In the fabulously entertaining and revealing book I Want My MTV The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution by Rob Tannebaum and Craig Marks, the initial decade of the all-videos-all-the-time network was explored at length. The book focuses on the ten-year time frame of 1982-1992, the period when music videos dominated the airwaves and how artists were struggling to figure out the concept of music videos and its place within music artistry. Ultimately the biggest of the biggest came around to embracing the form and many of today’s top directors such as David Fincher (Fight Club, The Social Network) got their start operating in the video arena (Fincher directed several of Madonna’s biggest video hits such as “Vogue”).
The MTV book finishes with what the network hailed the birth of “reality TV” when The Real World debuted in 1992. From there, the network never glanced back. Videos become less a priority for the network during the 90s and unless you were Whitney Houston, an artist’s video would not receive constant play. The era of artists becoming stars because off their videos was over. That was until female artists during the late 90s brought back style, attitude and an original flicker of originality mixed with simplicity brought innovation back to the format. Shania Twain, for example, created videos that were so memorably back-to-basics (a porch, a guitar and a field was all that was required), they were not solely showed on the country music stations, they were being broadcast over the pop music stations as well.
When 17-year-old Britney Spears released her first album, Baby One More Time on January 30, 1999, it reached the top spot on the Billboard Charts nearly immediately. Spears had done what Twain (and 15 years earlier, Madonna) had done: become an overnight star just from repeated MTV airings of her video. By mid-1999, Spears’ face was practically everywhere. She had knocked the boy bands off the charts and veteran performers who released new music that spring such as Joan Jett, just couldn’t compete in the marketplace.
Baby One More Time spent six weeks at number one and 32 weeks on Billboards top ten. Her rise was meteoric. She was a constant presence on MTV’s Total Request Live, and by that summer she was lending songs to major movies such as Drive Me Crazy for 20th Century Fox. At the end of the year, Entertainment Weekly named her the 4th biggest entertainer of 1999 (Tom Hanks ranked fifth).
Today, in 2021, Britney Spears is back in the news thanks to the new FX/Hulu feature-length documentary Framing Britney Spears directed by Samantha Stark and produced by Jason Stallman, Sam Dolnick, and Stephanie Priess, produced in association with the New York Times. The documentary which looks back at Spears’ humble beginnings and sudden rise to stardom, but mainly it examines her life since the singer’s introduction to music fans In 1999. Back then, gossip celebrity blogs barely existed. There was no such thing as TMZ (which launched in 2006) and Perez Hilton hadn’t launched his notorious website. For the first few years of Spears’ career, it was about the music. And then it wasn’t.
The documentary mainly chronicles the troubled Britney years—the ones where her every move was scrutinized by the likes of Good Morning America and Larry King Live (then Peirs Morgan Live, then AC 360). These shows spent countless hours detailing her relationships (“Did Britney cheat on Justin Timberlake with Daredevil actor Colin Farrell?”) and her more salacious moments such as her infamous 2001 MTV Music Video awards performance where she performed “I’m a Slave 4 U” with an Albino Burmese Python draped across her shoulders.
There was her unwelcome 2002 foray into film acting where she appeared in a movie called Crossroads (“So mind-numbingly awful that you hope Britney won’t do it one more time, as far as movies are concerned” was the review from the New York Post). Family values groups attacked her for corroding the minds of America’s youth much the same way they blasted Madonna for the same thing 20 years earlier. A 2003 Entertainment Weekly cover depicted Britney as an angel of purity, but the caption read “Britney Spears—Nobody’s Angel.”
Britney Spears, still in her very early 20s, was everybody’s target — yet object of fascination. Far from a one-hit-wonder (which several critics predicted would be her fate back in 1999) Spears released In the Zone in 2003. Its breakout hit was “Toxic”, a giant smash for her, especially after its Catch Me If You Can-inspired music video was released. The song also won Spears her first (and to date only) Grammy Award. Then after a disastrous 2007 MTV performance of “Gimme More” the knives were out for her and with gossip blogs now online, it wasn’t difficult to strike a blow.
