When Britney Spears was shooting the video for her recent single, “Till the World Ends,” her backup dancers were required to sign a non-disclosure agreement that was promptly leaked to the press. Included in the document was the following clause: “Contractor acknowledges that it is essential that [Britney] not be exposed to any alcohol, drugs, or controlled substances.”
Ironic, given that the lyrics of the song—“See the sunlight, we ain’t stopping, keep on dancing till the world ends”—sound more like a description of a meth-fueled circuit party than the mantra of a woman who considers her sobriety paramount to her success. (It’s worth noting that the song was co-written by slutwave princess Ke$ha, who built her career on a platform of ironic alcoholism.)
The song’s apocalyptic delusions aside, the message was clear: If you have any drugs, leave Britney alone. I don’t envy the team of handlers tasked with the responsibility of keeping Britney protected from the temptations of modern life, successful as they might be. “Hold It Against Me,” the first single from her most recent album, Femme Fatale, debuted at #1; the album has already been certified platinum; and “Till the World Ends” has become the most successful radio hit of Britney’s career.
And yet, all of these are pyrrhic victories, given that the artist herself has gone dead-eyed and slack-jawed, incapable of stringing together a meaningful sentence—in the parlance of Britney, everything is simply “cool” or “fun,” intoned with a spectacular absence of feeling—let alone of executing her still-elaborate choreography with any enthusiasm. The consensus among even her most rabid fans is that Britney is so heavily medicated, for nebulously defined issues that likely include manic depression and chemical dependence (as implied by the frequent trips to rehab), that she’s been incapacitated. Once nimble and vibrant, now Britney drools in a lithium daze, phoning in vocals and staging lackluster performances. Even the camera readily captures the weariness in her body; she drags herself across the stage, slothlike, exhausted.
Maybe it isn’t a product of medication; maybe the industry just chewed her up and spat her out and now she’s a shell of a person; I can’t say with any certainty. But the fact that she is putatively clean and sober feels immaterial when she’s obviously this miserable.
It wasn’t until Britney went crazy that I began to identify with her, or even care. I needed to see that she was as lost and broken as I was. A cynic could make the lazy, cruel argument that now-Britney is indistinguishable from then-Britney; it’s not as though her current stupefaction is keeping her from writing the Next Great American Novel, or curing infectious diseases.
But it’s an incontrovertible truth that Britney, in her prime, was an electrifying performer, and much more engaged with her musical output than the critics who readily dismiss “manufactured” pop stars like Britney would care to admit. Over the last several years, after Britney’s deterioration into abject madness, Team Britney have rebuilt her image and career with an extraordinary degree of calculated caution—you can practically hear manager Larry Rudolph whispering inspirational platitudes under the pulsating four-on-the-floor beats of 2008’s Circus and 2011’s Femme Fatale.
But the gift for which Britney is least frequently acknowledged is actually her artistry, especially if we consider her as a case study of a musician at the pinnacle of celebrity who nearly lost everything as a consequence of addiction and mental illness. One needs only listen to Blackout, her fifth studio album, recorded in Britney’s darkest days—a feverish blur of (alleged) cocaine and Ecstasy abuse, ugly paparazzi attacks, and as-yet-undiagnosed bipolar disorder—to hear her keen skill for self-expression. The album is drenched in a cold metallic clarity, all clattering synths and distorted vocals. It’s clearly the product of an artist who is acutely aware of her own commoditization; of how shackled she is to the cloistered, robotic predictability of her life; of how desperate she is to escape. As an independent entity, a song like “Gimme More” doesn’t exactly evoke a strong emotional response, but taken as a whole, the cumulative effect of Blackout is greater than the sum of its parts. It sounds viscerally, profoundly sad.
I should acknowledge that I have a particular soft spot for Britney—or, rather, I feel aligned with Britney as a consequence of shared life experience, despite the fact that I’m very much not a pop star. And while I’ve certainly made my share of glib comments, I’ve never found her behavior incomprehensible; if anything, I’ve related to her intimately, through good times and bad. This may be a result of careful marketing, focus-grouped image control, and meticulous management; that is, I’m willing to accept the possibility that Britney’s cult of personality has been developed with such facility and expertise that I empathize with Britney because the media machine has effectively manipulated me into empathizing with Britney.
