if the tabloid press picking over the details of a traumatic personal event wasn’t painful enough, LAPD officers leaked images of Rihanna’s facial injuries.
In the immediate aftermath, Rihanna was praised for her resilience. She threw herself into work. By 2012, however, the couple were reunited. In reconciling with Brown, and thus failing to deliver the satisfying conclusion to the narrative the media had woven on her behalf, Rihanna was deemed the “wrong” kind of victim, healing in the “wrong” way.
Six years after that February night, Rihanna told Vanity Fair of her unease at how the attack loaded her with baggage she was reluctant to carry. “For me, and anyone who’s been a victim of domestic abuse, nobody wants to even remember it. Nobody even wants to admit it. So to talk about it and say it once, much less two hundred times, is like … I have to be punished for it? It didn’t sit well with me.”
Then there is Taylor Swift, equally as adroit at public relations as she is at songwriting. From the beginning of her career when she was spelling out secret messages in her liner notes and planting Easter eggs in her music videos, Swift has made art out of weaving together the text, the subtext and the sub-subtext into an ongoing saga with A and B plots, callbacks, spinoffs and sequels that can feel impenetrable to a casual fan. The truth is what she says it is —in the Taylor Swift Cinematic Universe, she is writer, producer, director and star.
Swift is anomalous among these other A-list music stars. Her origin myth is a riches-to-more-riches tale —the precocious kid who grew up on her parents’ Christmas tree farm appears less folksy when you learn her father was a stockbroker who purchased a 3 per cent stake in her first record company, Big Machine and hired a guitar tutor to work with his daughter in twice-weekly three-hour sessions. But a privileged straight white woman is still liable to suffer under patriarchy. Swift has dealt with stalkers, sexual assault and the frustration of having her life’s work traded between men in a deal that appears to be part good business sense, part petty personal dispute.
Swift’s feud with music manager Scooter Braun, who in 2019 purchased Big Machine (and with it Swift’s masters) for $300m, has deep roots. Braun manages Kanye West, who interrupted Swift’s acceptance speech at the 2009 MTV VMAs, setting in motion a narrative that she has never been able to control —and not for lack of trying. Her relative privilege tips the scales in her favour just enough for her to be able to exploit that small advantage.
To gain power —and crucially, to retain it— you need a reserve of it to begin with. Too many young women in pop are forced to build their foundations in shifting sands, which leaves their careers liable to topple when the media wrecking ball swings around.
Which brings us back to Britney, who truly did come from nothing and nowhere to become an icon. Marooned by her own unfathomable celebrity, she has supposedly become “unknowable”. But this convenient characterisation disregards what she has always shown us of herself —a small-town southern girl with immeasurable talent not just as a singer or a dancer, but as a person who can connect with others. Perplexed by her guilelessness, the media forced her into a virgin/whore dichotomy that presaged her fall from grace.
After an initial wave of acclaim for Framing Britney Spears, critics have started to question the documentary’s centring of the #FreeBritney movement —a group that claims to act in her best interest yet is simply the latest party to project its narrative on to the star. Only Britney has the right to tell her own story, but her legal situation makes this seem unlikely, at least for now: her requests that her father be removed as conservator have been met with half-measures, with a judge instituting another party alongside Jamie Spears to run her affairs.
It took Mariah Carey, another global icon from humble beginnings, thirty years to find the voice to reclaim her story in her own words —in last year’s memoir, The Meaning of Mariah Carey— and in doing so to assert her humanity and agency, and to cast a disparaging light on the forces that profited from undermining it. You can imagine a Britney memoir doing similar work. Until she has her say, her story will remain pitifully incomplete— framed as a historic morality tale when she is eminently capable of another triumphant act. The tale of the pop princess locked in the ivory tower doesn’t have to be a tragedy.