Since the release of her ninth studio album Glory in 2016, Britney Spears has only published four songs over the past seven years. The first two were additional album tracks for the reissue of Glory in 2020, one with the Backstreet Boys and one solo (she did not receive a writing credit for either).
The following year, she collaborated with Elton John on “Hold Me Closer,” another track from a reissued album, this time John’s collaboration album The Lockdown Sessions (originally released in 2002). This week, the song “Mind Your Business” by producer and Black Eyed Peas member Will.i.am was released onto social media.
While many admirers are pleased to hear her voice again, hearing it after so long also evokes mixed emotions. The primary context in which Spears has been discussed in recent years is, of course, her conservatorship under her father and the legal battle to have it removed following the #FreeBritney fan campaign (which she ultimately won in November 2021).
Since she has been “free,” however, there has been tension: how can Spears’ devotion and icon status be maintained without perpetuating the media and industry cycles of overexposure that caused so much harm?
Nobody could contest that ending the conservatorship was the correct decision. Simply put, the query is: what now? It is challenging to know how to honor someone without using the same attention that destroyed them in the past.
We want to appreciate her presence and rejoice that she’s making music again, but we are concerned about whether she herself is content. How can we be sure that we are doing things on her terms when she has always existed in a world that forced her into boxes? A pop-EDM song instructing the paparazzi where to go does not entirely clarify the situation.
In the absence of musical output to scrutinize, Spears’ highly erratic Instagram presence in recent years has caused people to query her mental health. She frequently posts videos of herself dancing in odd costumes at odd angles with smudged makeup and unkempt hair. Because she is “free” and acts as she pleases on her own platforms, you feel you cannot say there is anything inherently wrong with this—and there isn’t—but it is nonetheless unsettling.
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Perhaps she’s just being genuine, and we’ve become too habituated to a hyper-filtered version of celebrity to appreciate it; however, it may also reveal a sustained vulnerability or a sense that she is at odds with the world she inhabits.
At the very least, the hyper-exposure that comes with posting videos of yourself in your underwear to 42 million followers may not be the best remedy for someone who has endured tremendous hardship due to a different type of hyper-exposure. You find yourself pondering, if not outright asking, “Is Britney okay?”
Likewise, there appears to be more to the Will.i.am song than meets the eye. The artwork for “Mind Your Business” depicts Spears, who is now 41, at age 20—a 2001 image of her at her most Britney-esque and iconic, the same image she uses as her social media profile picture (Will.i.am, who is himself 48, does not appear to be his age on the cover).
Her severely processed voice repeats the phrase “mind your own business” over generic, grating synths. Despite Will.i.am’s professed admiration and support for Spears, the song is obviously almost entirely cynical, artificial, forgettable, and harsh, and was likely written in about 15 minutes.
Rather than being expressive or even “empowering” in performance, it is the most perfunctory type of pop music imaginable—a term that makes one uneasy when applied to a celebrity who has spent her entire career doing others’ bidding.
There is little to celebrate about Spears’s return to the mainstream spotlight if she is being used as a puppet of her former self to further the commercial interests of others. Interestingly, she has not promoted the song on her own social media platforms.
While Spears is now free of her abusive father, she has been released back into an industry that we cannot trust to treat her much better—an industry that was arguably culpable for the circumstances that were used to justify the conservatorship in the first place.
Do we, as her audience, have a duty to speak up when we’re concerned? Certainly, the Free Britney movement demonstrated the impact that a supportive public can have. What this support looks like at present is a separate subject.
Is it a violation of Spears’ autonomy to convey concern about her life, given the limited information available? Or is it worse to propagate the “Britney” image’s self-fulfilling cycle by unconditionally endorsing it? It is impossible to know, but it is also important to note that we cannot know for certain whether Britney is genuinely free.