But my affinity for Britney doesn’t follow the conventional trajectory of her ascent to fame, fall from grace, and return to form; it wasn’t until Britney went crazy that I began to identify with her, or even care. First, I needed to see that she was as lost and broken as I was, and at the beginning of her career, she seemed invulnerable. When “…Baby One More Time” was released in 1998, Britney was 16, a nasal-voiced, liplined Lolita in sex-kitten garb. The now-iconic premise for the music video, which featured sexually precocious Catholic schoolgirls gone wild, was developed by Britney herself—and what an off-kilter and subversive concept it was, reconciling the chastity of religious imagery (or style, at least) with startlingly sexual choreography. (The director had presented a treatment for the video involving cartoon characters in a bid to appeal to younger children, and the fact that Britney argued, and stranger still, won, serves as a testament to her preternaturally sharp business acumen.) In the first single from her second album, “Oops! I Did It Again,” orgasmic ululating yielded to a proclamation that seemed, by that point, self-evident: “I’m not that innocent.” “I’m a Slave 4 U,” the rhythmic single from her self-titled third album, abandoned pretensions of innocence altogether; in the video, Britney dripped with perspiration, thrusting and purring in various states of dishabille against a soundtrack of asthmatic gasping and squealing synthesizers. That year, she topped her previous VMA performance (which had involved a python that caressed the curves of her body), sharing a graphic kiss with Kabbalah-mentor Madonna.
After her fourth album, In the Zone, months passed without a single, video, or tour, but photographs of Britney appeared in tabloids with ruthless regularity. And as Britney’s musical career plummeted in relevance, so her ubiquity skyrocketed. Newsstands were plastered with pictures of Britney, Britney, all the time. In Vegas, marrying a high-school beau, and annulling the marriage days later. In Cancun, bloated and blotchy, a Kool Mild dangling limply from her maw.
And there Britney was in New York City, where I had moved as a teenager following my parents’ divorce. She shielded her face from the cameras, gripping Paris Hilton’s bony arm as they raced down 10th Avenue toward another crush of paparazzi. As Britney sank deeper into hysteria and caricature, she seemed at once more human and less real, as though the circus of her life was too tragicomically outlandish to exist.
I was in high school while Britney was unraveling, and like hers, my life as a drug-loopy Manhattan dilettante was becoming more glamorously chaotic. At dawn one snowy morning, still half-drunk from being out all night at a club in the Meatpacking District, I caught a cab uptown with some girlfriends. They changed from their slinky Cavalli cocktail dresses into men’s dress shirts and ties, replacing their stilettos with slouchy boots. We emptied out of the taxi in a cloud of smoke, fragrance and tousled hair, popping Adderall, suckling on breath mints, blinking Visine tears, huddling outside the Gothic wooden doors waiting to be let into school.
My friend Lara exited a cab and approached the front door. She explained to us that the previous night at Marquee, Britney had vomited directly onto her in the line for the coat check.
“Britney fucking Spears puked on you?” This was how I most often referred to Britney, as though Fucking could be her middle name. (I knew that it was, in fact, Jean.) “Shut your fucking mouth you fucking liar.”
“Swear to God. All over my mom’s Fendi fur. She’s gonna kill me,” Lara said giddily.
“I’ve never been so jealous of anyone in my life,” I said.
I lurched further out of control, buoyed by the exotic thrill of glittering nightclubs and charity benefits and one-night-stands at the Plaza. I, too, was starting to feel the consequences of growing up too fast, a dull mourning for the childhood I had squandered in pursuit of a lifestyle that had its own unique cost. My initial apathy toward Britney had yielded to a postmodern quasi-interest in her cult of celebrity, but as I continued to spiral, this feeling blossomed into genuine empathy. It felt inevitable that I should love Britney. In so many ways, it seemed, I was Britney—or at least, it seemed that we were losing control in eerie simultaneity.
After graduating from high school, I matriculated at Vassar College, where I continued blacking out and making messes for other people to clean up. I only lasted two months before it was clear that I needed to go to rehab—as evidenced with particular clarity by the condition of my hair. In the hazy half-light of cocaine benders and mornings chewing Ambien for breakfast, I’d neglected to maintain my coif, once a source of pride, and my thick brown hair had grown long into an unintentional mullet. In a liberal arts enclave like Vassar, ironic hipster mullets were de rigeur, but mine had the unshorn look of exactly what it was: the accidental style of an addict who had forgotten to care.
“I need a fresh start,” I told Aurelia. Aurelia was a Swiss banking heiress who had won the unofficial title of “Most Notorious Freshman” due to her proclivity for having threesomes with upperclassmen in the sixth-floor shower. Like me, she was prone to dipsomania and histrionics. We meshed well. “I need to do something different. Something radically different.” I tugged at my hair.
