VALENCIA. On September 13, a Britney Spears released from custody announced through Instagram her engagement to her partner, Sam Asghari, a post that today has more than 3.7 million ‘likes’ and thousands of comments. Among them, one that said: “Have him sign a prenuptial agreement.” The author was nothing more and nothing less than the winner of an Oscar octavia spencer, a message for which he apologized shortly after but that says a lot about how the public has seen -and treated- the singer in all these years. The fine line between meddling, paternalism and admiration blurs in front of an artist who has grown, triumphed and fallen in front of the eyes of millions of spectators, an audience that has vibrated with her story and, at the same time, helped create it. . Britney represents that generation of artists that triumphed when the Internet was not the three-headed monster it is today, although its foundations were already a reality at the turn of the millennium. Lhe singer went viral when Twitter did not exist with iconic performances and videos and was the meat of a press -both traditional and digital- that earned millions at his expense, being one of the visible faces of a boom of the immediate gossip that turned her into a “pilot experiment”, along with other celebrities such as Paris Hilton either Lindsay Lohan.
Britney is the great pop star of this century, yes, but she also became a ‘meme’ even before that word was part of our everyday vocabulary. “She is a joke with legs”, published Variety after broadcasting his reality show with his ex-partner kevin federline. “Name something that Britney Spears has lost this year”, asked the television contest Family Feud to her contestants in an episode broadcast in 2008. Her husband, her hair, her dignity or her judgment are some of the answers that were given to the laughter of the public. Britney was a meme, fodder for comedians and the star of some of the most scandalous covers. Until now. The ‘Free Britney’ fan movement revealed the dark reality that revolved around the star, a control system that deprived her of her freedom for years, a legal battle that culminated in her release in 2021 after thirteen years under the guardianship of her father. Britney then regained control of her life before an audience that seeks her forgiveness after years of ridicule.
But how did it get here? This question is the starting point of Britney. One More Time (Editorial Bruguera), a biography illustrated by Ines Perez and written by the journalist Juan Sanguine, that dissects the singer from her first steps as part of the cast of Club Disney to her bursting onto the sales charts with ‘Baby One More Time’, her first single. It also happens, of course, because of her fall into hell, a moment that was marked in the public’s retina with images such as that of the singer shaving her hair or her failed return at the 2007 MTV awards, in which she starred in a chaotic performance that was a turning point in his career. Her career is full of images that are part of pop history, so many that even someone who has little idea about her history or music could easily list four or five iconic moments of the singer, a mark difficult to achieve for other stars. And it is precisely photo by photo, image by image, that Sanguino seeks to contextualize and delve into a biography that does not try to hide the reality of the artist, but rather to offer a richer account of her life. Because, repeat after me, Britney is not a meme.
-Why do we love Britney Spears so much?
-She early captured the public imagination regarding femininity. Britney was presented as a kind of blank canvas, she had a personality very willing to please, she had been educated for it. In her interviews she was never anti-establishment, she did not make her personality clear, such as the Spice Girls, who precisely became well known for that warrior attitude. Britney was a vehicle for anyone looking at her to project onto her preconceived ideas about femininity. If you wanted to imagine Britney as an innocent girl, she gave you that; but if you wanted to imagine her as a sexy girl, she gave it too. In that tension, which in the end has to do with the atavistic myths of women, she converged and that made people obsessed. It was a mystery.
It could have happened that this obsession was no more, however she found a way to remain iconic, to continue representing different types of women. She was the martyr of the show or the Pygmalion, a woman created by the industry and, also, the public. It was precisely when she stopped doing what was expected of her that people rejected her, which caused her a lot of anguish and resentment.
Britney has always served as an icon to represent different aspects of women in culture and continues to be. For a few years, she has been a symbol of women’s freedom, independence and the conversation around mental health. Society has revised itself through the Britney case. She has an almost magical ability to be a vehicle through which society explains, understands and projects itself. This is something that Jacqueline Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe or Lady Di had.
-What role have the media played in that construction or deconstruction of your image?
-In the United States the concept of half It encompasses much more than what we understand by the press. It is important to point this out because this concept not only integrates the generalist or sensationalist press but also the label’s own marketing team, all those people who act as an intermediary between the artist and the public. All this builds his image. Human beings understand reality through stories, with their archetypes, their villains, their plot arc, her hero… And the story of Britney Spears has always been told in those terms. What is particular about her is that she was a pilot experiment in culture in many ways. For starters, she was one of the first artists to have a big presence on the internet, she had a blog that she kept posting on until 2005 or 2006, in which she was much more lucid than people think. She was also a pilot experiment because she was the favorite star of gossip blogs, like Perez Hilton, spaces from which these stars were laughed at. She was a total and savage dehumanization against the famous.