What Framing Britney Spears does is display a woman, a mother, a celebrity, a person exhibiting irregular behaviour, a sequence of men turning on her and a circle of media vultures all piling on to pull her down, and this is what they all did. The documentary presents several people who have been friendly with or have been working for Britney through her now more than 20 years in the spotlight. We hear from Britney’s former associate and ally Felicia Culotta, the woman who supervised Britney through her early years from Spear’s hometown of Kentwood. La, to New York back when the inexperienced 11-year-old Britney Spears was hired in 1992 for Disney’s The Mickey Mouse Club (alongside Christina Aguilera and Ryan Gosling). Culotta was even with Spears when label Jive Records released Baby One More Time six years afterwards.
That star-making video for “Baby One More Time” was directed by Nigel Dick, a director well-known at Jive Records (who previously created videos for Guns N’ Roses, Black Sabbath, Celine Dion, and R.E.M among others). Choreographer Randy Conner worked with Spears on the video (the Lolita-esque school-girl outfit was her idea) and dance moves for months before filming commenced. When it first aired in November 1998 Britney was an unknown. By April, she was inescapable on MTV. Spears was a star, made by America. A decade later, America was trying it’s damnedest to tear that star apart.
The gossip blogs grew from mildly insulting to degradingly cruel. Even other artists such as Eminem and Pink were making her the butt of jokes in their videos and the late night talk show hosts added in their punches without ever letting up (Jay Leno: “Britney Spears’ new wax sculpture in London will be given inflatable breasts that will move as she breathes. It’s more realistic than the actual Britney Spears.”) TMZ was documenting (and criticizing) everything from her junk-food consumption to her dirty feet to her overall parenting. The daily talk shows such as The View were debating her choice of boyfriends and the paparazzi were hounding her on a level not since the days of Elvis at his most popular.
She just wanted it all to stop. But it got worse. In one now infamous interview with ABC, veteran journalist Diane Sawyer informs Spears that Kendel Ehrlich, wife of the governor of Maryland, said if she “had the opportunity to shoot Britney Spears” she would. Spears, who had not seen the clip or was aware of Ehlich’s comment, is understandably confused by the remark, then shaken, then hurt. Then she cries uncontrollably at the thought of a stranger feeling so much resentment towards her. Ehrlich would apologize for making the statement a month later, clarifying that she was trying to make a larger point about popular culture and its effect on children. She said Spears’ provocative image made it difficult to raise confident young women who will stand up against domestic violence.
Framing Britney Spears does not shy away from her troubled years; even the infamous period in 2007 when Spears walked into a hair salon, grabbed a pair of clippers and shaved her hair off. The paparazzi ghoulishly captured every second. A few nights later, Spears was photographed raging at a paparazzo and then striking at his car with a folded umbrella. She had been famous for only eight years. The photo of a raging, bald Britney sold for a million dollars.
Everything came to a head on January 30, 2008: Spears’ psychiatrist calls for help as his patient’s behaviour had become “erratic” during the previous week. A few hours later after the call an ambulance departed Spears’s Los Angeles home — with her strapped to a stretcher lying inside, followed by a line of LAPD squad vehicles. She was brought to U.C.L.A. Medical Center for observation under a 5150 Hold, also known as a mandatory 72-hour psychiatric evaluation period.
She was 26-years-old, worth several hundred million dollars and soon placed under a conservatorship, under the rules and complete guidance in all matters of her life, under Jamie Spears, her until then, somewhat estranged-father.
Jamie Spears, a former welder, oil worker, cook and a recovering alcoholic (which this documentary pointedly makes), became her legal conservator, a role which gave him complete control of his daughter’s person (medications, general health matters), finances (he earns 1.5% of her earnings) and career. Jamie and her management scored a $35 million dollar Las Vegas residency deal. The singer refused to perform months into the deal as Jamie requested an additional 1.5 percent of gross revenues from her performances and merchandising tied to the Vegas show. Britney and her lawyer initially signed off on the deal in court, however, she decided she couldn’t carry on with the show while Jamie was in control of her life.
