Britney Spears’ Memoir Is a Riveting, No-Bullshit Call for Compassion

The Woman In Me is required reading for anyone who has ever cared about Spears or the condition of fame.

Britney Spears’ Memoir Is a Riveting, No-Bullshit Call for Compassion
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About two-thirds of the way through Britney Spears’ spare and riveting memoir, The Woman in Me, we reach a title drop: “The woman in me was pushed down for a long time,” she writes. “They wanted me to be wild onstage, the way they told me to be, and to be a robot the rest of the time.” The “they” are her conservators, who controlled her life, she says, for over a decade. (“For 13 years, I wasn’t allowed to eat what I wanted, to drive, to spend my money how I wanted, to drink alcohol or even coffee.”)

But the tension between who Spears was supposed to be and who she actually was had been long vexing one of the most plausibly reluctant superstars that the world has ever seen. To hear Spears tell it (or Michelle Williams, whose audiobook reading of Spears’ words has spread virally in clips like the one where she imitates Justin Timberlake imitating AAVE), the part of her career she enjoyed most occurred before her debut album dropped. She recalls the filming of the “…Baby One More Time” video as “probably the moment in my life when I had the most passion for music.” She continues: “I was unknown, and I had nothing to lose if I messed up. There is so much freedom in being anonymous.”

The Woman in Me is a story about identity—that which was robbed from a kid who was thrust into the spotlight at age 12 (via the Disney Channel’s The Mickey Mouse Club) and that which said kid and then woman felt obligated to adopt because of her people-pleasing tendencies and general willingness to play the game that she found herself in. Spears remained a fractured persona even behind the scenes, even well into her adulthood. She writes of “how quickly I could vacillate between being a little girl and being a teenager and being a woman because of the way [the conservators] had robbed me of my freedom.” In observing the landscape of celebrity and those who vie for it, it should be obvious by now that aspiration is not foresight, and there is no preparation in the world for fame. Factor in Spears’ preteen age at her career’s start and the changing nature of media during her commercial peak, and it’s abundantly clear that she had no idea what she was getting into. And then by the time she was in it, it was too late and she was too big. And even if she had wanted to throw it all away, she had people on her payroll to support and then, with the conservatorship, even fewer choices presented. She did what she was told.

This is a particularly telling passage:

I think some people are great at fame.
I’m not. My first two or three years I was good at it, and it was fine, but my real self? In school I was a basketball player. I didn’t cheerlead, I didn’t wanna be out there. I played ball. That’s what I loved.
But fame? That world isn’t real, my friends. It’s. Not. Real. You go along with it because of course it’s going to pay the family’s bills and everything. But for me, there was an essence of real life missing from it. I think that’s why I had my babies.
So getting awards and all that fame stuff? I liked it a lot. But there’s nothing lasting in it for me. What I love is sweat on the floor during rehearsals, or just playing ball and making a shot. I like the work. I like the practicing. That has more authenticity and value than anything else.

Spears’ memoir is a manifesto of sorts, and its urgency comes in part from her finally having the platform, agency, and wherewithal to speak about herself in a long form and uninterrupted manner. Her desire to correct public perception is palpable. Her breasts are real, she writes. That denim-on-denim-on-a-boyfriend-clad-in-denim look she and then-partner Justin Timberlake sported at the 2001 American Music Awards was “a joke.” Her tendency to start speaking in a British accent comes from wanting to emulate her maternal grandmother, Lily, whom she loved. She “played into” her virginal persona earlier in her career that her “managers and press people” foisted on her “because everyone was making such a big deal about it.” This meant Timberlake’s revelation of their sexual relationship made her appear to some as “a cheating slut but also a liar and a hypocrite.” And though Spears doesn’t mince words when it comes to how Timberlake treated her, she nonetheless offers him grace there: “Was I mad at being ‘outed’ by him as sexually active? No. To be honest with you, I liked that Justin said that. Why did my managers work so hard to claim I was some kind of young-girl virgin even into my twenties? Whose business was it if I’d had sex or not?”

Spears, who has often been portrayed as a hazard to herself and those around her, is largely reasonable during the recounting of her life story. She sets herself up foremost as an artist and performer, a “little girl with big dreams” who “wanted to be a star like Madonna, Dolly Parton, or Whitney Houston.” Her first dance recital was at age 3, and her first solo was at age 4. Her time on The Mickey Mouse Club was a “terrific experience” and “boot camp for the entertainment industry.” That she got to go on Disney park rides with her peers (many of whom would stay her peers, achieving fame and notoriety themselves into adulthood) between shooting was “honestly a kid’s dream.”

