The saga of Britney Spears: The life and circus of the millennial icon

The saga of Britney Spears: The life and circus of the millennial icon

We're only human

Text: Brandon Alexius Chia

Editor: Rahat Kapur

Image: Instragram | @britneyspears

Dare: Walk into any room filled with millennials and say the line: "Give me a sign..." and someone is bound to finish the lyrics with: "Hit me baby one more time!"

Because, it's Britney. She's beyond an icon, a legend and a musical genius – with bangers that have lasted generations across decades. Her title as the "Princess of Pop" didn't come for nothing and just like most royalty, we've followed her every move — whether or not we were ardent fans or muted spectators — even when she was drifting in and out of the spotlight.

As a kid, I remember whipping out my Walkman and blasting her albums on repeat whenever my primary school teachers retreated to their cubicles. One might think that playing feminine pop songs in an all-boys school would be considered weird. But on the contrary, everyone participated. Either with terrible singing, awkward dancing, or subdued humming with one another to her many bops.

And years later as a young teenager exploring Twitter in the early 2010s, I was on the hunt for the perfect handle to brand myself, as uniquely as an autograph on an important document.

While many chose unconventional aliases, Twitter gave me a way to own who I was, making my handle name one of the most important decisions of my life at the time. But how does a feminine, loud and sassy young man come up with something succinct and catchy? All it took was a simple refresh of my feed and there she was: Britney Spears. Bam! The perfect username hit me, modelled after the most famous quote Britney has ever uttered – "It's Britney Bitch!" and voilá, @itsbranbitches was born.

Just as I had hoped, this simple handle suddenly went from a social media tag to a key identifier in my life, lasting a solid decade. Audacious and fearless, the name gave way to an unspoken definition of myself, where people would automatically make the connection between who I wanted to be and all that Britney embodied. Sexy, confident, talented and the ultimate vixen. But over the years as evidence of her conservatorship began to germinate across the media alongside the #FreeBritney movement, there was a change amongst the association with her. Suddenly I found myself shifting rapidly from the old Britney to distancing myself from the new one.

Nostalgia aside, it's fair to wonder how a musician, no matter how iconic, who has not put out new music in years, would suddenly be resurfacing today as the talk of the town? In an era where attention spans are shortening drastically and stories are being buried faster than facts at a Trump convention, what is the ember behind the flame that has sparked Britney back into the spotlight she once adorned?

It's beyond her stardom. After all, there are plenty of celebrities who have been there and done that when it comes to mental health battles, especially public ones. But there's something about Britney that we can't shake, even if she hasn't starred in a sitcom since the 2000s or dropped a worldwide-selling album since 2011. Our obsession with her seems to transcend beyond media and culture into a much darker space, enabled and embedded in a kind of voyeurism that almost robs us of the innocence of loving her for her from day dot.

Many could argue that this particular brand of voyeurism started when Britney allegedly suffered from a breakdown in 2008 after ending her relationship with NSYNC heartthrob — Justin Timberlake. Yes, that's when she infamously shaved her head down to her scalp. Umbrella in hand, endless shots captured her rushing towards a slew of paparazzi, after already covering her slow public demise for months. By then, she had multiple visits to a psych ward and countless failed attempts to save her image as the sweetheart of pop. But it seemed all too late, with her slowly becoming the poster child for the inevitable demise of children who grew up in the eye of the media.

The 'shaved head moment' soon became the replacement of all things that ever iconised Britney. Even to this day, many of us will be quick to brag about how woke we are as a generation, but still say things like 'Hope she's not about to pull a Britney!' in colloquial conversations or as memes whenever we want to make a point about mental illness and the never-ending stigmas that surround it. After all, it's human to judge and who doesn't love to watch a drama unfold? Don't celebrities sign up to a life of constant watch? Aren't they bound by a zoo-like cage fight where we as society cheer them on when they do something we like or makes us feel good, but encouraging their public mauling when they cross our moral and projected boundaries? Isn't it all fair in love and Hollywood?

Where I once felt like I'd activate a superpower by embodying her, I think Britney's powers came to light yesterday, when she stripped off the celebrity and we saw the rawness and truth of what she actually has always been: a normal human being. It's like she suddenly fell from this unobtainable pedestal to a more accessible one, that of someone we could all relate to. Somewhere between pop princess and 'America's sweetheart', lay bare the vulnerability and void of someone fighting to survive many of the mental hardships we all go through in our own way. She became proof that just because everyone else seems to know who you are or what you should be, it doesn't mean you're not stuck inside a version of yourself that cannot truly be free.

And that's why I'll never see Britney the same way again. She's not just my teenage idol, she's a hero. Where I once desired to encapsulate her style and image, yesterday I was moved to embrace her courage to seek help and get better. Where as a young man, I'd find power through her voice, yesterday I realised the strength it must take her to remain voiceless until now in the knowledge that she has no control of your own money, life, body or image even as a 39-year old woman. Where once I could use her music as my getaway from reality, it's jarring to reconcile that for Britney, there seems like no escape from the life she's entrapped in today.

And that's the humanity of why we still care about Britney. Of course the facts are still up in the air and many argue that Jamie Spears (her father) only has her best interests at heart. Perhaps, there is a line of truth there yet to be discovered and told. But much as the stigma of mental illness can outlast the illness itself, so don't we owe it to Britney to at least ask the question as to why a woman who seems to be so candidly present would still require a conservatorship, 13 years after she had her last public episode?

It's no secret that Britney continues to be the main breadwinner of her family, still caught in the relentless wheel of the music industry and its ruthless churn. After all, once a money machine, always a money machine. Between the labels, management, producers and personal family interests, it's not a leap to understand that no one is willing to let this jackpot slip through their fingertips. Jamie Spears alone has been purported to have received millions from this conservatorship so far, in the form of a percentage cut of the millions Britney earns in royalties, concerts and guest appearances. Add to that a reported salary estimated at USD$16,000 a month and you do the math on who stands to lose and who stands to gain out of this airtight arrangement.

Looking back now, I think of the joy I felt listening to her multi-platinum selling songs such as  "Toxic", "I'm A Slave 4 You" and "Circus" and can't shake the feeling of irony that the very tunes that defined the peak of her career, would be the undoing descriptors of her current life. To the outside eye, she was so lucky, she was a star but now that we know she's cried, cried, cried in her lonely heart, I can't help but feel like it's time we #FreeBritney, because it's no longer exciting to be in this deep.