“Let’s shave it,” Aurelia said, eyes gleaming with the promise of a project.
“I’d better do some more Dilaudid first,” I said, reaching for my razor.
Later, we piled into the dorm room of a boy down the hall. I sat in a swiveling desk chair while he ran the buzzing electric clippers across my head. “I think it’s such a bold style statement. So many people just don’t have the skull shape to pull that off. Sam—you’re, like, the Natalie Portman of Vassar,” Aurelia said. I ran my hands across my scalp. It felt soft, new.
Three days later, I checked myself into Cottonwood de Tucson, an inpatient clinic in Arizona. I stayed for 33 days. Three months later, to the day, Britney Spears shaved her head—and three days after that, she checked herself into Crossroads, an inpatient clinic in Antigua. But Britney only lasted one night before checking herself out against medical advice and returning to Los Angeles to wreak more havoc on hordes of scandal-happy paparazzi.
Newly sober, I was referred to a halfway house in Newport Beach, California. There, I met a girl named Ella, an ebullient blonde perpetually clad in a Juicy Couture tracksuit. We baked in the sun all day and spent the evenings cruising up and down the PCH chain-smoking, guzzling energy drinks, and blasting Britney from the windows of Ella’s sedan. Britney could occasionally be seen at 12-step meetings in Hollywood, we heard, then Malibu. We buzzed with anticipation. All we had to do was find the right meeting and we could become best friends with Britney.
“It’s all I’ve ever wanted,” Ella gasped. “To be pictured in the tabloids with Britney fucking Spears. Can you imagine the caption? ‘Britney Spears, lunching at Joan’s on Third with unidentified friend.’” She mock-swooned. “It’s my dream come true.” But Britney was never in attendance at any of the meetings we attended.
In Newport Beach, Ella briefly dated a guy named Matt, a handsome, rangy hipster. A few months after they broke up, I was watching entertainment news when a familiar face flashed across the screen. I rewound the news and paused it at the image. It was the cover of that week’s Us Weekly. Matt was on the cover, pictured in a swimming pool next to Britney, under the headline, “My Twisted Night with Brit.” I read the text below. “Topless, drunk, and lonely, Spears seduces a college student in a hotel pool.” Matt had been an extra in Britney’s latest video shoot, leading to a brief and (clearly) ill-fated dalliance; he had taken his story, replete with half-nude candids of Britney, straight to the tabloids.
I called Ella.
“You know what this means, right?” she said. “I basically had sex with Britney fucking Spears.”
“You basically did. And since I had sex with Andy who had sex with Blaine who had sex with you before he relapsed on meth and had sex with everyone, and you had sex with Matt who had sex with Britney, I’ve also basically had sex with Britney fucking Spears.” I paused. “Although I guess following that same logic, we’ve basically had sex with each other, which is gross.”
“Do you think Matt could get us in Britney’s good graces?” Ella wondered.
“After this stunt? He’s probably lost all of his cachet with the Britney camp,” I said. “Fuck. There goes my chance of becoming Britney’s sponsor.”
Sponsoring Britney, though, would have required a commitment of sobriety on my part, and I was incapable of such a measure. I returned to treatment, then promptly relapsed shortly after I left. Drunk and horrified, I watched Britney clumsily stumble through a poorly lip-synched rendition of her new single, “Gimme More,” at the MTV Video Music Awards, the choreography uninspired and passionless, her swollen gut drooping sadly over a pair of black panties. As my consumption of narcotics escalated, so my mental health deteriorated. I regressed into childhood fantasy, retreating deeper into delusions of grandeur, assuming imagined personae. Strangers wandered in and out of my apartment. In the mornings, I peeked out the windows, reduced to a cliché of drug-addled paranoia. I wasn’t afraid of the police. I was afraid of the paparazzi.
Bested by a near-fatal overdose, I sobered up yet again, moving back to my Pacific Northwest hometown with the hope of quietly rebuilding my life. As my track marks healed, photographs began to surface of Britney, running errands, exiting the recording studio. She looked healthier. In some pictures, she was even smiling. It was the wary half-smile that I had seen on the faces of patients in rehabs and psych wards, the broken smile that’s more evocative of some mysterious sadness than it is of actual joy—but still, it was a smile.
