Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Britney Spears, Taylor Swift and The Media Cycle That Demands Pain From Our Pop Stars

“‘I want this conservatorship to end – I truly believe that this conservatorship is abusive,” sobbed a devastated Britney Spears to a Los Angeles judge yesterday, in an attempt to end the 13-year hold her father Jamie has had over her since her very public mental health breakdown in 2007.

For years, rumours have swirled about the conservatorship the pop star has been under, with her dedicated fans launching #freebritney campaigns, journalists asking questions and Britney herself hinting at her sad and lonely situation.

But no one realised just how invasive her living conditions have been in recent times, with Britney alleging shocking and disturbing claims against her father and his team in an emotional speech to a judge, where she begged to be released from the conservatorship – including the allegation that she had birth control forced on her, and was injected with lithium against her will.

“I want to be able to get married to my boyfriend and have a baby but the conservatorship told me I can’t do that,” she said. “I have an IUD (intrauterine device) inside me to prevent me from having a baby. I want to go to a doctor and take it out so I can have a baby but they (the conservatorship) told me no. I feel ganged up on and bullied and alone.

“I’ve lied and told the whole world I’m okay, and I’m happy. It’s a lie. I thought, just maybe if I said that enough, I might become happy, because I’ve been in denial. I’ve been in shock. I am traumatised. You know, fake it ‘till you make it? But now I’m telling you the truth, okay: I’m not happy. I can’t sleep. I’m so angry, it’s insane, and I’m depressed. I cry every day.”

It’s awful stuff – and just the latest of shocking treatment of the Baby One More Time singer. Earlier this year, Emma Clifton wrote of the pain pop culture causes to our stars, including Britney: read on below.

Britney Spears was robbed of her public image during the height of her fame. Taylor Swift was robbed of her music during the height of hers. Why does our pop culture system seem so intent on punishing the very women who keep it afloat. Emma Clifton looks at a decade in young singers – and the variously terrible ways they get treated while in the public eye.

There was a theory floated on the You’re Wrong About podcast that ‘fame is abuse’ and you’d be hard pressed not to agree if you were one of the many people who saw the recent New York Times documentary Framing Britney Spears, and realised just how badly we as a society treated Britney Spears before, during, and after her rise to fame.

The paparazzi, the media, the comedians – and then the fans and look-i-loos who continued to buy all the magazines that ran headlines about what a train-wreck she was, when really she was just someone in her early twenties, trying to raise two children while being one of the most famous – and hounded – people on the planet. The documentary discussed at length how we as a pop-culture obsessed society love to build up a talented, attractive young woman and then buy popcorn in preparation of when we can gleefully watch them tumble from grace. (And it’s not just pop stars, of course; the resplendent rise and then the racist fall of Meghan Markle’s position in public opinion is one of the most recent examples we have of when good headlines go bad.)

When I was working at Creme magazine, between 2009 and 2012, our pages were over-flowing with talented young pop singers: Taylor Swift, Selena Gomez, The Jonas Brothers, Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato, Rihanna, One Direction, Justin Bieber.

When you look back on the decade that has passed by since, time has not been kind to any of these people. Either the showbiz demon took something from each of them – or they had to completely disappear from sight for years at a time in order to survive. Sometimes both. There have been eating disorders, drug overdoses, rehab stints, broken marriages, abusive relationships, chronic illnesses. These kids – and they were kids – were so young when they started, they’re already on their fourth or fifth reinventions. Most of them haven’t hit 30 yet.

And when you’re a female pop star, so many of these reinventions revolve around your sexuality. Heck, when I was at Creme, Demi, Selena and Miley were part of the ‘purity ring’ club, where they all gushed about staying away from sex until marriage while their stylists dressed them in the tightest clothes possible. The message from the marketing teams behind each of them was very clear: Sell sex, but don’t ever enjoy it.

This is the same battle Britney faced a decade previously – look like a Lolita, but make sure you never have sex with your long-term boyfriend because then you’ll be expected to cry about the shame of it on national television. This was also the time of paparazzi trying to take up-skirt photos (exactly what it sounds like) of female actresses as soon as they turned 18; 18 – the age where you can legally have sex in America – was a big deal in pop culture. There was a countdown for when the Olsen Twins turned 18. When Lindsay Lohan turned 18, Rolling Stone ran a breast-focused cover shoot with the headline: ‘Hot, ready and LEGAL’. And it was just fine! Totally accepted. These girls, they were always up for it, right?

