We’ve Never Heard Britney Spears Like This

The pop star wants to live on her own terms. To do that, she had to give one more brutal performance.

Activists protest during a conservatorship hearing for Britney Spears.
Activists protest during a conservatorship hearing for Britney Spears in Los Angeles. (Rich Fury / Getty)

When typed out in full, the chilling speech that Britney Spears gave to a Los Angeles judge yesterday afternoon comes to more than 4,500 words. Those words are now circulating online as quotations about how Spears lived in “denial” about the legal and medical arrangement that has given other people control over her life for 13 years. She says this “abusive” conservatorship forced her to take debilitating medications, smothered her daily life, and forbade her from marrying and getting pregnant. She now wants freedom.

To really understand what happened yesterday, though, you should watch a few minutes of video footage from outside the courtroom. You’ll see throngs of fans dressed in princess pink, rapt and crying as Spears’s speech crackled through a loudspeaker. You’ll hear a voice familiar to a huge swath of humankind—an upbeat squeak that over decades has been branded as the essence of girlishness, innocence, and even obliviousness. We’re used to that voice, but we’re not used to it doing this: desperately telling a story of survival and captivity, and pleading to be seen as the autonomous human being whom so much of the public has, thanks to the distorting logic of fame, never fully recognized.

Spears does not deny that she needs medical care: In one of the afternoon’s few moments of levity, she laughed as she said, “I actually know I do need a little therapy.” But the conservatorship, she argued, is driven by profit rather than concerns for her safety. Her father kept pushing her to perform when really, she said, “All I want is to own my money, for this to end, and my boyfriend to drive me in his fucking car.” The sad irony is that to try to attain the sort of privacy and quietude that most people take for granted, Spears had to give one of the most vulnerable public performances in celebrity history.

Spears’s predicament began decades ago, when she upended the serene, stage-managed image projected by her 1998 hit “… Baby One More Time.” In the early 2000s, she acted like many other 20-year-olds do: having rocky relationships, partying a lot, ignoring decorum. But she did those things in public and with young children, and the media harassed her relentlessly, further destabilizing her life. In 2008, amid a stressful battle with her ex-husband over custody of her two sons, authorities committed her to a temporary psychiatric hold twice over the course of one month. Her father then petitioned a judge to establish a conservatorship, which confers control of her life and finances to a third party. It still exists today.

Conservatorships typically help manage the affairs of the severely incapacitated—people with dementia or traumatic brain injuries, for example. Spears’s medical situation is not known, but as she seemed fit to continue performing and recording after 2008, fans wondered what merited her continued lack of autonomy. Any theorizing had to be couched, though, within the context that the conservatorship was “voluntary,” according to Spears’s court-appointed lawyer. Her smiley, kooky Instagram feed seemed curated to radiate a sense of contentment from her California mansion.

Starting in 2019, signs began to emerge—in court and in the media—that Spears was unhappy with the conservatorship and wanted her dad to exit it. But the full scope of her feelings remained mysterious, until this week. On Tuesday, The New York Times published a report saying that Spears had balked at the conservatorship several times over the years but had not been able to secure her legal freedom. The Times also laid out her boggling financial situation. Spears herself had to foot all conservatorship-related legal bills, covering the costs of both her own advocate and the lawyers who argued against her freedom. Her father, Jamie, took in a $16,000 monthly salary for managing her life—plus $2,000 a month for office rent, and royalties from performances he arranged for her. Meanwhile, Spears said her weekly allowance was $2,000.

Yesterday finally dispelled all mystery about how Spears feels about the conservatorship. “The people who did that to me should not be able to walk away so easily,” she said toward the beginning of her remarks. She went on to describe being intimidated into working when she didn’t want to, being put on lithium that she didn’t want to take, and being sent to a rehab facility that she found to be grueling and humiliating. She spared few details about the frequency and context of her visitations with therapists and doctors. Bafflingly (and damningly for her lawyer, Samuel Ingham III), she said she had been unaware that she could petition for the conservatorship to end. Throughout her speech, a clear narrative and message came through: She felt she’d been exploited, and she wanted it to stop.

Spears’s words amounted to confession, condemnation, and testimony—but crucially, they were also a spectacle. Many of Spears’s conservatorship hearings have been sealed from public view, but the star’s lawyer has successfully advocated for the shroud of secrecy to be lifted. It is now clear why: Denied personal autonomy, Spears must have realized that the best leverage she has is her own voice and her own fame. At one point during the hearing, she asked the judge to approve her giving an interview to the media, then she revised the statement and said that she realized her testimony in the hearing would fulfill that purpose. “I have the right to use my voice,” she said. “It’s not fair they’re telling … lies about me openly … My own family doing interviews, and talking about the situation and making me feel so stupid. And I can’t say one thing.”

That silence about her personal situation over the past 13 years seemed to fit with the inscrutably happy persona that Spears’s camp—if not, as is now clear, Spears herself—has long tried to sell. But music history is littered with examples of personas tormenting the people behind them, and Spears has made clear just how concrete a toll such torment can take. “I’ve lied and told the whole world ‘I’m okay, and I’m happy,’” she said. “I thought … maybe if I said that enough, maybe I might become happy, because I’ve been in denial. I’ve been in shock. I am traumatized. You know, fake it ’til you make it. But now I’m telling you the truth, okay? I’m not happy. I can’t sleep. I’m so angry, it’s insane. And I’m depressed. I cry every day.”

After Spears finished her remarks, the lawyer of one of her current co-conservators told the judge that she has a “different perspective” on the issues Spears raised, and also worried about the star’s privacy. Jamie Spears’s lawyer read a statement saying that Britney’s father, who has always maintained that the conservatorship is for her well-being, is “sorry to see his daughter suffering and in so much pain.” Outside the courtroom, fans were bawling and yelling; across the internet, a sense of outrage was welling up. Spears’s medical needs may or may not require constant care, and her family and associates may or may not be guilty of all the things she accused them of. Yet it’s hard to imagine going back to the hush-hush paradigm that Spears has said enabled her subjugation, now that there is no doubt what Spears herself wants. She has long been one of the most watched people on Earth, but it’s different to be heard.