The Speculation About Britney Spears’ Well-Being Says More About Us Than It Does About Her

The #FreeBritney movement has us questioning ourselves

(Photo: Getty Images. Photo Illustration: Joel Louzado)
(Photo: Getty Images. Photo Illustration: Joel Louzado)

This week we heard directly from Britney Jean Spears for the first time in months. Late on April 23, the pop star uploaded a short video to Instagram after weeks of wild speculation about her well-being.

In it, she says, “Just checking in with all of you who are concerned about me. All is well. My family has been going through a lot of stress and anxiety lately so I just needed time to deal. But don’t worry, I’ll be back very soon.”

I’ve watched the clip probably 100 times. An unhealthy amount. I haven’t stopped thinking about it since she posted it. Actually, I haven’t stopped thinking about Britney for weeks—not since I saw rumblings online that she was “missing” and then we learned she’s been receiving treatment at a mental health facility. (She reportedly completed her treatment and left the facility on April 24.)

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been unsure how to proceed as a fan. As news about Britney trickled out, including a series of mind-boggling allegations (we’ll get there), two camps have emerged: one group who, to use fan-speak, think we should all Leave Britney Alone, and another—those in the #FreeBritney movement—who believe something nefarious is going on behind the scenes.

Fans are wondering what’s going on with Britney Spears’ mental health

The renewed interest in Britney’s well-being has provided a litmus test for whether our culture’s relationship with mental health and celebrity has truly evolved since Britney’s infamous struggles in 2007, or if it has simply changed. I argue it’s mostly the latter. It’s also posed questions about privacy, control and how we treat public figures in an age of excessive information. With Britney back—she posted a workout video on Wednesday, business as usual—mainstream attention to her mental health and conservatorship, which is now nearing its 12-year mark, is likely to die down.

But given what I know about the world of Britney fans, I don’t think speculation about what’s really happening will end any time soon.

Rumblings about Britney’s well-being began in January, when the singer cancelled her second Las Vegas residency, Domination, citing her father’s poor health—he had suffered a ruptured colon—as the reason for the sudden change of plans. After that, she disappeared. Suddenly one of the most-photographed women on the planet was nowhere to be seen. If you work in entertainment media, like I do, you’re used to seeing Britney Spears. Britney heading to the gym, Britney hitting up a drive-thru, Britney out with her kids. But for 105 days, not a single photo hit the wires.

The conspiracy theories *really* began picking up steam this month

Fans began to ring alarm bells on April 3, starting with the hosts of the podcast It’s Britney, Bitch! The podcast posted a “Missing” poster featuring Britney on Instagram and released an episode speculating on her whereabouts. It’s Britney, Bitch! is hosted by a pair of well-known, well-respected Britney fans, T. Kyle MacMahon and Bradley Stern, who also hold full-time media gigs (MacMahon at Watch What Happens Live, Stern at Just Jared). Within the Britney fandom, known as the Britney Army, MacMahon and Stern’s opinions hold considerable weight, so when they questioned her whereabouts, people took note.

The next afternoon, Britney posted to Instagram for the first time in 81 days: a meme with the text “Fall in love with taking care of yourself. Mind. Body. Spirit.” and the caption, “We all need to take time for a little ‘me time.’ :).” The fan reaction was split down a now-familiar line: one group praised her for taking her mental health seriously, flooding the comment section with heart emojis. The other started to speculate immediately: Was that really Britney? Would BRITNEY really use an emoticon? Britney uses emojis.

How did we even get here?

If you’re part of the Britney Army, speculation about Britney is nothing new. Even compared to her media-trained pop peers, Britney’s public presence is extraordinarily controlled. She rarely does interviews and when she does they’re almost never in-depth. The restrictions set on journalists who speak to Britney are notoriously tight. With so little to go on, Britney’s fans have taken to speculation, even more than other fan groups. And it’s not just Britney’s music they speculate about; it’s also her personal life. The one place fans felt they saw Britney unedited was on Instagram, so when her account went dark for months, fan theories spun out of control. And when the account went live again with the “me time” message, many weren’t ready to take it at face value.

Two hours after Britney’s post, TMZ broke the mental health facility news. The pop music site Breathe Heavy, which started as a Britney fansite, suggested that “Team B caught wind of TMZ’s impending report and tried softening the blow with a post on Britney’s Instagram first.”

Then, for a couple weeks, things appeared to calm down. Britney’s mother, Lynne, her sister Jamie Lynne and boyfriend Sam Asghari posted supportive messages. So did fellow Vegas icon Celine Dion. E! and ET reported she was feeling much better and taking time to focus on herself. In mid-April, Britney was spotted getting her roots touched up at a hair salon in LA and E! reported she was practicing self-care and “feeling refreshed.”

But on April 16, the narrative changed. The podcast BritneysGram, hosted by comedians Barbara Gray and Tess Barker, released an episode featuring a voicemail from a source who claimed to be a paralegal who once worked at a law firm involved in Britney’s conservatorship. Gray and Barker, the latter of whom also works as a journalist, stated they had verified the source’s workplace and called him “very, very credible.”

