After she promised to do her bit to keep people inspired during the pandemic, Adam White explores how the pop star has always remained earnest, thoughtful and joyous despite the many setbacks in her life
In November 2018, Juliette Lewis recorded herself rocking out in her car as she sped down a Los Angeles highway. Her hair chaotically bedraggled, Lewis had one urgent request: "God, why is Satan controlling the universe? Can't you save us Britney Spears?!"
Many were baffled. But there were those of us who saw something familiar in Lewis’s manic pleading, the sound of Spears’s capitalist anthem ‘Work B****’ throbbing its way out of her vehicle speakers. We knew exactly what she meant.
In the last few days, or the first few days of what our lives are going to be for the time being, Spears has fully embraced the role of our existential saviour. On her Instagram, forever a place of surrealist dance videos, artwork and spiritual earnestness, Spears laid out her plan for the ongoing crisis.
“With the corona disease going around, which is absolutely horrendous and crazy and so scary for our nation right now, I think it’s important, personally, for us to all try to stay with people that lift your frequency to a higher ground,” she explained in the clip. “To stay sane and healthy, and to better ourselves.”
In traditional Britney fashion, she pledged to therefore share a new yoga pose on her social media every day until our current coronavirus-assisted hell is over and done with. “To inspire others,” she said. “To stay healthy and safe and to be better people.”
For a specific generation, born somewhere between 1988 and 1996, Spears has always been a lighthouse. She’s been responsible for one of the longest runs of bangers in pop history, of course, providing necessary escapism in the darkest of times. But there’s also her inherent goodness — a sense of modest, searching humanity that has always set her apart from her peers.
We love pop’s ruthless extroverts and the ones that are largely unknowable but sensational. We love the ones more complex in their power too. Britney is none of the above. Rather she’s almost been a superstar by mistake, so good at what she does that she couldn’t not become a star, even if it’s never felt like a particularly great fit.
Spears, from her earliest fame, has existed at the centre of surreal fantasy and abject normality. She could command the stage like few others and pierce the lens of a camera with an almost supernatural grip. She was also working class, thrifty and uninterested in wasteful or unnecessary airs — a millionaire pop icon with Cheeto stains on her decade-old T-shirt.
In her prime, she was pushed into the ugliest of places, unravelling before the world’s eyes in the most savage and distressing period of 21st century celebrity culture.
For that aforementioned generation of fans, or even those who have followed her at a slight remove, Spears has since embodied raw survival. But even before the events of 2007-08, in which she experienced custody battles and a mental health crisis under the assaulting glare of TMZ, Spears was going through it.
From the age of 16, her body was a matter of public discourse — her body, her sexuality, her oft-discussed virginity, all dissected in the tabloids and asked about in her interviews. She would smile politely and brush it off, because doing anything else would have seen her labelled a monster. It was a different time, with little of the compassion of today, and Spears was one of its most high-profile victims.
There were signs in her music that she hated it, though. For as much as Spears has always been very good at singing songs about sexual hunger and her unbridled allure (“All of the boys and all of the girls are begging to if you seek Amy”, she boasted in 2009, leading millions to attempt to decipher what she was talking about), she’s also been quietly lonely.
Many of Spears’s greatest songs are about isolation and longing. Alien, one of the few respites from the wave of dross that is her infamous 2013 album Britney Jean, finds her contemplating her own sadness — “I tried but I never figured it out/ Why I always felt like a stranger in a crowd.”
On Lucky, one of her most memorable ballads, she appears to use a fictional movie star as an avatar for herself: “They say she’s so lucky, she’s a star/ But she cry, cry, cries in her lonely heart.”
Man on the Moon, a deep cut on her most recent album Glory, serves as its sonic sibling. “I can’t compete with the stars in the sky/I’m invisible, invisible/I open the window to clear up my mind/But it’s difficult, so difficult ... Drinking alone in my party dress/Would you come back if I looked my best?”
A lot of pop music is driven by similar themes — isolation, insecurity, feeling desperately low despite everything being superficially great. But there’s always been a sincerity to when Spears sings about it, a rich and heartbreaking honesty that has made her so compelling as a pop star and as a human being.
It makes her the perfect vessel for our current woes. Spears has experienced incredible setbacks, seen firsthand many of our ugliest characteristics, and yet is still earnest, thoughtful and joyous.
Her Instagram, in particular, is its own kind of internet safe-space — often strange and nonsensical, but with its own otherworldly rhythms. And now she wants to keep our spirits intact during a moment in time few ever expected would occur.
In 2018, Spears didn’t respond to Juliette Lewis’s plea for help. She may have missed it altogether or she may have just been biding her time — having known all along we didn’t truly need it until March 2020.
She’s magical that way. Thanks to Britney, our collective crisis is a little bit easier to navigate.