Now we know, but when it happened with Britney it was unprecedented, we were all in ‘trial and error’ mode, we didn’t know the bad part of the Internet and its toxic dynamics, we just thought it was something fun. There is also the visual aspect. We are a generation that has a highly mediated perception of reality. When we think of soccer, for example, we always think of a televised game. In the case of Britney, she has a series of very powerful images, something that has a great impact. That’s why the moment when she shaved her head was so powerful, because she used her hair a lot as an erotic element. Her doing it was a statement of intent.
-At the beginning of his career, that tension between sexualization and the virginal was put on the table, and with it the criticism rained down on him. In fact, in the New York Times it was even said that it was a “calentagaguetas”. These days, although from a distance, we have read some comments that are not so different from Chanel because of her performance in Eurovision, have we really learned from our mistakes?
-I believe that there has been a change in the terminology and in the attitude with which as a society we deal with female public figures being able to use eroticism as part of their show at a given moment. I also think that they themselves do it differently: the eroticism of Lola Indigo, Ariana Grande or Chanel is not the same as that of Britney or Christina Aguilera. There is a different intention, it is not made to provoke, it is an aesthetic decision. It is evident that no one is going to listen to Chanel anymore because she shows her legs, nor are they going to vote for her anymore in Eurovision. I do believe that the way in which these issues are discussed has changed, it has changed in the press, which is the first step that must be taken so that the terms of the conversation change. When people stop reading according to what comments in newspaper columns or on television talk shows, they will stop doing them. It cannot be expected to happen overnight, although there is definitely an increased awareness of it.
-In the book there is a constant dialogue between the Britney ‘toy’ of the industry but also emphasizes -although with nuances- Britney creative leader of her team.
-We must start from the basis that Britney cannot be understood both artistically and on a media level without the manipulation of a series of people who have been behind her. Britney is a pop artist who wanted to make a certain type of music and sing a certain way but was told not to. This happens to many people, it is not a novelty, although in her case, due to her great success, it reached very extreme levels. Her greatest talent was always acting on stage, she always had a lot of presence and charisma. This, I insist, is a talent, an artistic discipline and something that has to be worked on. Neither Frank Sinatra nor Edith Piaf wrote her songs and that doesn’t make them any less valid as vocalists. Britney is a performer. If it was easy to be Britney there would be many. She didn’t win the lottery.
-One of the crudest episodes included in the book, and which has to do precisely with her as a performer, is the performance of ‘Gimme More’ at the 2007 MTV awards, an image that ended up being reduced to a ‘meme’, as many other moments, and that you spend a lot of time contextualizing.
-Once again the visual power of her career enters the scene, with a performance on a stage in which she had experienced some of her greatest triumphs and in which she hit rock bottom in front of a millionaire audience. That what you write is a movie and it is not plausible. Britney’s story is full of tremendously dramatic, literary and symbolic situations that would be hard to believe in fiction. Thirty years ago director Mike Nichols said that cinema was losing the battle against reality. There was no fallen hero story that could compete with OJ Simpson’s or Tonya Harding’s, stories that are deeply symbolic and capture the imagination of a country by being real. And Britney is one of those stories. This performance was the climax of a spiral of self-destruction that she was caught up in, above herself singing a lyric that spoke of how people looked at her and asked for “more”. It’s a perfect metaphor for her life and a very powerful visual episode. I had a very clear initial idea of the story that had to be told, but I have also been surprised by the stories behind those images. When people read the book they will discover a Britney they did not know and will feel more moved by her life, beyond the scandal.
-Although now free from custody, eyes are still on everything you do, is there a certain paternalism of the press or the public towards your figure?
-There is paternalism in general towards any woman who has a public figure. In Britney’s case even more so because we all discovered her when she was a child. She is the first to admit that neither her childhood nor her adolescence was normal: she spent her ‘turkey age’ in her twenties, being a mother and surrounded by paparazzi, which is not a normal or healthy way to spend an adolescence, no matter how late as it is. Despite everything, Britney has always been clear, and that seems miraculous to me, that her innocence was not going to be contaminated. She is a smart person and, despite what people believe, very aware of what has happened to her, but she has a childish attitude, an innocence that she wants to protect at all costs. This can arouse paternalistic instincts, although, now, there is also an issue of guilt. The public feels very guilty for what has happened to Britney and because we all, to a greater or lesser extent, have laughed at her. I think that this desire to protect and save her is closely related to the fact that we all know that, to a greater or lesser extent, we have contributed to her misfortune. We want a redemption and she, very generously, is granting it to us, when she could disappear and tell us: there you stay.