At the supermarket the other day I spotted Britney Spears nervously staring back at me from a People magazine that was jammed between one celebrity glossy speculating about Angelina Jolie and the Weeknd’s relationship and another one insinuating, for at least the millionth time, that Will and Jada’s marriage had crumbled.
What struck me most about the People cover, aside from using an incredibly unflattering portrait of Spears, was the headline: WHAT’S NEXT FOR BRITNEY?
Speculation around Spears’s next move is a given, of course. What will the biggest pop star of an era do once she’s freed of the conservatorship that has controlled her for the last 13 years? Will she tour or record again? Will she do a tell-all detailing her battle with her conservators and the toll it took on her? Or will she retire from the public spotlight altogether? I get it, but it’s a question that fills me with a rash of dread on Spears behalf, especially when I see it plastered across publications like People and other celebrity glossies that once helped destroy her with their nonstop coverage of her struggles. And it makes me wonder if we're going to do again once she's in control of her life and career.
The emancipation of Britney Jean Spears has been at the center of the cultural conversation around the pop star for the better part of a decade now. Before the #FreeBritney movement shifted the tide after taking off in 2019, there was at least a general understanding from the public that Spears had very little autonomy in her life. We knew she wasn’t in control of her money and suspected that she had little say in how she lived or worked but we didn’t know the full extent of what Spears dealt with until she told us for herself this summer at a hearing with a Los Angeles judge. With startling clarity Spears detailed how she believed the conservatorship her father successfully petitioned to place her under in 2008 was being used to abuse and manipulate her.
After years of silence Spears told the world she wanted out—and that she lived in fear of her father and the people he employed that kept her drugged and isolated from the public, unable to marry or conceive or drive or take a phone call or buy a Frappuccino without permission (all while using her earnings to keep these guardrails firmly in place).
And yet, even with all that knowledge, publications are wondering when Spears might next get back on stage or record—when she might return to the very labor that she felt imprisoned by. She’s fighting to be freed from a legal arrangement that was supposedly meant to protect her after some seriously rough years in her twenties (a time we all fuck up and rebel, but have the benefit of anonymity and not being a million-dollar brand feeding everyone around us) but we’re speculating on when she will return to labor and the scrutiny that comes with being a pop star after learning of the suffering she endured under said arrangement?
Now quiet as its kept, the 35 million people keeping up with Spears on Instagram is already quite aware that she’s been contemplating what a future free from the burden of restrictions looks like for her. Spears’s Instagram, once a place brimming with posts wrapped in innuendo, is now an unvarnished and direct line into her mind. And one thing Spears has made clear is that one of her biggest anxieties is us and our judgement of her.
“I’ll just be honest and say I’ve waited so long to be free from the situation I’m in … and now that it’s here I’m scared to do anything because I’m afraid I’ll make a mistake !!!” Spears wrote in a recent dispatch. “For so many years I was always told if I succeeded at things, it could end … and it never did !!! I worked so hard but now that it’s here and getting closer and closer to ending I’m very happy but there’s a lot of things that scare me !!!”
That Spears is pushing 40 and filled with anxiety and fear about how we will perceive whatever decisions she makes about her life or her career or any potential mistakes she makes as a grown woman speaks volumes not only to the extent of control she’s been under all this time, but to the trauma it all left her with. This is a woman that has been chewed up and spit out by the world, time and time again, which is probably why her Instagram account has gone from wistful posts that require us to read closely between the lines to straight-up telling us how it is.
Spears’s IG is the only insight we have to her, and many of her posts are about her journey towards healing and searching for joy in a life dictated by everyone except the person living it. As much fun as I’ve had watching Spears perform in concert, the thought of her returning to the stage or studio simply doesn’t cross my mind when I see her posting about doing simple things like driving a car for the first time in ages or going out of town with her fiancé (even her ability to have a fiancé is proof of all she’s fought for) or dancing her ass of for her own pleasure whenever she feels inspired. So it’s hard to fantasize about the music Spears may make or the shows she may put on when she’s just trying to rebuild her life in her own vision—and doing so in front of a public that’s been judging her every move for most of her life, oftentimes quite cruelly as several recent documentaries including Framing Britney Spears have reminded us.
In the last few years we’ve been doing some real work around reappraising not only the work of cultural icons, but the ways in which we showed up for them. This has led to some seriously overdue reconsiderations around how we treated the likes of Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson, and of course Spears. These are all women that were torn down by our ridicule and our shame and suffered greatly because of it. They aren’t the only ones, of course, but they are amongst the most important pop stars of all-time and share the bond of watching their fame complicated by their inabilities to survive the cruelty they encountered from the media and the public. We saw them as spiraling “out of control” when in reality their stumbles were being treated as global scandals and we were all just too ravenous—and entertained—to stop feeding off of their pain.
But as much as the world has shifted since we first met Spears as a teenage girl in pig tails cooing “…Baby One More Time,” some things haven’t changed at all. We generally have more empathy for celebrities, sure, but I think about some of the ugliness we’ve seen thrown towards Lizzo, Billie Eilish, Demi Lovato, Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles, Meghan Markle and Meg Thee Stallion recently and have a tough time imagining what Spears may endure after the intrigue of her liberation dissolves and she’s actually making decisions for herself.
How will she be treated when or if she returns to stage or puts out music without the oversight that had once been in place? What will the tone of People or any of the other celebrity glossies be if she makes a move that we don’t understand—or “approve” of? Right now there doesn’t appear to be much room to consider what she actually wants as the speculation about what she will do occupies the media. So what happens if it turns out that true liberation for Spears means being freed from us? Will we still love her the same? Will we still root for her as loudly as we did when she broke her silence and allowed us to bear witness to her trauma?
A new Britney Spears is loading—one we’ve been hoping returned to us freely from the chain of conservatorship. We were already given Britney Spears once and we destroyed her with our expectations, our pressures, our shame, and our humiliation. We ruined Britney for making mistakes, for being human, for being a young woman navigating the world with fame and adoration at her toes. Are we going to do it again, or are we going to show up differently this time?