That spring, I went to see Britney during the Circus Tour when she performed in Tacoma, Washington. I carpooled to the show with my best friend Jeffrey and a troupe of fashionable gays. One of them, Thomas, worked at the MAC counter at a department store and was attending the concert in full face: cheeks violently rouged, smoky eye, strawberry lip gloss, covered in a thin patina of glitter from head to toe. He told me that he had planned to drink several gallons of water mixed with glitter and then projectile vomit sparkles onto the stage as soon as Britney appeared, but he had decided to abandon this plot in the eleventh hour out of concern for his health.
“Britney wouldn’t want you to get sick,” Jeffrey said.
“Britney’s going to fucking lurve Tacoma,” Thomas said. “She’s just going to get a doublewide and some Ecstasy and a jumbo bag of Cheetos and a case of Red Bull for Small Fry and Tater Tot, and she’s just going to, like, hang out in Tacoma forever and ever until she overdoses and fucking dies.”
Inside the arena, all I could hear was the thunderous, deafening roar of the audience, twenty thousand women and gays screaming at once. Some chanted, “Britney! Britney! Britney!” in cultish, rhythmic cadence. Others just screeched unintelligibly. My own shouts over the throng, cracking as my voice went hoarse.
I screamed. I cried. And Britney put on a show.
In For the Record, a 2008 MTV documentary about Britney that chronicles her attempts at a comeback, Britney speaks candidly about the experience of performing. “There’s no passion,” she says. “It’s like Groundhog Day, every day.” She pauses for a moment and her eyes shine with tears. “I’m sad,” she says.
I’ve heard addiction called “the loneliness disease,” for the strange phenomenon that I, and many alcoholics and addicts I know, experience from time to time (or, for the less fortunate, constantly). No matter how many people are close to me, supporting me, cheering me on, telling me that they believe in me—no matter how many fans I have—I still find myself mired in isolation, loneliness, and the chronic fear of my own fundamental unlovability. This is a universality of addiction, and when I think about how this must manifest for Britney—to be perennially surrounded by sycophants, distant relatives, business associates, and ostensibly well-intentioned “assistants” who are always waiting for a crisis to defuse and a scandal to sell—the loneliness must be enormous.
Celebrity certainly has its well-documented vicissitudes, and the oeuvre of Britney Spears has explored the theme of fame from many angles. Her single, “Lucky,” is a chanson à clef about the eponymous starlet, described as “so lucky [because] she’s a star, but she cry-cry-cries in her lonely heart.” In “Piece of Me,” she describes herself as “Mrs. Lifestyles of the rich and famous,” and, “Mrs. Oh my God that Britney’s shameless.” In “Kill the Lights,” off her sixth studio album, Circus, she snarls, “Mr. Photographer, I think I’m ready for my close-up tonight, make sure you catch me from my good side—pick one.” (A prime example of inflated alcoholic ego.) One could argue that these sentiments are the product of a media-savvy writing team, eager to invert the tabloid frenzy of Britney’s life in a bid for self-effacement, rather than Britney herself acknowledging the folly of her celebrity.
But this is the fallacy of the Britney Spears circus. As a manufactured pop artist, when Britney’s music is effective, we credit her producers and management, but when Britney’s life collapses in shambles around her, we blame her for her recklessness and irresponsibility. In actuality, Britney’s descent into drug-binging insanity mirrors that of all great artists—so tormented by private demons that only the creative product can illuminate the artist’s private life. But never before has a musical artist been so meticulously micromanaged by a crack team of experts, experts whose primary responsibility is to keep Britney from slipping up and betraying her humanity. The pop retains its glossy, impersonal remove, and Britney’s eyes stay dull and empty.
In an environment of media hypersaturation, with unprecedented access to the private lives of the stars whose lives we follow with apotheotic fascination, it’s inevitable that some of those stars will battle mental illness, get sober, and relapse on the macrocosmic scale of the global gossip factory. But it’s become very difficult for me to watch Britney in her current state, because—arrogant as it may sound—I want so desperately to give her my serenity, and yet, I know that I can’t. Aided by a potent cocktail of mood stabilizers, Britney has retreated into some private metaphysical space where the cameras and the fans don’t exist, where she can be alone, at least, if not lonely.
I don’t blame her. The transient gifts of beauty, wealth, and stardom can’t be worth the loss of privacy, integrity, and anonymity that are part and parcel with fame—and fame has destroyed Britney, maybe more so than the drugs did. I can’t imagine emerging unscathed after battling a host of mental health issues on a public stage; it nearly swallowed me whole when I was alone. It is a gift that our paths diverged, Britney’s and mine, and for this reason, among so many others, I’d call myself lucky.