The testimony of Britney Spears in the court case over her thirteen-year legal conservatorship should concern everyone. Publicly addressing the conditions of that conservatorship for the first time, Spears alleged that she had been subjected to forced visits to rehab, effective sterilization after being refused removal of a contraceptive device, and world tours performed under legal duress.
She claimed to have long been unaware that she was able to exit the conservatorship over her person and estate — a crucial deprivation of her right to appeal her legal status. After twenty-five minutes, she said the following to the presiding Los Angeles judge:
I wish I could stay with you on the phone forever, because when I get off the phone with you, all of a sudden all I hear are these noes . . . I deserve to have the same rights as anybody does.
The most vocal opponents of her conservatorship have been the #FreeBritney movement, a group of fans with a significant online presence who speak out against the singer’s uniquely restrictive legal situation. For a long time, the mainstream press ignored their very public scrutiny of this intensely private legal process. It has now received comprehensive coverage in the New Yorker, and Democrats like Elizabeth Warren are using the case to call for greater data collection and scrutiny of guardianships in the United States.
Some voices in the chaotic #FreeBritney movement may have skirted the edges of conspiracy theory. But the pop music industry, with its secrecy and exploitation on the one hand, and its illusion of familiarity on the other, actively cultivates this kind of zealous speculation.
Fueling the Britney Industry
A Los Angeles million-dollar psychodrama may seem like a strange subject of interest for socialists. However, the music industry, like any other capitalist enterprise, is a site of exploitation. We should know how it works and how people are challenging it, and we should ask how we might create a popular culture free of exploitation and abuse.
Journalists often tell the story of Britney Spears’s life as a parable about wider systems: about the harassment and shaming of powerful women, or about the routine restriction of liberties for those deemed too mentally unwell to be granted autonomy. These themes are certainly compelling. They help explain the cruel treatment she received from the media across the 2000s, and they shed light on the often-ignored overreach of the “care” system for those deemed incapable of autonomy: a 2015 Forbes report detailed a woman recovering from a stroke to find an agency had charged her $50 an hour to open her letters while managing her estate.
While these comparisons are important to make, it is still vanishingly rare for a person to be in a full conservatorship at the age of thirty-nine — the nearest comparison is Amanda Bynes, another American teen star who suffered a very public breakdown. These arrangements typically only apply to people who are very elderly or disabled (which raises many issues in its own right). It is hard to imagine the courts imposing one on a mother of two in her twenties, if she were not someone with a multimillion-dollar estate whose life in the spotlight had slowly broken her down.
The conservatorship began after Spears suffered a public breakdown in 2007, goaded on by the gutter press and the celebrity gossip blogosphere. By then, she had been in the public sphere since 1992, when she joined the Mickey Mouse Club. Reports at the time spoke of the court-facilitated arrangement as having been imposed on a “temporary” basis. In the days before the arrangement, Spears was said to have gone five days without sleeping. In 2013, she confirmed that she is living with bipolar disorder.
Her conservatorship has lasted ever since, with some skirmishes over which family members are best placed at the helm of it: Spears had a semipublic falling out with her father in 2019. The arrangement means that her conservator manages everything from her transportation to her wealth portfolio. The court, not Spears herself, appoints her lawyer, who is nominally tasked with helping her exit the conservatorship.
The ill-defined conservatorship leaves room for control in nearly every aspect of her life. One of the more shocking revelations of the New Yorker exposé was that Spears does not have a personal phone and sometimes borrows those of strangers to call people she’s lost touch with. Rapper Iggy Azalea has recalled spending time with Spears and seeing her team control “how many sodas she was allowed to drink,” then being asked to sign a nondisclosure agreement (NDA).
One attorney specializing in conservatorships remarked to Vulture:
Coercion is a big part of conservatorships in that they dangle a carrot in front of you and if you do XYZ, you’re going to get to see your boyfriend . . . she can’t even get in the car with her boyfriend. That’s how tight they have her.