The Britney Army is split between two different approaches

The source claimed Britney went into treatment against her will and had, in fact, been there since January. Gray and Barker also speculated about Andrew Wallet, the lawyer who handled Britney’s financial affairs as her co-conservator from 2007 through to his resignation on March 4, just months after receiving a raise to the tune of $426,000 (USD) annually, per documents obtained by Radar Online. Wallet, the hosts alleged, may have recused himself because he was uncomfortable with Britney’s current care—possibly even fearing the situation could lead to him being disbarred. (Obviously, this is a very serious allegation and we have no way of knowing how credible the BritneysGram source is beyond Gray and Barker vouching for them.)

From that point on, things went into a tailspin. Gray and Barker launched the #FreeBritney movement, which was picked up by the mainstream press. In the campaign’s most visible moment, the pop star Eve, one of Britney’s contemporaries, wore a #FreeBritney shirt on The Talk. Though fans were eager to discuss the conservatorship, many reports focused on the salacious allegation Britney was being held against her will.

At the same time, MacMahon and Stern of It’s Britney, Bitch! took a big step back from the growing panic about Britney. They announced a hiatus, posting a tersely-worded message: “The speculation about her whereabouts is spiralling out of control, and something we’re not interested in contributing to further. Inciting fan panic and presenting allegations as truth is reckless – and, most of all, invasive. Britney deserves privacy, and owes us nothing.”

Why do we care so deeply about Britney’s well-being?

Pop culture writer Evan Ross Katz likewise offered cautionary words: “Free Britney is tough in that it intersects the increasingly toxic stan culture with the incredibly stigmatized mental health… If there has been no substantive reporting on this, isn’t your perpetuation of a rumour surrounding Britney just as yuck as if the rumor [sic] is true? Are we really stanning or are we showing how little we learned from 2007?”

MacMahon, Stern, and Katz offer a starkly different approach from the #FreeBritney campaign. It’s a classic from the fandom’s back catalog: Leave Britney Alone. And on many accounts, I agree with them. On this point, certainly: Britney Spears owes us nothing. To be frank, she’s given us more than we deserve. But if you’re of a certain age—late 20s to late 30s—and love pop music, it’s likely you’ve gotten used to living in Britney’s interior world. We’re talking about a pop star whose first cover for Rolling Stone was literally shot in her teenage bedroom in Kentwood, Louisiana.

From the moment I carried the jewel CD case for “…Baby One More Time” to school with me in the fifth grade, I’ve known more about Britney Spears than I know about most people in my real life. We’ve been privy to seemingly every detail of her private life, from the grossly-debated loss of her virginity to the causes of her break-up with Justin Timberlake and the details of the custody agreement for her two children with Kevin Federline. When it comes to Britney, we’re used to knowing far too much. So when TMZ reports that changes to Britney’s “cocktail of medicines” led to her current situation, as it did this week, many take that as the kind of detail we, Britney’s public, deserve to know.

Britney doesn’t owe us anything

We have no business in Britney’s medicine cabinet. I’d love for Britney to more open about her mental health (that could do a lot to decrease stigma), but once again, Britney doesn’t owe us that. At the same time, I understand how fan concerns have grown within in a climate of secrecy. I know a lot of fans feel this way: Britney is someone we want to protect. But the more I think about, the less I think what Britney needs is more people deciding what’s best for her.

It has become unclear what supporting Britney looks like. Is it leaving her alone, or demanding accountability from her team? I certainly support Britney’s fans raising questions about her conservatorship, which will get a new status hearing on May 10. It’s hard to argue that a woman who raises two children and serves as the face of the money-making empire that is Britney Inc. should not be afforded autonomy. It’s also true that artists are frequently taken advantage of. Just look at Britney’s peers, like TLC, *NSYNC and The Backstreet Boys, all of whom have spoken out about how they were taken advantage of by their teams. And documentaries like Whitney: Can I Be Me and Amy have shown how family members can have a negative impact on superstars when what they need most is support. We certainly don’t know what’s happening with Britney, but neither scenario is unfathomable.

The video posted to Instagram of Britney working out is the closest thing to the Britney we know that fans have seen this year. Maybe that means things are back to normal, whatever normal means for Britney Spears. Or maybe it’s a smokescreen, as some clearly believe. In the comment section of the post, the two camps are still going strong: the well-wishers who want us to leave Britney alone and the #FreeBritney skeptics.

I can’t say which camp is right, but I can say this: I want what’s best for Britney. But we can’t know what that is, because even with Britney back, there’s no signs of her team making any moves towards true transparency—and perhaps that’s not something we deserve. Without it, though, we’ll still be left to wonder. If the past month and the #FreeBritney movement have taught us anything, it’s that the panic about her well-being says more about the nature of fandom—and how toxic it can be—than it does about Britney, however she is.


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