This month saw the release of The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears, a documentary examining the singer’s rise and fall and the neither-rising-nor-falling purgatorial state she’s been stuck in since she was placed under a court-sanctioned conservatorship 13 years ago. An examination, too, of the #FreeBritney movement, a campaign started by fans seeking to liberate her from the conservatorship, which gives other people, her father primarily, the legal right to control her life and finances.
The director, Samantha Stark, offers a comprehensive treatment, ticking off milestone after milestone. And yet a key milestone is missing, the one that proves Britney’s fall was another kind of rise, a pinnacle that only looked like a nadir, and among the most important—and most misunderstood—pop-culture events of the new century: her appearance at the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards, in Las Vegas.
The V.M.A.’s had been Britney’s to lose since the late 90s. Not as a nominee, though as that too. As a performer. She’d knocked ’em dead, deader, deadest for years: from the homeroom she’d hijacked in “… Baby One More Time” (1999) to the mock striptease she’d delivered in “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (2000), to the live python she’d let writhe around her neck in “I’m a Slave 4 U” (2001), to the kiss she, the dewy young bride in white go-go boots, laid on her groom, a très studly looking Madonna, in the “Like a Virgin”/“Hollywood” hybrid (2003).
But it was a different Britney who took to the stage that night in Vegas. In previous years, she’d costumed herself in as little as F.C.C. regulations permitted, revealing a body confined to the strictest of diets, subjected to the most rigorous of workouts. In other words, though she was exposed, she wasn’t. Now, however, she was truly baring all. Britney refused the wig Ken Pavés had made her, necessary because she’d taken an electric razor to her head seven months prior, allowing only a few hairpieces to be hastily glued on before showtime. Refused, as well, a corset dress, choosing instead a spangled bra-and-panty set. And while by no stretch heavy, she was in less than perfect condition. Standing in front of the crowd without her armor plate of taut, tawny muscle, she appeared unnervingly soft, undefended, vulnerable.
Just before the electro-pop beat of her new song, “Gimme More,” began to pulse and throb, Britney spoke/sang, “If you’re looking for trouble, you came to the right place / If you’re looking for trouble, look right in my face,” a lyric from “Trouble,” a tune written by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller in 1958. As references go, it’s pointed, and, by making it, Britney was simultaneously denying a kinship and claiming one.
First, the kinship she was denying. Britney had been compared to Madonna since breaking through, almost a decade before. The resemblance was obvious—there were the dance moves; there was the controversy. It was also false.
Madonna had trained as a dancer, but, in truth, she wasn’t much of one. She was competent, could do the steps, sure. Her body held back, though. And for all her bumping and grinding, there was a marked lack of sensuality in her movements. (You think I’m wrong, take another look. Watch footage of her on the “Blond Ambition” tour, say, or the “Re-Invention.” She could be running an aerobics class from the stage.) Britney, in contrast, was a born dancer. A born hedonist, too, it would appear. Peach-ripe and unthinkingly carnal, she turned the whole world on, her style as fluid and easy and lush as Madonna’s was tight and tense and held in.
And both Madonna and Britney attracted controversy, but by opposite means. Madonna’s behavior wasn’t shocking so much as “shocking”: the burning crosses, the simulated erotic acts with herself/a woman/an Evian bottle—all of it contrived and more than a little self-serious. (Madonna unquestionably had a kind of genius. It wasn’t an artist’s, though; it was an advertiser’s. She was at once the hawker of the product and the product being hawked.) Britney, on the other hand, just couldn’t seem to help herself, compelling our fascination by doing what came naturally. That same-sex kiss at the 2003 V.M.A.’s, for example, wouldn’t have caused the planet to lose its mind if Britney hadn’t opened her mouth as she leaned in.
O.K., so the Princess of Pop wasn’t related to the Queen of Pop. But she was music royalty. The crown she wore once sat atop the dyed-black, dripping-grease, ducktail pompadour of the King of Rock ’n’ Roll himself, Elvis Aaron Presley, who had used “Trouble” as the opener for his famed “’68 Comeback Special.”
The King was dead, long live the Princess.
How Was She Supposed to Know?
A quick side-by-side. Both Elvis and Britney hit it big young, Elvis just a few years out of high school when he took over the charts, Britney still in it when she did the same. Both were Southern, born in Mississippi. Both were poor, Elvis’s father a former sharecropper and ex-jailbird; Britney’s a building contractor who went on benders, disappearing for days at a stretch. And the ease with which people from New York or L.A. got snotty when talking about the two—Time, in its review of Elvis’s first film, described his voice as “cornmeal mush”; Rolling Stone, in its first cover story of Britney, noted her “eleventh-grade education” and insistence on “cleav[ing] to the Baptist faith”—is symptomatic of the ease with which coastal America gets snotty generally when talking about those who are white, underclass, and from below the Mason-Dixon Line, the only minority group that it’s still socially acceptable to denigrate.
Time described Elvis’s voice as “cornmeal mush”; Rolling Stone noted Britney’s “eleventh-grade education” and insistence on “cleav[ing] to the Baptist faith.”