And in control he was. Jamie (along with attorney Andrew M. Wallet) controlled everything about Britney’s life from keeping tabs on her Starbucks’ coffee orders to scrutinizing whatever purchases she made at the mall. It was all strictly accounted for and presented to the courts during Britney’s regular update hearings. During this period, she instilled her own lawyer, Samuel D. Ingham III, to ensure her vast fortune was unscrupulously finding its way into nefarious hands.
We hear from attorney Adam Streisand who also argues against the conservatorship. Streisand argues that Britney, now 39-years-old, can indeed maintain her own career, finances and mental-well being decisions. He explains though that until they find a court ready and willing to remove Jamie from the title of his daughter’s sole conservator; he remains the individual deciding her actions.
The documentary shows us many occasions where Spears objects vehemently to the strict confines of her conservatorship. She’s extremely unhappy, unsure of whom she’s exactly supposed to please while everyone is denying her the opportunity to be happy, to be free, to be her own individual. In one scene we observe Britney, on the set of a music video looking very mature in glasses, a short neatly styled dark wig, white blouse, leather skirt and business heels poking fun directly at Jamie and his rules. It’s Britney in the most honest moment the public had seen of her. It’s a moment where she fully recognizes her situation and recognizes she’s a trapped woman, using her ability to perform (and she is and always was a talented performer) to make an honest, accurate statement about her life of emotional confinement. She may use humour at the moment, but the humour is deadly serious to her, and it’s saying a tremendous amount.
The most passionate individuals examined in Framing Britney Spears are the never-wavering people behind the #FreeBritney movement, the ones whose love for the performer has extended beyond her music and into concern for her day-to-day well-being. Perhaps the only other performer of recent memory with such a fervent band of loyalists was Michael Jackson although, it’s apparent the #FreeBritney-ers genuine wish for what’s best for her and in their opinion, Jamie’s conservatorship over his daughter (who we learn hasn’t spoken to her in some time) isn’t the right thing for her. With no way to communicate to her fans the way someone such as say, Taylor Swift has masterfully been able to, Spears fans keep a close watch on the performers Instagram account where occasionally, they believe their Britney is trying to say something personal by way of clues and hidden meanings through her posts.
Those fans might be onto something. During the past few years, despite her struggles and limitations, Spears kept control of her career which is still going strong. In 2012, audiences welcomed her enthusiastically during a stint as a judge on NBC’s smash music competition hit The X Factor. In 2015, she appeared with up-and-coming rapper Iggy Azalea in the video for “Pretty Girls” looking as toned and healthy as she did back at the 2001 MTV VMA Awards show. Still, despite her continued career success, and mental-health progress she remains under Jamie’s conservatorship.
Framing Britney Spears is the third documentary I’ve seen in the last six months about females steering their way in the music industry. Last August I watched Alison Eastwood’s fascinating documentary chronicling the creation, rise and demise of 80s all-female band The Go-Go’s. The second was Kirby Dick’s and Amy Ziering’s powerful narrative On the Record where three women, working within the rap industry, speak publically for the first time about the trauma they live with after claiming Def Jam Records founder Russell Simmons raped them. The first two films are assisted by the active participation of the female subjects, which is perhaps why they resonate so deeply powerfully. A title card at the conclusion of this feature specifies that the documentarians reached out to Britney Spears herself to lend her voice, but chillingly, we learn they received no word back at all. Perhaps, in the future, another film will be produced this one with Spears’ informed engagement.
Until that results, we have Framing Britney Spears and collectively, all three docs compliment each other strongly and is a fascinating, compelling peek into what the music industry was like for women during the 80s (the Go-Go’s), the 90s (the rap culture portrayed in Off the Record) and this one glancing at the 2000s. The objects of the first two never had to handle with the incursion of predatory and malicious gossip blogs camouflaged as “snark” the way Spears did. It stands to be determined if the next generation of female music stars will either.