Across the thirteen years of this strict conservatorship, Britney Spears has carried out the full duties of a global pop star, performing live around five hundred times. Nearly half of these performances were part of a Las Vegas residency which took in $137 million. Her perfume line earns a reported $30 million annually. She has released four studio albums since 2007 and has a net worth of around $70 million.
At one of those live shows — Brighton Pride in 2018 — fans noticed Spears turn to a dancer and ask, “Where are we?” before greeting the crowd. At the time, they read it as an amusing example of her characteristic languor: after all, it’s a fairly common gaffe for disoriented artists to shout out the name of the wrong city while onstage. But it’s now hard not to read it as symptomatic of a dislocating and unnatural pattern of work.
Spears now describes the 2018 tour as one she was “forced to do” after legal threats from her management company. Her fans have described her as looking tired and disoriented in performances and interviews for several years. She finally took a break from the work schedule in 2019.
World tours are physically grueling, even for the highest-paid stars, let alone the precariously employed and underpaid dancers, technicians, and staff. Yet those tours have proceeded for a decade while Spears remains entrapped by an arcane legal arrangement that curtails the smallest daily freedoms on mental health grounds.
It seems like a particularly sadistic version of capitalist legalism, one that undermines an individual’s agency in the interests of their well-being, then uses the very same constriction to send them on lucrative tours around the world. This arrangement, put in place at a time of crisis, now appears to be primarily a way of stabilizing Britney Spears the industry, rather than Britney Spears the person.
The Spears case may be particularly unsettling, but similar exploitative conditions can be found throughout the pop music industry. Former Little Mix member Jesy Nelson recently recalled receiving “something like fifty injections” after an injury to ensure she could complete American performances. British singer Rebecca Ferguson recently described how music industry bullying and blackmail left her exhausted and suicidal early in her career. She recounted the story of a boy band member she knew being “picked up and thrown against walls” for challenging label decisions, and she reported being injected with adrenaline to continue a recording session.
The experiences of most artists are not public: many sign NDAs that commit them to secrecy about their conditions, while others exit the industry voiceless, having been discarded early in their careers. Ferguson is calling for a regulatory body that can provide artists with independent legal advice. As things stand, artists often sign contracts young, with little or no legal advice, grateful to have received even minor industry recognition.
How can you take on such an industry? With streaming services displacing physical sales, pop music relies ever more heavily on tour and merchandising revenue to stay afloat. Touring requires strenuous and painful work, while merchandising necessitates ever tighter control of an artist’s image to guard against supposed reputational risks. Control and exploitation are built into what it means to be a performing celebrity under capitalism. As the old mode of capitalist music production falters, control over the remaining resource — the artist — intensifies.
It would be an injustice to Britney Spears to present her simply as a sad victim of exploitation, or her fans as industry-pilled dupes. Her greatest performances are charismatic and compelling, and the rhythmic dance-first routines of her early career have rarely been bettered. Her mid-breakdown 2007 album Blackout is one of the richest documents of popular culture from its decade, brashly experimental and smartly parodical about her own growing paranoia.
For their part, her fans sometimes seem too willing to continue the media spectacle of intrusion and celebrity-making by other means. But at their smartest, those fans have also embarked on worthy investigations of a complex legal structure that clearly fosters abuse and exploitation. The relationship between fan and icon has clearly transcended the label-cultivated dream of an unmediated ticket-and-merch transaction.
It’s too easy to dismiss mass culture as no more than a crude product of capitalism. Cultural critique has its place. But it’s best to avoid moralizing conversations and think practically about how we can create a better popular culture, much as sports fans do when they challenge monopolization or call for supporter control. Fans can see past the ideology that justifies exploitation and sympathize with the humanity of artists, and that’s something we can build on.
The problems of Britney Spears might seem a world away from those of the struggling early-career artist. But her case shows how capital can impede human freedom, even for a model capitalist, and exemplifies ills that are rife throughout the entertainment industry. Undoing those ills means taking on the whole structure of that industry, from the pittances paid by the streaming sector to the massive imbalances of power between performers and labels.