And those are just the surface similarities, the superficial stuff. Where Elvis and Britney most profoundly mirror one another is in their deeply divided American souls. Elvis might have come off as a good-for-nothing hoodlum with a twisted lip and pimp-punk clothes, who glided through the hot Memphis nights in a tricked-out Cadillac of labia-pink, cruising for girls, for trouble, for kicks, who never apologized and never, ever looked back. But he was also the boy whose fondest hope was to become a gospel singer, whose best friend was his mother, who just wanted to be your teddy bear and Nixon’s narcotics officer.
As far as schizo personas go, though, Britney’s takes the cake. Her first “Ooh-bay-bah-bay-bah” slid into our collective ear like a tongue, in the fall of 1998, when her debut single was released by Jive Records. She was 16. An American Dream that was a wet dream, a porn queen in the guise of a teen queen. And, at an instinctive level, she understood this, understood the nature of her appeal, and played it up, dramatized it. The schoolgirl theme of the “… Baby One More Time” video, as much a sensation as the song itself, was hers. Said Britney to Rolling Stone, “[The director and record label] had this really bizarre video idea, this animated Power Ranger-y thing…. I had this idea where we’re in school and bored … and we have Catholic uniforms on.”
And yet she was, at the same time, a regular kid from a small town who went to homecoming and church and believed in abstinence until marriage, so easy to relate to you practically were her. She even looked like you. Better, obviously, but not by leaps and bounds, her prettiness commonplace. You could find half a dozen of her wandering the food court of any shopping mall in America. She was an extreme case: extremely special, extremely nothing special.
An American Dream that was a wet dream, a porn queen in the guise of a teen queen.
By the way, I should have said: If Britney had let on that she understood the nature of her appeal, if she ever gave us a wink or a knowing look, the whole act would have collapsed. Our hypocrisy demanded that she play dumb so that we didn’t have to acknowledge, even to ourselves, our impermissible thoughts. In short, her persona was schizo out of necessity.
Early on in her career, a pattern was established: the rock-’em-sock-’em “… Baby One More Time,” with its S&M overtones, was followed by the sticky-icky “Sometimes”; “Oops! … I Did It Again,” about stomping on tender male hearts for the fun of hearing them go squish, was followed by “Lucky,” about a starlet adored by millions but—boo-hoo—lonely on the inside; and so on and so forth.
Britney communicated in two ways. She talked with her mouth, and what she said was soft, flat, polite, girlish, self-effacing, devoid of nuance or interest or force. And she talked with her body, and what she said was assertive, aggressive, teasing, taunting, cruel verging on sadistic, and full of raw female power. The second voice was the louder and more insistent, and it tended to drown out the first, though not always and never entirely. And so the disparate elements that made up Britney Spears—part sweetheart, part rebel, part angel, part whore, part artist, part exhibitionist—fused together.
Until they didn’t.
My Middle Name Is Misery
November 2006, 10 months before that crucial Video Music Awards. Britney, now in her mid-20s, ended her marriage to former backup dancer Kevin Federline, the father of her two small boys, via text, reportedly. That was the moment the center didn’t just fail to hold, it went totally and spectacularly blooey. Suddenly, she was on a rampage: custody disputes, a hit-and-run accident, that shaved head, an attack on a motor vehicle with an umbrella, Paris Hilton, Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan, a stint in rehab, another stint in rehab, no pants, also, no panties.
In the middle of all this came the V.M.A.’s. As already noted, Britney that night was performing “Gimme More,” her latest single, which happened to be her best yet. “Gimme More,” with its dead-eyed opening, “It’s Britney, bitch,” an assertion of self that also set us, her audience, straight in terms of our relation to that self—we weren’t her equals; no, we were her worshippers, her dogs, her fans, her bitches—was a kind of coming-out. She was done pandering to us, to our fragile egos and Victorian attitudes toward women and sex. No longer was she willing to pretend she was just an ordinary girl in extraordinary circumstances. She might have believed that once, but she didn’t anymore and hadn’t for a while. Her talent, her ambition, her verve, her daring, the sheer wild and wicked thrill of how she looked and sounded and moved had gotten an entire generation jumping and turned her into the last big star of the 20th century, the first big millennial star, and, for the past nine years, the biggest star in the Western world. The idea that we could understand her or identify with her was ludicrous, obscene. Her spoken language and body language now matched. And though in the song it was us demanding that Britney “gimme more,” “gimme more” reflected, as well, her own appetite, which was gargantuan, unappeasable: she was going to eat us alive, and we were going to let her.
No longer was she willing to pretend she was just an ordinary girl in extraordinary circumstances. She might have believed that once, but she didn’t anymore and hadn’t for a while.
Nor when she began her routine was she quite the Britney of old. Her usual dancing style was to attack a song, take it over. But not this time. There was a languorousness to her movements, a dreaminess, a drugginess, frankly. (A few weeks later, a judge would declare her a “habitual, frequent and continuous” user.) And though she was lip-synching, she sounded, paradoxically, authentic—both soulful and raunchy. It was a moment of transformation. Of transcendence as well.
