Britney Spears through the years
Getty / Redux / Arsh Raziuddin / The Atlantic

There’s Never Been a Story Like Britney Spears’s

Fans are rallying to liberate the singer from her father’s control. But emancipation narratives from Mariah Carey and other pop stars show how complex independence can be.

Someday, with luck, Britney Spears will write a “good, mysterious book.” At least, that’s what she said in the closing moments of Britney: For the Record, a 2008 MTV special that capped off a few years of highly publicized turmoils for Spears: paparazzi skirmishes, child-custody battles, lethargic performances, an involuntary psychiatric visit, and one infamous head shaving. The documentary captured the singer’s attempt to move on from her scandals, but at the end of its hour-long running time, an interviewer noted that Spears had still discussed her problems in only vague terms. With a wistful smile and tilt of her head, Spears assured viewers that she’d eventually put all her answers in writing.

People who track down For the Record today—despite its absence from streaming services, official retailers, and even most bootleg sites—may be searching for clues to a mystery that still surrounds one of the world’s most famous people. In January 2008, the then-26-year-old Spears was committed to a hospital psychiatric ward against her will, and her father, Jamie, obtained temporary legal control of her affairs. She could no longer make her own appointments, go for impromptu drives, or freely use the millions of dollars she had earned since coming into superstardom at age 16. Spears initially tried to contest the arrangement—known as a conservatorship—in court, but a judge had determined her mentally unfit to choose her own attorney. By the time of For the Record’s November broadcast, the conservatorship, overseen by Jamie and a lawyer named Andrew Wallet, had become permanent. Spears had settled into what she called a “boring” new life of constant monitoring by doctors and lawyers. “Even when you go to jail, you know there’s the time when you’re gonna get out,” she said in the documentary. “But in this situation, it’s never ending.”

It was a shockingly quiet end to what had been a raucous story. Throughout her rise, Spears presented herself as the archetypal young girl rebelling into womanhood: a 16-year-old Catholic student shimmying provocatively in her school halls, a 19-year-old party animal complaining of being so oh-oh-overprotected, a newly married 22-year-old singing that she didn’t need anyone’s permission to make her own decisions. The way her performances jibed with her at-times-wild personal life proved irresistible to the early 2000s’ unchecked gossip media, which magnified her every sartorial, romantic, or parenting snafu. Then, in 2008, Spears—a twice-married mother of two—became someone who really did need permission to make any significant decisions. Her next album, released later in 2008, was called Circus, but Spears’s publicity circus had definitively ended.

For the Record would be the last time she’d openly discuss the conservatorship. In the years since then—years that have seen multiple smash singles, sold-out world tours, and a Las Vegas residency—Spears’s handlers have tightly controlled what gets asked of her in interviews. They’ve also kept most of the court documents related to her situation sealed. Whatever medical condition prevents her from being able to handle her own affairs remains publicly unknown. Her upbeat but inscrutable Instagram feed—a parade of selfies, dancing videos, and inspirational memes—gives no clear insight into whether she yearns for more control. A 2016 New York Times investigation surmised that “the conservatorship has become an accepted fact of life—not a cage but a protective bubble that allows her to worry about her true passions: music and her children.”

Spears performs at the MTV VMAs in 2001. (Kevin Mazur / WireImage)

Yet signs of trouble have become visible in the past two years, beginning with Spears abruptly canceling a second Las Vegas residency, announcing an “indefinite work hiatus,” and making a stay at a mental-health facility. In the fall of 2019, Jamie temporarily left his role as conservator, citing his own medical crisis, and a woman named Jodi Montgomery—who had been working as Spears’s health-care manager—took his place. Spears then, in an August 2020 filing by her court-appointed lawyer, expressed a desire for her father not to return to his role as conservator. She instead wants Montgomery and a financial firm to handle her affairs. A legal skirmish has unfolded, with Spears’s representatives accusing Jamie of financial mismanagement and repressive secrecy, and Jamie firing back with accusations of grandstanding and recklessness.

