Decade of Britneys rise, fall and comeback
LONDON: In February 2007, Britney Spears walked out of a reported stint in rehab and into a salon in the San Fernando Valley, asked the owner to shear off her hair and — when she refused — took up the clippers and did it herself. It was a moment that sparked rolling commentary. Was this the end of Spears’ career, the high or low point of the tabloid fixation with troubled young women? What it certainly represented was one of the few times that Spears had appeared in public unmediated by managers, agents, record executives, parents, husbands, boyfriends. She had stripped away her expected image, and now, staring hollow-eyed through that salon window, she appeared without artifice. In a decade obsessed with branding, when everyone was encouraged to develop their own image and plug it relentlessly, Spears seemed the ultimate person-as-product. In a 2008 business article entitled The Britney Economy, it was estimated that she had brought in $400m for her record company, generated $100m in sales for her perfume company; that images of her accounted for 20 per cent of the entire US paparazzi business and sent tabloid sales soaring by 33 per cent.
She developed the ability to smile on demand while growing up in Kentwood, Louisiana, performing in pageants and gymnastic events; by the age of 11 she was signed to appear on a TV show, the Mickey Mouse Club, alongside Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera. As a Mouseketeer, her selling point was innocence, but when she started her solo singing career in 1999, at 17, that image became complicated. She was still meant to be sweet — in the video for her first single, . . . Baby One More Time, she dresses as a schoolgirl. But now she was supposed to seem sexually attractive too — her pigtails paired with a min skirt, her white shirt worn with a black bra. Spears was encouraged to present herself as a virgin, to suggest that her long-term relationship with Timberlake was entirely chaste — while dancing in a bra with a snake around her neck. If it was confusing for some of her audience, perhaps it was confusing for her too.
As Tiger Woods and Michael Jackson have proved, the bigger the brand, the bigger the fallout, and so it was with Spears. This began in January 2004, when she married her childhood friend, Jason Alexander, in Las Vegas; the union was annulled 55 hours later. In June of that same year, she was engaged to dancer Kevin Federline. Spears and Federline were married in September 2004 and within less than two years, they had two sons, Sean Preston and Jayden James. Weeks after giving birth to Jayden, Spears filed for divorce. Now she began partying with Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan. She checked in and out of rehab, attacked a paparazzo’s car with an umbrella, and lost custody of her children to Federline.
Spears became central to one of the decade’s major narratives: the depiction of young women as insensible, incompetent, insatiable, and intoxicated. At a time when women should have been more powerful than ever, there was a clear feminist backlash in the press, which focused forensically on the troubles of Anna Nicole Smith, Amy Winehouse, Mischa Barton, as well as Hilton and Lohan. While male star like Shia LaBeouf who was arrested a few times and Owen Wilson who allegedly attempted suicide were left pretty much alone.
By the start of 2008 Spears, had once again been tamed, placed briefly under “involuntary psychiatric hold” in a care facility, and control of all her legal
affairs, her life, was temporarily handed over to her father.
Since then, her brand has been re-built, media access carefully controlled; her hair has grown back, her latest album has sold millions, she is back on the Forbes list of the most powerful celebrities, and has won shared custody of her
There are occasional hints of unhappiness and regret. In a documentary, Britney: For the Record, she described shaving her head as “a little bit of rebellion, or feeling free”. But, for now, the dream continues.
Who knows if we’ll ever see the unbridled Britney again?