Spears tells her story with good humor in simple, sometimes elegant prose. There’s never the sense that she’s overshooting or out of her depth. The book eschews long passages of invented dialogue and overly complicated analysis for blunt declaration. Her stint judging on The X Factor? “I absolutely hated it.” Her 2003 interview with Diane Sawyer? “Absolutely humiliating.” Her choice of weapons to take out her aggression on a paparazzo’s car? “Pathetic, really. An umbrella.” Her VMAs kiss with Madonna? “It got us a lot of attention.” Jamie Lynn Spears? “And my little sister, well when I tell you she was a total bitch, I’m not exaggerating.” Her 2004 Onyx Hotel Tour was “dark,” “so depressing,” “too sexual,” and “absolutely horrible.”

Spears’ metaphors are sharp and tight. (On her much-scrutinized performance of “Gimme More” at the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards: “I could see myself on video throughout the auditorium while I performed. It was like looking at myself in a funhouse mirror.”) Around 2010, when her mother Lynn Spears was promoting her book Through the Storm, and Spears had years of public tumult under her belt, she writes, “In those days, I wasn’t the brightest bulb on the tree. It’s the truth.” She was “clueless” when she started recording her first album. She has seemingly clung to that innocence—Kevin Federline was such an attractive mate initially because, “He would hold me as long as I wanted to be held. Had anyone in my life ever done that before?”

Spears tells her story with good humor in simple, sometimes elegant prose. There’s never the sense that she’s overshooting or out of her depth.

This is a work of highly vulnerable confession, in which Spears repeatedly states her allergy to embarrassment. You can understand how devastating it must have been to be embarrassed in the press repeatedly through the years. “I was afraid of being judged or saying something stupid,” writes Spears of her social anxiety. “When that feeling hits, I want to be alone.” Celebrities complaining about fame is typically boring, but given Spears’ lack of real agency and awareness for what she signed up for and her deep sensitivity, she’s the perfect person to illustrate the toll of scrutiny without coming off as unappreciative or hypocritical. So much of the time, The Woman in Me is a simple call for compassion, and Spears’ direct and lucid writing makes it easy for the reader to answer said call.

Spears also puts into perspective some of her public underperforming as the years went on: It was an expression of the extent to which her heart was no longer in her career and a way of exerting the only bit of will she felt that she had. Her 2007 album Blackout, “the thing I’m most proud of in my whole career,” was “a kind of battle cry.” She explains: “After years of being meticulous, trying to please my mom and my dad, it was my time to say: Fuck you.” The division between entertainer Britney and actual Britney haunted her, but she found a way to work with it and started caring less about what people thought, she reports. On her rather eccentric social media presence, she writes:

People might laugh because things I post are innocent or strange, or because I can get mean when I’m talking about people who’ve hurt me. Maybe this has been a feminist awakening. I guess what I’m saying is that the mystery of who the real me is, is to my advantage—because nobody knows!

The Woman in Me is everything it had to be. Spears didn’t skimp on the gossip/celebrity encounters, many of which have gone viral in the past few days. Her tone is no-bullshit. Granted, she does gloss over some stuff that could have been illuminating. There’s no mention of her apparent reliance on lip-syncing in the live arena, or of Circus and Femme Fatale, her successful post-Blackout albums that signaled a kind of comeback for Spears (or at least a way of commanding attention where she prefers it, on her work). She alleges that the use of energy supplements sent her to rehab multiple times. And the book was clearly completed before her split from her most recent husband, Sam Asghari, whom she describes as “a gift from God.”

She is particularly merciless when it comes to her father, Jamie Spears, whose alcoholism she was aware of as a kid. (“When my father drank, he was extremely mean.”) She writes that her father repeatedly called her fat, and took a bigger salary for Blackout (more than $6 million) than he allotted Spears. He “profited heavily” from her conservatorship, Spears writes, making $16,000 a month, “more than he’d ever made before.” As a result, she says, he became a multimillionaire. Of the control exerted on her, Spears writes: “If I wanted a pair of sneakers that my conservators didn’t think I needed, I would be told no. This was despite the fact that I did 248 shows and sold more than 900,000 in Vegas. Each show paid hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

For someone as famous as Spears is, it’s really the humility she displays that makes her seem the most superhuman—more than her talent, charisma, or beauty. “I never knew how to play the game,” she writes. “I didn’t know how to present myself on any level. I was a bad dresser. Hell, I’m still a bad dresser, and I’ll admit that. And I work on that, I try.” Of her wild-child days in the aughts, she says: “I was truly innocent, just clueless. I was a newly single mom of two little boys. I didn’t have time to fix my hair before I went out into a sea of photographers. So I was young and I made a lot of mistakes. But I will say this: I wasn’t manipulative. I was just stupid.” She adds: “That’s one thing Justin and Kevin ruined about me. I used to trust people, but after the breakup with Justin and then my divorce, I never really did trust people again.”

But for someone who has largely been viewed as a mess (even if, as she claims, she adopted that aesthetic as an assertion of her will), Spears has delivered a highly elegant book that serves as required reading for anyone who has ever cared about her or the condition of fame. If anything, she doesn’t give herself enough credit: Turns out that she is good at this. And at long last, she’s good at it on her terms.

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