The court drama has thrown gasoline on a long-simmering fan movement called “Free Britney.” Its slogan encompasses a range of beliefs based on information of varying credibility, but its adherents all generally see Spears’s conservatorship as an injustice. Some fans simply think the singer deserves more autonomy as an adult who has capably performed in concerts, TV shows, and interviews in the past 12 years. Other fans, who comment on the star’s every social-media post, worry that she has been gaslighted, blackmailed, or—here’s one for your 2020 bingo card—killed and cloned by the global elite. Followers have protested outside her in-person court appearances, interrupted Zoom hearings, and hounded members of Spears’s family for info. They have also combed through legal records, circulated unverified and allegedly leaked documents, and scrutinized Spears’s Instagram photos for signs that she’s being held hostage. In doing so, the fans have themselves become controversial.

“All these conspiracy theorists don’t know anything,” Jamie told the New York Post in early August. “The world don’t have a clue. It’s up to the court of California to decide what’s best for my daughter. It’s no one else’s business.” For a while, Spears appeared to agree with that assessment. A message posted to her Instagram while she was in a rehab facility last year asked for privacy for her and her family members. Subsequent Instagram posts by Spears have bristled at fans’ insinuations that she is not in charge of her own social-media accounts, and she has shared images and captions asserting herself as healthy and content with life.

Yet in August, the Free Britney movement seemed to receive vindication. “Britney welcomes and appreciates the informed support of her many fans,” wrote Spears’s lawyer, Samuel D. Ingham III, in a court filing. Also in the document:

Britney’s conservatorship has attracted an unprecedented level of scrutiny from mainstream media and social media alike. Far from being a conspiracy theory or a “joke” as James reportedly told the media, in large part this scrutiny is a reasonable and even predictable result of James’ aggressive use of the sealing procedure over the years to minimize the amount of meaningful information made available to the public … Transparency is an essential component in order for this court to earn and retain the public’s confidence with respect to protective proceedings like this one. In this case, it is not an exaggeration to say that the whole world is watching.

Although Spears wants substantial changes to her life, the conservatorship, Ingham writes, is “voluntary,” and she is currently not looking to end it. Lawyers will be in court again this month to discuss the case, and if Spears’s side gets the “transparency” that it is asking for, the issue of her independence—and the question of why she does not have it—will be litigated more publicly than ever before. Fans, clearly, would be thrilled to learn more about what’s been going on with their idol. But if greater public attention solves more problems than it creates for Britney Spears, it’ll be the first time.

There is no precedent for Spears’s situation in its particularities. But the slogan “Free Britney” evokes a rich lineage of pop stars, especially female pop stars, struggling for self-sufficiency in public—and the public has typically been cast as an ally and sympathetic witness in such struggles. Only a few years ago, fans popularized the catchphrase “Free Kesha” after the singer filed a lawsuit alleging sexual abuse and manipulation by her manager and producer, Dr. Luke. (He denied her claims and eventually prevailed in a court battle over her record contract). A little more than a decade before that came a “Free Fiona” campaign seeking to liberate Fiona Apple from a suffocating record contract. Taylor Swift recently sicced fans on execs she alleged were holding her catalog hostage. Janet Jackson’s 1986 breakthrough, Control, commemorated the banishment of romantic, familial, and financial manipulators from her life. When Beyoncé ejected her father from the role of her business manager, too, it became a pivotal chapter in her ongoing public narrative.

These women’s stories differ, but taken together, they seem to confer lessons about exploitation, fame, sexism, and the capacity to transcend those things. Humming along to songs of freedom and reading People stories about power struggles, the casual consumers inevitably get invested.

Arguably the most potent of the pop-liberation narratives to date comes from Mariah Carey, who just released her own “good, mysterious book” that can’t help but call to mind the Free Britney saga. The public is already familiar with Carey as someone forever declaring independence, whether when singing “I Am Free” in 1995, presenting herself as an un-cocooned Butterfly in 1997, or celebrating The Emancipation of Mimi in 2005. The Meaning of Mariah, a memoir co-written with the journalist Michaela Angela Davis, movingly fills in the substance behind Carey’s inspirational belting. Growing up in Long Island as the daughter of a white mom and a Black father, Carey spent her early years in a kiln of racism, classism, and violence—much of which was inflicted by her own family members. Her singing allowed her to escape those circumstances, but the hugely successful career that unfolded did not, for a long time, bring Carey personal autonomy.