Those in the audience, industry insiders mainly, didn’t know how to take what they’d seen. Or, rather, they took it the wrong way. They treated it—and her—as a joke. (Said comedian Sarah Silverman as she walked onto the stage that Britney had just vacated, “Britney Spears, everyone. Wow … 25 years old and she’s already accomplished everything she’s going to accomplish in her life.”) They didn’t have the hipness or the wit to recognize that this ex-Mouseketeer and Star Search contestant, this pop tart, this cute little ass-shaking, money-making marionette, manipulated by her mother, her label, her handlers, had cut the strings, was seizing control by losing it. And, in so doing, had shown them all up, demonstrating that she was the true spirit of rock ’n’ roll.
An additional point: rock ’n’ rollers are, with a few notable exceptions, men. Rock ’n’ roll is a male thing because rock ’n’ roll is a dick thing. Only apparently not. Britney, on that night, was as raw and elemental and dangerous and reckless as any strutting, thrusting, sneering boy, while remaining ultra femme. Whatever the female equivalent of cocksure is, she’d found it. Proved that girls can do it, too, and better.
A second additional point: I’m being unfair. There were people who got it, got her. Writer-director Harmony Korine, for one. His original and electrifying neon noir, Spring Breakers (2012), featured a sequence in which James Franco, looking like Kevin Federline and acting like Charles Manson, sat at a white baby grand and tenderly serenaded his trio of gun-toting, ski-mask-wearing, barely legal girlfriends with Britney’s 2003 ballad, “Everytime.” She was the star of that movie even if she never physically appeared in it.
Britney didn’t cool it after the V.M.A.’s; she jacked it up, if anything. Post, she’d drag race with the photographers following her 24-7, leading them on perilous chases along Mulholland, Coldwater Canyon, the P.C.H. And when that particular set of fun and games ceased to amuse, she’d try another, reportedly jumping out of her car and into that of Adnan Ghalib, the smoking-est guy on her tail, instructing him to take her to the Peninsula hotel. (How like Britney to turn around and seduce her stalker, one of the men ruining her life and giving it meaning, whose attentions she shunned and craved, her tormentor-savior. To see that the pursuit of a star by a paparazzo was a twisted version of romantic pursuit, a grotesque form of love and courtship. Lady Gaga, Madonna’s true child, might write a clever song about a star and a paparazzo doing it; Britney just did it.) She’d go on a two A.M. shopping spree in menstrual-blood-stained undies. She’d lose, at least temporarily, custody of her sons. It became difficult to imagine her story ending any other way than in death—by drugs, by car, by fame itself.
Instead it ended like this: on January 3, 2008, Britney was strapped to a gurney and shoved into the back of a Cedars-Sinai-bound ambulance, laughing as she cried, middle finger raised in Byronic defiance as the cameras popped and flashed and the sirens wailed like banshees. It was a moment of genuine derangement and tragedy, but it also had about it an air of mad poetry. A sex bomb had detonated, and the spectacle was mesmerizing, beautiful.
It became difficult to imagine her story ending any other way than in death—by drugs, by car, by fame itself.
Soon after that night, a temporary conservatorship was put in place. (Temporary would be made permanent later that year.) And, all of a sudden, Britney’s story began to take on the contours and coloration of a sinister fairy tale. She was still our princess, but no longer the pop kind. Now she was the kind who was locked away in a tower, the key held by a wicked relation—the tower, in this case, being her Thousand Oaks mansion; the key, her conservatorship; the relation, her father, Jamie. Our only glimpses into the tower came from her Instagram posts, which we scanned obsessively, trying to glean clues, signs, hidden messages she might be sending us.
So Don’t You Mess Around with Me
Now back to Elvis, Britney’s spiritual father. Elvis was an American self-creation, a nobody who made himself into not just a somebody but a somebody known by everybody. Elvis had a turbulent relationship with the public, was desired and ridiculed, lionized and trivialized, loved and hated. (This volatility is, in my opinion, essential to the promotion of a lasting intimacy, an unbreakable bond, between a star and us. It’s necessary that the star experience high highs, of course, but it’s equally necessary that the star experience low lows, so that we have a sense of superiority to go along with a sense of inferiority. In other words, Fat Elvis is every bit as vital as Skinny.) Elvis was also a de facto suicide, which is why our feelings about him are unresolved, forever in flux. Our sinking suspicion is that we are to blame for what happened to him—we let him down, turned our backs, left him all alone—and, because he is no longer here, we can’t make it up to him. He is under our skin and on our conscience, the reason his fame doesn’t simply endure, it thrives. He lives even in death, haunts us still.
Britney, the pop-culture icon of our era, managed to avoid, by the grace of God, by the skin of her teeth, the fate of her predecessor. And yet, though she did not die in ’08, some version of her did, the version that was wild and scary and exciting and free—died or was killed. So, in a crucial sense, she shares Elvis’s fate. And she haunts us, too. Is every bit as lost to us as he is.
Unless we wrest the key out of Jamie Spears’s hand. Unless we fling open the door to the tower. Unless we free Britney, and thereby free ourselves.
Lili Anolik is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL. She is the author of Hollywood’s Eve: Eve Babitz and the Secret History of L.A. and co-host of the podcast Once upon a Time… in the Valley