Not with record breaking album sales or a titillating MTV VMA performance, but with a terrifying courtroom testimony in a watershed moment that exposed her grim reality under the inhumane treatment of her conservatorship helmed by her father Jamie Spears — the only snake wrapped around her neck these days.
Spears broke her silence on the disturbing nature of her conservatorship, an arrangement that has legally stripped Spears of autonomy over her $60 million estate and her basic civil liberties, in a highly anticipated phone call courtroom appearance last Wednesday. During her 24-minute testimony, Spears requested that the conservatorship be terminated, alleging that under it, she was forced to take lithium, was coerced into a world tour after her four-year Las Vegas residency, is subjected to hours of weekly psychiatric evaluation, and has an IUD that her team prohibits her from removing.
Spears’ conservatorship conversation has loomed over 2021’s popular music landscape since The New York Times’ Framing Britney Spears documentary first aired on Hulu in February. Though devoted fans have long questioned the necessity of the conservatorship, the #FreeBritney movement gained traction in 2019 after Barbara Gray and Tess Barker of Britney’s Gram, a podcast devoted to dissecting the singer’s Instagram, published an episode alleging Spears was placed in a mental facility against her will that year.
Concern for the singer’s legal and personal woes began ballooning among casual and die hard fans alike, but The Times’ documentary bolstered that interest to new heights, thrusting the movement into the spotlight, simultaneously forcing fans and media to reckon with their respective roles in Spears’ late aughts downfall, while pressuring Camp Spears into transparency on the true state of the pop star.
What’s your favorite Disney movie?’ ‘What’s your dream car?’ ‘What was your favorite business trip?’). Now back in the center ring, Spears has dropped her Instagram facade, exposing to Judge Brenda Penny the extent of her denial, depression, and her father’s reign over her life.
Britney’s father, Jamie Spears, was first granted a temporary conservatorship over his daughter’s person and estate in 2008 following a tragic series of publicized meltdowns. In an arrangement then hard to imagine as ill-intentioned, Jamie would be in control of his daughter’s estate and her day to day decisions in an effort to protect her from the undue influence of predatory figures like Sam Lutfi, who paraded as Britney’s manager from 2007-2008 at the height of her media spiral (the singer’s restraining order against Lutfi was extended in 2019).
After the conservatorship was made permanent near the end of 2008, Jamie Spears and camp began the daunting journey of rehabilitating the singer’s mental health, career, and public image. Spears would go on to tour the world three times, reinvigorate the Las Vegas strip, become a judge on The X Factor, and release four albums under the conservatorship, making Spears’ case unusual as conservatorships are usually a last resort entity for mentally incapacitated individuals incapable of managing their personal and financial affairs.
Initially put in place to protect her estate, the conservatorship appears to now be draining it, proving itself lucrative for only its microeconomy of legal counsel and, of course, Jamie, who has reportedly banked $2.4 million dollars off of it since 2009. That’s a sizable chunk of the singer’s $60 million estate — a suspiciously small fortune considering the star’s early career ubiquity and a reported 2004 net worth of $100 million. To sweeten the deal, Spears is responsible for footing the bill for legal counsel for all parties involved. And she’s refusing to work, bitch. Without endorsement deals, her robust album sales of the ‘00s, a world tour, or a residency to rake in $310k a night, as she reportedly earned in Vegas, it seems as if the costly conservatorship could, in theory, cannibalize her stagnant earnings.
“All I want is to own my money, for this to end, and my boyfriend to drive me in his fucking car. And I would honestly like to sue my family, to be totally honest with you,” said the singer in court on Wednesday, also stating that, instead of a tell-all interview, she would like to have “an open call...for the press to hear.”
That uninterrupted, open ended phone call approach to speak her truth was perhaps the strongest, most strategic play Spears could make right now. Her yesteryear attempts at setting the record straight in sit down interviews with Diane Sawyer and Matt Lauer may have yielded huge ratings; but, for Spears, they were stifling settings for middle America to project its own impossible double standards onto the singer, whose biggest commodity has perhaps always been her arsenal of identity dichotomies: the celebrity next door, the lip-synching singer, the virginal sex symbol, the unraveled control freak.
Perhaps her greatest hit in that department, still to this day, is her desire for a shred of privacy as a public figure. Spears’ convergence with the media as it evolved at each stage of her career deemed her the poster child for the decline of privacy as an American virtue. As the toxic cocktail of tabloid culture and the internet frontier closed in on Spears, so it did on the consumer public until eventually breaching them, too, with social media.
Spears’ infamous nights out with Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan, the trio of original influencers, were more than just a bimbo summit, as the New York Post put it; they were signs of rising premiums on democratized voyeurism, and waning conservative values of the Bush administration. Her scrutinized walks of shame, while a template for her aging fanbase to further identify with, ultimately served as escapism fodder for a rattled country grappling with its identity in a post-9/11 world.
The public’s subsequent backlash to Spears predated cancel culture as she rebuked her ascribed royalty in marrying Kevin Federline, a People Magazine cover story that may have symbolized the fragility of upward class mobility: the truest of middle class American Dreams. Spears’ ‘Louisiana Swamp to Hollywood Sign’ fairytale was what her constituents invested in when she first arrived on the scene as a product for consumption in her 1998 shopping mall concert tour; her backsliding free fall the following decade was not.
When the economy experienced a rock bottom, similar to Spears’, after the 2008 housing crash, Spears’ Circus era comeback may have signaled a turning chapter in a narrative on which the middle class could project its aspirations toward economic stability. If Britney Spears’ person and estate could thrive under a conservatorship, perhaps the middle class could navigate its real estate rescue mission through a government bailout.
Now, in 2021, as the country heals from a post-Trump political landscape, Spears’ timely return to the forefront could once again fuel hope for a shrinking middle class in the wake of the pandemic’s economic devastation. Spears' agency in reclaiming her freedom could perhaps mirror a liberated, robust middle class in the not too distant future, where Spears fans have enough disposable income to afford a ticket to that eventual greatest hits tour.
And though fans may not find an absolute reflection in Spears the way they once did, how could they? Twenty-three years into her career, they might finally be grasping how they may not share an ounce of similarity with the national treasure anymore, for the existence the singer compared to sex trafficking in her testimony last week is a singular reality.
Fans may, however, identify with the harrowing themes of oppression, abuse, and endangerment in Spears’ story. Perhaps it’s the reason they are rallying behind her en masse in a total about face from their cruel treatment toward her nearly 15 years ago. Because in today’s media ecosystem, transparency is paramount, and Spears’ testimony last week was perhaps her official entrance into the modern media, a post #MeToo world where the injustices like the ones Spears endures are made visible and are not tolerated; and fans — like those of the #FreeBritney movement — will mobilize and protest until Britney is free.
Spears’ uphill climb to freedom has only just begun. And should she continue her work hiatus once the conservatorship is lifted — all eyes on you, Judge Brenda Penny and the State of California — it could be some time before the entertainer resumes performing again, if ever. There will likely be a massive shift in management behind the scenes, perhaps even a lawsuit against her family, as she alluded to in her court plea, before the singer dips her toes into the inevitable media cycle in celebration of her legacy. Until then, it’s moments like last week’s testimony where fans can find victory and hope in the singer’s ongoing saga.
“Ma’am, I’m not here to be anyone’s slave,” said Spears in her testimony last week.
A slave for you? Nah. Stronger than yesterday? Sure sounds like it.