The Legendary Miss Britney Spears

Britney Spears has reigned as the “Princess of Pop” for over two decades. She’s one of the most controversial public figures of all time, with The Seattle Times labeling her as “a punch line” and Fox News calling her a “train wreck” during her public mental breakdown in 2007. Recently, however, she’s experienced a surge in popularity due to her conservatorship. Nearly everyone familiar with the music industry knows of Britney Spears, but it’s interesting to consider that most people in our generation aren’t really old enough to remember her prime. Who is Britney Spears, and how did she get here?

Spears first entered the music scene when she appeared on a talent competition show, Star Search, in 1992. A video of her performance is available online. When I first watched it I was immediately struck by how deep and powerful her voice was at 10 years old. She’s a natural alto singer, so it’s interesting to think about how she sang her most popular songs, like “Baby One More Time,” in a nasally, breathy tone. 

According to Us Weekly, Spears signed her first record deal with Jive Records in 1997 following an appearance on The Mickey Mouse Club. You can also find videos of this stint online, and like the Star Search video you’ll notice how much more resonant her vocals are compared to those on her studio albums. On The Mickey Mouse Club, Spears sings in a lower octave that sounds less strained than the breathy, soprano range she uses on her studio albums. She also uses louder dynamics in her singing on The Mickey Mouse Club while her voice is much quieter on her albums. This higher-pitched, nasally, and breathy tone is more childlike than her naturally powerful and soulful voice, which speaks to the infantile persona her team crafted for her that lingers throughout her career. In her memoir, Spears writes, “I had been so infantilized that I was losing pieces of what made me feel like myself.” The Independent writes of this persona, “A 17-year-old in a school uniform was bound to get attention, and she was just above the age of consent, so the paedophilia-hating western world felt justified in lapping it up.” Spears could have been just as phenomenal without her signature baby voice and overly sexualized appearance, the latter of which incited extreme scrutiny from the media, which was a major cause of Spears’s public mental breakdown. The music industry runs on sex appeal and pedophilia, and Spears is a symbol of this abuse.

After signing on with Jive Records, Spears released three back-to-back studio albums: “Baby One More Time” (1999), “Oops!… I Did It Again” (2000), and “Britney” (2001). These were instant hits, making Spears the best-selling teenage artist of all time. Her music is bubbly, fun and captures the essence of girlhood for many women. Spears’s songs talk about love, partying, and female empowerment. In many of the lyrics, Spears is in a position of power as the seductress, while men chase after her. Although her overly-sexualized persona speaks to the misogyny of the music industry, I would argue that the lyrics of her songs are inherently feminist. Spears’s music conveys a message of not chasing after men, but simply embracing your own sexual power. 

Spears continued to skyrocket to fame in the following years, finding herself constantly in the spotlight. During this time, Spears began a relationship with her backup dancer, Kevin Federline, and the two married after dating for six months in 2004. Spears and Federline had two children together, Sean Preston and Jayden James, before their divorce in 2007.

When Spears gave birth to her first son, Sean Preston, she had to navigate the early stages of motherhood while constantly being in the public eye. A paparazzi took a controversial photo of Spears driving with her infant son on her lap, which Spears later explained was in a rushed attempt to flee from paparazzi. The media’s focus on her family grew more persistent. A few months after the first photo was taken, the paparazzi bombarded a pregnant Spears with her infant son causing her to nearly trip and drop her baby. Spears fled inside a cafe, where paparazzi took photos of her crying from outside the restaurant’s window. The paparazzi’s harassment of Spears shows the lack of boundaries the media had regarding Spears’s personal life. The media felt entitled to Spears, viewing her more as an object or a commodity than a person. Although the media’s intrusion was apparent throughout her career, considering the timing of her mental breakdown, it really became a problem for her once her children were involved. This speaks to how much she loves her children, despite tabloids labeling her as “Hollywood’s worst mother” and “bad mom Britney.”