Mariah Carey discusses her new book with Oprah in September. (Apple TV)

The middle section of The Meaning of Mariah is devoted to what she describes as a torturously controlling relationship—an informal conservatorship of sorts—with the former Sony Music executive Tommy Mottola. They met when she was just 18; his company released her debut album when she was 20; they married when she was 23 and he was 43. She refers to the mansion they built together as Sing Sing, after the upstate prison of national infamy. She writes of cameras, intercoms, and security guards monitoring and regulating her every move. She writes of feeling like her creative decisions were never fully her own. “I couldn’t talk to anyone that wasn’t under Tommy’s control,” Carey writes. “I couldn’t go out or do anything with anybody. I couldn’t move freely in my own house.” Perceptively, she adds, “Captivity and control come in many forms, but the goal is always the same—to break down the captive’s will, to kill any notion of self-worth and erase the person’s memory of their own soul.” (Mottola’s take on the relationship, in a 2013 memoir: “If it seemed like I was controlling, let me apologize again. Was I obsessive? Yes. But that was also part of the reason for her success.”)

How’d she get out? Other people. Therapists, collaborators, and friends helped her realize that her situation was not normal. So did fans. Carey shares a baffling memory of going to play a concert in 1993—well into her career, with a fistful of No. 1 singles to her name—and being confused to see crowds of people behind police barricades in the streets. For years, she says, Mottola had whisked her between industry gigs and their secluded home, preventing her from encountering the masses of listeners who’d become her diehards. “Here I was again, about to hit another stage, and somehow I had no clue that I was famous,” she writes. “Because I was never alone, I had no comprehension of the impact my music and I were making on the outside world ... Did Tommy know I would be easier to control if I were kept ignorant of the full scope of my power?”

Even after Carey walked out on Mottola in 1997, she continued to feel oppressed by close figures in her life. In 2001, Carey, suffering from exhaustion amid back-to-back video shoots, flipped out at her mother—and her mother called the cops. The incident ended with Carey temporarily committed to a mental facility, a development that titillated the tabloids. In Carey’s telling, her mom—whom she generally portrays as selfish and manipulative—overreacted and gave the paparazzi what they wanted: the public image of an erratic diva in need of being monitored and subdued. Carey also suspects that her mother and her brother wanted to use her mental exhaustion as a pretext to seize control of her business affairs. The story casts Carey’s relatives and the tabloids at large in the role of jailer—but today, she has a potent shield against them.

“I still feel part of the media are patiently waiting for me to have another spectacular meltdown,” Carey writes, “but the difference is, in today’s world, they don’t matter. Now, all artists have an unfiltered voice and enormous public platforms through social media … Our fans can come to our defense, bring all the receipts, and create a united front.”

Carey’s portrayal of pop fans as heroic, receipt-wielding defenders of their divas may well be inspiring to the Free Britney campaign. A TV performer since age 11 and a pop celebrity since age 16, Spears has scarcely known a life outside of privacy invasions by the masses. Her fans, while theoretically part of such masses, have long viewed themselves as her guardians. Before Free Britney, after all, there was “Leave Britney Alone,” the famous 2007 cry of a fan on YouTube fed up with prying paparazzi and pundits.

Spears flanked by her parents, Lynn and Jamie, in 2001. (Denise Truscello / WireImage)

Now fans are attempting to harness the media for her protection. In April 2019, the hosts of a podcast called “Britney’s Gram” shared a voicemail left by an anonymous source who they said was formerly a paralegal at a firm involved with the conservatorship. The source alleged that Jamie had forced Spears into a mental-health facility last year, which would contradict the official narrative that Spears had voluntarily sought treatment. “Stans, if there’s one thing we know, it’s the internet,” Tess Barker, one of the podcast’s hosts, said after playing the message. “We need to get this so public, the opinion needs to shift to where there is no choice but to do right by Britney Spears.”

The tense irony of the situation is that these self-styled saviors are pitted against people who have been Spears’s legal guardians—the people who are now asking for Spears to be left alone. Jamie has sued and allegedly threatened fans who have inveighed against the conservatorship. Jamie Lynn, Spears’s younger sister—who was recently named the trustee of Britney’s estate—has, on social media, asserted her family’s need for privacy. Such rhetoric raises the disturbing thought that the Free Britney movement merely re-creates the same voyeuristic pressure and prying that tormented Spears early in her career. But with Spears’s lawyer now saying that the star welcomes the informed support of fans, the picture seems different. She seems to be inviting help.

