Until very recently, Britney Spears said that she couldn’t spend her own money to buy candles. She couldn’t paint her house the colours she wanted, or choose who her friends were. Perhaps most horrifyingly, she alleged that under the far-reaching rules of the conservatorship that governed her actions after a mental-health crisis 13 years ago, she was not allowed to remove a birth-control device from her body.
After a long legal battle, that conservatorship has now ended. Since 2008, one of the world’s most famous and beloved entertainers was essentially a prisoner of a court-ordered system, with her father as the jailer (though the legal term is “conservator”). If it sounds medieval to deprive a grown woman of her freedom, her wealth, and her artistic choices – well, welcome to the 14th century. And she was not alone. Ms. Spears has since promised to fight against what she calls a “corrupt” system on behalf of the people trapped in it, the great majority of whom don’t have her resources or fame.
She has also, tellingly, used a new hashtag on her social-media posts. She had been using #freebritney, which suggests a promise of struggle. This week she used #freedbritney, the fulfilment of that struggle.
What does it mean to be free? It means something different for each of us, obviously. But for artists it’s a particularly powerful question. I like what Joni Mitchell had to say, when asked why so many of her songs contained the words “free” or “freedom”: “Freedom to me is a luxury of being able to follow the path of the heart, to keep the magic in your life. Freedom is necessary for me in order to create, and if I don’t create I don’t feel alive.”
There’s freedom from, and there’s freedom to. If you think about the history of popular music, it’s that second one that smacks you in the ears and the gut: Iggy Pop’s freedom to throw himself around on stage; Kanye West’s freedom to build an empire on his talent. It should be said that neither of them ever got tossed into a conservatorship, no matter how questionable their decisions.
For female pop stars, it’s always been a different proposition. It’s about freedom from. That can mean being liberated from record label bosses, domineering producers, image consultants, abusive spouses or the straitjacket of cultural expectations.
Taylor Swift, for instance, is also working on her liberty. In her case, she’s trying to gain control of the masters of her first six albums, which she signed over to a since-purchased record label when she was just 15. Like Britney, she was a freakishly talented girl, and the record industry knew a golden goose when it saw one. Now, Ms. Swift is rerecording the music she made during that period, as a way to make it hers again.
Ms. Swift’s huge fanbase is – like Britney’s – there for her one-woman revolution. Last week she released Red (Taylor’s Version), a rerecording of her fourth studio album, nine years after it debuted. On Saturday Night Live, she sang an extended version of the song All Too Well, a heartbreak classic widely thought to be an arrow aimed at her ex, Jake Gyllenhaal. Yes, it’s a tangled pop culture knot, but all you need to know is that Ms. Swift is wreaking vengeance in all dimensions.
The main revenge will involve regaining control – both artistic and financial – of her past work. When I read about her manoeuvre, it brought me back to the happy days at the beginning of the Riot Grrrl movement, which famously began with a manifesto that stated in part, “we must take over the means of production in order to create our own meanings.”
As a young woman who loved music, I was always looking for other women who fought for their freedom, whether it was Patti Smith defying label bosses’ fixation with her hair (there was too much under her arms, and the stuff on her head was too messy) or Nina Simone telling the music executive who offered her a deal that she would take it – but only if she could record her own way.
At one point, everyone I knew was obsessed with Angela Bassett’s performance as Tina Turner in the 1993 film What’s Love Got to Do With It. But it was only when I read Ms. Turner’s memoirs that I understood how bad things had been for her, how traumatized she was by her then-husband Ike Turner, and how he’d robbed her of everything, including her ability to experience joy through music.
In her 2018 book My Love Story, Ms. Turner writes about what it felt like to reclaim that essential part of herself once she struck out on her own: “I knew I had a good show because I was free. Finally I was dancing on my own. I had my own band playing what I wanted them to play, at the tempo I wanted. I never did it for the money. I did it for the love of the work, and the audience felt that emotion coming from the stage.”
We know how brilliant Tina Turner’s career was, once she was liberated. I can only imagine what we might expect from Britney Spears as she explores her freedom. Maybe it will be something completely unexpected; maybe she’ll just want to enjoy her life for a while. At least she gets to choose.
“My voice was muted and threatened for so long, I wasn’t allowed to speak up or say anything,” she said in a message to fans. Her voice is her own again. Will she raise it in song? Only Britney will decide.
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