The media’s mistreatment of Spears ultimately led to her infamous public breakdown. During this breakdown Spears shaved her head, got two new tattoos, and attacked a paparazzi’s car with an umbrella. Us Weekly reports that after she shaved her head, Spears said “‘I don’t want anyone touching me. I’m tired of everyone touching me.’” Her desperate plea shows her feelings of objectification. All she wanted was autonomy and privacy, but the media even felt entitled to the intimate details of her mental breakdown. One month before her breakdown, Spears posted on her website that the “‘media has had a lot of fun exaggerating my every move.’” She clearly felt like the music industry demeaned and dehumanized her, leading to her breakdown that the media used to exploit her even further.

Spears’s 2007 incident was a turning point in her life. She lost custody of her children, and her father, Jamie Spears, placed her under a legal conservatorship in February 2008. This conservatorship gave him complete control over Spears’s finances and her autonomy, taking away her ability to make any decisions for herself. It is truly horrific to imagine anyone having that amount of control over another person, especially when you consider how Jamie Spears completely abused his power over Spears. Jamie Spears also financially exploited Spears, giving her an allowance of $2,000 per week while her father’s salary as conservator was about $16,000 per month. The BBC reports that this was held up in court as financial misconduct and the dissipation of Spears’s fortune. It is insane to think about how Spears was working professionally for nearly 14 years without having access to any of the money she earned from her performances and appearances. She was essentially working for free.

The New Yorker explains that conservatorships are intended for people who cannot take care of themselves. This is an immediate red flag considering Spears had never been incapable of taking care of herself. According to BBC, in the years Spears was under the conservatorship, she released three albums, held a Las Vegas residency and made numerous television appearances, including a stint as a judge on the X Factor. The mere fact that Spears still performed and worked while under a conservatorship should have shown that it was an unnecessary guardianship. Spears even wrote of her 2008 album Circus, “‘I sometimes thought that it was almost funny how I won those awards for the album I made while I was supposedly so incapacitated that I had to be controlled by my family.’” Spears highlights the irony of her conservatorship in that if she really needed a conservator for her health and well-being, she would not have been working and performing professionally for the entire duration of the conservatorship.

During the conservatorship, Spears was not allowed to discuss its existence. A team member told The New Yorker that Spears was “‘not supposed to discuss the conservatorship,’” and Spears later confirmed this in court, saying “‘It concerns me I’ve been told I’m not allowed to expose the people who did this to me.’” This restriction implies her team understood the ethical implications of their treatment of Spears and desired to keep it a secret to avoid the ramifications of public backlash. This is why the Hulu documentary, Framing Britney Spears (2021) sparked so much interest and controversy. Most people had no idea Spears was under a conservatorship, and no one could have imagined how oppressive it was. This outrage spurred the #FreeBritney movement, which advocated for her personal autonomy and independence. In April 2021, Spears requested a hearing to discuss the conservatorship, which was then scheduled for June 2021.

The New Yorker reports that on the day of the hearing, Spears revealed to the court that she had been isolated, medicated, financially exploited and emotionally abused. She claimed that the California legal system made her “‘feel like I was dead’” and “‘like I didn’t matter.’” The fact that she endured these feelings of isolation and dehumanization for over a decade is a testament to her strength and resilience. The legal system should never have permitted this extended period of abuse and exploitation, and I admire her steadfast fortitude while she felt helpless and abandoned.

Spears’s conservatorship officially ended on Nov. 12, 2021. It’s been over two years since its termination, and Spears has been up to a lot since then.

She married her long-time boyfriend Sam Asghari on June 9, 2022. The couple tried to get pregnant for a while but they ultimately didn’t succeed. Spears publicized most of their relationship on Instagram, frequently posting videos of him and their travels. Despite their seemingly happy online presence, in August 2023, People reported that after 14 months of marriage the couple split and filed for divorce. Spears commented on their separation in an Instagram post, saying she “couldn’t take the pain anymore.”

Shortly after her separation from Asghari, Spears published her highly anticipated memoir, The Woman In Me. In her memoir she talked about the behind-the-scenes of her public relationships, the nerve-wracking process of speaking out against her conservatorship, and her father’s physical and emotional abuse. Her book was a commercial success, and Variety reports that Spears has teased a Volume 2 of her memoir to come out in 2025. 

The memoir is a testament to how the media and the entertainment industry exploit and dehumanize women until they either fall out of the grace of public opinion or fall apart. The industry thrives on tearing down successful women, and Britney Spears is a survivor.

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