Indeed, Spears’s explicit lobbying against her father’s control of the conservatorship feeds into the public’s preexisting ideas of who the villain is in her would-be emancipation narrative. “Me and my daughter’s relationship has always been strained,” Jamie said in a 2019 court appearance; “I don’t understand how he can be such an asshole, and then be so nice,” Spears quipped after he walked out of the room in For the Record. More worrying was an incident last year in the home of Kevin Federline, Spears’s ex-husband. Allegedly, Jamie broke through a door and intimidated Sean Preston, one of Federline and Spears’s sons. Although police investigators found no evidence of abuse, Federline filed for—and was granted—a restraining order to keep Jamie away from their two sons.

The ugliness of that particular incident—an allegedly traumatizing moment involving minor children—is a reminder of some of the deeper stakes underlying Free Britney. Spears’s first involuntary hospitalization in 2008 took place after she’d locked herself in a bathroom with one of her sons and refused to give him over to Federline, who by that point had been awarded full custody of their children. In the years since then, she regained a 50/50 custody split. But after his 2019 restraining order against Jamie, a new agreement gave Federline 70 percent custody—and Federline’s lawyer says that in reality, he is with the children “closer to 90” percent of the time. It’s not unreasonable to wonder whether Spears’s newly overt campaign against her father’s control is, in part, a bid to see her kids more.

The fact that Spears’s children are at issue is another reason an overly zealous public-pressure campaign against the conservatorship could be dangerous. On an Instagram live-stream conducted earlier this year by Spears’s 14-year-old son, Jayden, viewers got him to trash-talk his grandfather. They also pushed him for info about his mother’s health and legal situation, and Jayden replied that he’d open up about her once he reached 5,000 followers. To hound a child for gossip about his mother is a funny way of helping that mother—and shows how parts of Spears’s fandom haven’t learned the most glaring lessons about their idol’s struggles with fame. In the same podcast episode in which she called for listeners to organize en masse against the conservatorship, Barker attempted to draw a line between the helpful and unhelpful attention one can pay a celebrity in distress. “I hope we’ve learned,” she said, “in the ideal situation, where she gets her freedom, let’s leave her alone.”

Fans should also be aware of the psychological complexities that a straightforward emancipation narrative cannot account for. On this topic, too, Mariah Carey’s example is instructive. In 2018, she announced that she’d been diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2001, thereby triggering an outpouring of sympathy and understanding from the public. Yet nowhere in the 368 pages of The Meaning of Mariah is the word bipolar mentioned; nowhere is there discussion of a diagnosis, or a thought on how it shaped her life. “I don’t feel like there’s a mental-illness discussion to be had,” Carey told Vulture when asked about the omission. “It is not to deny that. I am not denying that. I just don’t know that I believe in any one diagnosis for a situation or a human being.” Carey today casts her own life as a tale of overcoming circumstances via willpower, faith, and the support of fans—but it’s surely more complicated than that.

Spears on stage in 2016 (C. Flanigan / FilmMagic)

Spears’s medical matters should by all rights remain private unless she chooses to talk about them. But with Spears’s lawyer seeking more transparency in court proceedings, the public may learn that the unfolding story is more complex than it seems. What happens to Free Britney’s fervor if it surfaces that Spears really is not capable of managing her own life safely? How will people react if the story they’re so invested in is revealed to be one about not literal independence, but simply caregiving modifications? What if liberation means treatment, not legal autonomy?

After all, theoretically impartial doctors and judges have seen it prudent that the arrangement remain intact since 2008. Over the years, Spears has talked about grappling with deep social anxiety, and in one 2013 special, she made a possibly joking comment about having bipolar disorder. (“It’s almost like it’s my alter ego when I get on stage … I turn into this different person, seriously. Bipolar disorder.”) Jamie Lynn recently shared (then deleted) a tweet about caring for people with mental illness. Public appearances in which Spears has seemed notably disengaged, as well as behind-the-scenes reports of odd behavior, have not given an impression of stability.

If Spears ever writes—or is allowed to write—her “good, mysterious book,” she may shed light on what she’s been experiencing. For now, she continues communicating via social media, the tool that Carey says helped her take control of her own life. On Instagram, Spears has taken to posting strangely similar collections of pictures in which she is standing alone, facing the camera, and giving a pursed-lip smile. She’ll also sometimes post videos of herself speaking in a chipper, hyperspeed flurry. Some fans believe she is sending a secret message, one that indicates she is being held captive against her will. The more obvious takeaway is that Spears interacts with the world differently than most people do—and that she’s someone who’s aware of the eyes on her, but never free of them.