And then we get to Taylor Swift. Tonight, Taylor is re-releasing Love Story, the song that made her famous, the song that I first heard in the shower (yes, I had a shower radio) when I was 20 and immediately started crying, because it hit me square in the middle of my pop culture diagram: love songs and references to Romeo and Juliet. It’s from her second album, Fearless, which she wrote when she was aged 16-18 and which won her four Grammys, including Album of the Year. It’s also an album that no longer belongs to her and she can no longer perform, due to some millionaire f—kwittery committed by her former manager. But we’ll get to that.

From 2008 onwards, Taylor became a big deal for her music and then, like it always does for women, her love life became the centre drama. She never talked about a purity ring (thank God) and she sung pretty openly about sex from her third album onwards (Sparks Fly, an iconic song), plus she had the audacity to date a bunch of boys and look happy while doing so. Naturally, her punishment awaited. To this day, she is still ridiculed about lyrics she wrote in her first couple of albums… songs she wrote herself when she was literally a teenager. If I had had written an album when I was a teenager, it would have been about my crush who caught the bus; Kevin from The Backstreet Boys; worrying about my thighs, and, I don’t know, my cystic acne. I’m just saying – we let powerful men get away with shit they pulled when they were young with the old line ‘boys will be boys! They were just kids!’. Such generosity is rarely extended to young women and their far more harmless explorations of teenage sexuality.

Because she had yet to have a public mental health crisis or rehab stint, it was clear that Taylor was never going to be the architect of her own media downfall. Luckily, one was invented for her. After a long-lasting stoush with Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, where absolutely no-one (including Taylor) came out looking good, Taylor suddenly because persona non grata in pop culture and the long-awaited comeuppance began. And so, she disappeared – in a way that celebrities can do these days. (As a side note, can you imagine how different Britney Spears’ life might have been if she had been allowed to disappear for a couple of years?)

It was only when she released her documentary Miss Americana on Netflix that the public got what it had been craving the whole time – the dark side of Taylor Swift’s fame. An eating disorder, a sexual assault that she ended up being sued for and, then, the poisoned cherry on top, losing the rights to all her past music thanks to her old manager. Finally, our hunger for bad news had been satisfied. We had seen her scars and so we could allow her back into the spotlight again.  

It’s been interesting watching the roll-out of new music from so many of these female artists during a pandemic: Selena, Demi, Miley, Ariana Grande are among the singers who have eschewed the normal long roll-out of publicity in order to release their own music, without much of the media fanfare that typically accompanies it. Taylor herself released two albums, without any of the (slightly inane) games she normally includes in the lead-up. You can’t help but wonder if being stripped of their endless touring, performances and appearances meant these female artists have found some freedom in being able to just get back to the actual work. If a pop star releases an album in the middle of a pandemic and no-one is around to give a shit about any of the outfits she’s wearing, does it still count? Turns out, yes.

Following the betrayal of Britney, Taylor, Miley et al by the media, you can see the slow change to have total ownership of their voice these artists have taken. Social media can be a devil for many reasons but it has overtaken journalists and publicists as the middle man when it comes to how these women get portrayed to the public. Beyoncé has been instrumental in this – it was she who first released an album overnight back in 2013; a move that came without warning and changed the music industry forever. She who stopped giving interviews almost entirely, choosing to use her own platforms to get her message and music across. As a result, she’s never been more powerful and she’s never been more private.

As an explicit ‘F—k you’ to the powers-that-be who bought her music from under her, Taylor has announced she will be re-recording all of her old albums. Stories about millionaires against millionaires rarely draw sympathy from a reader but it does highlight how little actually belongs to the artist at the end of the day. They can have limited control over their image, their public appearances, their private life, their work and their songs. And these are the success stories – these are the people whose names we know. You have to hope that anyone young and female entering the music business has their eyes very wide open as to just what can go wrong – and what can go wrong even when everything goes right. When asked by Vogue what her #1 tip for budding singers was, Taylor replied very drily: “Get a good lawyer.”

The first album Taylor is re-releasing is Fearless, the album that is the most chock-a-block with fairy-tale imagery and glittery optimism. She’s promised that the songs will be new interpretations on the old originals and that seems only fair. You can’t help but think that those fairy-tale songs are going to sound a whole lot different being sung by a 31-year-old who’s been through the public wringer then they were as a wide-eyed 16-year-old, on the cusp of making her dreams come true.

The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears will be available to stream in New Zealand exclusively on ThreeNow from 12pm on Monday February 15, 2021

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