“Framing Britney Spears” is a runaway sensation, one episode of The New York Times’ regular docuseries on Hulu launched by mounting curiosity into the pop cultural stratosphere. It’s an appropriate hit. Wrapped up in the mystery of Britney Spears is a cocktail of our trending ailments.
At one point, the documentary shows a mid-aughts paparazzi snapshot of Spears in a hot pink T-shirt that reads, “I AM THE AMERICAN DREAM.” Moments later, it plays footage of Spears talking to Matt Lauer about the infamous pictures of the star driving with her son on her lap. People are claiming you’re a “bad mom,” Lauer points out. “That’s America,” Spears says.
The shirt was as right as its owner. Spears grew up in the small rural town of Kentwood, La., parlaying nothing but her raw talent into fame of historic proportions. To the extent it remains achievable, the American Dream she embodies now comes with an unavoidable dose of the scrutiny Spears faces every day.
The Times’s new glance at Spears argues her notorious crackup came courtesy of a voracious media, driven by voracious consumers. That’s us, and that’s the dichotomy of the American Dream, which can launch everyday people into superstardom by transforming them into commodities.
Few people will ever experience the waking nightmare of blinking flashbulbs to which Spears was subjected. It was, of course, always a tradeoff. She made lots of money, the media made lots of money, and the public got its fill of Britney. This is a tale as old as mass media, from Marilyn Monroe to Justin Bieber. But as we reflect on the feeding frenzy of mid-aughts media, today seems much worse.
The cultural gulf between a conservative small-town Louisiana teenager with dreams of pop stardom and the press that covers her would make it impossible for Spears to rise today, as would the frenetic policing of celebrity behavior that holds artists to the same standards as politicians. There would be no grace from which to fall, no aspirational, squeaky-clean image for Spears to shed or run from.
The essential companion to “Framing Britney Spears” is HBO’s “Fake Famous” documentary, one of the most unsettling pieces of journalism I’ve seen in years. It illustrates vividly how our economy is increasingly organized around the illusion of success rather than the substance of it.
In a media landscape where millions of people have millions of Instagram followers, as “Fake Famous” documents, today’s wannabe celebrities commoditize themself before doing anything of substance to warrant it. They’re trying to sell Nikes without being Michael Jordan, Pepsi without being Britney.
Being an “influencer” is inherently about influencing material consumption. The job is to hawk other people’s products. That influencers are able to accrue enough real followers to make money means we’re buying their aspirational illusion, and that we want our social media feeds dotted with their heavily filtered advertisements.
Influencers who successfully parlay their “influence” into substantive careers then face an even less forgiving and more systematized version of the firing squad Spears faced. What’s changed is the way they got there. Britney Spears isn’t exactly Bob Dylan but she’s also not Logan Paul. Today, we commoditize commodities more than talent, which clearly says something very dark about consumer demand.
On top of this, Spears’s conservatorship also introduces an element of true crime into “Framing,” which explores the #FreeBritney movement in detail. Spears’s public spiral left her in a conservatorship her fans believe to be overly restrictive, a ploy by her father to control her life and profit off her estate. #FreeBritney is fueled by the theory that Spears hints at this with her social media accounts, engaging fans in an ongoing quest for answers.
As modern life increasingly leaves us isolated from strong communities, increasingly sedentary, increasingly obese, and increasingly glued to screens, true crime is increasingly popular. While #FreeBritney isn’t as macabre as “Murder On Middle Beach” or “I’ll Be Gone In The Dark,” it electrifies people disconnected from reality and disconnected from a larger purpose. It feels immediate and meaningful in a world of Zoom meetings, social distance, and secularism.
“Framing Britney Spears” is a story about the American Dream, exactly as Spears framed her own career. It’s not a story about the varying rate of upward mobility or white-picket fences. It’s a story about the dichotomy of the American Dream, about how demand builds people up and then tears them down, and a story about our descent into a culture that can no longer commoditize talent while insisting on substance. It’s about incentives.